How Tiny Finland Is Combating Corona Pandemic

(The author is based in Vaasa, a city on the west coast of Finland)

At the time India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was announcing a complete curfew-like lockdown of the country—1.3 billion people are not allowed to step out of their homes for 21 days—up in the Nordics, Finland’s government, a coalition of five parties, headed by Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 34, and her cabinet of mainly young women ministers were huddled together to discuss how to go about locking down Uusimaa, a southern province that, including the capital city of Helsinki, is home to 1.68 million Finns. That number might seem like a drop in the context of India’s vast ocean of people but compared to Finland’s population of 5.5 million, it’s a sizeable chunk.

Uusimaa is the worst affected province in the raging spread of the pandemic Coronavirus (COVID-19) and accounts for an estimated two-thirds of the total of 915 cases (at the time of writing) and five deaths. At an all-party meeting, Marin and her cabinet debated whether shutting down Uusimaa would impinge on the deep freedom, independence and autonomy that Finns have constitutional rights to. The negotiation took time and then, after nearly three days, the Finnish Parliament approved the requisite changes in the law to enable the lockdown for a period of three weeks.

ALSO READ: Life In Quarantine Can Be Aweful

Finland treasures the rights of its people and its democracy is driven by consensus among parties ranging from leftists to centrists to right wingers. The good thing is at the time of national crises, these ideologically opposed parties manage to bury their differences and come together for the greater good of the people. The Coronavirus’ spread, like anywhere else in the world, has been an unprecedented crisis in tiny Finland. But a quick resolve to take measures has borne some fruit. The spread of the virus, at least till date, has been limited to some of its 19 provinces, while others have been largely spared its onslaught.

Yet, the measures have been effective. People have been advised to socially distance themselves; not gather in crowds of more than 10; avoid public places and restaurants and bars (most of which have been shut down); and stick scrupulously to personal hygiene such as frequent washing of hands. Self-isolation and quarantine for citizens coming back from abroad has been recommended and are largely voluntarily being followed strictly. In Finland’s cities—small as well as big ones—you see hardly any people on the streets but shops are stocked with food and other essentials. In the initial weeks, some panic had set in (not unlike in many other places in the world) and people were frenetically shopping for food, toilet paper and other items of daily use. But once they realised that supplies were not going to disappear that panic abated.

WATCH: Is India Ready To Battle Covid-19?

Finland and India can never be compared. Besides their incomparable sizes of population, Finland is a rich country. Per capita income (in terms of purchasing price parity) in Finland is over US$45,700; India’s is 7,060. Finland’s free universal healthcare, free education, and social security system is among the world’s best. And, to boot, in the past two years, the country has ranked as the happiest nation in the world in a survey that is adjudged as credible. But then Finland is also a scarcely populated country: 19 people per square kilometre; contrast that with India’s 420 inhabitants per square kilometre. Also, that average figure is weighted by the cities. The fact is that nearly 74% of Finland is under forests.

Such demographic advantages help when a crisis such as Coronavirus hits. Finnish hospitals and health-care centres are well-equipped. Food supplies are adequate and there is, at least till now, no reason to fear a collapse of those essential services. Statistical models suggest that in the next four to six months the virus could mean that 11-15,000 Finns could be hospitalised, but the authorities are trying to take measures to stagger the possible spread so that it would ensure that no more than 900 people. The Uusimaa lockdown is a step in that direction.

Like in many other countries, the Finnish army is also on standby. Finland has compulsory conscription for young men (for women it is voluntary) and if needed conscripts and other trained personnel could be summoned to help in the containment measure that the virus’ spread would require. An example of the quick response: as soon as the death toll and incidence of infections increased, the government swiftly doubled the healthcare system’s intensive care facility.

But there are other scares. The virus scourge could contract the nation’s economy by 5%. Finland has a GDP of US$ 251.9 billion that has been growing at an average of just under 3%. But the virus’ impact has already cost 100,000 jobs and that puts pressure on the social security net. Moreover, it is vastly different from India in terms of its population distribution by age: the average age of its population is 42.5 years (in India it is 26.5) and 1.2 million of its 5.5 million population is above 65. As many as 1.46 million Finns are entitled to pensions. Already, the Finnish Pension Alliance, Tela, has said that the coronavirus-related fall in the markets has wiped out Euro 20 to 30 billion off pension firms’ investments. This could put pressure on sovereign debt and also perhaps affect people’s individual budgets.

The coronavirus’ impact in Finland (as in the rest of the world) could impact its economy and its citizens for a prolonged period even after the pandemic subsides. A couple of days back the Finnish government announced a Euro 15 billion package to prop up the economy by helping businesses and individuals and this could adversely affect state debt. But as Prime Minister Marin said that was a secondary consideration. “We are not thinking primarily of how much additional debt the state will have to take on,” she said.

‘Lockdown Is Fine, But How To Handle Panic Buyers’

Pankaj, a Delhi resident who went to a local market after Narendra Modi announced 21-day lockdown to combat Covid-19, rues the rush & panic buying at stores

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a 14-hour Janata Curfew, or self-imposed isolation to be observed on Sunday (March 22), people by and large complied. His other appeal to come out of homes at 5 pm and clap as a mark of respect for health workers, however, was followed with extraordinary gusto. People not only came out to clap but also banged utensils, played drums and danced in close proximity, throwing caution to the wind and defeating the real purpose of isolation. But we are like that only.

On Tuesday (March 24) therefore, when Modi announced that the country would go into a 21-day lockdown from midnight onward to combat Coronavirus, what else would you expect from the Delhi residents than flood the market, crowd the grocery stores, and stock up whatever you can lay your hands on? I too stepped out to buy some essentials, and also to watch the tamasha. I wasn’t disappointed on the latter.

WATCH: Are We Prepared For Coronavirus?

