Indo-Pak Skirmish And Its Inevitable Political Fallout

In the early 2000s, not long after the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, which took hundreds, if not thousands of lives, but in which India claimed a decisive victory, we invited a hawkish Indian defence analyst and expert over to the magazine that I was then editing. The idea was to get his opinion on India’s preparedness for armed conflict in the region, particularly with the prevailing hostile relations with Pakistan and a potentially hostile and powerful neighbour like China. The expert (who will have to remain unnamed for now) was good. His knowledge was vast and insightful but being a hawk, his lecture and the subsequent discussions were burnished with aggressive posturing with the key point being that India was certainly in a stronger position vis-à-vis Pakistan and with greater political will it could teach an errant neighbour some hard home truths.

It was an invigorating discussion that opened up our fairly young editorial team’s minds to issues of strategy, defence, and armed conflict. But, following the talk, it was the afterglow that seemed take hold of many of my colleagues I remember vividly. Otherwise rational and perfectly reasonable young men and women strutted about the newsroom with aggressive posturing, some loudly lamenting that the Indian government was shying away from confronting Pakistan and that our armed forces should initiate military action against that nation and teach it a sound lesson.

That sort of sentiment seems to be swirling around in India now in the aftermath of the recent skirmish with Pakistan. Last month terrorists believed to be based in Pakistan suicide-bombed an Indian convoy in Kashmir and killed at least 40 security personnel. India retaliated by sending in warplanes to bomb what it claims to be a large terrorist training centre and camp in Pakistan. This was followed by an airstrike by Pakistan and dogfights in which one Indian plane was downed and a pilot captured. The pilot was released by Pakistan, which refuted India’s claims of decimating the terrorist hideout and took the high moral ground by offering peace dialogues with India over the disputed region of Kashmir.

But the main fallout of last month’s conflict was the chest-beating brand of patriotism that it spawned and the political capital that the current regime led by Mr Narendra Modi is drawing out of it. Mr Modi, his colleagues, and supporters have been proudly proclaiming the decisiveness of the Indian attack (never mind that the actual damage may have been much less than the claims that hundreds of terrorists had perished during the attack). Otherwise reasonable people in civil society as well as India’s noisy and colourful media have earned a sort of bragging rights over the skirmish, and some of them have even been baying for Pakistan’s blood. With less than a month left before millions of Indians head towards polling booths to cast their votes in the national elections, this mood is significant.

It is significant because Mr Modi, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its allies are quite resolved to making the newest incidence of tension between India and Pakistan into an election issue. Dipstick surveys will likely show that the electorate’s faith in Mr Modi has strengthened as a consequence of the conflict. But what may be more important is the impact (or rather the lack of it) on those who politically oppose Mr Modi. In the past few months opposition leaders, including those of the Congress party and a host of other regional groupings, have been trying to forge an alliance aimed at ousting Mr Modi and his party during the coming elections. Several fault-lines, however, have emerged in that endeavour: there is no clear leader of the opposition alliance that can command support of the motley assemblage of parties; the political ambitions of several regional leaders are seen to be colliding against each other; and there is no clear-cut common electoral strategy that seems to have emerged.

More seriously, the opposition appears to be more than just a bit stumped by the wave of nationalistic fervour that Mr Modi and his alliance have drummed up. In the prevailing environment of patriotic pride and hawkishness towards Pakistan expressing any criticism (or even mild differences of opinion) is fraught with the risks of being labelled “anti-national”, which, with elections around the corner, can prove to be disastrous for anyone with political ambitions. Even mild questioning by some Congress leaders of BJP president Amit Shah’s claim that more than 250 terrorists had died in India’s bombing of a site in Pakistan led to counter-attacks by the BJP that labelled the Congress as being anti-India.

