Tag Archives: modi

Three lessons about the state of Indian politics from spring election season

Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa (left) and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (right) both have reason to smile at India's spring election season. (Facebook)
Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa (left) and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (right) both have reason to smile at India’s spring election season. (Facebook)

For the better part of a week, exit polls showed that Tamil Nadu’s chief minister Jayalalithaa, both beloved and scandal-plagued, was in trouble of being rejected by voters. India Flag Icon

But when election officials announced the results Thursday for the May 16 state elections, her governing AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) instead won a resounding victory. It proved the staying power of one of India’s most enchanting regional leaders, despite her temporary, nine-month suspension as chief minister that followed a 2014 a conviction on corruption charges, and despite disastrous flooding late in 2015 that affected the Tamil capital of Chennai and that killed over 400 people throughout the state.

None of those problems seemed to matter to Tamil voters, who returned the AIADMK to power, five years after Jayalalithaa returned to power at the state level and two years after she nearly routed both regional and national parties in India’s parliamentary elections.

Despite the pollsters’ last-minute spook in Tamil Nadu, none of the results announced Thursday in spring elections across five states offered much of a surprise. But the voting, across five states, from India’s northern border with China down to its most southern tip, which incorporated, in aggregate, a population of over 225 million Indians, was as close to a ‘midterm’ vote as prime minister Narendra Modi will get.

Regional parties are stronger than ever

Mamata Banerjee won a second term as chief minister of West Bengal, despite her failure to stem corruption. (Facebook)
Mamata Banerjee won a second term as chief minister of West Bengal, despite her failure to stem corruption. (Facebook)

In the spring’s two biggest prizes — West Bengal and Tamil Nadu — voters delivered resounding victories to regional leaders like Jayalalithaa and West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

* * * * *

RELATED: Banerjee eyes reelection in West Bengal state election results

* * * * *

The resilience of regional parties, often more tied to personality or class patronage than to a set of policies or rigid ideology, shouldn’t have been a surprise. Following the spring voting, 15 Indian states are now governed by chief ministers from regional or left-wing third parties. Last year, Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) suffered humiliating setbacks both in Delhi and in Bihar, the former to clean-government guru Arvind Kejriwal in the latter to a regional party alliance headed by chief minister Nitish Kumar, one of a handful of politicians in the country with a better record on economic growth and development than Modi himself. Continue reading Three lessons about the state of Indian politics from spring election season

Banerjee eyes reelection in West Bengal state election results

Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, hopes to win reelection in state elections that run through May 5. (Facebook)
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, hopes to win reelection in state elections that ran through May 5. (Facebook)

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi can breathe a sigh of relief about this spring’s state elections: in none of the three biggest prizes (Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal) is his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) a local presence.India Flag Icon

That means, if nothing else, Modi and his allies will not be blamed for yet another state-level electoral setback of the kinds that his party suffered in Delhi and in Bihar last year (though elections in Assam are expected to be fiercely contested by the BJP).

Since mid-April, elections have been underway in five states, the results of which will be announced Thursday, though exit polls are already giving Indians an idea of who might triumph.

In West Bengal, the biggest state-level prize of India’s spring elections, a popular chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is attempting to hold onto power just five years after ending 34 consecutive years of communist rule. Voting took place in six phases between April 4 and May 5.

Between 1977 and 2011, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), a left-wing splinter group from what was then India’s main communist party, governed the state as part of the Left Front (বাম ফ্রন্ট) coalition. By most accounts, communist rule in West Bengal wasn’t incredibly successful in boosting growth, despite a sweeping land reform and other efforts to boost nutrition and anti-poverty measures.

In the 2011 election, Banerjee (pictured above), known simply as ‘didi‘ (‘sister’ in Bengali), won power in a lopsided victory. Banerjee, who began her career in the Congress Party, formed the All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC, সর্বভারতীয় তৃণমূল কংগ্রেস) in 1997. Going into the elections, she and her allies controlled 227 of the 294 sets in the legislative assembly as a result of the last election’s rout.

In the current election, the Left Front formed a rare electoral alliance with the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), struggling for relevance after its national defeat in the 2014 elections and the erosion of its power at the state level both to Modi’s BJP and to regional parties like Banerjee’s AITMC. Despite the fact that Congress and the West Bengal communists appeal to very different constituencies, the alliance has worked out better than perhaps expected.

Ironically, exit polls also show that Congress is set to lose power to communists when the results are announced for the May 16 elections in Kerala, the far southwestern state where Congress and the communists, with wildly different views on economic and social policy (in Kerala as well as in West Bengal), have vied for power for decades. Continue reading Banerjee eyes reelection in West Bengal state election results

Bangladesh’s government shares blame for spate of blogger murders

Dhaka-based LGBT activist Xulhaz Mannan and the former US ambassador to Bangladesh, Dan Mozena, in 2014. (Facebook)
Dhaka-based LGBT activist Xulhaz Mannan and the former US ambassador to Bangladesh, Dan Mozena, in 2014. (Facebook)

No one in Bangladesh’s government wielded the machetes that hacked to death Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent LGBT activist and local USAID officer, at his home on Monday in Dhaka.bangladesh flag icon

Just like no one in the Bangladeshi government actually perpetrated the murders of so many active bloggers before him in the last two years. Asif Mohiuddin or Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013.

Or Shafiul Islam in 2014.

Or Avijit Roy or Washiqur Rahman or Ananta Bijoy Das or Niloy Neel or Faisal Arefin Dipan in 2015.