Tamasha is the right word to describe what I saw at our local market in Mayur Vihar. Buyers behaved as if the apocalypse was on us. Many youth grabbed as many cigarette packets as their pockets could allow; the family man rushed from vegetable store to ration shop and took home the bucketful of whatever was available; shopkeepers, instead of assuring the customers of enough supply, goaded them into buying large amounts. Even before Modi’s address was over, the entire stock of breads, buns, instant noodles, meat and grain in our local Mayur Vihar market had gone off the shelves. It was sad and funny at the same time.

The buyers were still not satisfied. Many of them made their way for small, unauthorized shops in nearby clusters to stock up more. These shops, run by relaxed locals who had never experienced frantic buying, were at loss of their wits by the onslaught. Unable to keep with the rush and shouts for various items from all corners, they shouted back at the customers. “Police aa jayegi. Ek ek kar ke bolo. Halla matt karo (Police will come, speak at your turn one after another. Don’t make a racket).” Worse was their money management. They fumbled for the right amount of change and repeatedly punched at calculators to get their calculations right. The impatient customers egged them on to make more mistakes.

Petrol pumps were not spared by some panicky vehicle owners. Sedans queued up as if they were going to leave Delhi without thinking that the lockdown was for the entire country. Either, there was no clarity in the PM speech about essential supplies or people hadn’t bothered to sit through the entire address. I received several calls from friends if liquor could be available in my area at this hour.

ALSO READ: ‘Living In Quarantine Was Aweful’

As I moved back to my house with one litre of cooking oil and some onions in my hand, I kept thinking how we are going to tackle the deadly virus and the lockdown if we cannot fight the hoard mentality. And at a larger psyche level, this also proved that even though people follow Modi’s commands as their leader, somewhere in their minds they have little trust in his crisis management ability.

1984 to 2020 – State Riot Machine At Work

Sociologists and hardened journalists know it too well. No violent communal polarisation or riots, killings, arson and mayhem can last for more than a few hours if the local administration, the top police brass, and their bosses, don’t want it. 

It is impossible to stretch the bloody destruction of public and private property, ransack and burn schools, kill innocents in cold blood, or move as armed mobs shouting blood-thirsty slogans as a terroristic public spectacle, if the government of the day does not want it. In that sense, the onus of all communal violence in any locality across geographical zone lies with the administration and the law & order enforcement machinery.

Besides, there are grey zones in all kinds of violence which are driven by identity and hate politics. Riots can be termed ‘spontaneous’, based on years of conflict and tension, brewing and simmering, which suddenly flare up for no rational rhyme or reason. For instance, a tiff in a barber shop, a minor roadside accident, a heated argument, a mindless scuffle – they can all lead to spontaneous violence between communities. However, if this simmering conflict which is usually buried and allowed to pass, is stoked and instigated by interested lobbies for vested interests, with a certain diabolical twist in terms of motive, timing or location, then this spontaneous violence can be actually called socially and politically engineered.

ALSO READ: ‘We Lost Our Child, Save Others’

There could be also situations that communal violence is engineered deliberately and with precise planning even in a totally peaceful scenario where communities have shared local space, public/social functions and festivals, trade and agriculture, friendship and neighbourhood life, for prolonged periods of peace and harmony. Then, a vicious mind can introduce a virus than can suddenly become an epidemic with help from certain planned and hidden factors, inflammatory speeches and rallies, and acquire brutish and nasty dimensions which can rip apart the harmonious social structures built painstakingly since decades. And, then, the wounds just refuse to heal, thereafter.

This is exactly what happened in Muzaffarnagar and Saharanpur and its highly fertile rural areas in western UP months before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections which never had a history of communal strife or conflict. This is a green revolution belt, with flourishing sugar cane and mustard fields, a stronghold of the inheritors of Jat leader and former prime minister Chaudhury Charan Singh, and stretches across the rich and laid-back townships and villages of Shamli, Kandhla, Baraut, Baghpat and Meerut. The BJP had no presence here, except among the trading communities in Saharanpur etc.

The engineered riots were galvanized using the fake news of ‘Love Jihad’. That Muslims were enticing Hindu girls into love marriages, etc. This sparked off local violence, deaths, killings, mass rallies, mahapanchayats, inflammatory speeches and a vicious rupture that has never been witnessed ever in western UP.

ALSO READ: Communal Fault Lines

The BJP’s dream project materialized in the 2014 elections: the Hindus, from upper caste Jats to landless and divided Dalits, among others, united against the Muslims who were cornered and pushed to the wall. The BJP swept the elections here for the first time, while Charan Singh’s followers, including his son, lost out badly.

At least 60,000 Muslims were rendered homeless. And it took a while, fact-finding teams, and some brave reporting by reporters, to prove the fact that the Love Jihad propaganda was a diabolical ploy which succeeded; there were casualties among both the communities though the Muslims took the brunt, and scores of Muslim women were assaulted. Some of the most militant and popular hardliners and rabble-rousers among the local BJP leadership emerged from this ‘engineered’ communal violence.






Relatives of victims of Delhi communal violence mourn outside Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in New Delhi on February 27

More sinister than this phenomenon is what is called a ‘State-sponsored’ communal carnage. This happens when the State itself aligns with a community or powerful lobbies or violent vigilante groups, and thereby unleashes concerted and relentless violence of the most grotesque kind against another community, its own citizens, for political, hegemonic and social reasons. This is nothing but ethnic cleansing in a certain transparent form, like the Whites did with the Blacks in America, the Serbs did with thousands of Muslims in Bosnia, the Taliban did with the Hazaras in Afghanistan, and what the ISIS and Wahabi Jihadis continue to do with the Yazidis, Kurds and other communities in Syria and the Middle-east.

This includes massacres, mass murders, killings as public spectacles and total destruction of life and property of the victim communities so that they are savaged and ravaged and can never find justice against the violence inflicted on their bodies, minds, families and homes.

