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COVER STORY

07-05-2004

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Briefing

Domination of the caste factor

ELECTIONS in Bihar over the past one and a half decades have been dominated by caste- and community-related issues. Electoral fortunes were made or marred by the sheer intensity of such social polarisation. The campaign of different parties and the issues thrown up by them are perceived essentially as accessories to package the concerns of community-oriented politics. The run-up to Elections 2004 does not present a dramatically different picture.

Of course, issues that apparently dictate the popular mood in other parts of the country - claims about the superior leadership qualities of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origin", the "India Shining" campaign, the threat posed by communalism - are referred to at campaign platforms in the State. However, ultimately, at the ground level, all these are nuanced to fit in with local caste- and community-oriented considerations.

The themes and the styles of campaign of the two principal political formations in the State - the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (United), and the coalition led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and comprising the Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP), the Congress(I), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - clearly reflect this ground reality.

A slogan about JD(U) leader and Railway Minister Nitish Kumar, "Vikas key mazboot kadam, aasha ki swarnim kiran, Nitish Kumarji ke saath aagey bado" (Nitish Kumar, the sure step of development and the golden ray of hope; Let us move forward with him.), denotes the basic thrust of the NDA campaign. Apparently, the slogan does correspond with the development-oriented "India Shining" and "Feel Good" campaigns of the NDA. However, there is a fine distinction in terms of the slogan's content and focus. Unlike in some other parts of the country, the primary symbol of `development politics' here is not Vajpayee but Nitish Kumar. The reasons for it are not far to seek. Activists of the JD(U) and the BJP openly say that the image of Nitish Kumar, as a leader belonging to the numerically significant Other Backward Class (OBC) Kurmi community, has greater importance in Bihar than that of any other NDA stalwart.

Another noteworthy dimension of the NDA campaign is that it not only highlights "the contributions made to Bihar by the alliance in general and the Union Ministers from the State in particular", but juxtaposes them with the "all-round deterioration the State has suffered under the RJD's corrupt and dictatorial government, which has the singular agenda of Yadavising all aspects of social and economic life". The prominence accorded to the caste factor is evident.

The attempt to convert the Lok Sabha elections into a referendum on the State government's performance is also reflected in the repeated exhortations to "give the kind of result that would help the NDA change the rulers of Bihar". One contention in this context is that several projects envisioned by the Central government with the objective of improving the condition of people in the rural sector, particularly those engaged in agriculture, were not implemented properly in Bihar because of the State government's refusal to cooperate.

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Efforts are also on to appeal to linguistic and regional aspirations. The inclusion of the 800-year-old Maithili language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution by the NDA is a major campaign subject in the Mithilanchal region, which has 14 seats. The withdrawal of the dismissal from the party of former State BJP president Tarakant Jha was also highlighted as a special consideration given to the region.

Overall, the NDA's campaign themes are targeted at retaining its Kurmi and upper-caste vote base and attracting sections of Dalits and Muslims. The projection of Nitish Kumar, the persistent castigation of the Rabri Devi-led RJD government and its alleged project of "Yadavisation", and the importance given to a number of Dalit and Muslim leaders such as Chedi Paswan and Anwarul Haque on the campaign front point towards this strategy.

On the other hand, the RJD combine's campaign is focussed on criticising the "NDA's false propaganda about the growth achieved under its regime" and the "dangers of the communal Hindutva politics of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar". The combine, especially the RJD, has been making special efforts to counter the charge that the State and its people have not progressed under RJD rule. The party makes it a point to highlight the argument that in the highly feudal social structure of the State, the RJD's primary political goal all through the 12 years of its rule has been to uplift downtrodden sections such as Dalits, Muslims and OBCs and give them a sense of dignity. "Dignity first and development will follow" is one of the mottos of the RJD.

The alliance formed with the LJP, headed by the former Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, is also being projected as a major step in the direction of securing dignity for Dalits. And this point is driven home more through gestures than through words. At several meetings Laloo Prasad Yadav embraced Paswan and praised him as a great national leader who rose from the ranks of the downtrodden.

By any yardstick, the RJD-led combine is more straightforward in its approach to its support base. Clearly, the alliance is targeting a new consolidation of social forces. The central theme of the new alliance is to convert the OBCs, Dalits - particularly the Dussad community to which Paswan belongs - and Muslims into a unified political entity in opposition to the alliance of forward castes and some OBCs forged by the NDA.

According to leaders of the RJD, including Laloo Prasad Yadav, the entry of the LJP will boost significantly the popular vote base of the RJD, which won 28.3 per cent of the votes, in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections though it suffered a drubbing in terms of seats. The Dussad community is numerically strong in six to eight constituencies, including Hajipur and Rosera, from where Ram Vilas Paswan and Ramachandra Paswan have got elected repeatedly. It also controls between 5,000 and 50,000 votes in the rest of the seats.

The Left agenda

The Left parties have been trenchant critics of the policies of Congress and BJP-led National Democratic Alliance governments. Do they have an alternative vision for the development of the country? An analysis.

MOST of the media attention in the run-up to the elections to Parliament has understandably been on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and on the Indian National Congress, given that these are the larger political formations in the electoral arena. Besides these two major players, there is the Left, with a very distinct political agenda, perspective, track record and programmatic alternatives to the people at large.

Even among those sections of the people who have some idea of what the Left stands for through mass media or other sources, the distinctiveness of the Left is seen mainly in terms of its stand on issues of economic policy. The Left does indeed have an understanding of the structure of the economy as well as an economic policy framework derived from that understanding, which is fundamentally different from those of all other political formations. However, the Left's political distinctiveness is not confined to economic issues alone. Right from its inception during the freedom struggle and through all phases of its own as well as the nation's evolution since then, the Left has articulated a distinctive viewpoint on the entire range of political, economic and social issues that have confronted the nation at various points in time. Interestingly, the Left put forward the demand for complete independence of India from colonial rule well before the Indian National Congress did. Similarly, the Left consistently took the position that mere political independence from the colonial yoke, though an important advance, would not by itself address the problems of poverty and deprivation, and that direct mobilisation of people on social and economic issues is required to solve the problems. On many issues, the position articulated by the Left, though initially dismissed as "ideological" or "unrealistic", has later on become the consensus view. A case in point is the view articulated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1964 that the India-China border dispute should be settled only through negotiations and not by war. On foreign policy, the Left has often set the agenda, especially in the period immediately following Independence, when the Indian government, after a brief flirtation with a pro-West approach, moved to espousing the doctrine of non-alignment.

Both the Congress and the BJP hold the view that India needs to follow the policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation (LPG), and the competition between them is about who should take credit for having initiated these policies. In point of fact, while the Congress initiated the LPG policies in 1991, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance regime accelerated them a great deal between 1998 and 2003, especially the policies pertaining to privatisation and much greater penetration of both the economy and the public sector by large foreign capital. The BJP regime was also more thoroughgoing and ruthless in implementing the LPG policies, including the virtual destruction of the public distribution system and food security, going to the extent of selling more than 10 million tonnes of foodgrain abroad at prices lower than what people below poverty line (BPL) had to pay during 2002. At the same time it refused to implement a large-scale food-for-work programme using the more than 60 million tonnes of foodgrain then lying idle in government godowns. The Congress now speaks somewhat differently on economic policy, marginally muting its earlier whole-hearted espousal of LPG policies, but in essence its economic policy stance is basically no different from that of the BJP. The difference, if any, is at best one of degree and not of kind. The claims of a consensus on economic policy may, therefore, appear to be justified if one were to compare the formulations of the Congress and BJP manifestos in this regard.

The Left position on the economy is very different from these and belies the claims made about consensus on economic policy across the political spectrum. What is distinctive about the Left's position is its emphasis on what has been a key ingredient in most success stories of development elsewhere in the world, namely thoroughgoing land reforms aimed at making everyone in the rural economy a stakeholder in growth and development, and expanding the home market. Secondly, the Left sees the role of the state as critically important to development, especially in a developing country where many key prerequisites for development - such as massive investment in physical and industrial infrastructure, research and development and human development in the areas of health and education - can be realised only through state action. The failure of the state in India, arising from its inability, given its class character, to mobilise resources from the rich for such development has meant that many of the basic tasks of development remain to be carried out. Thirdly, in the context of a very large and heterogeneous country like India, the Left sees economic decentralisation - in the sense of much greater autonomy and powers to the States, and further devolution from the State government to elected bodies at the district and sub-district levels - as crucial for greater efficiency, besides being valuable on its own terms as a means of enhancing people's direct participation in planning and development. Thus, the Left argues for a truly broad-based process of development in economic, social and regional terms.

IN the current context of a decade of pursuit of LPG policies, the Left highlights the crisis in agriculture resulting from these policies. In the Left view, agriculture and the rural economy have been negatively impacted by these policies in at least five ways:

* higher input prices for agriculture on account of decrease in subsidies;

* lower and more fluctuating output prices on account of removal of restrictions on imports;

* a large decline in public investment in agriculture, causing stagnation/decline in productivity;

* a sharp decline in rural development expenditure, causing rural distress and leading to increase in rural unemployment;

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* a reduction of institutional credit for agriculture, driving farmers into the arms of rural moneylenders.

Besides these, the collapse of the public distribution system has resulted in widespread rural hunger and loss of food security.

In the view of the Left, LPG policies have meant a sharp demand contraction as the state has been obsessed with the reduction of the fiscal deficit. This has impacted negatively on industrial growth as well. It has meant, as statistics bear out, very slow growth in employment in the last decade, and more so in the last six years.

Given its diagnosis, the Left naturally argues for the reversal of LPG policies. It also argues for land reforms, greater attention to poverty and deprivation issues, devolution of resources to the States and elected local bodies and revitalisation of the public sector. However, it is also important to note that the Left's economic policy perspective is more nuanced than the "anti-private sector" position often attributed to it by critics. The Left visualises an important role for the private sector, and is even accommodative of foreign investment, but in priority areas where it would bring in new technology and enhance production capacities in new areas of importance.

The Left differs from the other major political formations on the understanding of the basis for national unity and the paths to its strengthening as well. First and foremost, the Left stresses the need for a consistent commitment to secularism and delinking of religion from the affairs of the state. Though the Congress has also proclaimed its commitment to secularism, in practice, it has tended to vacillate and compromise on this issue. The BJP's adherence to the doctrine of Hindutva is, of course, well known. Secondly, the Left believes that the interests of national unity are best served by a truly federal polity, given the country's linguistic, ethnic and cultural heterogeneity, and the need to respect this pluralism. Here, too, the Left view is very different in both theory and practice from those of the Congress and the BJP. Thirdly, the Left sees the need for balanced regional development to preserve and strengthen national unity. Such balanced development will not be delivered by the market functioning freely and independently, and far greater devolution of resources to the States as well as appropriate regulations to prevent regional imbalances in development become crucial.

On foreign policy, the Left seeks a consistent championing of the interests of the developing world against the attempts of developed countries to control them through economic and other means. In particular, it is critical of the NDA-BJP's pro-United States foreign policy and its tacit or explicit support to a number of aggressive, unilateral moves by the U.S. The Left seeks an independent foreign policy that articulates the demand for democratisation of the United Nations and other international fora. It takes the view that India ought to forge strong economic cooperation with such countries as Brazil, China and South Africa, and that it should build closer ties with both Russia and China to promote a multipolar framework of international relations. It stands for dialogue with Pakistan on all outstanding issues on a bilateral basis, and against U.S. intervention in India's bilateral relations with Pakistan.

WHILE the Left thus has a distinctive standpoint on a number of key issues facing the Indian polity and the people, it has also run governments in three States - West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.

Land reforms is one issue where the Left has been a pioneer. Both in Kerala and in West Bengal, the Left was able to carry out limited but highly significant land reforms through both popular mobilisation and the use of governmental authority. These two States account for close to a quarter of all ceiling-surplus land taken over and redistributed in the country. The reforms have also helped spur agricultural growth in West Bengal and led to a significant expansion of the rural market. Both in Kerala and in West Bengal, the Scheduled Castes have benefited substantially in the land reforms process.