None of these names are necessarily household names in the United States or even in Bangladesh. In aggregate, however, they represent an audacious attempt by ultraconservative Islamists to silence the secular voices in the world’s eighth-most populous country.

And, with Mannan’s gruesome death, it may be working.

In 2013, hardline Islamists published a ‘hit list’ of at least 84 prominent online writers in Bangladesh, many of whom are secularists, like Mannan, a 35-year-old who published Rupban, a Bangladesh-based magazine for LGBT people in his country. Roy, perhaps the most high-profile victim, was a Bangladeshi-American activist who hosted a website that brought together many brands of secular humanist thought in Bangladesh.

* * * * *

RELATED: Two years later, Bangladesh needs a real opposition

* * * * *

With a discrete list of bloggers publicly identified for reprisal by jihadists and radical Islamists who have pledged loyalty, in some cases, to the Islamic State group that controls parts of Syria and Iraq, it should not be difficult for a functional government to protect seven dozen individuals in a country of 169 million people.

Quite to the contrary, government officials have done little to apprehend the perpetrators of crimes that have chilled freedom of speech and expression in Bangladesh, often suggesting that murdered writers may have crossed an invisible line by criticizing Islam too harshly in a country where religion and politics have been dangerously intertwined since its bloody war for independence from Pakistan in 1971:

Rather than condemn the killers, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan scolded the victims, telling CNN: “The bloggers, they should control their writing. Our country is a secular state. … I want to say that people should be careful not to hurt anyone by writing anything — hurt any religion, any people’s beliefs, any religious leaders.”

Continue reading Bangladesh’s government shares blame for spate of blogger murders

JNU protests highlight failures of India’s Modi government

Protesters rally earlier this month at India's Jawaharlal Nehru University. (Getty Images/Chandan Khanna)
Protesters rally earlier this month at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. (Getty Images/Chandan Khanna)

Nearly two years ago, when Indian voters swept Narendra Modi into power, it was all supposed to be about development.India Flag Icon

Modi, the former Gujarati first minister, led the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) to a dizzying landslide on the promise that he would be the energetic 21st century CEO of India, Inc. He repeatedly emphasized that his administration would prioritize toilets over temples, that a Modi-led government would be far more interested in promoting economic growth, human development and policy reform than in policing the religious norms of the Hindu nationalists so influential in the BJP.

But by the standards of Modi’s own 2014 campaign, he’s failing.

His efforts to enact business-friendly land reform (essentially, giving the Indian government stronger rights to eminent domain) was curtailed by farmers, Rahul Gandhi and even opponents to Modi’s own right flank.

An attempt to enact a Goods and Services Tax bill, which would harmonize a single tax rate across India’s state borders, is also flailing (for now) in the upper house of the Indian parliament. Officially, the economy grew in 2015 by 7.5%, but there’s reason to doubt those numbers.

That makes the latest showdown between Modi and student protesters even more damning — a prosecution of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and five other students at Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University for ‘sedition’ after the students led a series of protests against over the 2013 execution of a Kashmiri man charged with a 2001 attack on the Indian parliament.  Continue reading JNU protests highlight failures of India’s Modi government

Why global oil prices seem likely to remain low throughout 2016

iran-oil
Iran is looking forward to ‘implementation day,’ when its nuclear energy deal takes effect and global sanctions are relaxed, allowing it to export oil more easily. (Reuters)

In 2015, we saw how falling oil prices affected world politics from Alberta to Nigeria. Net exporters like Venezuela, Russia and the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are feeling the drop in revenues, and that could accelerate political agitation as oil prices force budget cuts. USflagIran Flag Icon

As Brad Plumer wrote yesterday for Vox, explaining the fall in oil prices is simple. Supply has outstripped demand, and while global demand is still growing, it’s growing at about half the rate that it was even in mid-2015.

* * * * *

RELATED: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

RELATED: Could Norway benefit from the oil price decline?

* * * * *

The difference between $30 oil (about the current price level), $20 oil or $50 oil could make or break incumbents seeking reelection — lower oil prices mean fewer goodies at election time.

In 2016, that means oil prices could affect Scotland’s May regional elections by dampening the economic case for Scottish independence and, therefore, the electoral support for the Scottish National Party. It means that Russia’s September legislative elections could engender the same kind of political protests (or worse) that met the last elections in 2011. Lower oil prices are already endangering Ghanian president John Dramani Mahama’s hopes for reelection in December, given how much Mahama has staked on Ghana’s oil potential. It could even push Venezuela’s opposition, newly empowered as the majority in the National Assembly, to seek chavista president Nicolás Maduro’s recall even more quickly.

More generally, it could make life difficult for Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari. Not only will lower oil revenues hurt his capacity to deploy resources across Africa’s most populous country, but Buhari must find a way to deliver to Nigeria’s impoverished Muslim north, where Boko Haram continues to pose a security challenge, and Nigeria’s southeastern Igbo population, including Rivers state and Delta state, where much of Nigeria’s oil reserves are located. The southeastern challenge is particularly precarious, in light of the fact that Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan, the first president to come from Nigeria’s oil-rich southeast. A wrong step by Buhari could catalyze long-simmering demands for greater political autonomy or even secession.

On the demand side, the European Union (as a whole) imports more oil than any other country in the world — by a longshot. Lower prices could bring about the kind of truly robust economic growth that has eluded the eurozone for decades. That, in turn, could ameliorate the pressures of democratic backslide among the central European Visegrad Group, and it could goose economic activity in Mediterranean countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece, where no single political party has enough support for a majority government. That, in turn, could reduce support for radical leftist parties and bolster more moderate coalitions. It could, marginally, benefit incumbent governments in Ireland, Romania and elsewhere in 2016 and France in 2017. (The same effect, by the way, relieves a lot of pressure on faltering ‘Abenomics’ policy in Japan, too).