This is what happened in 1984 in Delhi and in 2002 in Gujarat. This kind of ethnic cleansing is called a pogrom: master-minded, planned, organised and executed by the State machinery and its ideological and sundry goons, with the full power and might of the State apparatus against a helpless and innocent community. This is what happened to the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. 

A State-sponsored massacre.

This involves total destruction of their economy, shelter, community life, religious places and well-being, effectively rendering them as second/third class citizens, oppressed, brutalized and crushed.

In Delhi, for instance, the homes and shops of Sikhs were burnt and looted in full public view with the police either watching or becoming tacit and overt accomplices of the looters and murderers. In Trilokpuri, Sultanpuri, Jehangirpur, among other spots, where humble and modest, hard-working Sikhs lived simple lives, they were killed in the most macabre manner and their homes burnt. Gurudwars too were not spared. This was a Congress government sponsored massacre led by its politicians in Delhi with the full backing and support of the police and administration.

Besides, in other towns and public transport, Sikhs were hounded and killed. Indeed, it took decades to get a minimal sense of justice for those who suffered unimaginable tragedies and brutalities. The graphic realism of the massacre was made public in a report by the PUCL-PUDR, ‘Who are the Guilty’, perhaps the first decisive report of the bloodbath.

Unlike 1984, the Gujarat carnage of 2002, with Narendra Modi at the helm of affairs, was well documented from day one, though there was no social media at that time. Print and TV journalists did their job with precision and exposed the fault-lines where the violence was master-minded by the State, with its Bajrangi and Sanghi footsoldiers on the ground, enacting massacre after massacre, mass rapes and burning of women and children alive, hacking and burning of people, and organised mayhem with active support of the police machinery.

This reality has also been documented by several fact-finding teams, tribunals, filmmakers, among others. Some police officers testified about the dirty deeds of top politicians, and BJP leaders like Babu Bajrangi and Mayaben Kodnani were found guilty, among several local functionaries. For the BJP, it was yet another test of ethnic cleansing with State backing that would not only destroy the Muslims, but also reassert their masculine, xenophobic and Hindutva brand of politics.

This is exactly the ‘Gujarat model’ that they tried in Northeast Delhi last week. True, there were occasional retaliation and violence by Muslim youngsters, but by and large, this was a State-sponsored violence, with a loyal police in tandem, striking at will, burning and killing, destroying markets and schools, hosting a flag on top of a mosque, surrounding women and children, and running amok, like they did in Gujarat.

This could not have happened without the tacit and overt approval of the Union home minstry and Delhi Police. This could not have happened without the mobs being allowed full freedom to ravage and savage residential areas, shouting Jai Shri Ram, now a blood-thirsty war cry for masked goons with sticks guns, iron rods and petrol bombs.

People from both communities have died and a majority has died of gunshot wounds. Investigations are likely to be fudged in the days to come, as they did in Gujarat, but, still, the reality cannot be hidden. Indeed, it was Kapil Mishra who triggered the violence with his speech. That even the Delhi High Court is giving him space, after another judge had sought an FIR against him and other BJP leaders a day before, points to a certain pronounced institutional collapse of Indian democracy, where many believe that the Constitution itself is in danger.

In that sense, clearly, this was no CAA polarisation, though that was the pretense. The fact is that majority of the anti-CAA/NRC protests, including in Shaheen Bagh and all over Delhi, led by women, have been transparently and relentlessly peaceful.

Clearly, this was not spontaneous, as Amit Shah has claimed. Scores of innocents have died. The number will only increase. Surely, and tragically, this was brazenly and blatantly organsied for communal polarisation to target one community. This was State-sponsored. And the whole world knows whose first and final trump card this kind of organised hate politics is.

Domestic Brownie Points For Trump & Modi

India gave President Donald Trump exactly what he asked for. Massive crowds in Ahmedabad, the Taj Mahal in Agra and energy & defence deals in Delhi. A deal worth $3 billion for the purchase of Apache and MH-60 helicopters was finalized before the US President landed in India.

The show and spectacle in Ahmedabad’s Motera stadium, where President Trump and First Lady Melanie were greeted by colorfully dressed enthusiastic crowds set the mood for the visit on Monday, soon after the US leader landed. He was accompanied by daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, besides a host of senior officials.

It is well known that Donald Trump loves to be feted. Prime Minister Modi and his government ensured that President Trump would have exactly what he wanted. His ego got a massive boost and the visiting dignitary was clearly delighted. He showered praise on Prime Minister Modi and declared that America loved India and Washington would be a loyal friend.

ALSO READ: India Trip Was Great, Says Trump

Though violence has wracked north east Delhi during the Trump visit, the President has refused to comment on that or the Citizenship Amendment Act. On Kashmir, while he again offered mediation, he made it clear that he was willing to help only if asked. Though he spoke of fighting Islamic terror, he was not really aiming at rebuking Pakistan. For Trump Islamic terror is ISIS or Al Qaeda and not groups operating against India. Nevertheless he assured India that Pakistan is being urged to clamp down on these groups and Prime Minister Imran Khan is getting there. Trump also spoke of religious freedom and mentioned not just minority Muslims but Christians as well. The Christian right in the US is part of Trump’s support base.

Some are disappointed that no major deals were announced, though a mega trade deal is in the offing. Two MoUs were signed on mental health and safety of medical products. A letter of cooperation between Indian Oil Corporation and ExxonMobil India LNG was also signed. India is now looking to US to diversify its energy market. Energy imports from the US which stood at $7 billion in 2019 will rise to $9 billion in 2020

The significance of the Trump visit goes way beyond deals or the personal chemistry between Modi and the US President. “It reinforces the connect between people of the two countries and it will resonate on every aspect of the relationship, from the strategic global partnership, maritime security, to trade and energy cooperation, homeland security,” foreign secretary Shringla said at a news conference after the talks at Hyderabad House.  