In Tripura, the Left has developed a distinctive model of how to deal with the issue of oppression of tribal people. By providing substantial autonomy to tribal district councils and by championing the cause of tribals even while promoting the unity of tribal and non-tribal people, the Left has pioneered a promising approach to a difficult and complex issue.

The Left has devolved substantial power and funds to elected local bodies in the States where it has held office. In Kerala, it sought to carry out a novel, participatory approach to development through the people's planning programme, and succeeded to some extent.

On the issue of democratic rights, by refusing to implement the authoritarian Prevention of Terrorism Act as well as by upholding the right of workers to strike, the Left has again stood by its stated agenda and commitments.

While the Left may not have always been able to deliver on its promises, considering the constraints within which State governments have to function, it would be fair to say that the Left's scorecard compares more than favourably with the two larger national political formations, the Congress and the BJP.

Resentment, not a wave yet

AS Karnataka prepares to vote for the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections on April 20 and 26, certain features of Elections 2004 have become clear. The first is that there is a major vote of discontent against the ruling Congress that is waiting to be cast in all regions of the State, both for the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections. The ruling party, for all its claims of good governance, and the largesse promised in its election manifesto, is likely to suffer a major reversal of its 1999 performance. The Janata Dal (Secular), which was trounced in the last elections (winning only 10 seats in the Assembly and none in the Lok Sabha elections) has emerged as a major contender against the Congress(I) in southern Karnataka, while the coastal areas and the north have seen a consolidation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party's sudden ascendancy in the electoral firmament appears to be less on the strength of its own influence and more owing to its alliance partner, the Janata Dal (United), which has considerable influence in northern Karnataka, particularly in the Bombay Karnataka belt.

Of the elections, the more cynical would like to say that money and liquor and caste loyalties are the three factors that come into play in the last week of the campaign and decisively influence the way people vote. If there is any element of truth in this, then it is surely because of the inability of the major parties to address the real problems and concerns of voters in the five years between elections, a fact borne out by the fact that the State has voted differently in consecutive elections for the last two decades.

This year too the average rural citizen is likely to caste a negative vote - as a punishment against the non-performance of the government/elected incumbent rather than reward for good governance. Northern Karnataka, which comprises the two geographical areas of Hyderabad Karnataka and Bombay Karnataka, accounts for 88 Assembly and 11 Lok Sabha seats. In the 1999 elections, the Congress did very well in this region getting 63.3 and 68.3 per cent of the vote in the Lok Sabha elections, and 42.8 and 40.8 per cent of the vote in the Assembly elections.

Today there is perceptible disenchantment with the Congress rule in these regions. The BJP-J.D.(U) alliance is poised to make gains in the Bombay Karnataka region at the expense of the ruling party. The main issues are the general backwardness and neglect of the area, and more specifically, the problems posed by the shortage of electricity, water (both for drinking and irrigation), and the failure of the crop insurance scheme.

Dharwad city, for example, gets water only once in 15 days. Gadag has not received drinking water since February 5. "We get power for only four hours a day and even that is not regular. The only thing that is regular is the bill we get every month," said Mamma Sahib of Inam Hongal village, Belgaum taluk. "Krishna has been very bad for farmers. He is only concerned with making a Singapore out of Bangalore. He has forgotten Belgaum," added Manju Koppal, also from the same village. Anger over the shortage of power is widespread in the northern districts. "We have been conducting struggles for regular power supply for the last three years," said Ramesh Gadadannavar, the joint secretary of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS). He is campaigning in the Mudhol reserved constituency in Bagalkot district for Ambanna Tukaram Harijan, a KRRS candidate. In most of the Bombay Karnataka districts, non-payment of crop insurance despite the failure of the major crops in the last two years is yet another issue that has created much resentment against the government. "I paid the insurance premium by selling the pots and pans in my home," said Imansahib Rehman Nagavala of Harlapur village, Mundargi Assembly constituency in Koppal Lok Sabha constituency. He says that the insurance money of Rs.3,000 a hectare for his two-hectare plot has not been paid to him for the last two years.

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IN the districts comprising the Old Mysore region in southern Karnataka, it is the J.D.(S) that is likely to gain at the expense of the Congress. The campaign here is marked by the absence of national issues. The BJP has made the Vajpayee factor and the programmes of the National Democratic Alliance government its plank. The party has been successful in making a brand out of Vajpayee and a person now known in the remotest of villages. The controversy over Sonia's Gandhi's foreign origin is very well known. In a typical village in northern Karnataka, for example, this is an issue that can provoke a lively debate, with the weight of opinion against penalising a person for his or her origin, so long as he or she is a citizen of the country. BJP leaders have stressed the political stability of the NDA coalition, the Prime Minister's Golden Quadrilateral programme, development and good governance, while criticising the Karnataka government for mishandling the drought situation, poor governance, failure to catch the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, and the continuation of the single lottery system. The Congress has highlighted its mid-day meal programme, which has benefited over 50 lakh school children, infrastructure development and encouragement to the information technology sector. The J.D.(S) has criticised both the Congress and the BJP for bad policies, the neglect of farmers and the failure to fulfil election promises.

Former Prime Minister and J.D.(S) leader H.D. Deve Gowda, who is contesting from Hassan and Kanakapura Lok Sabha constituencies, has promised a waiver on the interest component on farm loans, a re-introduction of the `green card scheme', which will enable voters to get rice at Rs.3.50 a kg and uninterrupted power supply to pump-sets. He has also promised a ban on online lotteries. But promises and manifestos are hardly taken seriously by a majority of the electorate. Said M.C. Nanaiah, a senior J.D. leader and former Minister: "All manifestos are bogus documents. Not even 25 per cent of the promises have ever been kept by any of the parties."

According to many political observers, Hindutva has been imported into the rural areas by the front organisations of the Sangh Parivar, especially in the districts of Dakshina Kannada, Uttar Kannada, Udupi and Kodagu. Full-time Sangh workers have been indoctrinating the people with the cultural aspects of Hindutva. Said Nanaiah: "If only Deve Gowda had compromised, we would never have allowed the BJP to shine in Karnataka. It was the ego clash between (Ramkrishna) Hegde and Deve Gowda that allowed the BJP to grow."

Local issues in districts such as Hassan, Chikamagalur, Kodagu and Shimoga pertain to the low prices that coffee and areca are currently fetching. There is anger that the State and Union governments have not done enough to complete the gauge conversion of the Mangalore-Sakleshpurra railway line, which when completed would allow the movement of goods such as iron ore, coffee, cardamom, garments, tyres and horticulture products from the hinterland to the Mangalore port. These districts, and Uttar Kannada, also have problems relating to encroachment of forest lands by tribal people and even wealthy planters. Around 40,000 tribal people from the Kudremukh Reserved Forest are to be resettled. They accuse all political parties of not paying attention to their problems.

In the coastal districts, fishermen who constitute a fair share of the electorate have reason to cheer as candidates are all ears to their woes. Representatives of the fishing community in Mangalore, Malpe and Bhatkal told Frontline that they want sections of the coastline to be declared as a "fish-famine zone", a uniform off-season ban, waiver of loans, a ban on foreigner trawlers, implementation of the Murari Committee report, Central subsidy on diesel (in addition to the State subsidy), better export facilities for fish products, better cold storage facilities and a separate Central Ministry for fisheries. Candidates are naturally promising all this.

For the Congress to do well it has to gain support not only from its traditional support base - the minorities, Dalits, Other Backward Classes and Muslims - but also from dominant communities such as Lingayats and Vokkaligas. This is unlikely to happen in 2004. But the BJP still needs a wave to unseat the Congress. For only a substantial swing against the Congress in favour of the BJP will allow the latter to come to power in Karnataka.

Feel good wearing thin

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ALTHOUGH leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party are trying to put a brave face on the stampede at a sari distribution function, which led to the loss of 22 lives in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's constituency, Lucknow, on April 12, there is a growing feeling among party leaders that the tragedy struck at an inopportune time. Coming just three days before Vajpayee was to file his nomination papers and only a week before the first round of polling begins, many of them fear that it is a bad omen. Senior leaders, who only a week before boasted that the party would win a minimum of 45 seats, are apprehensive of talking even about 30 now.

Senior leaders are baffled by the glaring dichotomy between the party's "feel good" and "India Shining" campaign slogans and the stark reality of thousands of poor women braving the cruel April heat for a free sari worth Rs.40-50 at the most, and ultimately 21 of them paying for it with their lives.

More than the lapses on the part of the local administration, or even the violation of the model code of conduct, for BJP leaders the issue at stake is the harsh face of poverty that revealed itself and exposed the hollowness of their "feel good" claims. A senior BJP leader who accompanied Vajpayee as he went to file his nomination papers said: "It certainly is a bad omen but we can only keep our fingers crossed." Having placed all its bets on one individual, the negative fallout of the stampede could send all calculations awry. Party general secretary and Union Minister Rajnath Singh told Frontline: "Our entire optimism is based on Atalji's charisma. Nothing can dent that, not even this incident. This incident will not affect the outcome of the elections."

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Despite the bravado, worry is writ large on the faces of BJP leaders. In private they admit that it was an avoidable accident, that BJP leader in the U.P. Assembly Lalji Tandon should have refrained from the distribution of largesse to mark his birthday after elections had been announced. The small park in the Mahanagar locality of Lucknow, where the function was held, could hardly accommodate 20,000 women. Once the chief guest, Lalji Tandon, left the venue, pandemonium prevailed as the organisers started flinging sari packets at the women who, after waiting patiently in the scorching heat for hours, rushed to grab them. Even the local administration cannot escape its share of the blame; a letter that had been sent informing the administration of the programme reached the police chowki concerned hours after the stampede occurred.

Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav promptly ordered a Divisional Commissioner-level inquiry and announced Rs.1 lakh for the family of each of those killed, but refused to comment on the incident saying that he did not want to politicise the matter. Questions have been raised by other parties as to why no BJP leader had been named in the first information report, especially since the venue was adorned with BJP flags and many BJP leaders, including Tandon, were present on the dais.

As one travels across Uttar Pradesh, it is becoming increasingly clear that the sheen on Vajpayee's persona has started wearing thin. And no matter what the BJP says, Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin is a "non-issue", with a large section of the people seeing it as a "creation of the media". The entry of Rahul Gandhi into electoral politics has changed people's attitude towards the Congress(I). Although there will not be any dramatic improvement in the Congress(I)'s performance in this round of elections, the amount of goodwill for the party seen now had never before been evident in the post-Rajiv Gandhi era. "Rahul's entry has certainly created a positive feeling among the youth. It has reminded people of the short span of Rajiv Gandhi's rule, during which a vision of 21st century India evolved, the vision that is now the basis of all which the BJP quotes for its India Shining campaign," says Sanjay Asthana in Varanasi, eastern Uttar Pradesh. Asthana, who runs the Benaras Institute of Media Studies and makes awareness programmes for a local TV channel, says that at least in eastern U.P., voting will be on real issues, not on the Atal versus Sonia debate. Lack of power and water, bad roads, the plight of weavers in areas that used to be famous for the Benarasi saris - these will decide the outcome of the elections, he says.

Another significant trend visible in many parts of U.P. is the change in the attitude of Muslims towards the Congress(I). Since Rajiv Gandhi's death, Muslims had never come out openly in support of the Congress(I). But as this correspondent followed the Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka cavalcade to Amethi, Rae Bareli and back to Lucknow on April 5 and 6, it was evident that Muslims had shed much of their antipathy towards the party. In Gauriganj and Jais kasbas, falling in the Amethi constituency, Muslims with rose petals and flowers in their hands waited by the roadside for hours to welcome the three. Students and teachers of Madrassa Tayal Uloom Qadasia in Gauriganj organised a tumultuous welcome. In Varanasi, where Muslims hold the balance, there is a visible shift towards the Congress(I). Ateek Ansari, general secretary of the Powerloom Weavers Association, said: "Over 90 per cent of Muslims are in favour of the Congress(I) because they are disappointed with the Samajwadi Party for which they voted in the last three elections." He said that the Samajwadi Party had failed to give any relief to the ailing Benarasi sari industry on which over 20 lakh Muslims were dependent for their livelihood.