In his final state of the union address last night, even US president Barack Obama bragged about lower oil prices. If prices stay consistently low throughout 2016, it could marginally help Obama’s Democratic Party win the November general election.

Autocratic countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Angola, Algeria and Kazakhstan, could face popular protests.

So where are oil prices going? No one knows, but here’s what you have to believe if you think oil prices are going to rise substantially anytime in 2016: Continue reading Why global oil prices seem likely to remain low throughout 2016

Two years later, Bangladesh needs a real opposition

Bangladesh's prime minister Sheikh Hasina won an election boycotted by the opposition two years ago today.
Bangladesh’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina won an election boycotted by the opposition two years ago today.

On this week in 2014, Bangladesh’s prime minister Shiekh Hasina was enjoying a hollow reelection, with a supermajority in the Jatiyo Sangsad (জাতীয় সংসদ), Bangladesh’s unicameral parliament. Hasina had pushed forward with elections, despite breaching political trading by refusing to appoint a caretaker government and despite the opposition’s determination to boycott the vote as flawed.bangladesh flag icon

Nearly two decades prior, when Hasina and her Bangladesh Awami League (বাংলাদেশ আওয়ামী লীগ) were in the opposition and boycotted the 1996 elections, the two major parties worked out a compromise for a new vote four months later — a vote that the Awami League went on to win.

After her uncontested victory in January 2014, however, Hasina used the opportunity not to enter into negotiations with her rival,  Khaleda Zia, and other leaders of the more Islamist and more conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, বাংলাদেশ জাতীয়তাবাদী দল). Instead, Hasina has spent the past two years working to undermine not only the BNP, but the entire framework of Bangladeshi democracy, however fragile it had been since independence in 1971.

* * * * *

RELATED: Zia indictment won’t help
solve Bangladesh’s political standoff

* * * * *

Today, Hasina’s government has so marginalized the BNP that the seesaw of power between the two parties is far more lopsided than at any time in the past 30 years. Zia has been detained and placed under house arrest for much of the past two years, other top BNP leaders were imprisoned or exiled, the BNP’s hardline Islamist allies Jamaat-e-Islami (বাংলাদেশ জামায়াতে ইসলামী) have been virtually criminalized and some of its leaders, on trial for war crimes from the 1971 war for independence, executed. 

Fresh elections are due only in 2018, three years from now, by which time there might not be a robust opposition to wage much of a challenge at all. Continue reading Two years later, Bangladesh needs a real opposition

Kumar hands BJP’s Modi staggering defeat in Bihar state

Bihar's accomplished chief minister Nitish Kumar faces the most serious threat of his career in the political machine of prime minister Narendra Modi. (Facebook)
Bihar’s accomplished chief minister Nitish Kumar faced the most serious threat of his career in the political machine of prime minister Narendra Modi. (Facebook)

After five rounds of voting that ended on Thursday, the results of Bihar’s state elections were revealed last Sunday, handing a surprisingly strong victory to chief minister Nitish Kumar — and a correspondingly disappointing defeat to prime minister Narendra Modi that’s caused ripples nationally and ripped the aegis of invincibility from Modi’s political cloak.India Flag Icon

With 104 million people, Bihar has a population twice that of Myanmar/Burma, whose elections have been received with far more international coverage. Though it’s not even India’s most populous state (it ranks third), Bihar is home to more people than all but 11 countries in the world. It’s here, in one of India’s poorest states, that a regional election drew into conflict three of India’s most colorful and powerful politicians and where two distinct (and imperfect) visions of India’s development have clashed, with a result that will have national implications for India’s future.

To understand the real significance of the Bihari election, it’s worth taking a step back to understand the decade-long posturing between Modi and Kumar. Bear with me.

A tale of two visions of ‘vikaas’ 

The first of those two visions belongs to Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) so overwhelmingly won national elections in May 2014. That was just as true in Bihar as it was elsewhere in India, where the BJP took 22 of the state’s 42 seats in the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of the Indian parliament. In part, Modi was selling a vision of development and economic progress based on the ‘Gujarati model’ that he laid claim to after 13 years as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. The Modi approach involved a top-heavy approach to government and economic boosterism that found Modi jetting to China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates to cajole foreign development to his state. Though Gujarat’s economy has always been among India’s stronger performers, there’s no doubt that Modi’s zero-tolerance approach to corruption and attention to strong infrastructure, including some of the best roads and power generation in India, has been successful. Despite the Hindu-Muslim riots that left over 1,000 Muslims dead shortly after Modi took office in 2001, Modi’s 2014 campaign slogan of ‘toilets, not temples’ rang true — he was a man more interested in bringing good roads and clean water to his country than giving voice to Hindu nationalism, or at least that was the promise of his campaign.

But there was always another model, and that’s Kumar’s Bihari model.

Ultimately, it was this model that won the day in this autumn’s elections — a five-phase spectacle over the course of nearly a month, between October 12 and November 5. When the results were announced, Kumar’s Mahagathbandhan (‘Grand Alliance’), a coalition between his own Janata Dal (United) (JD(U), जनता दल (यूनाइटेड)) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD, राष्ट्रीय जनता दल), the party founded in 1997 by former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, won a clear mandate, far larger than anyone had expected in what was thought to have been an incredibly tight race.