ALSO READ: ‘Taxpayers’ Money Blown To Impress Trump’

The fact that President Trump chose to come on a standalone visit to India, and on an election year, shows exactly how far relations between India and the US have improved. The people connect with 4 million Indian American’s playing a major part in this effort and contributing to the US economy, the sky is the limit for these two democracies. People in both countries endorse the ties. This is in sharp contrast with India’s relations with Russia, which are excellent at the governmental and political level, but poor on people to people contact. Getting private business off the ground between India and Russia is a major problem, despite the best efforts of New Delhi and Moscow. But there is no such difficulty when it comes to Indian investment in US. Business leaders are eager to do so.

The transformation of ties between the two countries, which were on opposite sides of the Cold War divide, began with the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005. The strategic consideration underlying Washington’s decision was to checkmate China’s growing military and economic might in Asia. By building ties with democratic India, another large Asian country and helping modernize its defence capabilities.

US wants India to be a part of the Indo-Pacific defence architecture an area which now includes the Indian Ocean. This works for both India and America, though Delhi has so far resisted the idea of joint patrolling of the Pacific, near the South China Sea. This has to do with avoiding a confrontation with China.

Trump’s visit should be seen against this background. And if a few billions go into US coffers in the process of building up India’s defence capabilities, it is fine. So far New Delhi has stuck to its promise of buying the S 400 missile defence system from Russia, despite enormous US pressure. Washington must realise that a country like India cannot be coerced.

WATCH: Agra Citizens Welcome Trump

It serves India for China to realise that Delhi has powerful backing in the international community. Though finally every country has to look after its own interests and not back on US or Europe to come to their help, developing India’s defence capabilities is important, more so as China has transformed its army, navy and air force.

Successive Indian prime ministers from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi know the importance of friendship with the US. Manmohan Singh risked his prime ministership to get the deal through, despite opposition from a large majority of his party men as well as the BJP and the Left parties. Singh realized more than any other leader that the civil nuclear deal would open many doors for India and help Delhi to finally be counted as a force in the world.  India’s nuclear apartheid ended with the signing of the pact for which former President George W Bush did some heavy lifting.

The need to counter authoritarian China with a democratic India is shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. So it does not matter which party finally wins the November elections, India-US ties will remain strong. However a Democratic President, especially if Bernie Sanders is the winner, will certainly have much more to say about human rights, treatment of minorities and Kashmir. For Trump these are India’s internal problem and he trusts Prime Minister Modi to take care of them. But democratic values are important and even Trump cannot totally ignore them up to a point.

Both Modi and Trump have gained domestic brownie points from the visit. Modi’s image among his followers will get another major boost after Trump’s fulsome praise of him as a leader with a vision. For Trump the India trip so close to elections may help to garner Indian-American votes, though most have usually opted for Democrats. More important Trump can boast of the welcome he received by adoring crowds in India, a rarity for him on visits to other parts of the world. Critics here believe India may have erred in opting blatantly for Trump in the November elections. But that remains to be seen.

Is Hindutva Hanging By A Thread In Bengal?

Hindutva is no longer the rabble rouser vote bank as it was in the last national election. When the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party won an emphatic victory in the recent Delhi assembly election, opposition leaders were quick to point that the Bharatiya Janata Party will have to recalibrate its strategy of polarisation now that it had been roundly rejected by the electorate of yet another state.

However, it would be extremely difficult for the saffron party to abandon its majoritarian agenda in the forthcoming state elections. For the BJP, hardline Hindutva, strident nationalism and communal talk is an article of faith.

Hindutva seems to have worked for BJP in the last election. It probably sees the current run of defeats as aberrations. Besides the Hindutva strategy helps divert attention from bread and butter issues at a time when the economy is tottering. An election is the occasion for the BJP to propagate its ideology.

ALSO READ: Oppn Must Sieze The Moment

In fact, the BJP’s high-decibel poll campaign in Delhi with its focus on the Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act was meant not just to consolidate the Hindu vote in the Capital but also to send out a message across the country that this agitation is led by minorities and that the amended citizenship law actually enjoys popular support.

Among the opposition leaders, West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee appears most vulnerable in this regard. Determined to add West Bengal to its kitty, the BJP has opted for a brazenly communal narrative to dethrone Banerjee. Having met with remarkable success in the last Lok Sabha election when it surprised everyone by winning 18 seats and increased its vote share to 40 percent, the BJP has every reason to persist with this strategy. It remains undeterred by the fact that its attempts to focus on Article 370 and triple talaq did not cut much ice with the voters in Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra.

It will not be surprising if the BJP’s polarising and divisive rhetoric gets more shrill as it begins preparations for next year’s assembly election in a state which has a 27 percent Muslim population.

The very fact that the BJP has re-elected Dilip Ghosh as president of the party’s West Bengal unit, is a clear message that the saffron party has no intention of going back on its communal agenda. Known for using vitriolic language, Ghosh is constantly stoking controversies with his inciting statements. Ghosh was in the eye of a storm recently when he described the anti-CAA protesters as “illiterate and uneducated” who are being fed biryani and “paid with foreign funds” to continue with their agitation. He constantly refers to the issue of infiltration in his speeches and has, on several occasions, thundered that all Bangladeshi Muslims in the state will be identified and chased out of India!

ALSO READ: ‘NRC Will Be A Disaster In Bengal

Not only has the BJP campaign reopened the old wounds inflicted in the communal riots during the state’s partition of 1905, it has also been helped by the fact that Mamata Banerjee is seen to be appeasing the minorities. The Trinamool Congress chief who is personally leading the prolonged protests against the amended citizenship law as well as the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, has given the BJP enough fodder to push ahead with its communal agenda.