Another striking factor that is evident across the State is that the usual caste-party affiliation is likely to be at work and in the case of Muslims there will be tactical voting in favour of the candidate best placed to defeat the BJP. Despite her repeated dalliance with the BJP, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati has not lost her Muslim support base. This was because "Muslims still consider her a lesser evil than the BJP," confided a senior Muslim leader in Lucknow. As for Sonia's foreign origins, it has never been an issue for Muslims. "None whatsoever. They have never had any objection to Sonia. In the last few years she has met Muslims of all hues from across India and if there were any doubts those have been removed. They are impressed with her sincerity," said Jafaryab Jilani, convener of the All India Babri Masjid Action Committee. Jilani said, "Muslims will certainly look positively at the Congress(I) wherever its candidates are in the race."

Marching into a minefield

RAHUL BEDI world-affairs

Pakistan's military campaign in the tribal area in the northwest apparently has an important goal apart from presenting George Bush with a top Al Qaeda leader in an election year - to demarcate finally its nebulous border with Afghanistan.

PAKISTAN'S ongoing military campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in South Waziristan, one of the country's seven semi-autonomous federally administered tribal areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan, has a twofold objective. It is an attempt to "pay back" the United States for turning a blind eye to the revered atomic scientist A.Q. Khan's confession in February on the proliferation of nuclear equipment and secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea, for which he was swiftly pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf.

But more crucially, the assault is an effort to extend Islamabad's control over the turbulent, rugged and mountainous tribal region. Populated by over six million warring Pathans, FATA has remained fiercely independent for centuries but is currently simmering with discontent.

Musharraf admitted as much in a current affairs programme on state-run television recently. He said that while the hunt for Al Qaeda was important, Islamabad's basic intention was to "integrate" the tribal areas into Pakistan.

Security sources claim that Musharraf's bold but dangerous gamble of mobilising thousands of soldiers, backed by artillery and helicopter gunships for the assault in South Waziristan is intended not only to deliver a "high value" Al Qaeda leader to the U.S. in an election year, but also to initiate the process of militarily controlling the 1,000-km-long FATA belt, with a view to demarcating eventually Islamabad's nebulous frontier with Afghanistan.

Dominating the FATA, were it ever to become possible given its violent history and seeming invincibility, would help Musharraf's besieged military regime prevent the re-emergence of the long-standing demand for Pakhtunistan, an independent Pathan homeland. This territory is broadly envisaged as consisting of the seven tribal territories, the adjoining Pathan-dominated region in Afghanistan to the north and Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and portions of neighbouring Baluchistan to the south and southeast. Pakistani military officials declared recently that around 70,000 troops have been deployed in and around the FATA, the NWFP and Baluchistan with the ostensible aim of combating Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

But the Durand Line, the unformulated demarcation between Pakistan and Afghanistan drawn arbitrarily in 1893 by Colonel Durand and casually agreed to by Afghanistan's ruler Amir Abdur Rehman, has kept alive the Pushtunistan issue which, if ignited, could become a veritable nightmare for the region. This "line in the sand" merely satisfied the colonial bureaucratic craving to define the boundaries of the British Empire so that the tribal areas formed the buffer between the "settled" British territories of the NWFP and adjoining Punjab State and Afghanistan should Tsarist Russia move on Kabul.

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But the tenuous border failed to divide the Pathans or stifle their desire for independence, which, despite frequent intra-tribal feuds, has survived until today. Belonging to over 80 tribes, the Pathans are a semi-nomadic people with over 15 million of them living in Pakistan, including the tribal areas, and around 11 million in Afghanistan. And though Pathan tribes and sub-clans are forever in conflict with one another, they invariably unite when faced with a larger threat like the one posed at present by Musharraf's forces.

Being Afghanistan's majority community, the Pathans had dominated their country for centuries until after the Taliban's ouster following the 9/11 attacks. Thereafter, their role and power were eclipsed by the northern Tajiks, further fuelling Pashtun resentment, much to Pakistan's chagrin.

"As insurance against an unsympathetic government in Kabul, Gen. Musharraf is keen on firming up the Durand Line and establishing a military presence in the FATA as he can ill-afford a (Pathan) insurrection on his western front," a Western intelligence officer said. In the Kashmir dispute, Pakistan hopes to gain territory. But on the Pashtun issue, it eventually stands to lose it if it does not defuse the brewing crisis in time, he added, declining to be named.

Realising the seriousness of the Pashtun issue, Musharraf has bought peace with nuclear rival India on the eastern front by entering into negotiations with New Delhi earlier this year on a range of issues including Kashmir. This allowed him the tactical space to redeploy a substantial chunk of his military on the Afghan frontier. Musharraf is also concerned about the deteriorating relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and with India's burgeoning political, economic, strategic and diplomatic profile in Afghanistan.

Kabul blames Islamabad not only for foisting the Taliban upon it in the late 1990s but also for encouraging its interference once again in Afghan affairs. Security analysts feel that this long-running antagonism makes Kabul unwilling to give up its leverage in Pakistan's tribal areas and move towards defining its borders with Pakistan.

India, on the other hand, has long aimed at squeezing Pakistan by supporting Afghanistan and was one of the few countries not to have condemned the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979.

The military and financial support India provided to the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, however, has led to handsome dividends. Other than humanitarian, medical, telecommunication, banking and transport assistance and help with infrastructural development, India had also pledged $270 million in aid to Afghanistan as part of its overall strategic thrust to "encircle" Pakistan. It is also training Afghan military and police officers in its academies and helping modernise the fledging Afghan Army. In short, India has become a major player in Afghan affairs.

The Pakistani Army's "offensive" in the tribal areas began last year, ostensibly under pressure from the United States, when the Pakistani Army stationed troops in the region for the first time to win the "hearts and minds" of the locals by building hospitals and schools in the austere, barren terrain where life is harsh and unforgiving, might is right, and violence a way of life.

After 9/11 Al Qaeda militants and Taliban members fleeing the U.S. attack settled in the region, occasionally conducting guerilla raids against American forces in Afghanistan. Earlier, over 10,000 FATA tribesmen, many of them Wazirs, had crossed over into Afghanistan and fought the U.S. forces alongside the Taliban.

Several thousand were killed and at least 2,000 were captured. But the Taliban's ouster with Pakistan's cooperation bred resentment amongst the tribal Pathans, who have remained restive ever since, causing Islamabad to reassess seriously its tribal area policy.

The Pathan homeland movement, tacitly supported by a Kabul hostile towards Pakistan for several decades now, threatened the country's existence until the mid 1970s. Diplomatic tension, following Kabul's growing relations with Moscow during this period, led Afghanistan to stress that the Durand Line was never intended to be a boundary, but merely a "delineated zone of responsibility" to help the colonial administration maintain law and order.

Afghanistan's assertion that the Durand Line was negotiable along ethnic lines was a stand Pakistan remained unwilling to concede, especially after losing East Pakistan, which broke away with India's military help in 1971, to become Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, the growing Pathan discontent in the NWFP, the FATA and the Pashtun-majority parts of northern Baluchistan, was cleverly defused in the late 1970s by the astute Pakistani military dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. He inducted Pathans, including those from the tribal regions, into the political mainstream, the military and the civil service, giving them a stake in the power structure that they had lacked earlier.

Fortuitously for Zia, the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in 1979 and overnight the FATA, especially South Waziristan, and its ever-restive Pathans, who even Alexander the Great could not subdue, became the front line for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed and Pakistan-managed decade-long guerilla war, which ended with Moscow's withdrawal from Kabul in 1989.

During the 1980s, the border territories were the main transit point for the supply of weaponry worth nearly $5 billion to the mujahideen (Islamic warriors). Many of these weapons filtered through to the local people and are being employed against the Pakistani Army in the current stand-off in which dozens of soldiers and civilians have died.

But arms smuggling, fighting the Soviet Army and the large sums of CIA money that were distributed amongst them appeased the tribal people who continued to produce heroin from opium harvested in the region and smuggle it out with help from the Pakistani military. For the moment Pathan aspirations, which had changed little over centuries, had been met.

After the Soviet Union's departure from Kabul, the Pakistani military and the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID), which jointly managed the "unholy" Afghan campaign, began pursuing a `forward' policy in Afghanistan that further underlined Pathan importance. Pakistan planned to gain "control" of war-torn Afghanistan with the aim of providing itself the `strategic depth' it lacked against India. Zia and his Islamist generals were the architects of this bold strategy, which the U.S. tacitly endorsed by "sub-contracting" Afghanistan to Pakistan after it left the region in 1989. But neither side had the prescience of how future events would unfold.

"Securing" Kabul also had the added strategic benefit of allowing Pakistan to shift the bulk of its military eastwards to the Kashmir frontier to allow the ISID to launch armed lashkars or militants in order to fuel the insurgency raging in the disputed province. Pakistan has tacitly admitted to fuelling cross-border terrorism in Kashmir, which has claimed over 60,000 lives since it erupted in December 1989, nine months after the Soviet withdrawal from Kabul.

To "control" Kabul, Pakistan began nurturing the Taliban in the early 1990s in hundreds of madrassas (Islamic seminaries) across the country, which preached a militant brand of fundamentalism. Alongside, the ISID and the Pakistani Army-trained talibs (students), mostly Pathans, to form a militia. In 1996 Pakistan helped the Taliban seize Kabul through a combination of Trojan horse tactics and bribery - common to all Afghan campaigns - and limited military engagements. Thereafter, Islamabad continued to provide its surrogates all logistic support until 9/11.

Under sustained U.S. bombing after 9/11, conducted with overt Pakistani support, the Taliban was ousted by end 2001. This enraged the Pathans, who have close tribal and clan loyalties to the Taliban, besides business links that revolved around smuggling heroin, commercial and consumer goods, electronic items and hawala, the untraceable but highly efficient transfer of money around the world without using banks.

Pathan resentment mounted, making it incumbent for Musharraf to try and secure his western flank, a move security officials said was akin to "stirring up a hornet's nest" from which even the colonial administration had walked away, accepting the reality that it was impossible to either subjugate, quell or even pacify the untamed region.

As an indicator of future events, Waziri tribesmen had already launched a guerrilla campaign against the Pakistani military, ambushing convoys unfamiliar with the terrain and unused to fighting Pashtuns, and killing several soldiers. "President Musharraf is playing with fire," former tribal areas head and Pakistan's Cabinet Secretary Roedad Khan wrote in the newspaper Dawn. He blames Musharraf for "unsettling" Pakistan's western border that has remained largely peaceful since Independence in 1947.

Tough territory

RAHUL BEDI world-affairs

THE six tribal areas other than South Waziristan are North Waziristan, Mohmand, Orkazai, Khyber, Khurram and Bajor, where Pashtunwali or the Pashtun code prevails. In this code, friendship is sacred, an enemy is shown no mercy, and revenge is a birthright.

The colonial administration, realising the impossibility of controlling the tumultuous tribal areas, entered into a loose administration agreement with the tribes by posting a senior civil servant known as the Agent to liaise with local chieftains, known as Maliks, Khans and Sirdars.

As a precautionary security measure the British ensured that the seven tribal areas remained not interconnected, by the simple ploy of not building roads between them. This made it necessary for all inter-FATA movement to be via the mainland, a situation that prevails broadly in the region even today.

The tribal areas are governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulation, which came into being following a 1901 British Act of Parliament which established a separate code for criminal procedure. But tribal laws dominate, with feuds and litigation being settled through jirgas or the assemblage of elders and chosen representatives. The tribal chief ensures rigid compliance with the jirga's decision, which is often imposed barbarically.

To exercise a modicum of control over the tribesmen the British established a network of cantonments, forts and garrison posts and, in addition to regular troops, raised the paramilitary Frontier Corps with local levies known as Scouts.

Officered by British and Indian officers of the British-Indian Army, the Scouts were paid a modest salary and their love of adventure was indulged by the administration. But mindful of tribal loyalties, none of the units was posted within its own area. Afridi tribesmen, for instance, would serve in Waziristan while Waziris would serve in other areas. The tribal areas that were forever engaged in fighting also provided the British an excellent training ground for their officers and men.