The Kumar-led alliance won 41.9% of the vote and 178 seats in the state’s 243-member Legislative Assembly, while Modi’s alliance won just 34.1% of the vote and 58 seats, far more lopsided than anyone had predicted.

bihar15 bihar2015a

Kumar’s story — and his relationship with the BJP — is complex.

Except for a short period between May 2014 and February 2015, when he briefly stepped aside after his party’s loss in India’s national election, Kumar has served as Bihar’s chief minister since 2005, and for most of that time, he was an ally of the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Kumar took over a state known as something of an economic basketcase. Even today, Bihar has a far higher poverty rate than much of the rest of the country. When you think of overpopulated and underdeveloped India, you are probably thinking of Bihar or somewhere very much like it. In contrast to Bangalore or Mumbai or even Modi’s Gujarat, Bihar’s hopes never lied in the kind of sexy development that comes from foreign investment. But over the course of Kumar’s tenure as chief minister, he has managed some of the highest GDP growth rates in the country (including an average GDP growth rate of 10.6% between 2005 and 2014) and an 8% reduction in poverty. Like Modi in Gujarat, Kumar focused on infrastructure, including better roads. But he also turned to greater social welfare spending and his record on poverty reduction is far stronger than Modi’s Gujarati record.

But perhaps Kumar’s greatest governance success came from reversing the sense of lawlessness that characterized Bihar under the leadership of his predecessor (and now coalition partner) Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav helped deliver a victory against Modi -- but at what price? (Facebook)
Former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav helped deliver a victory against Modi — but at what price? (Facebook)

Becoming chief minister for the first time in 1990, Yadav reigned over what became known nationally as a ‘jungle raj,’ a state of wild corruption, economic malaise and violent criminals riding roughshod. In 1997, when he was implicated (and eventually convicted) for accepting kickbacks in an animal husbandry scheme known as the ‘fodder scam,’ he stepped down in favor of his wife, Rabri Devi, who intermittently ruled as chief minister until 2005. At the same time, Yadav founded a new breakaway party form the Janata Dal, the RJD.

The two remained enemies for the better part of a decade and a half. As the RJD became a byword for petty corruption (even today, 49 of the 80 incoming state legislators have pending criminal cases), Kumar promised a new approach that transcended religion and caste, nominally an ally of the BJP, while Bihar’s green shoots emerged in the mid-2000s onward.

In 2013, as it became apparent that the BJP and the NDA favored Modi to lead the alliance into the 2014 elections as a prime ministerial candidate, Kumar withdrew from the alliance. He did so mostly because of Modi’s role in the controversial 2002 communal violence and riots in Gujarat. Just as the BJP was about to win the most massive victory in Indian history, Kumar walked away from the alliance, in no small part over secularism. One suspects that it also had to do with Kumar’s disappointment in not leading the alliance himself. But for years, Kumar has refused to let Modi’s campaign in Bihar, and his disapproval of Modi’s record had been on record for years.

How the ‘Grand Alliance’ stole Bihar back from Modi

The 2015 Bihar elections were supposed to be one of the great triumphs on Modi’s path to consolidating the BJP’s power, and the prime minister campaigned throughout the state early and often at the advice of his chief strategist, Amit Shah.

But something went awry.

In contrast to the ‘toilets, not temples’ mantra of his 2014 campaign, the BJP got bogged down in an attempt to use communal issues, like eating beef, to fire up its Hindutva base in India, a step that seems to have backfired. Despite Modi’s popularity, the BJP might have benefited from grooming a local charismatic figure that could have led the party’s efforts in Bihar. Through the campaign, it was never quite clear who would become chief minister had the BJP won the election, unlike the ‘grand alliance,’ which made clear that Kumar would carry on as chief minister if elected. Unlike Modi, just 18 months into his tenure as India’s prime minister, Kumar has a decade of proven results as chief minister. It’s not crazy to think that Bihar’s voters are sophisticated enough to support Modi nationally and Kumar locally.

Yet one of the reasons that the BJP did so well in the 2014 national elections in Bihar was that the JDU and the RJD were divided. Though the Nitish-Lalu alliance has generated its fair share of wariness, given the 15-year rivalry between the two figures, the coalition between the JDU and the RJD made it much easier to unite Muslim supporters (in a state where over 15% of the population is Muslim) and the disadvantaged Yadav caste.

Joining forces wasn’t easy for Kumar, whose good-governance agenda has little in common with the RJD’s pocket-lining. But the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), previously the governing party of India, engineered the coalition between the two parties and joined up as the third, by far weakest, partner of the alliance in Bihar. Rahul Gandhi may be a ghost when it comes to contemporary Indian politics, and aside from its overrated role in bringing Kumar back together with the corruption-tainted Lalu, has been entirely absent from the Bihar campaign (as in Delhi, where Arvind Kejriwal delivered a whopping defeat to Modi earlier this year).

Lalu, as a politician, is one of India’s greatest showmen. He toured every corner of Bihar state, and he used the campaign to attack the hardliners who have dominated headlines in India for their Hindu nationalism since Modi took office. It worked, and his party (the RJD) won more seats than Kumar’s JD(U). He’ll expect something in return for that victory, and it might be more than just a space in Kumar’s next cabinet for his two ambitious sons.

The consequences for Modi’s government and the road ahead

There’s no doubt that the Bihar electoral rout is the worst political crisis since Modi took power nearly 18 months ago. Modi’s enemies in his party, including the old guard that he sidelined two years ago, have now called into question the highly centralized approach that Modi has taken to India’s government.