Undoubtedly the Delhi defeat came as a rude shock for the BJP but, at the same time, its leaders believe the party increased its tally from three to eight seats and improved its vote share from 32 to 38 percent because it made the anti-CAA protests as the centre piece of its campaign.

It’s still too early to say if the BJP’s strategy will succeed but, at present, Mamata Banerjee has the first mover advantage over her political rival. While the saffron party lacks a strong party organisation in West Bengal and has no credible chief ministerial candidate, the Trinamool Congress chief is already in election mode.

ALSO READ: West Bengal Follows AAP Model

Like Kejriwal, she has stopped taking personal potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is instead emphasising her governance record. She has also taken the lead in articulating the dangers of the amended citizenship law, the NPR and NRC. Mamata Banerjee is taking no chances as she realizes she can ill-afford to underestimate the BJP as she had done in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

But before it goes for broke in West Bengal, the BJP will test the waters in Bihar which is headed for polls later this year. Not only does the state have a 17 percent Muslim population, the opposition (the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress) has staunchly opposed the CAA, reason enough for the saffron party to polarise the electorate on religious lines.

Besides, the BJP is banking on its alliance partner, Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (U) president Nitish Kumar to act as a buffer against its strident campaign. Though Nitish Kumar has endorsed the CAA, he has not framed his support for the law on communal lines. Moreover, the Bihar chief minister measures his words carefully and is not known to use extreme language. This, the BJP feels, should help the alliance offset any possible adverse repercussions of the saffron party’s high-pitched tirade against those opposing the CAA.

However, if Mamata Benarjee can repeat AAP’s massive success in Bengal, voices in Bengal may start questioning Hindutva. Hindutva may be hanging by a thread.

‘Taxpayers’ Money Blown To Impress President Trump’

Jalpa Bhatt, a clinical psychologist for children with special needs, says Ahmedabad came to a standstill on Feb 24 for a marketing gimmick which holds little value

Both my residence and workplace are in the Thaltej area of Ahmedabad. The 22 km long stretch between the airport and Motera Stadium had been witnessing increased security and multiple traffic diversions for the past many days, just so that American President Donald Trump’s visit to Ahmedabad could become memorable.

ALSO READ: ‘I Wish Obama Had Come To Ahmedabad

While earlier it took 20-25 minutes to reach my workplace from my home, during the last few days it has been taking nearly double the time. Most people were expecting the 22 km long stretch between the airport and Motera Stadium to come to a standstill for a few hours on Monday (February 24) and it did. Many of my friends who had workplaces on the 22-km long stretch couldn’t make it to work on Monday.

The roads were all decked up with lighting and decorations and some people were excited as if a festival was going on in Ahmedabad, but I’m personally amused by the whole situation. Last year, India was one of the countries on the US’ watchlist for Intellectual Property (IP) violations and now it seems as if nothing happened between the twi countries.

I feel this visit was a marketing ploy on Trump’s part. Every smart businessperson around the world is tapping into the Indian market, because that’s where the maximum number of audiences are. Nobody is concerned about the citizens of either country or even democracy. People here in Ahmedabad have mixed emotions regarding Trump and his politics.

It had been mentioned in reports that Sabarmati Aashram is going to be the first stop on Trump’s visit, where both the popular leaders would be paying homage to Gandhiji. But I feel this is merely lip service, for both the leaders don’t actually believe in Gandhiji’s principles deep down.

ALSO READ: From Howdy Modi To Namaste Trump

As about the wall that built around the slum on Trump’s route, I don’t think it was a good idea at all. Even though Ahmedabad is the hub of trade and business in India and people from many faiths and cultures live here, yet people are getting divided more and more. Everyone is keeping to their corner and thus I feel this wall will create more divisions between the rich and the poor.

Also, I wonder why the people aren’t bothered now about taxpayers’ money being spent on impressing Trump rather than actually building a city where no one has to live in slum-like conditions. Where is all this money coming from, especially when it’s a one-off visit from Trump? It’s not like he has been invited to the Republic Day parade.

No official holiday was declared on February 24, but many people were keen to see Trump and how he actually interacts with people. In fact some people are openly excited and are calling it a historic visit. Even though I feel Trump is in India only to access its soft power and create a soft corner in people’s hearts, I don’t think it will lead to some concrete developments, yet I am curious to see both him as well as people’s reactions to him.

I was planning to go out on the 24th, but couldn’t go because I couldn’t take time off work. However, I still feel that the government should invest its time and money to make the lives of people living in India by creating jobs, rather than spend so much on visits by world leaders.

‘I Would Be Excited If Obama Were Coming To Ahmedabad’

Sahista Memon, a homeopathy practitioner in Ahmedabad, says instead of creating walls to hide poor households, governments should ensure that nobody needs to live in slums

I live in the Ellis Bridge area of Ahmedabad and run a homeopathic clinic in the same area. My house is around 10 km away from the airport and even though traffic diversions are there for American President, Donald Trump’s visit, since I don’t have to travel much for work, I am fine.

However, my house helps, driver etc. live near the airport and are finding it difficult to commute easily because of the traffic diversions. Also, it is taking them longer to reach our house for work. They are apprehensive about how it will all turn out on Monday, February 24, the day Trump comes visiting. They have told me, “Ma’am Monday ko subah ghar se bahut jaldi nikalna padega” (We will have to leave home really early on Monday to reach work due to Namaste Trump event).

ALSO READ: From Howdy Modi To Namaste Trump

Unko takleef me dekh ke mujhe bhi thodi takleef hoti hai. Theleaders don’t know how their itineraries impact the lives and livelihoods of the common man when the whole city is brought to a standstill. In my part of town, which is at the centre of Ahmedabad, there isn’t much buzz regarding Trump’s visit, but on the outskirts which is where his travel route is (from the airport to Motera Stadium), people are quite excited.