The nuclear equation

SOONER or later India and Pakistan will have to come to an understanding on the fundamentals of a relationship, which assures security for both. Conventional arms and nuclear weapons will be an integral part of the understanding. This will not be easy given the mindset in some quarters in India and Pakistan, within the governments and "the strategic community" in the two countries. Once one of India's leading lights scornfully ridiculed suggestions even for a dialogue with Pakistan. "Does the United States discuss the military balance with Cuba?" For very many in India, the problem is not India's security; it is projection of its power.

Commitment to a dialogue is futile unless there is a willingness to arrive at a modus vivendi. A memorandum of understanding signed in Lahore on February 21, 1999, binds the two countries to a few confidence-building measures (CBMs) and to "bilateral consultations on security concepts and nuclear doctrines, with a view to developing measures for confidence-building in the nuclear and conventional fields aimed at avoidance of conflict". Such a dialogue, although aimed at CBMs, would necessarily involve issues far more fundamental. The Joint Statement of February 18, 2004, envisaged "expert-level talks on nuclear CBMs in the latter half of May 2004". On April 4, Pakistan proposed that those talks be held on May 25 and 26.

What are we going to propose in this series of parleys? Delivering the P.C. Lal Memorial Lecture on February 19, 2004, Defence Minister George Fernandes said: "History has shown that when states become visibly prosperous, there is a pattern wherein they invest in trans-border military capability... . Objectively assessed, China and India will both follow this trajectory. We must ensure that whatever be the nature for the military profile that China and India acquire in the near future. This must be managed in such a way that there is no mistrust or needless anxiety. Individually and together, such capability must be seen as contributing to regional and global stability." This, surely, cannot be a purely bilateral affair between India and China. The smaller states, who are directly affected by the growing power of both, are entitled to have their say and to have their concerns addressed. Foremost among them must be the third nuclear-weapons state in the region, Pakistan. The world is quietly watching the nuclear scene here.

In a brilliant analysis, Dr. T. Jayaraman points out that "neither the United States nor world public opinion is likely to buy the official Indian line that its nuclear weapons are not Pakistan-centric and that, therefore, there is no need for any bilateral nuclear restraint regime between India and Pakistan. Despite the distinction that official India will seek to make between its own nuclear weapons and Pakistan's, India's drive to acquire nuclear weapons will be seen as one of the prime motivations for Pakistan's obsessions with achieving nuclear parity by whatever means it has at its disposal."

What he proceeds to add is as relevant: "The ideological and political obsession with nuclear weapons has led the current dispensation in New Delhi to appease Washington on a broad range of issues, while periodically exchanging nuclear threats with its neighbour and exposing its population to the attendant dangers. The Indian government has nothing at all to show in return, in terms of winning recognition of the legitimacy of India's nuclear power status (emphasis added throughout). Ending this obsession and removing the nuclear shackles on India's foreign policy while paying heed to the genuine anti-super power tradition in India's political culture would be a progressive and liberating step forward" (The Hindu, February 28, 2004). Judging by the recent comments in New Delhi by former U.S. interlocutor in the post-1998 nuclear talks, Strobe Talbott, the U.S. is none too impressed with India's stand.

Bharat Karnad's book draws on ancient Indian tradition, censures Nehru's record and projects his own thesis as one based on "realism" in the manner strikingly reminiscent of Defending India by Jaswant Singh whom he hugely admires. The current buzzword is "realism". Superficial American analysts hail them as such. Common to both is a dislike of Nehru. Unlike Jaswant Singh, however, Bharat Karnad is a scholar. He has consulted the archives. Unfortunately, the book falls between the stools of diplomatic history and strategic analysis. Archival research is helpful only when one has mastered the published record and seeks answers to the questions they raise. But, of what relevance is Nehru's poor opinion of Third World leaders, set out at length, to the issues he discusses? A source must be evaluated. Badruddin Tyabji's notoriously egotistic outpourings in private and after retirement from the Indian Foreign Service should be weighed against his record in service and public life.

The so-called "realists", in common with Nehru's professional admirers, know little of his China policy, for instance, and understand it less. A.B. Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Lohia and his acolytes such as Fernandes accused Nehru of appeasement of China when in fact he was shutting the doors to negotiations. Karnad's language is appropriate to polemics, not scholarship. India must protect itself against "the sustained, if opportunistic, belligerence of China"; "Nehru's spoutings (sic) on non-alignment"; and the Indian leadership is "pickled in self-doubt".

The book is neither a piece of lively polemics nor sound analysis. It is noteworthy only because it is a good specimen of the mindset that prevails today in many a place; especially, but not exclusively, in the BJP. "Realists" all, who would act like George W. Bush & Co. if only they had the power to do so.

Bharat Karnad's lament is as noteworthy as his recipe. Both reflect the outlook of the "realist" school now in power. "The Hinduism of the Vedas - the ancient Sanskrit texts that are the wellsprings of the Indic religion and culture, far from inculcating passivity, is suffused with the spirit of adventure and daring, of flamboyance and vigour, and of uninhibited use of force to overcome any resistance or obstacles. It says something about that outlook on life and approach to the world that these texts even ordain the use of horrific `weapons of mass destruction', whose, albeit imagined, lethality seems akin to present day thermonuclear bombs and chemical and biological warfare paraphernalia. Furthermore, these texts also conceptualise a Hindu machtpolitik that is at once intolerant of any opposition, driven to realise the goal of supremacy for the nation and state by means fair and foul, and is breathtaking in its amorality. How did such an aggressive, ultra-realist religion and culture get reduced to the bovine pacifism of the latter day Indian society and the self-abnegating policies of the government, so much so, that India now evokes in the West a `rather patronising attitude' and from China `a mixture of arrogance and condescension'? It is a mystery this study will try to plumb." Karnad is frank. But others in our "strategic community" are no less "flamboyant".

His prescription? "In a patently asymmetric nuclear war situation, the only way to stifle the urge of a superior power to mount what President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called a `designed' attack that would leave the victim `crippled, capable of only spasmodic, disorganised and strategically aimless response - or even none at all' using precision-guided low-yield nuclear weapons that President George W. Bush's Pentagon plans to unleash against troublesome countries (including Russia and China), is to deter the U.S. with massively and indiscriminately destructive megaton thermonuclear bombs, that will also compensate for intercontinental ballistic missile inaccuracies at extreme range. There is no other way... . The current warmth in Indo-U.S. relations cannot hide the fact that the growth of the Indian deterrent is seen as threatening by the United States."

The view, it seems, is shared by some like the former Army Chief General S. Padmanabhan, the title of whose book sums up his fears and his recipe. The U.S. invasion of Iraq alarmed him and, more so, the boasts of its "military officers in their daily briefings". He projects "the events of 2003 some 15 years into the future" and seeks to demonstrate that "it is not impossible to resist even the mightiest, if we have the will to do so". He also pleads for "a stronger United Nations". This is not futurology. It is something else. This highly decorated soldier would render high service were he to write his memoirs of the days of Operation Parakram, on which politicians in power take the Army for a bumpy and futile ride to subserve their own interests.

But, to resume with Karnad, "if the U.S. poses a latent threat to India, the more immediate and principal threat is and will continue to be China, which presents as great a danger because of its strategically inimical policies, as because of the possibility of its disintegration and collapse. Leading to a host of nuclear-armed `warlord states' on India's periphery."

He suggests how this "threat" can be met. "India should, likewise, create precisely the kind of dilemmas for China that Beijing has created for it with respect to a nuclear weapons and missile-equipped Pakistan by arming Vietnam with strategic weapons, establishing a naval presence in Cam Ranh Bay and elsewhere in South-East Asia, to match China's ensconced military positions in Myanmar as also in Gwadar on Pakistan's Makran Coast, cooperating with Taiwan in the nuclear and missile fields, and coordinating its activities in Washington with those of the Taiwan lobby. China's masterful manipulation of the level of support to Pakistan as a means of influencing Indian policy and diluting New Delhi's perception of China as threat has worked, but only because New Delhi seems to lack the nerve to impose heavy strategic costs on China by linking up with Vietnam and Taiwan, and leading the `free Tibet' campaign in a tit-for-tat policy".

Some tit for some tat. China's threat is wildly exaggerated and a reckless answer is propounded heedless of the enormous danger to India's interest, which the new Cold War would pose. The military prescription is as "realistic". He writes: "Prudence, therefore, dictates that India posses a hefty nuclear force boasting of around 350-400 warheads/weapons that can be construed as notional parity with the Chinese strategic forces. India's attaining some kind of nuclear equivalence is essential because this alone will make China's aggressive posturing and threats harder to sustain."

We must not be inhibited by scenarios sketched by some, "Indian policy-makers and the small section of the vocal middle class have proved susceptible to frightening projections about what nuclear war in the subcontinent would mean in terms of cities incinerated and people killed... . The idea has always been to frighten an already feeble-minded Indian political leadership and government into forsaking nuclear forces the country needs to avoid immediate dangers and to settle down as a great power."

This has been an abiding passion. It possessed Nehru and drives his successors mercilessly appalling. Jaswant Singh's vainglorious comments invited ridicule. Not for him the specifics. He painted on a broad canvas in weird colours.

Stereotypes like "hawk" and "dove" or "hardliners" and the rest not only obscure nuances but conceal traces of incompetence as well. Common to both schools is a refusal to think through the consequences of their prescriptions. Will the Chinese, the Pakistanis, and the Americans sit back with folded hands if India embarks on the course the author prescribes? He rightly remarks that Nehru "never bothered to examine the antecedent conditions, which may have prompted Pakistan formally to seek the military protection of Big Powers, and to consider whether such alliances were as great an unmitigated evil as he made them out to be. Some senior members of the foreign service, braver than others, however, tried to probe this mystery. Gundevia, as Ambassador to Switzerland in a letter from Berne, dated March 16, 1954, to the Prime Minister, volunteered that `we have perhaps not fully analysed the causes that may have led' to the U.S. military aid to Pakistan and helpfully attached just such an analysis, titled `Reflections on U.S. Arms Aid to Pakistan' for Nehru to peruse. In a forthright manner, Gundevia argued that New Delhi had goofed up in not anticipating that for geopolitical reasons U.S. aid to Pakistan was `inevitable', and that due to `the undiluted fear complex (of India) of the comparatively less powerful' country. Pakistan would seek such protection and take every opportunity `to throw in her weight' against `whatever line India... might take'." Is Karnad's advice any the better? How will Pakistan respond to the policy he advocates?

Sample this: "Because the mere presence of U.S. military units in Pakistan renders moot any consideration of conventional Indian military action against Pakistan lest American troops become casualties inviting U.S. military units to that country is a ruse de guerre that Islamabad has probably learned, courtesy its experiences in December 2001, works in hollowing out the Indian threat of war. If it is believed that a nuclear flashpoint was on the point of blowing, Washington may, in fact, not hesitate to so deploy its units as a form of military pre-emption to keep the peace. It is a move that New Delhi may second." A footnote adds: "In a conversation, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh told The Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland that the American military presence in Pakistan would help stabilise that country and should continue. See the latter's "India looks with New favour on a `Natural' Ally", International Herald Tribune, January 22, 2002.

Comment is unnecessary.

Bharat Karnad's comments on the Indus Waters Treaty are as jejeune as were those of two writers on strategic affairs and two former High Commissioners to Pakistan who, out of the blue, rushed to urge that India rescind the treaty (December 23 and 25, 2001). The nation lost a lot by their concealment of their undoubted expertise in this subject as a closely guarded secret, in all the years one had heard or read them. Bharat Karnad complains that Indian leadership harbours "misplaced notions about the role of morality in international life, about Gandhian non-violence and about the presumed Indian genius for pacifism, and with a pronounced tendency to compromise national security interests and to buckle under foreign pressure, that has proved the weak link. It is Indian leaders then who have lacked the will to power and constitute the `soft state'. Because the bulk of the people, attuned to the vagaries of machtpolitik depicted in the ancient Hindu texts and conditioned by life-long deprivation, are hard as nails, crave respect for India in the world, and are willing to make whatever sacrifices".