The problem for the opposition parties is compounded by the fact that little has emerged from their side in the form of a cogent, coherent strategy that can be part of their electoral campaign. In spite of a plethora of issues that have plagued the Modi regime—lack of jobs; distress in the farm sector; irregularities in a major arms deal such as the one for acquiring Rafale fighter jets from France; and growing insecurity among India’s minorities—besides criticism, the opposition parties haven’t been seen proffering their solutions for such problems. The Congress’ president, Mr Rahul Gandhi, is visibly more active politically than he has ever been. In Uttar Pradesh, a state which accounts for the largest number of seats in India’s Parliament and which will play a crucial role in deciding the outcome of the elections, the Congress has a new team—Mr Gandhi’s sister, Priyanka, and a relatively young leader, Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia—to spearhead its campaign but thus far their impact has been limited.

Part of the problem for leaders in the opposition, specifically in the Congress, is that when Mr Modi changed the rules of contesting elections, they were taken a bit by surprise. Mr Modi fought and won the 2014 elections by aggressive promotion of himself as the prime ministerial candidate; and by making specific promises about progress, development and improvement in the lives of Indians. It was like a presidential election where candidates project their personalities and their individual strengths to garner votes. In contrast, the Congress fought (and lost badly) the 2014 elections without even a declared candidate for the prime ministerial post. Mr Gandhi’s rallies were pale compared to Mr Modi’s thunderous ones. The leaders of the Congress, which is the only other national party of consequence other than the BJP, appear to contest elections the way the party did in the 1980s when it, for the large part, had no real challengers. That strategy is unlikely to work for it any longer.

The audience (read electorate) has changed. Exposure to digital and social media (which the BJP and its supporters deploy much more efficiently than other parties) have made India’s electorate a lot more aware and demanding. In such a context, the Congress’ style of using emotional appeal and the (fast fading) charisma of the Gandhi family can seem anachronistic. Many supporters of Congress point to the elevation and induction of Mr Gandhi’s sister, Priyanka, as a sort of trump card that the party could use in the coming elections but the fact is that she is quite untested in active politics—a newbie really if you discount her past activities, which have basically centred around nurturing and visiting the pocket boroughs of her family—her brother’s and her mother’s constituencies in UP.

As for the mainly regional parties that make up the so-called grand alliance of the opposition, none of their leaders enjoys a national stature that can be built or leveraged to position against Mr Modi. In such circumstances, and particularly in the aftermath of India’s skirmish with Pakistan, the advantage as Indians get ready to vote could seem to lie with Mr Modi and his allies.

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The Real Reason Why State Of Indian Media Is ‘Pliable’