Eighteen months after leading the BJP to its best victory in Indian history, voters aren't sure that globe-trotting prime minister Narendra Modi is all he's cracked up to be. (Facebook)
Eighteen months after leading the BJP to its best victory in Indian history, voters aren’t sure that globe-trotting prime minister Narendra Modi is all he’s cracked up to be. (Facebook)

But as much as the Bihar elections represent a loss for the BJP and for Modi personally, it’s not fatal. Though it’s true that Modi’s government has gotten off to a slow start as far as reform goes, he has more than enough time to right the course. The next Indian general election will not take place until 2019. In the meantime, he should double down on reform. Despite the fact that many BJP parliamentarians are protectionsist, he should push full speed ahead with a reform of the national goods and services tax that will harmonize rates and rules across state lines. As far as regulation goes, this isn’t a Thatcherite rupture, it’s low-hanging fruit. Land reform and steps to reduce graft, make government more transparent and businesses more efficient would be welcome. As far as development goes, Modi would do well to copy Bihar’s program of providing free bicycles to girls and incentives for primary and secondary education.

He might even work with Kumar in the weeks and months ahead to merge the best of both models, two sides of the same pro-development coin. Nothing would get Modi’s government back on the path of ‘toilets, not temples.’ That’s especially true with a tough set of state elections coming in 2016 and 2017. No one expects Modi and the BJP to sweep Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, where local parties rule supreme. But the 2016 election in Assam is winnable, and the fight for Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous (and still quite impoverished) state in 2017 will be fierce. A loss there will not doom Modi’s chances in 2019, but an embarrassing loss just might.

Abdul Kalam, India’s popular former president, has died

abdulkalam

Photo credit to The Hindustan Times.

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, who served as his country’s (chiefly ceremonial) president from 2002 to 2007, died today at age 83 after collapsing while delivering a lecture to students at the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong.India Flag Icon

Abdul Kalam was often nicknamed ‘the people’s president,’ and with good reason — he is being remembered fondly today across the political spectrum:

As a leading engineer, he was the face of India’s nuclear weapons program — making him a living embodiment of an accomplishment that immediately bolstered India’s standing in the scientific community and on foreign policy. He was awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honor, in 1997 and, with the success of India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1998, he became India’s ‘missile man’ before he became its ‘people’s president.’

Abdul Kalam was also an independent voice as India’s president. A Tamil Muslim, he was elected as president in 2002 in the wake of the anti-Muslim riots that so tarred the record of Gujarat’s first minister and now, prime minister, Narendra Modi.

Abdul Kalam belonged to no party — he’s the last truly independent to have been elected to the presidency. Moreover, he stood up to prime minister Manmohan Singh by initially rejecting a 2006 bill that would loosen rules on holding ‘offices of profit’ — the new law followed Sonia Gandhi’s resignation from several positions deemed to be offices of profit. Gandhi has served as the president of the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) since 1998, including its decade-long stint in power between 2003 and 2013.

He used the office of the presidency to great effect at home and abroad — and though he’s been described as apolitical, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued in The Indian Express in 2007 that he conducted his presidency as the consummate politician:

Kalam was engaging in politics in the deeper sense of the term: he had an unerring instinct for what the people were looking for, he never criticised but only proposed alternatives, he levelled distinctions between people not by lowering the elite but by raising the aspirations of masses, and he relentlessly called attention to the fact that the Office was a means not an end. It is always possible to probe further into his motives and compromises. But he succeeded not because he was apolitical but because he had a sense of what people want in a politician: the capacity to project a future full of possibilities with conviction and sincerity.

Rahul Gandhi returns to Indian politics — but does anyone care?

gandhirahul

Nearly a year after Narendra Modi won a landslide victory in India’s parliamentary elections, it sometimes feels like Modi is governing the world’s largest democracy unopposed.India Flag Icon

To some degree, that’s true, because his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी), won so many constituencies that no other party emerged with enough seats to become the official opposition in the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा), the lower house of India’s parliament.

That was an especially humiliating result for India’s traditional ruling part in the post-independence era, the Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), which was swept from power after presiding over a decade of accelerating corruption and stagnating economic growth.

But as Modi prepares to fight for a land reform bill that would make it easier to acquire farmland for development and to build new industrial corridors, better transport links, and other infrastructural improvements that are central to Modi’s goal of greater economic development, urbanization and modernization, Rahul Gandhi has returned from a two-month sabbatical to lead the movement against the land reforms. He was set to travel to Punjab today to attack a bill that’s attracted widespread opposition among India’s farmers. Gandhi, anxious to pit Congress on the side of India’s poor, is waging an uncharacteristically energetic battle to become the leading figure in what could be the first major hurdle in Modi’s reform plans.

Nevertheless, there’s some question whether he or anyone in his family is best suited to lead the Modi-era opposition. Continue reading Rahul Gandhi returns to Indian politics — but does anyone care?

Nitish Kumar returns to front-line Indian politics

nitishreturns

That didn’t take long.India Flag Icon

Less than a year after his resignation in the wake of a strategic miscalculation, a break with India’s conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) over its decision to anoint Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, as its prime ministerial candidate in 2014, Nitish Kumar is back as the chief minister of Bihar state.

It’s not every day that Patna, Bihar’s capital city, becomes the epicenter of Indian domestic politics. But the return of Kumar (pictured above) heralds the comeback of one of India’s most wily politicians, a potential national rival to Modi, and one of the most capable policymakers in India today. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kumar’s ‘Bihari model’ is in some ways superior to Modi’s ‘Gujarati model’ when you look at the development gains that Bihar state made under Kumar’s nearly decade-long tenure as chief minister from 2005 to 2014.