Why "paddle around in the strategic backwaters"? Have a grand vision. "But a grand strategic vision by itself will not mean much if it is not followed up by putting India's nuclear and conventional military muscle where its mouth is. An Indian `Monroe Doctrine' will require putting out the strategic effort militarily to bolster Vietnam and Taiwan and the Asian states as a way to fence in a belligerent China. It will mean cultivating with arms transfers and economic and trade concessions the countries on the Indian Ocean littoral, so as to enlarge and enhance the sphere of Indian influence in the extended region." A few pages later the author asserts: "Realistically speaking, New Delhi may not have a choice other than to brazen it out and secure a thermonuclear arsenal even if it displeases the U.S. The grand strategic plan earlier articulated as the Indian `Monroe Doctrine' will help India to justify and rationalise the building of a big deterrent and, most importantly, have a reassuring effect on prospective Asian security partners. It is because there is little on which the U.S. and Indian interests clash but great many issues on which they dovetail, including in the perception of the meta-strategic threats - terrorism, extremist Islam and China - that there is optimism all round about an entente cordiale being at last established between the two major democracies." Whatever happened to the clash of India-U.S. interests on which he had waxed eloquent earlier?

Gurmeet Kanwal's book is ably documented and is free from polemical excesses. It is a straightforward plea by an experienced soldier for the build up of the nuclear arsenal to support a national security strategy.

A good feature of the book is that the views of those who dissent from his stand are also mentioned. The author goes beyond the desired nuclear arsenal. In his view "the total elimination of all nuclear weapons is the only goal worth striving for".

M.V. Ramana and C. Rammanohar Reddy, members of the Indian Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, have edited a collection of critiques by Indian and Pakistani experts of "nuclear weapons and the modernisation programme by India". Amartya Sen, Jean Dreze and the Chinese scholar-diplomat Ye Zhengjia's essays enhance the value of this excellent collection.

It is not commonly known that there is a powerful and extremely able group of experts in Pakistan who are opposed to the bomb. One of them, Zia Mian, a physicist at Parceta contributes an essay. Ye Zhenghjia corrects some misconceptions in India about China's approach to the boundary question. He pleads "scholars in both countries should work harder in promoting mutual understanding between our people". The best course is to facilitate exchange of scholars and documentation between the two countries on foreign policy and strategic matters. Citing statistics in support, Dreze establishes in his essay "Militarism Development and Democracy" that "if conventional war is disastrous enough for economic development and the quality of life, nuclear war would be an all-round catastrophe".

Chari, Cheema and Cohen's book is by far the most detailed study of the crisis on the subcontinent in 1990 (Frontline, June 13, 1997). They warn that the 1987 and 1990 crises would recur "unless the faltering dialogue between the two states on a wide range of vital issues advances with a greater sense of urgency and responsibility".

Let us hope that the leaders of India and Pakistan will heed these authors' advice and commence a dialogue on the nuclear question in real interest.

Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy

Nuclear Defence: Shaping and Arsenal

Perception, Politics and Security in South Asia: The Compound crisis of 1990

The Writing on the Wall: India Checkmates America 2017

Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream

Irrigation tanks and power relations

Social Designs: Tank Irrigation Technology and Agrarian Transformation in Karnataka, South India by Esha Shah; Orient Longman, 2003; pages 288, Rs.295.

OVER the last two decades, with the growth of the movement opposed to large dams, most prominently dams constructed on the Narmada, several people have advocated relying on traditional tanks for irrigation. The arguments advanced in favour of them are that they are small and sustainable, and are managed by the local communities that use the water from them. Some also argue that unlike large dams that are linked to a Western scientific tradition, tanks are culturally embedded and so they are appropriate.

In her book Social Designs: Tank Irrigation Technology and Agrarian Transformation in Karnataka, South India, Esha Shah subjects this vision of tank-fed agriculture to careful scrutiny. She does this not through the lenses of cost, capacity to sustain adequate agricultural productivity or the environmental impact (or lack thereof). Rather, Esha Shah uses the design of tanks as a way to examine the social and political implications of a technology that has emerged and is managed in a society that is ridden with class, caste and gender inequalities. The central question that Esha Shah addresses is this: how does a hierarchically organised and inegalitarian social order distribute its water resources when mediated by tank technology? Another question addressed is how "agrarian transformation impinges upon tank technology and the pattern of water utilisation" (page 6).

Esha Shah uses a combination of detailed empirical material on the social and agrarian context of tank irrigation and extensive social anthropological research in Karnataka to address these questions in a careful fashion. The result is a book that should be useful to people interested in a range of subjects - irrigation and water policy, science and technology studies, anthropology, and issues of democratisation and community.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part surveys the larger political economy as it affects tank irrigation, but through a focus on tank designs, how these are influenced by various interests and how they shape other socio-economic activities. Chapter 2, for example, looks at the close connections between tank designs and paddy cultivation. These tank designs then become an obstacle to farmers who want to shift from paddy to other dryland crops. Another chapter traces in great detail the changes in tank designs in response to changing agrarian patterns.

The second half details research on four tanks located in different areas of Karnataka marked by distinctive agro-climatic backgrounds. These tanks reveal a great diversity of design and management and use patterns. There is, for instance, a tank that first supplies water to farmers with land in the tail-end of the canals in the irrigated area, which goes against the customary norm of supplying water to the head-end of the canals. This reversal is owing to tail-end farmers acquiring new economic might and challenging the historically privileged group who owned land at the head-end. Another case is that of a relatively modern tank in a dry, water-starved area that is underutilised because of mismatches between local farming practices and the assumptions underlying the design of the tank and water distribution.

This examination of tank resources comes to some interesting conclusions that fly in the face of an increasingly widespread view that the crisis in natural resource management, including the management of tanks, is because of State interference and that communities should be left to manage resources by themselves. Instead, Esha Shah locates this crisis in a rural elite that is "increasingly less inclined to invest in tank resources" and changes in rural society that preclude reproducing "social arrangements such as canal cleaning, sluice operation and field-to-field irrigation which had largely been shaped by the hierarchical caste relations". There is also the tension between elite farmers in the vicinity of tanks and the Minor Irrigation Department, because the latter may bring in regulations on what to cultivate in the irrigated area as also "normative models of equality of all irrigators" (page 263).

One can draw out two straightforward conclusions from Shah's analysis. First, tanks are by no means the panacea that alternative or traditional science and technology (never mind the problematic nature of those adjectives) enthusiasts posit. Second, local control of natural resources is also not a panacea unless it is accompanied by wide-ranging social and political transformation aimed at achieving deep democratisation and equity. There should be nothing new about the latter conclusion but for the fact that a rhetorical emphasis on local control has become part of the neo-liberal economic paradigm espoused by the World Bank and other agencies as a way of marginalising the state.

Besides irrigation technologies and policies, Social Designs addresses an old theoretical debate about the political properties of technological artefacts. At the risk of gross simplification, one can identify two broad camps. One argues that the properties of a technological artefact are a direct reflection of the social and political system in which it is embedded. Thus, for example, the development of numerous labour saving machines are argued to be owing to the propensity of capitalism to increase profits and reduce dependency on, thereby lowering the power of, the working class. Often missing in this view is an adequate appreciation of and engagement with the technical object itself and its properties - this is certainly not the case with Social Designs. (If anything, one learns more about the designs of tanks than most average readers would care to know.)

The second and much more commonly encountered argument is that the use of certain technologies produces definite political outcomes in the society that uses them. Thus, the political properties are inherent in the artefacts themselves and independent of the agents in society that produce or deploy them. This line of argument is witnessed in a whole series of technologies that have been described as democratising and empowering the weaker sections of society. The Internet is only the most recent in this list; earlier instances include the radio, newspapers, personal computers, and the television.

As its title announces, Social Designs argues that the design of a technological system - which refers not just to the dimensions and locations of physical structures, but also to the rules and roles that operate, maintain and manage these physical structures - is strongly shaped by social relations of power. Once the technology is designed and deployed in the form of an artefact, it institutionalises, sustains and reproduces the social order and power relations that gave rise to that technological artefact. But by the same token, argues Esha Shah, these technological designs could and do become political "sites where conflicts and contestations are articulated", and are thus "vehicles for democratisation" (pages 275-276).

Langdon Winner's famous survey of the debate on this subject from 1986 entitled "Do Artifacts have Politics?" ends with dividing technologies into two categories. The first "have a range of flexibility in the dimensions of their material form... [and] because they are flexible... their consequences for society must be understood with reference to the social actors able to influence which designs and arrangements are chosen." In particular, "specific features in the design or arrangement of a device or system could provide a convenient means of establishing patterns of power and authority in a given setting."

The second category of technologies have "intractable properties" that are "strongly, perhaps unavoidably, linked to particular institutionalised patterns of power and authority... There are no alternative physical designs or arrangements that would make a significant difference." The archetypal example is the atom bomb. In Winner's words, "As long as it exists at all, its lethal properties demand that it be controlled by a centralised, rigidly hierarchical chain of command closed to all influences that might make its workings unpredictable. The internal social system of the bomb must be authoritarian; there is no other way. The state of affairs stands as a practical necessity independent of any larger political system in which the bomb is embedded, independent of the type of regime or character of its rulers."

Though Esha Shah does not go into this categorisation, tanks come through as being more pliable in their character. Indeed, the example of the "tail enders first" tank is used as an illustration of a case where the water distribution practices seem almost as going against the natural dictates of hydrology and fluid mechanics. The driver for this change is, as mentioned earlier, the increasing economic clout of tail-end farmers. Thus the consequences of tanks for society would depend on the power relations that determine their designs. The larger question, of course, is how these power relations, which are often inegalitarian and undemocratic, can be altered.

One easy criticism of just about any book is to list what is not covered adequately. In that vein, at the top of my wish list is a more substantial conclusion chapter that goes substantially beyond summarising the earlier chapters and fully draws out the implications of the findings of the anthropological research for a whole host of issues. For example, how are we to go about bringing about a more equitable and democratic irrigation policy? What are the implications of the empirical findings about the ways in which social power relations shape technological design for the larger theoretical debate on social shaping of technology? Can one, for example, identify characteristics in various technologies that predispose them to be potential vehicles for democratisation? What are the implications of the study for the whole traditional versus modern technology debate? One hopes that future writings from the author would address such subjects. But clearly, she has made a strong and useful beginning in this regard.

Who runs Britain?

Who Runs this Place? The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century by Anthony Sampson; John Murray, 2004; pages 416, 20.

THERE can be few books which fulfil the promise of their title more completely than this. For Anthony Sampson - journalist by trade, but contemporary historian by inclination - has once again, in a revised edition of his classic Anatomy of Britain, compiled a comprehensive inventory of who wields power in every sector of British society. But the book is more than just a list. Or, at least, it is a list with an attitude. In his introduction, he describes himself as a "tour guide to a rambling stately home, opening the doors to elaborately furnished rooms". But, unlike the members of that profession, he analyses and criticises as well as describing what he sees. Sampson believes that power has become too centralised and remote and that, in consequence, democracy itself has been diminished.

He sets out his complaint in the introduction: "The British people have good reason to feel confused and alienated. Their Parliament pretends to be sovereign, under an unwritten constitution, while its real powers... and much of the real sovereignty has moved elsewhere." What is more, their industries and their institutions have become equally insensitive and detached from the people they claim to serve.

That contention is beyond dispute. But Sampson does more than regret the pretence. He suggests - by implication rather than assertion - that the undesirable state of affairs could be halted, possibly even reversed. The fault, according to Who Runs This Place?, lies in the people of Britain, not in their stars.

Members of Parliament have become less distinguished, more professionalised, more insecure and hardly muster enough talent "to form an effective government" - an error based on the popular fallacy that politicians need to possess the skills of businessmen. The European Union gets even shorter shrift. Although he describes Brussels as the "new bogey of unaccountable power", he has enough sympathy with Conservative politician Nicholas Ridley's description of the European Commission to quote it with evident relish: "Seventeen unelected, rejected politicians with no accountability to anyone."

The way in which Sampson describes the democratic degeneration makes the book zip along. But by far the most important parts of Who Runs This Place? are its brilliant sections on commerce and the financial institutions. They make clear why all the detriments have come about and, in consequence, contradict the notion that it is possible to put things right. Science and technology have compressed the working of the world into fewer, bigger units. If the giant corporations - national as well as multinational - can be controlled at all, they must be answerable to bigger, wider forms of government - institutions which, by definition, are remote and difficult to make democratically accountable.