Disclosure: this author landed one of the first interviews with Mr Modi a year after he became prime minister for a leading Indian newspaper in English; and Mr Modi’s answers to questions in person over breakfast at his official residence were supplemented by detailed printed copies of the responses). Such an arrangement for interviews (as most Indian journalists and editors are aware) isn’t something that is exclusive to Mr Modi. Prime ministers who have preceded Mr Modi, including Dr Manmohan Singh, have, in the past, agreed to be interviewed only via email. Editors of publications usually agree to print such responses, and, in most cases, mention the fact that it is based on written or e-mailed responses to questions, letting readers know the format that was followed. Obviously, such interviews tend to skirt controversial issues: I can’t recall an interview in which Dr Singh was asked whether he was in any way constrained in his decisions as prime minister by the president of the Congress party (in the circumstances, it would have been a legitimate question to ask him). The issue of interviewing India’s chief executive or prime minister was recently in the news after the Congress’ current president Rahul Gandhi critiqued an interview of Mr Modi by the editor of a news agency. Mr Gandhi implied that the interviewer was “pliable” and that “she was questioning and also giving the prime minister’s answers”. His comments set off a maelstrom of protests. The ruling alliance’s spokespersons attacked him and invoked memories of his grandmother, the late Indira Gandhi, who as prime minister had promulgated Emergency in 1975 during which the media was gagged, censored and controlled by her government. Journalists too were angered. The Editors Guild of India, an organisation comprising leading Indian editors that aims to protect press freedom and raise the standards of editorial leadership of newspapers and magazines, issued a statement in which it said Mr Gandhi’s criticism of the interviewer was offensive. The Congress party responded by defending its president’s statement and said: “Pliable isn’t offensive; it is the state of the Indian media today.” There are two issues that derive from this latest controversy involving India’s media and its politicians. The first is specific to the Congress president himself. For much of the 14 years since 2004 when Mr Gandhi, now 48, formally entered politics, he has largely been leery of the media, rarely agreeing to interactions with journalists and nearly never agreeing to grant interviews. In one-on-one interactions, which have almost always been off the record, his responses to controversial or uncomfortable questions have attempted to obfuscate the issues, and in the extremely rare on-the-record interviews that he has granted he has often seemed baffling. It is only now after his party suffered a humiliating loss in the general elections of 2014 that Mr Gandhi has seemed to have come into his own, speaking more coherently about things such as Mr Modi, his government, and now, the media. But has he agreed to free, no-holds-barred media interviews where questions aren’t previously vetted or the journalist or the publication not screened? You’ll be hard put to recall any. That takes care of issue No. 1. But it is the second issue that is more disturbing. In India, senior politicians, particularly those occupying high offices such as the prime minister or senior leaders of the Opposition, unless they are accused, charged or convicted of high crimes, are usually given the kid glove treatment by traditional media publications. It is common to find publications and the journalists working for them treating India’s politicians with a sort of polite submission and respect. Such is the deference that, unlike in the UK or other western markets, it is rare to find even “tabloid” publications trying to unearth scandals, salacious or otherwise, about Indian politicians—although it won’t be wrong to assume that such peccadillos, involving Indian politicians, exist in abundance. But the bigger issue is the reason why India’s mainstream (or traditional) journalists go soft on its politicians, leaders, and ministers. The real answers lie in the way India’s publications are owned and managed. Most of India’s big newspapers—in English or other languages—are proprietorial establishments. It is not uncommon to find that some of these proprietors also have other large business interests. It is also not uncommon to find links between some of these owners and political parties. In many large newsrooms, the professional, hired editor may seem to call the shots but the interests of the publication’s owner always influences the decisions. Sometimes it is a simple case of advertising revenues. Like everywhere in the world, India’s print publications are facing a squeeze on revenues—print ads from erstwhile mainstay sectors are fast migrating online—and the dependence on advertising from government agencies has increased. Or it is about vested interests. The owners of a media group may need the approval of the government of the day to set up a new business, acquire land in a state for expansion or diversification purposes, or just stave off prying governmental investigations into their own business discrepancies. Much is made of the existence of crony capitalism in India—the nexus between the business class and the political class.  The thing is India’s mainstream media business is not outside such a nexus. With very few exceptions, India’s media barons are pretty much linked to the political class—and instances of media owners crossing over to the other side are not uncommon. If pliable is the state of the Indian media as the Congress party and its president have alleged, then it may be time to take a close hard look, not at those who work in the newsrooms but at those who own them.]]>

India’s Cities, New & Old, Sitting On Brink of Disaster

Last week, a portion of a busy, motorable over-bridge in the heart of Kolkata collapsed taking its toll on a few human lives and wounding many others. A couple of years ago, experts had warned that the more than half-a-century old bridge was in serious need of a revamp and that its structural faults could lead to a disaster of the sort that occurred on a weekday afternoon. Yet, Bengal’s government and its relevant authorities did nothing. Such urban disasters are waiting to happen, not only in Kolkata, which has its share of decrepit infrastructure and shoddily constructed facilities but also in almost every other city, large or small, in rapidly urbanising India.