Kumar’s return comes no less than nine months before regional elections are due in Bihar, one of India’s most important states that will now be shaped widely as a standoff between Kumar and Modi.

mapbihar

With nearly 104 million people, it’s India’s third most populous state. Bordering Bangladesh on its far eastern corner, Bihar has a predominantly Hindi-speaking, Hindu-practicing population. But 16.5% of the population consists of practicing Muslims, making it an especially diverse state in terms of religion.

Don’t underestimate how important the state is — and how important its further development could become. Bihar is home to more people than the entire country of The Philippines or Vietnam or Egypt, and it’s only at the beginning of what could be a longer trajectory of rising economic growth.

For now, Kumar is taking a gentle stand with respect to Modi, pledging to work with India’s new prime minister for Bihar’s benefit. But Kumar will not be renewing a one-time alliance between the BJP and Kumar’s own party, the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U), जनता दल (यूनाइटेड)).

Once a leading player in the BJP-dominated National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Kumar pulled the JD(U) out of its alliance with the BJP when it became clear that Modi would lead the alliance through the 2014 elections. That was a difficult proposition for Kumar, whose party attracts a significant share of votes among Bihar’s Muslim population. Modi’s reputation among Muslim Indians remains fraught, in no small part over Hindu reprisals for the burning of a train of Hindu pilgrims. Those riots, which took place in 2002 in the first months of Modi’s tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister, led to the deaths of nearly 1,000 Muslims. Critics argued that Kumar, instead, wanted to be the BJP-led alliance’s candidate in his own right, and observers point to long-standing antipathy between Modi and Kumar, as veteran writer Sankarshan Thakur writes in The Telegraph:

The two men have duelled infamously on the national stage and the prickly needle between them became the sole cause of the collapse of the JDU-BJP alliance in Bihar and the crises that have dogged the state to this day. The Modi juggernaut had decimated Nitish in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and caused him to resign. Nitish has displayed a near-pathological aversion to Modi, refusing even to bring the Prime Minister’s name to his lip. His return as chief minister raises the charming prospect of the two men having to come face to face and engage as leader of nation and state.

Bihar’s regional elections, due before November, will be the most important political test for Modi’s strength since his election last year. The BJP’s recent loss in regional elections in the National Capital Territory of Delhi to the anti-corruption Arvind Kejriwal must certainly give Kumar hope that he, too, can unlock the means to defeating Modi. For their part, the BJP, under the leadership of former Gujarati minister Amit Shah, will pull no punches in its attempt to wrest Bihar away from Kumar, giving it a key foothold in northeastern India. If Modi and the BJP succeed in Bihar, they will have a credible shot at winning 2016’s elections in West Bengal — the fourth-most populous state in India and, like Bihar, both much more Muslim and much poorer than the rest of India. Continue reading Nitish Kumar returns to front-line Indian politics

Forget the Gandhis. Kejriwal is now India’s true opposition leader.

kejriwalpart2

When the former (and now future) Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal challenged Narendra Modi for a seat in the Indian parliament from the symbolically and religiously important city of Varanasi last spring, it was a sign that Kejriwal, days after resigning from Delhi’s 49-day government, maybe bit off more than he could chew. India Flag Icon

He lost. Badly.

Furthermore, instead of securing a national perch in Delhi, where Kejriwal (pictured above) and his newly formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, literally the ‘Common Man’ Party) found such success in the 2013 Delhi regional elections, the party instead won none of the seven seats up for grabs to the lower house of the Indian parliament. The AAP managed to win four seats in Punjab only because of voter disgust with the corruption of the ruling Sikh nationalist party in that state.

Kejriwal’s decision to resign as chief minister, just 49 days after forming a minority AAP-led government to wage a national campaign looked like a disaster. The AAP, like many third parties, was largely swept aside by the Modi wave that gave the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) a landslide victory.

* * * * *

RELATED: Kejriwal’s AAP looks for second chance in Delhi vote

* * * * *

After Delhi’s government reverted to president’s rule, it seemed like the BJP would easily sweep to power there too, especially after winning regional elections last October in Maharashtra, the home of Mumbai (Bombay) and the second-most populous state in India.

Today, however, with the announcement that the AAP swept up an unexpectedly strong victory in voting on February 7 (winning 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi legislative assembly), it’s no longer risible to think about Kejriwal competing on the same platform as Modi. Voters have given Kejriwal, whose AAP is barely two years old, a second chance to carry out his agenda of anti-corruption good governance. It’s the first time since Modi’s remarkable national victory last spring that any figure or group has decisively defeated the BJP at any level of Indian politics.

Remember that in the landscape-shifting December 2013 elections, the AAP won just 28 seats, four fewer than the BJP. It governed in an awkward alliance with the Indian National Congress (भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) that, under former chief minister Sheila Dikshit, had governed Delhi for 15 years and, increasingly, became synonymous with corruption and incompetence.

delhivote15In the latest vote, Congress won no seats at all to Delhi’s legislative assembly. The party is still reeling after its massive rejection last spring. Congress won so few seats nationally that it cannot even appoint the leader of the opposition in the lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा). Since its defeat, there’s no sign that the Nehru-Gandhi family shows any sign of realizing that it must fundamentally change in order to regain the electorate’s trust. There’s no sign of any rising stars in the party from outside the family — if Rahul Gandhi proved uncharismatic and uninspired in 2014, it’s conceivable that his sister, Priyanka Vadra, might be the right answer for 2019.