THE best books reveal facts which readers can barely believe that they did not know before. Who Runs This Place? contains such revelations in abundance. I am ashamed not to have realised that, as long ago as 1960, Richard Titmuss - after working on the British Labour Party's Labour's plan for a comprehensive pension - warned that one result would be "power concentrated in relatively few hands, working at the apex of a handful of giant bureaucracies, technically supported by a group of professional experts and accountable, in practice, to no one". And pension funds with their immense sums to invest, have, because of their preoccupation with short-term results, affected "the whole future of industries, cities and communities" without being answerable to anyone.

My concern about the malign influence of the new capitalism was immensely increased by those pages of Who Runs This Place? which answers its own question by describing individuals rather than institutions. Consider his description of the British industrialist Lord King - a man who once said that the strongest argument in favour of privatising British Airways (B.A.) was his refusal to run it if it remained nationalised.

He was the prototype of the new-style buccaneer, with a bluff style and keen financial brain. He quickly downsized the staff to make B.A. profitable in the market place and reinforced the airline's near monopoly. He allowed dirty tricks to keep out his rival, Virgin, and deployed all his formidable lobbying power to gain support from government and Parliament, dispensing free first-class seats to MPs and donating to the Conservative (Tory) Party.

All that was necessary for him to keep his power was a balance sheet which kept a handful of institutional investors happy. At least MPs with "little experience outside politics" and sometimes "associations with sleazy activities" have to stand for election from time to time.

Tony Blair - as Sampson points out in a chapter devoted to "the jettisoning of old ideals" - was, from the start of his premiership, "determined to be friendly towards businessmen and enjoyed their company", an enthusiasm that led Labour's one time Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to observe that the chairman of British Aerospace appeared to have a key to the garden door of Number 10, Downing Street. But it is difficult to argue that, in the modern world, politicians should keep business at arm's length. They do more than create jobs and generate national income. They make and break governments.

I SAT in a British Cabinet which, way back in 1976, almost lost office because it had "sacrificed business confidence". Men like Lord King disapproved of us. Even 25 years ago - with the global market only just beginning to trade - money openly challenged politics for power.

So now in the U.K., "the rich can feel politically more secure after years of being battered by left-wing politicians" for a good part of the 20th century. "Collectivism has given way to individualism" - even "in the professions which have always been divided between public responsibility and private gain".

Sampson is critical of successive governments' failures to face down the legal establishment and prohibit its restrictive practices. But, despite the record speed with which Who Runs This Place? appears to have been produced - allowing it to deal with events in late 2003 - the story of the law's delays has been overtaken by the Lord Chief Justice of England's refusal to accept that immigration appeals should not be heard by the High Courts. In that particular, the power of the bar and bench was used on behalf of liberty.

That exercise of countervailing powers was, of course, a rare exception. The problem which this book so graphically reveals is that, whatever the unwritten constitution may require, there are no checks and balances in Britain today.

With the exception of the neglected poor, we are all basically on the same side. There is shadow-boxing in Parliament and occasional outbursts of academic or industrial irritation. But we are united in our support for a competitive, profit-led society. Power resides with money.

Tony Blair has become the personification of that system. In a quotation which disturbingly lacks a reference, the Prime Minister is said to have claimed: "I have taken from my party everything they thought they believed in. I have stripped them of their core beliefs. What keeps it together is success and power." Whether or not the boast is apocryphal, its message is tragically near to the truth. Power in Britain has been snatched from the people.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

A way of living

Community living is not a just a low-cost option for Germany's homeless. It offers an alternative survival strategy and embodies a vision of living that does not destroy nature, oppress the weak and create hierarchies.

THERE was no street or house number. Yet, it was not difficult to locate Wohngemeinschaft Jung und Alt, a place of communal living for 15 people in the age group of 24 to 70, in Hamburg, Germany. The house formerly functioned as a kindergarten, but has come to epitomise the merits of communal living, since the 1980s.

The house stands facing one of Hamburg's many canals, the Osterbekkanal, and is situated close to the famous city park, equivalent to London's Hyde Park or New York's Central Park. Past a wild garden, children's sand-pits and some high trees, the two-storeyed house comes into view. There is an informal, casual air about it. On the ground floor, there are three living rooms, furnished in as many ways as there are persons. The stairs lead to a common room with only a blackboard and facilities to play indoor games. There is no television set to provide a glimpse of the world outside, only a grand terrace with a broken glass roof. Students and teachers, architects and government officials, technicians and pensioners - all occupy the living rooms on the first floor. Cooking, cleaning and shopping are done in turns. The costs are worked out once a month and shared. Anyone who wishes to have any special food item pays for it. Rubbish is sorted out for recycling.

There are a few dos and don'ts: No one smokes, and alcohol is drunk only in moderation. A typical meal consists of plenty of fruits and vegetables, and rarely meat. The arrangement sounds simple and uncomplicated, but is the result of a complex process of learning and de-learning.

It was Ulrich Schmidt, 75, who inspired community living and intervened at several critical stages to make sure that it sailed through successfully. Most community living projects are torn apart by differences among the residents. Schmidt, a retired journalist, who was in the German Youth Movement and in the military service, and participated in the war, during which he lost a leg, says: "People who wish to live in a community can only do so, and it can be made a lot easier if they are public-spirited, ready to learn from others, prepared for communal ownership, open, tolerant, and willing to lend a hand. It is simpler if they are considerate to others. However, they must also be prepared to take a stand for what they believe in, value giving more than having, feel responsible for themselves and their community, be aware of their environment, think and act for the cause of peace and world solidarity, and know how to value the advantages of a simple life."

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HAMBURG'S Wohnemeinschaften (residence collective) is not an exception in Germany. Various forms of community living emerged in the country during the 1990s, and have continued to be in existence ever since. They are not of course the `communes' of the 1970s, or bearers of the political and social ideals of that period. Nonetheless, they have an alternative vision through which they are trying to make it possible to live and do things differently in a world that has changed dramatically. They are exploring ways of living that do not destroy nature, do not exploit and oppress other human beings, do not create hierarchies, inequalities or unhappiness. There are no official figures available on the number of such collectives or the number of people who live in them, because the concept of a `chosen family' has no place in the government's scheme of things. Thus, there are no regulations covering this form of community living. Estimates of the number of such collectives vary from 50,000 to 100,000. They are of different kinds - those in which people live together and meet the living costs jointly, those in which they live and earn their livelihood together, rural collectives, alternative collective economic projects, dwelling projects, and non-economic social and community enterprises. While in no way can they be called a `movement', they do have some collective ideals and principles such as equality, common ownership, ecological sensitivity, social and political justice, cooperation and division of labour.

The collectives are capable of catching popular imagination. Even a small experiment like that of Schmidt's has takers in Hamburg district. A `House for Young and Old' was opened at Ottensen, a Hamburg district, in 1998. Twenty-three people belonging to different age groups and incomes moved in it together. Schmidt started an association with 10 persons in 1984 and now it has more than 100 members.

Wohngemeinschaft Jung und Alt began in a rented, two-storeyed house in 1984. A devastating fire ruined the place, and the group moved to a new place, which it owns now. There are several ownership patterns: a group of people register themselves as an association, which then owns the property; economic collectives are in the form of a company, where the owners and the workers are the same and have a stake in the company. (At times one person owns the place or the company, but there are several internal arrangements to ensure that the spirit of equality is maintained.)

PEOPLE have different reasons to choose to live in a collective. It is hard to differentiate between economic and political motives. For a woman like Ulri, who lives in the Hamburg Collective, it is about being in a place free of the patriarchal order and one that is conducive to learning. Besides, it is light on her purse.

Middle-aged Lilo views the house as a large family of select relatives, a house where one can live alone and still not be alone. She also finds it extremely economical. "Living in an old people's home with hospital and nursing charges would have cost me at least 54 euros a day. But here I pay 88 euros a month for food and an extra 215 euros for my room, which is 27 square metres in size, and the common space. That means 303 euros for accommodation and food. A place in an old people's home would cost five times more," she said.

In Cologne, there are the Emmaus Collectives, which are formerly occupied houses that have been bought and regularised and where more than 200 people live. In one of these collectives, there are 43 persons - workers, teachers, unemployed persons, youth and volunteers from non-governmental organisations - living and working together. There are some who have been living and working almost on a permanent basis for the past 10 years and others who stay only for a short while. Everybody gets an equal share of the money earned from common tasks, which is distributed on a monthly basis. Guests, activists and volunteers visit the Emmaus house frequently, but they have to live in the simple way that the other residents live and contribute to community work.

What are the common tasks to be performed at the Cologne collective? Deter, one of the members of the core group, took this writer to the common workshop where television and other electronic items are repaired, and other work like upholstering is done. In another new, profitable enterprise, they have developed a workshop to recycle discarded glass bottles or old newspapers and magazines on a commercial scale. There is a big and a small conference room, which are regularly rented out to other organisations. According to Deter, each of the 20 core-group members is able to raise 300 to 400 euros every week from such ventures.

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Sozialistische Selbsthilfe Koln (Socialist Self-Help or SSK), another collective in Cologne, has more than 250 people, mainly homeless persons, immigrants, trade unionists and social activists. At first the group occupied an old but livable house in the centre of the city, working against the designs of real estate agencies and the city development authorities. There were just 30 persons in the beginning, but in their struggle for an equitable housing and urban policy they became the centre of gravity for a whole lot of marginal people. Regular conflicts with the local government authorities in the early 1990s made life difficult, with arrests, detentions and chargesheets becoming a regular feature.

However, they have now been able to establish themselves in the locality, both economically and socially. "We try to live collectively a self-determined life. We earn our livelihood and the money that we need for political actions. We do not take any help from any government authority or any party, and try to live entirely by our own labour. Decisions are made by majority vote on all important issues and till now this has worked well," says Heffa, a woman member of the collective.

With an upsurge in different kinds of green alternative movements in Germany, the SSK has consciously taken up various ecological projects. For example, collecting old and discarded furniture and selling it at low prices, which makes both economic and ecological sense, or, collecting kitchen waste from the neighbourhood and producing compost out of it. The SSK wants its waste removal work to be recognised officially by the city authorities so that it is entitled to the support of the urban waste disposal systems, not harassed by the police, and is paid a proportionate part of the garbage removal fees that the citizens pay.

Germany saw the rise and fall of the students' movement, the Beat-Generation, the Beatniks, the Provos, the Hippies, the Diggers, the Underground and the Kabouters from the 1950s to the 1970s. The collectives of today may have some elements of the 1960s and the 1970s, but increasingly they stand on a new ground. Thinner in number, and more diverse in social backgrounds and political visions, they are not directly an outcome of any big socio-political movement. When the official unemployment figure is increasing, inequality is widening, and homelessness and social insecurity are rising, the collectives offer survival strategies for the subalterns and the struggling people. However, their dream to create another world in some concrete way and to reject the oppressive present, is making a comeback. Schmidt, Deter and more people like them have dreamt of this for the past 10 years or so. There is room for hope that the vision will emerge in many more places, not just in Hamburg and Cologne.

The spectre of Cold Peace

CHARU SINGH in Moscow world-affairs

Official Russia reacts to the expansion of NATO with apparent restraint, but deep down there is a feeling of anger and a sense of isolation.

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EUROPE'S borders with Russia are being redrawn in a very significant and blatant manner. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's sphere of influence today extends from the Black Sea coast to the borders of Finland; this territory, currently patrolled by NATO, runs parallel to 800 kilometres of Russia's western frontier. Ironically, in the first week of April itself four Belgian F-16 jets landed in a former Soviet airbase in Lithuania to begin patrolling and reconnaissance missions along the Russian border.

The reaction in Russia, though muted on the surface, has been intense: deep down there is a feeling of anger and a sense of isolation. NATO's recent expansion and the European Union's continuing expansion bid into Eastern Europe have had a telling impact on the Russian psyche, both in the corridors of power and in the streets. This nascent sense of insecurity will persist or die depending on how NATO and the E.U. behave in the near future. Analysts believe that if NATO resorts to building up its arsenal along Russia's borders and militarising the region, then it could impel a return of something akin to the Cold War - a "Cold Peace." Alternatively, if NATO's presence in the region is low key, without a significant military build-up, and is backed up by political and diplomatic engagement with Russia, the fears may well pass.