I would have been excited if Barack Obama was coming. He is a leader I hugely admire. He was so popular with everyone without even having to try hard. To me Trump seems like a power- lover who is more concerned about his image. Modiji is also trying to show the world India’s new improved image where even the President of the most powerful country in the world feels happy to visit.

The wall built to cover one of the slums falling on Trump’s route isn’t a great idea to be honest. Trump’s proposed wall on the US-Mexico border has shown us, why walls anywhere aren’t a great idea, especially when they are built with the purpose of hiding something uncomfortable or built from a place of fear. If the wall is built to protect the residents of a particular area or country, isn’t it better to take everyone into account and tell them how a new structure is beneficial to them? All stakeholders should be consulted. Everyone’s point of view should be taken into account.

ALSO READ: Tight Security Ahead of Trump Visit

Moreover, I would like to say such structures should be temporary. If there is a real threat to people, just building a wall won’t work; ‘concrete’ work needs to go like intelligence gathering. If the wall is built to hide slums, shouldn’t we be working on policies that ensure nobody needs to live in slums?

So, no I won’t be going out to watch Trump or see the public’s reaction to him. I will be busy with my work and that is what is required in nation building, an honest day’s work.

Will JP Nadda Come Out Of Shah’s Shadow?

The humiliating defeat suffered by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Delhi assembly election has not proved to be an auspicious beginning for the party’s month-old president JP Nadda. Though it is true that it was Union Home Minister Amit Shah who led the party’s high-decibel campaign in Delhi, history books will record the result as BJP’s first electoral drubbing under Nadda’s stewardship.

Out of power for over two decades, the BJP was predictably desperate to take control in Delhi. But the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party proved to be a formidable opponent and the BJP fell by the wayside once again.

Well before Nadda took over as the BJP’s 11th president, it was widely acknowledged that he will not enjoy the same powers as his predecessor Amit Shah did but, nevertheless, would be called to take responsibility for the party’s poll defeats as well as organisational matters.

Nadda began his tenure with a disadvantage as it is difficult to live up to Shah’s larger-than-life image. Amit Shah, who served as BJP president for five years has easily been the most powerful party head in recent times. Known for his supreme organisational skills, Shah is chiefly responsible for the BJP’s nation-wide expansion, having built a vast network of party workers and put in place formidable election machinery. No doubt Modi’s personality, charisma and famed oratory drew in the crowds but there is no denying that Shah contributed equally to the string of electoral victories notched by the BJP over the last five years.

ALSO READ: Shah Could Be Most Decisive HM

Given that Shah has revamped the party organisation from scratch and placed his loyalists in key positions, there are serious doubts that the affable, low-key and smiling Nadda will be allowed functional autonomy. Will he be able to take independent decisions, will he constantly be looking over his shoulder, will he be allowed to appoint his own team or will he be a lame-duck party president? These are the questions doing the rounds in the BJP as there is all-round agreement that Shah will not relinquish his grip over the party organisation. This was evident in the run-up to the Delhi assembly polls as it was Shah and not Nadda who planned and led the party’s election campaign.

In fact, it is acknowledged that Nadda was chosen to head the BJP precisely because he is willing to play the second fiddle to Shah. Party leaders maintain that the new president is unlikely to make any major changes in the near future and that he will be consulting Shah before taking key decisions. For the moment, state party chiefs appointed by Shah have been re-elected, ensuring that the outgoing party president remains omnipresent.

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Though Nadda has inherited a far stronger party organisation as compared to his earlier predecessors, the new BJP president also faces a fair share of challenges. He has taken over as party chief at a time when the BJP scraped through in the Haryana assembly polls, failed to form a government in Maharashtra and was roundly defeated in Jharkhand. The party’s relations with its allies have come under strain while the ongoing protests against the new citizenship law, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register have blotted the BJP’s copybook.

These developments have predictably came as a rude shock to the BJP leadership and its cadres who were convinced that the party was invincible, especially after it came to power for a second consecutive term last May with a massive mandate.

WATCH: Modi Has Woken Up A Sleeping Tiger

Nadda’s first task has been to boost the morale of party workers and make them believe that the recent assembly poll results were a flash in the pan and that the BJP’s expansion plans are on course.

After Delhi, the Bihar election poses the next big challenge this year. The party’s ally, the Janata Dal (U), has upped the ante, meant primarily to mount pressure on the BJP for a larger share of seats in this year’s assembly elections. Realising that the BJP cannot afford to alienate its allies at this juncture, Amit Shah has already declared Nitish Kumar as the coalition’s chief ministerial candidate, which effectively puts the Janata Dal (U) in the driver’s seat. This has upset the BJP’s Bihar unit which has been pressing for a senior role in the state and is even demanding that the next chief minister should be from their party.          

The BJP has to necessarily treat its allies with kid gloves as they have been complaining  about the saffron party’s “big brother” attitude and that they are being taken for granted. While Shiv Sena has already parted company with the BJP, other alliance partners like the Lok Janshakti Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal have also questioned the BJP’s style of functioning.

The crucial West Bengal assembly election next year will also be held during Nadda’s tenure. The BJP has been working methodically on the ground in this state for the past several years now and has staked its prestige on dethroning Mamata Banerjee.

ALSO READ: West Bengal Follows AAP Model

But the Trinamool Congress chief is putting up a spirited fight, sending out a clear message to the BJP that it will not be so easy to oust her. Banerjee has declared war against the Modi government on the issues pertaining to the CAA-NRC-NPR and also activated her party cadres who have spread across the state to explain the implications of the Centre’s decision to the poor and illiterate. The BJP, on the other hand, is struggling to get across its message.

As in the case of Delhi, Shah can be expected to take charge of the Bihar and West Bengal assembly polls while Nadda will, at best, be a marginal player. Again it will be left to Shah to mollify the party’s allies as it is too sensitive and important a task to be handled by Nadda.

Like all political parties led by strong leaders, a BJP defeat will be seen as Nadda’s failure while a victory will be credited to Modi and Shah.