But given the uninspired leadership of the quasi-monarchical Gandhi family, Kejriwal has a real chance to eclipse Congress and build a new, populist force for the secular center-left in India, attracting votes from all castes and religions whose votes are no longer tied to the independence movement of the 1930s and 1940s. That’s provided that Kejriwal can, in the years ahead in Delhi, deliver on his promise of less corruption, better services and greater safety, especially for women. (Critics will note that there’s plenty of Hindu traditionalism lurking beneath the surface of the AAP movement, but that’s just as true for Congress as well or for any Indian party that wants to compete in a country where four-fifths of its population practice Hinduism). Continue reading Forget the Gandhis. Kejriwal is now India’s true opposition leader.

Kejriwal’s AAP looks for second chance in Delhi vote

kejriwal

Guest post by Devin Finn 

On February 7, when Delhiwallas go to the polls to vote for candidates for all 70 seats in the Vidhan Sabha (विधान सभा) — the union territory’s Legislative Assembly — the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, literally the ‘Common Man’ Party) has another opportunity to prove it knows how to remake politics.India Flag Icon

The AAP’s leader Arvind Kejriwal has promised to end corruption and improve the lives of the poor. Hanging in the balance are several fundamental political processes: ongoing efforts to chip away at corruption, an unprecedented movement to combat violence against women, and the possibility that an alternative vision of politics may find support among voters.

Opinion polls indicate a tight race, with party leaders from both prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) and the AAP trading barbs and accusations of rules violations. After a rough 2014, AAP is attempting to concentrate strength in Delhi and demonstrate that it can govern. AAP has sought to contest as many seats as possible, build a widespread political movement in Delhi, and train and equip activists who can exploit social media to generate precise and effective messaging. Even if AAP loses, will politics be the same?

* * * * *

RELATED: Meet Arvind Kejriwal,
the rising anti-corruption star of Indian politics

RELATED: Did Kejriwal err in resigning as Delhi’s chief minister?

* * * * *

The AAP campaign labors in the shadow of its brief administration a year ago. In a serious upset in December 2013, Delhi voters elected Kejriwal by a considerable margin to his New Delhi constituency seat, and handed AAP the reins to the city, albeit dependent on outside support from the previous governing party, the Indian National Congress (भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस). After only 49 days, however, Kejriwal resigned: he had promised to do so on principle if lawmakers failed to pass the Jan Lokpal, a parliamentary bill that would mandate an independent ombudsman to curb corruption.

Most Delhi voters and political analysts I conversed with during last spring’s election season asserted that Kejriwal’s resignation was no way to change politics. This was perhaps borne out by AAP’s electoral humiliation in the national vote in April and May 2014. Spreading itself thin, the fledgling party won just four seats out of over 400 it contested. Meanwhile, the BJP gained 51.9% of all seats and a comprehensive mandate.

Still, it is those ’49 days’ that both haunts and enlivens the AAP campaign. Kejriwal has apologized to supporters for reneging on the opportunity to lead the Delhi government. While he lost significant political capital by staking his leadership on the bill, Kejriwal now knows that he must play the political game for real. He has tried to demonstrate that in less than just two months, the concrete initiatives that AAP put in motion were on the right track, including  establishing an anti-corruption hotline and 5500 new auto rickshaw permits. Rahul Kanwal thinks this could be an asset:

The poor actually liked those 49 chaotic days. That was when electricity and water bills had halved and the neighbourhood cop and bijliwala were too scared to ask for bribes. The day Kejriwal’s government fell is the day the ravenous agent of the state was back on the poor man’s door asking for his monthly hafta.

While the #49DaysNostalgia lends an air of experience to today’s AAP effort, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as Kejriwal likes to say. The question is whether voters are willing to support AAP after its two serious missteps in 2013 and 2014. At least three major issues are at stake. Continue reading Kejriwal’s AAP looks for second chance in Delhi vote

Photo of the day: Obama meets Modi

obamamodi

The most incredible thing about US president Barack Obama’s most recent three-day trip to India, which began today, is that Indian prime minister Narendra Modi can pull off such a sincere welcome less than six weeks after citing Russia as India’s top defense partner, even as he and Obama would later announce a new US-India nuclear energy deal.India Flag Icon

Has any world leader had such a strong first nine months in office from a geopolitical strategic perspective?

Keep in mind that Modi, barred from the United States for nearly a decade due to his alleged role in the anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat, was not always particularly keen on strengthening relationships with the United States. Instead, on the basis of his work promoting Gujarat, it was always more likely that he would look to China, Japan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, where he wooed investment to his own state. With his emphasis on turfing out the corrupt and ineffective leadership of the Gandhi family, and with relatively little commentary on India’s foreign policy, no one expected Modi to build so many bridges in such little time.

Within just nine months, Modi has been the guest of honor at a state dinner at the White House, and he packed Madison Square Garden, filled with tens of thousands of North Americans of Indian descent thrilled to hear from India’s most powerful leader in three decades. By all accounts, Modi and Obama have developed a strong working relationship, unique for an American president who isn’t particularly known for his chemistry with world leaders.

Today, however, Modi has the grin of a prime minister, who, despite a decade as a pariah throughout much of the West, now revels in being suited by everyone — not just the United States and Russia, but China, Brazil, Japan, Europeans, Africans. In foreign policy, Modi is running a positive-sum game. What other countries in the world could manage to nurture such close relationships, strategic and otherwise, with Russia and the United States simultaneously? (Serbia, maybe? The United Arab Emirates? The list isn’t incredibly long.)