It rings as a slap in the face of a modern, resurgent Russia, which is attempting to find a European identity and imbibe the European model of economic prosperity and security. Added to this is the sense of horror among the old guard as they see Russia's allies rush into NATO's waiting arms. Humiliation mingles with fear as bases built by the Soviets, cities constructed by the Communists, ports built by Peter the Great, are all taken bloodlessly from under Russia's nose by NATO. Today, with Estonia in the Western alliance, NATO troops stand a mere 160 km from St. Petersburg and this fact is lost on no one in the country.

President Vladimir Putin has been controlled in his response - he merely expressed his displeasure at the development. He told visiting NATO Secretary-General Jaaf de Hoop Scheffer: "Life has shown that this mechanical expansion does not make it possible to counter effectively the threats we face today. This expansion could not have prevented terrorist acts in Madrid, for example, or help resolve the situation in Afghanistan." Despite the NATO chief's hurried visit to Moscow to reassure Russia, it is clear that Moscow is not buying NATO's assertions. The fact that NATO remains configured in the old mode, simply to intercept and contain its Cold War foe, remains a thorn in the relations between the two sides. Further, Russia refuses to accept the view that the expansion is aimed at strengthening and securing Europe. The move clearly is not driven by the spectre of terrorism looming large over Europe or by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

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Putin stressed that "it is necessary to increase the level of trust between NATO and in this case Russia". He had earlier indicated that "the advancement of the military structure to our borders is certainly being carefully studied by our military specialists and we will plan our military and security policy accordingly".

Sheffer, on the other hand, went out of his way to allay Russian fears by saying: "Russia needs NATO, NATO needs Russia. The problems facing us are simply too big - terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq - to think that we can go it alone." He further stressed: "It's my personal mission to make the Russia-NATO relationship stronger during my term in office." His efforts notwithstanding, suspicions remain entrenched in Russia.

If Putin has been circumspect in his statements, Sergei Ivanov, the Defence Minister, has been more strident. He told the press while visiting Washington: "NATO should realise that now it is responsible for the future of Europe, for with the Baltic states included in NATO and in the event of a military infrastructure created on their territory, any military-political actions by Russia will conform to the principles of self-defence." He added: "We entertain no illusions why the Baltic countries have been admitted to NATO and why NATO planes are already being deployed there. This has nothing to do with the fight against terrorism. Of course, there is still a `window of opportunities' for developing the Russia-NATO partnership, it is important that this `window' does not shrink to a breathing hole." He underlined that "today it depends on NATO and above all on the United States for this `window' not to be closed". He informed the powers that be in both the U.S. and Europe that NATO and Russia had arrived at a rather crucial crossroads in their relationship, where the road ahead could lead either to "strategic partnership" or to "Cold Peace". Other Russian Ministers, officials and the public have voiced their outrage and have been vocal in their disapproval of the expansion.

Deputies of the Duma warned that NATO's expansion right up to Russia's doorstep was causing considerable concern within Russia and could impel Moscow to reconsider its defence strategies and the deployment of forces if the alliance continued to ignore Russia's interests. The members indicated that the expansion went against NATO's pledge to enhance cooperation with Russia in counter-terrorism activities, non-proliferation, peacekeeping and other areas, concluded in a 2002 agreement. It especially voiced concern about NATO's reluctance to ratify an amended version of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), which limits the number of weapons and troops in the grey zones. NATO to date has refused to comply until Russia withdraws its troops from Georgia and Moldova. The Duma has slammed NATO for putting up "artificial obstacles" to the ratification of the CFE. It has warned that Russia may withdraw from its 1999 pledge to limit troop numbers along its western borders if NATO changes the "military political balance" in the Baltic region. If NATO fails to meet Russia's concerns halfway, then it would recommend to the government to strengthen Russia's nuclear deterrent and to increase deployment along the western borders, it said. The members voted in favour of a resolution that urged NATO to ratify the CFE.

The Russian sense of slight is accentuated particularly by the fact that Russia had extended support to the Western alliance by providing intelligence on Afghanistan and in helping establish Western bases in Central Asia, something unthinkable in an earlier era. It had also supported the U.S. administration's Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict shipments of WMD components globally. Further, Russia has in principal agreed to allow the transit of NATO troops and military hardware across its territory to Afghanistan and given its assent to a joint NATO-Russia anti-terrorism exercise on the Kola Peninsula. The growing feeling in Moscow is that it has gained little out of all these. Analysts are of the opinion that Russia needs more than the "paper tiger", the current NATO-Russia council: it wants an equal role in decision-making, accompanied by joint initiatives in the spheres of intelligence gathering and a rapid reaction force.

Exposed to a dangerous threat

SUMAN SAHAI science-and-technology

The conclusions of the First Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety fail to address fully a central concern of developing countries: the social and economic impact of genetic modification technology.

THE First Meeting of the Parties (MOP1) to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from February 23 to 27. It was attended by 87 countries, including India, which are currently party to the Protocol. The Biosafety Protocol derives from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which was adopted in 1992 in Nairobi. It was concluded in 2000 after several years of negotiations, and is the first binding international agreement dealing with biosafety with respect to genetically modified organisms, which the Protocol refers to as Living Modified Organisms (LMOs). The Protocol itself came into force on September 11, 2003, when the requisite number of Parties had ratified it. India is a signatory to the Biosafety Protocol and is bound by its provisions.

The provisions relate both to domestic measures that Parties have to implement and to the trans-boundary movement of LMOs. Domestic measures require Parties to regulate and control the risks associated with LMOs that may have an impact on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and on human health. There is a special focus on the risks associated with the release of LMOs in centres of origin and diversity. This would apply to India with the case of rice and other crop varieties, for which it is a centre of origin and diversity. The trans-boundary movement of LMOs would touch upon trade in genetically modified foods and, where relevant, aid consignments.

Over the years of negotiations for the Biosafety Protocol, certain issues remained contentious, over which consensus could not be reached, chiefly because of the opposition of the United States (which is not a member of the CBD or the Protocol) and its allies, Canada, Argentina and Mexico, forming the Miami Group. Some of these unresolved issues were brought to Kuala Lumpur, and these included identifying shipments of LMOs; dealing with Parties that do not comply with the provisions of the Protocol; and fixing liability and paying compensation in cases where damage has occurred owing to the trans-boundary movement of LMOs.

Ten major decisions were taken at the Kuala Lumpur MOP1. Of these, the three most important were: measures for handling, transporting, packaging and identifying LMOs in line with Article 18 of the Protocol; establishing compliance procedures and mechanisms for the Protocol; and establishing an expert working group on liability and redress in the context of the Protocol. Under Article 18 of the Protocol, countries are required to take measures to ensure that LMOs that move across borders are handled, packaged and transported safely. The aim is to avoid adverse effects on biodiversity and risks to human health. MOP1 decided that there would have to be distinct documentation to accompany the three categories of LMOs. These are LMOs to be used as food or feed or for processing (FFP); those that are for "contained use" as in laboratories; and those meant for introduction into the environment, for example, genetically modified seeds for planting. For the FFP category, documents should clearly identify that the shipment may contain LMOs for direct use as food or feed or for processing, but not for introduction into the environment. The documents should include the common, scientific and commercial names of the LMOs, and the method of genetic modification. An expert group was set up to develop a detailed implementation proposal for this.

For the category of LMOs meant for laboratory use, accompanying documents should clearly identify the LMOs by their common and scientific names and state that they are destined for contained use. Their commercial names and the new and modified traits and characteristics should be included. For the third category, like GM seeds, the documents should clearly describe their names and traits, specially the transgenic traits, the genetic transformation events and unique identification. The commercial name, risk class and the required approval permit for import under the Protocol should also be included. The documentation of LMOs under categories two and three must also specify any special requirements needed for safe handling, storage, transport and use under existing international instruments, as well as domestic regulations and any agreement made between the exporter and the importer. On the compliance issue, MOP1 had a long debate on how to deal with countries that do not comply with their obligations under the Protocol. The European countries were especially keen to get a strong compliance regime so that member-countries would take their obligations seriously.

India took an ambiguous stand on compliance, not supportive of a strong compliance mechanism. This was probably because of the perception that it would one day be an exporter of genetically modified foods and products and therefore would not want to confront a rigorous compliance regime. India's weak stand on compliance is not a wise one. First, it would encourage bad practices at home. A not-always-literate farming community, traders who are not in tune with international practices, and the overall poor level of awareness about the implications of genetically modified crops for the environment and human health could create dangerous situations. Strong compliance is needed at home, to protect us from ourselves and from others.

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Despite the progress made at MOP1, it remained a matter of concern that the conclusions failed to take on board a central concern of developing countries: that of the social and economic impacts of genetic modification technology. This is of crucial significance to India and other developing countries where the impact on small farmers and their livelihoods could be considerable. Although it is very important to monitor genetically modified crops for their impact on biodiversity and the environment as well as the health of humans and animals, it is equally important to watch out for the social and economical implications of this technology for farmers and consumers in developing countries. The social and economic costs of this technology could be highly significant in the agricultural situation of the South and this should be monitored as critically as health and the environment.

It is a pity that the discussions at the Biosafety Protocol did not take up the social and economic aspects even though some country delegations, especially the African Union, flagged the issue repeatedly. The African countries in fact were trying to keep the focus on this aspect alive at all levels of the discussions accompanying the meetings. Although India did mention socio-economic concerns in the official interventions, there was little follow-up or lobbying to create a strong pressure group that would put the issue on the main agenda. As a result, it was not included in the main conclusions of MOP1.

It is short-sighted to overlook the fact that genetic modification technology could turn out to be counter-productive in the agricultural economies of developing countries. If it were to displace small farmers, the impact would be detrimental. In fact, in genetic modification research there is considerable emphasis on producing through genetic engineering products that are at the moment produced only in developing countries. One may recall what happened to vanilla. Madagascar, once the largest producer of vanilla, earned sizable revenue for its farmers through its export. Determined to break this monopoly, U.S. laboratories succeeded in synthesising vanilla and the markets, flooded with the cheaper version, turned away from the natural vanilla produced by Madagascar. This resulted in big economic losses and hardship for farmers in Madagascar. Similarly, sugar-producing countries in Asia have suffered at the hands of another laboratory-based substitution. Cornstarch is used to make high fructose corn syrup, which has displaced sugar in large amounts from sectors like confectionery. In fact, most of the genetically modified corn that is being grown by the U.S. and Canada is used either in the production of high fructose corn syrup or as animal feed.

A strong line of genetic modification research in the West currently is attempting to produce the characteristics of coconut and palm oil in the more common canola (a form of mustard). Canola grows in countries in the temperate zone whereas coconut and oil palm grow in the tropics. Many farmers in Asia earn a livelihood from the export of coconut and palm oil, both of which are sought-after in the U.S. and Europe for their special properties like high lauric acid content. When genetic modification technology creates canola plants that produce oils with high lauric acid content, it would mean the loss of markets for farmers growing coconuts and oil palm in countries like India and Malaysia.

Given the potential of this technology to damage the agricultural prospects of developing countries, its social and economic impact must be taken on board in the international agreements on biosafety, through the Biosafety Protocol.

In effect this would mean that countries should have the right to refuse the import of a genetically modified crop that could displace the produce of their own farmers, without attracting penalties and sanctions of the kind that happened in the E.U.-U.S. case. The E.U., which has had a de facto moratorium on genetically modified crops, refused the exports of corn and soybean from the U.S. and was hauled by that country to the World Trade Organisation Dispute Settlement Court and threatened with huge fines for refusing U.S. imports, an act, the U.S. claimed, was trade distorting. Such a situation could easily arise for India and other developing countries if they were to refuse imports of genetically modified foods on socio-economic grounds, unless this was regulated through the internationally binding nature of the Biosafety Protocol. It is in India's interest to ensure that socio-economic concerns as provided for in Article 26 of the Protocol are brought on to the main agenda.