India And Sri Lanka – Cleaning The Slate

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to India this week (February 7-11) will be an opportunity to forget past bitterness and begin on a clean state. The former strong man will get a warm welcome in the Capital, when he arrives in for his first official visit in his new avatar. Delhi is as eager as the Rajapaksas to improve relations.

The emphasis will be on getting the political relations right, considering that the Rajapaksa’s second term as President, where he openly wooed China and gave short shrift to India, was a nightmare for New Delhi. This was the period when Colombo allowed Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo and allowed Beijing to spread its wings across the island nation, despite Delhi’s security concerns.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters allege that India had a hand in his defeat in the 2015 elections. They blame the former RAW official posted in the High Commission in Colombo of organising the anti-Rajapaksa front of like-minded people from both the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party to oust Rajapaksa. Whatever be the truth of the allegations, suspicion remained. But all that is now in the past as the two sides hope to rebuild frayed ties. 

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The Rajapaksa brothers (President Gotabaya and PM Mahinda as well as state defence minister Chamal) know that it is important to have good relations with India for all ruling dispensations in Colombo. Mahinda Rajapaksa who is the main strategist for the family, had built his bridges with India soon after he lost power. During private visits to India, he had made it a point to call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His closeness to maverick politician Subramanian Swamy ensured access to the PM.

Though the LTTE has been wiped out, Tamil-speaking minorities in the north and east of the island, indeed even those living in Colombo, look to New Delhi for support. In the initial stages when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began their movement against discrimination by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, they were solidly backed by New Delhi and Tamil Nadu. So far while the Tamils have been given some of their rights, the complete devolution of power to the provinces have not yet come through. India will be urging Mahinda Rajapaksa to carry out all the provisions of the 13th amendment, which was brokered by India in the past. The Tamil National Alliance, the party of Tamil MPs has been urging the government to fulfil the promised devolution provisions.

ALSO READ: Gotabaya Calls For Better Indo-Lankan Ties

It is unlikely that the Rajapaksa brothers, who believe in a unitary state, will be in a hurry to fully implement the 13th amendment to the Constitution. In fact President Gotabaya himself believes that rebuilding the Northern Province and bringing development to the Tamils is more important then giving them greater autonomy. `Development over devolution,’’ is what Gotabaya thinks is the need of the hour. The Tamil population which have long yearned for more meaningful devolution may not quite agree. Aware of this, New Delhi will continue to push for devolution.

India is also in the mood to ensure that the past mistakes are not repeated because that will push Sri Lanka into China’s waiting arms. This is at a time when PLA vessels, including warships are increasingly plying the Indian Ocean region and developing close ties with India’s immediate neighbours.The BJP government since 2014 has been working towards strengthening ties with all its Indian Ocean neighbours whether it is Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri lanka and Maldives.  

New Delhi’s tough policy towards Nepal and the decision to blockade that land-locked nation in 2015, has had severe consequences for India. Nepal turned to China for help. The Chinese naturally grabbed the opportunity. The Chinese are today well entrenched in neighbouring Nepal, thanks to Prime Minister Oli’s close ties with Beijing. China is giving India a run for its money in the Himalayan nation. India realises the dangers of China’s presence in its immediate neighbourhood, and is hoping to counter the dragon in its periphery. This means wooing the neighbours, and ensuring that Indian interests in the region are protected.

South Block is no mood to give more space to China in its immediate neighbourhood. And with China investing massively in Sri Lanka, from the Humbantota Port, to modernising the Colombo port and building the USD 1.4 billion port city in the capital, which would house an International Financial Centre. Delhi has no time to waste.

India has also stepped up its efforts. In fact, the move to woo the Rajapaksa brothers began with foreign minister S Jaishankar rushing to Colombo soon after Gotabaya’s election victory, inviting him to visit and reassuring him that Delhi was ready to do business with the new regime. Gotabaya helped matters by announcing that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy would be neutral as the island had no wish to get involved in the rivalry between the two Asian powers. Gotabaya came to India soon afterwards in November 2019, and had meaningful conversations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Indian leaders. India announced a credit of $400 million to boost development and a further $50 million for security. Sri Lanka lost 250 people after the Easter bombings. Anti-terror cooperation is high on the list of bilateral ties now. In fact, Indian intelligence had warned their Lankan counter part of a possible terror attack. But the squabbling coalition of Sirisena and Ranil Wickremasinghe did not act on the information.

Apart from the ongoing project of building 50,000 house in the war torn Northern Province, announced in 2010, India and Japan are joining hands to build a deep sea Container Terminal in Colombo port. This was announced in 2019. India will also work towards refurbishing the Trincomalee oil farm in the Eastern province.  At one time, decades back, India was worried about US eyeing the oil tank project in Trincomalee. Now though India has been working at refurbishing some of the old tanks. Sri Lanka has leased out the oil tanks to India, to jointly operate a strategic oil facility. This is not a new project but the Modi government now is paying much more attention and will take up the work in earnest. This will help in the integrated development of Trincomolee and the entire Eastern province. Trincomalee is strategically located in the eastern side of Sri Lanka and in the heart of the Indian Ocean. According to reports from Colombo the US is also eyeing Trincomalee port, perhaps to checkmate China’s presence in Humbantota further south of the island.

Keeping all this in mind, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit this weekend is important. Last month China’s foreign minister Wang Yi was in Colombo on an official visit. China will continue to be an important partner of Sri Lanka. Considering that Beijing has the money power to back it, no developing nation wants to close the door to China. So despite criticising Mahinda Rajapaksa for giving a free reign to China, the India-friendly government of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickeremasinghe, allowed China to continue the projects it had signed with the previous government. So South Asian neighbours will benefit from the India-China rivalry playing out in the region.