Modi, whose social media use has been nimble, was quick to post a photo of his warm welcome for Obama early Sunday morning. But one look at his Facebook and Twitter feeds, which often border on the campy side, show that he doesn’t just delight in Obama — in 2015 alone, he’s featured shots with German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble,  Israeli agriculture minister Yair Shamir, Astrakhan provincial governor Alexander Zhilkin, Iranian presidential adviser Akbar Torkan, Canadian immigration minister Chris Alexander, Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski, among many (many) others.

What’s becoming clear is that while Modi has taken only a gradual approach to reforming India’s government, slowly introducing changes to make the bureaucracy more efficient, the theme of Indian pride is constant in the Modi approach to both domestic and foreign policy. Continue reading Photo of the day: Obama meets Modi

Sirisena easily wins Sri Lankan presidency

sirisena wins
Sri Lanka has avoided all the dark warnings of coups and political tumult — for the time being.SriLanka

Former health minister and one-time ally Maitripala Sirisena easily defeated two-term incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, who called a presidential election two years early. Hoping to take advantage of a scattered opposition, Rajapaksa believed he would slide to an easy reelection to a third six-year term. Instead, Sirisena, the general secretary of Rajapaksa’s own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP, ශ්‍රී ලංකා නිදහස් පක්ෂය), promptly resigned as Rajapaksa’s minister and led 25 SLFP members of the Sri Lankan parliament into the opposition coalition, upending what Rajapaksa thought would be a cakewalk.

srilanka15

Despite the fact that, like Rajapaksa, Sirisena comes from the country’s Sinhalese majority and practices Buddhism, he won significant support from Tamil-speaking Moors (who practice Islam) and Tamils (who practice Hinduism). That, in tandem with the support of a significant set of elites and Sinhalese voters who had soured on Rajapaksa’s decade-long rule, was enough to deliver to him 51.28% of the vote, versus just 47.58% for Rajapaksa.

In the space of six weeks, Sirisena has gone from the general secretary of the SLFP and top minister in the Rajapksa government to the president-elect and head of the titular coalition led by the opposition United National Party (UNP, එක්සත් ජාතික පක්ෂය), which traditional draws more support from Tamil-speaking minorities and which also embraces a more free-market liberal and center-right ideological persuasion.

* * * * *

RELATED: Tumultuous election a test for Sri Lankan democracy

* * * * *

 

Despite ominous warnings that Rajapaksa would deploy the military if he lost the election, the incumbent stepped down and moved out of the presidential palace, Temple Trees, immediately, paving the way for what could be a surprisingly easy and peaceful transfer of power for a country where elections and politics often collide in violence.

While Sirisena is the clearest winner of Thursday’s vote, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is nearly as much of a winner. That’s because Sirisena is expected to strengthen ties with India at the expense of the People’s Republic of China. Increasingly, Rajapaksa looked to Beijing, not New Delhi, for international support, including billions in soft loans from the Chinese government, which in turn looked to Sri Lanka as its foothold in south Asia and the Indian Ocean. No longer. Sirisena has pledged to cancel several Chinese development projects that had become increasingly controversial.

Continue reading Sirisena easily wins Sri Lankan presidency

Putin tops world power rankings

putinpower

It’s far from scientific, but less than 24 hours after Republicans appeared to defeat US president Barack Obama in midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections, Russian president Vladimir Putin defeated him to the top spot on Forbes‘s 72 Most Powerful People in the World.USflagRussia Flag Icon

The rankings don’t really mean that much in the grand scheme of things, of course.

The Forbes rationale?

We took some heat last year when we named the Russian President as the most powerful man in the world, but after a year when Putin annexed Crimea, staged a proxy war in the Ukraine and inked a deal to build a more than $70 billion gas pipeline with China (the planet’s largest construction project) our choice simply seems prescient. Russia looks more and more like an energy-rich, nuclear-tipped rogue state with an undisputed, unpredictable and unaccountable head unconstrained by world opinion in pursuit of its goals.

Hard to argue with that, I guess.

But the rankings represent a nice snapshot of what the US (and even international) media mainstream believe to be the hierarchy of global power. Though I’m not sure why Mitch McConnell, soon to become the U.S. senate majority leader, isn’t on the list.

So who else placed in the sphere of world politics this year?

  • Obama ranked at No. 2 (From the Forbes mystics: ‘One word sums up his second place finish: caution. He has the power but has been too cautious to fully exercise it.’).
  • Chinese president Xi Jinping, who took office in late 2012 and early 2013, ranked at No. 3. (Tough break for the leader of the world’s most populous country!)
  • Pope Francis, ranked at No. 4, even though Argentina lost this year’s World Cup finals to Germany.
  • Angela Merkel, ranked at No. 5, third-term chancellor of Germany and the queen of the European Union.
  • Janet Yellen, ranked at No. 6, the chair of the US Federal Reserve.
  • Mario Draghi, ranked at No. 8, the president of the European Central Bank.
  • David Cameron, ranked (appropriately enough) at No. 10, the Conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom, who faces a tough reelection battle in May 2015.
  • Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, No. 11, the king of Saudi Arabia.
  • Narendra Modi, No. 15, India’s wildly popular new prime minister.
  • François Hollande, No. 17, France’s wildly unpopular president.
  • Ali Khamenei, No. 19, Iran’s supreme leader, especially as Iranian nuclear talks come to a crucial deadline this month.

Continue reading Putin tops world power rankings