Along with that rapidity comes lack of planning and haphazardness. Overcrowding and absence of adequate infrastructure such as housing, power and water supplies, roads, and policing, have already made many of India’s cities unliveable. Blame the urban planning authorities for that. This year’s monsoon wreaked havoc on several cities, notably in Kerala where floods killed and displaced people across the states, but also in the northeastern part of India and in large cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, and Gurgaon. In the coastal city of Mumbai, home to an estimated 22 million people, with every monsoon comes a nightmare when the city is thrown completely out of gear by floods that take lives, damage property, bring the city to a complete standstill sometimes for days. The city is old and densely populated and its drainage system requires urgent attention that successive state governments and local authorities have failed to provide.

Older Indian cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai, and also India’s capital city, Delhi, are crippled by aging infrastructure that is often wilting under pressure of their increasing population, spurred chiefly by high rates of migration. Sometimes this leads to disasters such as the bridge collapse in Kolkata; but more commonly it makes living a struggle. In Delhi’s Dhaula Kuan, a heavy-traffic area, a complex flyover was built years ago but bad planning ensures that during rush hours, fast-moving vehicles get off each arm of the clover-like flyover only to land in epic traffic jams because of faulty planning. Some years ago, when a journalist raised the issue with Delhi’s then chief minister the callous response was: “Really? But I never get stuck on it.” Obviously not because when chief ministers and other VIPs travel through the city, traffic is restricted and paths are routinely cleared by their police-escorted motorcades.

Older cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, are burdened with infrastructure that is out of date and unable to cope with the explosive growth in their population over the years but newer Indian cities are faring no better. Take Gurgaon. Few Indian cities have witnessed growth the way Gurgaon (estimated population: 2.3 million) has. In the mid-1980s, the area was a flatland of green fields, forests and cropland near the Aravalli range of mountains in Haryana. Today it is a vast and sprawling mesh of high-rise office blocks, malls, condominiums, and shopping centres, all built without a semblance of sensible urban planning.

The story of Gurgaon’s boom is often trotted out as the tale of a millennium city but on the flipside of that is a story of doom. Few Indian cities are poised on the brink of disaster as Gurgaon is. During this year’s monsoon, when the city was flooded after a bout of not-so-heavy rainfall the reason was traced to the fact that the concrete from the widespread construction had blocked the area’s natural drainage system that served to take rain water out of low-lying areas.

Gurgaon’s streets are unplanned, unnamed and, sometimes un-drivable. Residences and offices have to use their own diesel-fired generators to supply electricity for most hours of the day since the city cannot supply what is required. The public transport system is a joke; many roads have no names; and there is little zoning between residences, schools, offices and commercial establishments. Air pollution levels are almost as high as Delhi (which is, according to some surveys, the world’s worst polluted city), although Gurgaon’s population is just a tenth of the capital’s.

Gurgaon’s problem is a problem that every Indian city is beset with: lack of planning and haphazard growth. Like Gurgaon, many of India’s cities lack a masterplan that demarcates zones for commercial, residential and other use and for civic infrastructure. Gurgaon, for instance, has grown because hordes of real estate developers built swarms of mushroom-like gated colonies and office blocks with little or no surrounding infrastructure. There has also been long-term destruction of the eco-system because of quarrying, mining and deforestation, all of which have been driven by the construction boom. And what little infrastructure there is—such as roads, over-bridges and underpasses—is shoddily built and usually inadequate for the longer-term.

The Band-Aid like approach to urban planning is common in most Indian cities. Disasters, such as the recent bridge collapse in Kolkata, are waiting to happen across the country, in cities new and old. The pressure of population on India’s cities will continue. Today around 30% of Indians live in the country’s urban centres; by 2025, that is projected to grow to 60%. Will India’s cities be able to handle such growth? It’s difficult to provide an optimistic answer. When archaeologists unearthed the ruins of ancient Indian towns such as Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, they found urban facilities built in 2500 BCE that were meticulously planned to ensure that life was comfortable and hassle-free for those who inhabited them. The irony is that centuries later, India’s urban planners are struggling to ensure that the country’s cities are able to just function normally.

Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan  ]]>