Though China’s cheque book diplomacy works wonders, people to people contacts are much better with India. Buddhism is a strong link and Sri Lankans, including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa does not miss an opportunity to visit the holy sites in India. He will be visiting Sarnath as well as Bodh Gaya during this trip. The religious and cultural bonds are India’s strong points. All this will come into play as India hopes to contain China in its neighbourhood.

Rahul Gandhi In Arunachal

Can Rahul Pull It Off As Prime Minister

As the battle for the most powerful and prestigious chair in the country rages on, many voters have put their penny on Rahul Gandhi as the next Prime Minister of India. Does the Gandhi scion has the mettle to handle the power and responsibility that comes with the post? In a new series of articles, LokMarg will examine the various contenders for the Prime Minister’s job, starting with the arch-challenger, Rahul Gandhi.

Well before Rahul Gandhi took over as the Congress president, a large section of his own party members were not sure that he had the capacity to lead them. After all, the Nehru-Gandhi scion had acquired a reputation of being a non-serious politician who was yet to get a firm grip on the party’s organization. In addition, he had an uneasy relationship with other opposition parties and was unable to connect with the public on account of his poor oratorical skills.

The fact that Rahul Gandhi had been unsuccessful in delivering electoral victories for the party was another negative. These doubts about his leadership qualities were further fuelled by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s relentless and highly successful campaign, dubbing Rahul Gandhi as “Pappu”.

However, there has been a dramatic change in Rahul Gandhi over the past eighteen months. His oratory has improved considerably though he is not in the same class as Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Congress president is gradually coming across as a mature politician, who is fighting shy of taking on the Modi government and is more focused on handling the party organization. Rahul Gandhi further redeemed himself with a credible performance in last year’s Gujarat assembly polls, which was followed by victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

More than a year after he took control of the party, the Congress president has finally shed the “pappu” image while his critics within the party have been effectively silenced.

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But does this mean that Rahul Gandhi is now ready to shoulder the responsibility of leading the nation as its Prime Minister just in case the post-poll numbers favour the Congress. No,  the Congress president has still some distance to cover before he is accepted by the public at large as a credible alternative to Modi. For starters, he is sorely handicapped by his lack of administrative experience. Rahul Gandhi had an opportunity to fill this gap in his resume when he was offered a Cabinet berth in the Manmohan Singh government but he decided instead to focus on party affairs. Besides his lack of experience, Rahul Gandhi does not instill confidence in the voter that he can handle matters of state without fumbling or making a faux pas.

Congress leaders, of course, are quick to point out that his father Rajiv Gandhi also came with no previous experience in running a government when he took over as Prime Minister in 1984 in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. However, Rajiv Gandhi had the advantage of a massive majority in the Lok Sabha which enabled him to take decisive steps in both domestic and foreign affairs. Despite widespread skepticism, he pushed ahead with advances in information technology and telecommunications sectors. Rajiv Gandhi was also emboldened to take risky decisions like signing the Longowal accord in insurgency-hit Punjab, was responsible for a paradigm shift in Sino-India relations and sought to build bridges with Sri Lanka though he ended up paying a heavy price for it.

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Unlike his father, Rahul Gandhi is not expected to have the luxury of numbers in case he does get a shot at ascending the Prime Minister’s kursi. The Congress footprint has shrunk considerably over the past three decades and the party has gradually come to terms with the fact that it needs the support of coalition partners to come to power at the Centre as it cannot do on its own. There are lurking doubts that Rahul Gandhi has the temperament or the gravitas to deal with temperamental and demanding allies even if there is a remote possibility that the other opposition parties will concede the Prime Minister’s post to him. Undoubtedly, he will have to rely on Sonia Gandhi and other senior leaders like Ahmed Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad to keep the allies in good humour.

Whatever other disadvantages he may have, the Congress president will have a large inhouse talent pool at his disposal to assist him in running the government. Besides, Rahul Gandhi comes with a long and rich legacy which is both a source of strength and weakness. On one hand, the party’s past experience provides a ready template for governance but on the other hand, it will also make it difficult for the young Gandhi to chart an independent path. Here, he will be hemmed in not just by his coalition partners but also by his party members. Remember the stiff resistance PV Narasimha Rao faced from Congress insiders when he deviated from the party’s set economic policy and drafted Manmohan Singh to liberalize the economy.

ALSO READ: Rahul Gandhi In A New Avatar

Nevertheless, the Congress brand name, though considerably diluted, will give Rahul Gandhi an edge over the other Prime Ministerial contenders in the opposition camp. The Nehru-Gandhi scion may be lacking in experience but he can always fall back on seasoned leaders like former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram, Anand Sharma and A.K. Antony to navigate him through possible minefields in the areas of economic and foreign affairs.

Like his mother, Rahul Gandhi has made it abundantly clear that he will build on the party’s pro-poor image with a special emphasis on addressing agrarian distress and the implementation of an income guarantee scheme for the needy as detailed in the party’s election manifesto. But it is equally certain that there will be no going back on economic reforms ushered in by Manmohan Singh.

Rajiv Gandhi’s friend Sam Pitroda is currently playing a key role in Rahul Gandhi’s dispensation and will continue to do so if the Congress president makes the cut as the country’s Prime Minister. Pitroda has been instrumental in planning and organizing Rahul Gandhi’s tours in the United States, Britain and the Middle East where he has interacted with both the Indian diaspora and global leaders, policy makers, think tanks and academics.

The intention is to position Rahul Gandhi as an international leader, to correct the perception that he is a dilettante, improve his image abroad and provide an opportunity to the outside world to get acquainted with his views on a vast array of subjects. As in the case of economic affairs, Rahul Gandhi is unlikely to deviate from the Congress position in the area of international affairs which will continue to focus on strengthening ties with both Russia and the United States and improving relations with the neighboring countries. An assurance to this effect has been conveyed during Rahul Gandhi’s trips abroad and his periodic meetings with visiting world leaders.

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