Towards a showdown in Kathmandu

Recovering lost strength, Nepal's political parties take to the streets demanding the restoration of democracy. But the monarchy is trying for a tighter grip on power and the Maoists are pushing for republicanism.

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ON April 10, the daily swell of demonstrators on the streets of Kathmandu grew as members of the five-party alliance that is leading the agitation were joined, for the first time, by the politically conscious professional elite of the capital, in what appears to be a replay of the 1990 Jana Andolan that ushered in multi-party democracy in Nepal.

They were defying the prohibitory orders to continue the agitation against the constitutional monarch's seizure of power and the undermining of democracy.

In the past couple of months, Nepal's drift into a deepening crisis has moved into top gear with the three political forces - the King, the political parties and the Maoists - pulling in three different directions, but the difference being that the balance among them is shifting thanks to the snowballing street agitation organised by the political parties, until recently considered a sideshow in what was a polarised conflict between the Monarchy-Royal Nepal Army (RNA) combine and the Maoists. In recent weeks, it is the momentum of the democratic politics of street protests that is driving a more radical and militant politics that the political leadership is hard-pressed to contain and keep within the compromise bounds of constitutional monarchy.

"I'm not supporting the political parties, I've come out in support of the principle of democracy because I feel this is a crucial historic moment for those of us who believe in democracy," explained Rohit Nepal, director of a well-known non-governmental organisation (NGO).

"I don't believe in the political parties completely but the fact remains that they are leading this movement. Among the three forces in the country... the parliamentary faction is better than the King, and the Maoists have guns. In these times we need to support a peaceful movement," Manjushree Thapa, the author of The Tutor of History (the first novel published by Penguin in Nepal), said before riot police rained lathi blows on her skull.

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Ram Pradhan, Editor of Himalayan Times, a daily newspaper, describes the mounting uneasiness that is driving sections of the cocooned Kathmandu elite to join the street agitations thus: "If something is not done quickly enough to check the widening gulf between the Palace and the political parties, things could indeed reach a point of no return."

Even American policy-makers who tended to view the Nepal crisis through the optic of "war against terrorism", thus backing the King and the RNA as the bulwark against the Maoists overrunning Nepal, are readjusting their focus. "Washington, for now, is more worried about the implications of what is happening on the streets of Kathmandu," a senior United States policy-maker told this writer. It appears that the U.S. is beginning to take more seriously the imperative of supporting the democratic political forces. A visiting team of U.S. Congressmen met a few important political leaders in Kathmandu to reassure themselves that reconciliation between the two constitutional forces was still possible. However, the more the RNA is strengthened against the Maoists, the more entrenched is the position of the King in the power play.

Shyam Srestha, editor of the leftist monthly Mulyankan, cautions that the street agitation has yet to reach that decisive moment. According to him, the trend towards republican radicalisation and militancy is growing and will increase if the state continues to suppress democratic protest. The extension by ordinance of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Control and Punishment) Act, 2002, which provides for 90 days preventive detention, portends more arbitrary arrests, disappearances, custodial violence and extrajudicial killings. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have warned of an alarming human rights situation. "However, the lower middle class is yet to be drawn into the agitation and the contagion is yet to spread to other districts and urban centres," Srestha said. "There is no sense of do or die," Rohit Nepal said.

On April 10, a week after the launch of the latest phase of the agitation, the daily afternoon ritual of demonstrations at Ratna Park, near the Palace, saw militant students and young party workers hurling stones at the armed police.

On April 9 the government declared much of Kathmandu "riot-prone" but hundreds of people, including top political leaders such as Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala and Communist Party of Nepal (UML) leader Madhav Nepal, who was arrested along with 500 demonstrators, violated the orders. Within half an hour the police broke through the human chain protecting senior leaders Sushil Koirala and Lilamani Pokhrel and whisked them away in waiting vans and trucks, provoking young supporters to hurl stones and bricks, one of which struck a Deputy Superintendent of Police, Sarveshwar Khanal, below his right eye. The police reportedly tried to use tear gas shells to disperse the students but they reassembled. The standoff continued for two hours with students shouting anti-monarchy slogans and hurling brickbats, setting up barricades, burning tyres and taunting the police to come after them. "This stretch of Bagh Bazar is the centre point of the struggle here," a student leader proudly asserted. The warren of streets ands shops afforded many escape roots for the students. People's support was discernible from their willingness to come forward and give water to relieve the tear gas effect. Nepali Congress leader Arjun Narasingh, who is nursing a fractured arm, reiterated the party's commitment to constitutional monarchy, hopeful that the King would take the initiative to arrive at a compromise. But the rift is fast becoming irreconcilable.

Moreover, the King's determination to rule is no secret. On October 4, 2002, he dismissed Parliament and took over power as the guardian of the Constitution that he had, in the process, rendered defunct. Notwithstanding his divide-and-rule games with the ever-hopeful political leaders, the royal propagandists had been whispering loudly the King's growing unhappiness with the political parties. Finally, at a civic reception at Nepalgunj, amidst multiple rings of security and hovering helicopter gunships, the King trashed the political parties and voiced his desire to be a constructive monarch. Asserting his new role as a constructive monarch, the King issued a 10-point directive to the government to undertake programmes for the welfare of the people of the western region. A few weeks later at a civic reception in Pokhra, he announced the holding of elections within a year, but the move was rejected as a ruse to extend his rule. Arjun Narsingh remarked: "When we have a security situation where armed Maoists in broad daylight parade at will, political workers have fled to the district headquarters or Kathmandu, and more than 200,000 people have migrated, elections will only create more problems." He accused the King of eroding the gains of the 1990 pro-democracy movement in order to restore a despotic monarchy. The decree to allocate to the Palace 142 million Nepali rupees to finance the purchase of three new luxury cars and a string of civic receptions at a time when the country was being bled dry has provoked wide criticism in the media. UML leader K.P. Oli described the allocation as "ill-timed".

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Support for the agitation has come from the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Prachanda. However, the alliance has ruled out any unity with the Maoists unless there is a consensus on unity of purpose and means. The bottom line for the Maoists is the setting up of an elected constituent Assembly that is expected to deliver a republican polity for Nepal. The Nepali Congress and the UML are still clinging to the constitutional monarchy frame although they have increasingly voiced the opinion, as UML leader Madhav Nepal did, that "it's the King who is sowing the seeds of a republic". Jhala Nath Khanal, also of the UML, was equally blunt: "It is high time the King talked to the rebels." Evidently, the initiative is still seen to rest with the King. After Madhav Nepal's Lucknow (in Uttar Pradesh, India) meeting with the Maoist leadership, channels of direct communication have not existed. "How can we trust them when they attack our party workers?" asks Arjun Narasingh. Prachanda promptly replied: "Workers should refrain from spying for feudal forces." While Prachanda appeals for a united struggle, he insists that "there is no alternative to military struggle as the feudal forces have time and again fallen back in finding a peaceful solution".

DEVASTATING armed attacks by the Maoists in March at Bhojpur and Beni Bazar have demonstrated their continuing capacity to launch mass strikes. In Bhojpur 32 security personnel were killed. In Beni, according to the Maoist FM radio, only 50 Maoists were killed although Army sources put the toll at 500. The toll on the side of the security forces has been steadily rising from the initial figure of 51. In Beni the Maoists fired mortars. According to the Nepal Red Cross, some 30 civilians were killed largely, in strafing by attack helicopters. The Maoists unilaterally released 37 people taken hostage at Beni, including the District Officer and the Superintendent of Police. Home Minister Kamal Thapa has ruled out any negotiations for ceasefire with the Maoists. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan and the U.S. government spokesperson Richard Boucher appealed for peace. But the government remains committed to a strategy of militarily "cutting them (Maoists) down to size before any negotiations can take place". Thapa is confident that the ongoing military operations will control Maoist activities and, on the basis of the optimism, visiting U.S. generals were led to believe that the Maoists were getting "weaker" and their military capacity was getting degraded. Bhojpur and Beni proved the theory wrong.

The RNA's modernising and rearming spree has not been able to shift the strategic equilibrium to its advantage. The boast of the RNA's transformation from a ceremonial to a modern fighting force has still to be demonstrated. Some 200,000 M-16 rifles and the Indian INSAS guns are in the pipeline, as also two Indian attack helicopters. Discussions have begun on the possible supply of U.S. transport helicopters. All this has resulted in a quantum leap in the level of destructive violence in the civil war, with the Maoists having taken away sophisticated weapons during their raids. Moreover, access to human intelligence remains a critical issue and is undermined by the RNA's human rights record. The RNA has grown to a 70,000-strong force but it remains reactive and overstretched with 30-40 per cent of the force locked in the defence of the valley and providing security to the King. The Maoists have enforced extended bandhs and economic blockades, virtually bringing to a halt all movement on the main highway for three weeks. The Maoist strategy of economic encirclement eased only after public protests, says Shyam Sreshtha.

However, the recent arrest in India of three top Maoist leaders, Matrika Prasad Yadav, Suresh Ali Magar and the No.2 in the party, Mohan Vaidya, has exposed the vulnerability of the sanctuary on the Indian side of the border. While Yadav and Magar were handed over to the Nepal authorities, Vaidya, who was arrested on March 28 in Siliguri in West Bengal, has been charged with waging war against India. The initial reaction to the arrest of Matrika Yadav and Suresh Magar was low key with Prachanda asserting that "by kidnapping a popular Terai leader and a member of the janajati (indigenous people), Indian rulers have distanced themselves from the Nepali people. Baburam Bhattarai, hit out at the "nexus" between the monarch and India based on the trading away of Nepal's water resources. Maoist cadre struck at 18 water tankers with Indian registration plates and roughed up the Indian crew. It has reinforced the demand by State governments on the Indian side of the border for greater border control to counter the challenge of the growing cross-border cooperation between Naxalites and co-ethnic groups. There is a huge Nepali diaspora in the five Indian States that are contiguous with the border.

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"Whether the Maoist leadership is now disassociating itself from the attack by cadre, or is being conciliatory or confrontationist, is not important. What is significant is our interest. And that is, that we cannot allow the state to collapse and allow the Maoists to overrun it," an Indian policy-maker told Frontline. That predicates India bolstering the strength of the RNA and consequently the King in his increasingly anti-democratic stance.

In Kathmandu, the international community is divided, almost physically, with those on the Kathmandu side of the Bagmati bridge - the Indian, U.S. and British embassies - on one side, and the European and U.N. representatives, based largely in Patan, on the other. The U.N. and the European Union have been pushing for peace talks and criticising the overly military approach of the three forces. "Ask the E.U. and the others, do they want us to withdraw support and let the Maoist make a clean sweep of Nepal?" a highly placed Indian source said. They can make these brave statements because they are 3,000 miles away. They won't have to face the influx of hundreds of people. We don't have the luxury of distance," he said.

Political analysts in Kathmandu wonder at the way the King has been able, wittingly or unwittingly, to manipulate the international community. The King knows that New Delhi and Washington see the monarchy as the symbol of stability and identity and the RNA as the means to contain the Maoists. Consequently, India agreed to bail out the RNA in the matter of its deteriorating human rights record, at the meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The problem is that you strengthen the RNA and you strengthen the King in Nepal's power-play. Narayanhiti Palace has also been able to exploit India's determination to be the top player. U.S. sources here protest that "we're not here for the long-term and budgetary constraints will whittle down our commitments". However, the high-profile activities of the U.S. Ambassador (flying in a U.S. military plane to Bhojpur) and the regular visits in C-130 aircraft of U.S. military trainers, tell another story.

Indian Ambassador Shyam Saran's reiteration of support for the twin constitutional features of Nepal - the monarchy and multi-party democracy - has, however, been favourably remarked upon by the media but apparently not where it matters. While all eyes are on the street agitation, the Indian embassy is worried about the economic squeeze as the spate of blockades and bandhs begin to bite into the bubble economy of the Kathmandu valley. With the Maoist having penetrated the Terai, Nepal `s agricultural base and the major trade-transit links, economic pressures could induce a surge of disaffection.

`Some reason to be cautiously optimistic'

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Interview with H. Rajan Sharma, lawyer of the survivors.

H. Rajan Sharma, an international lawyer and author currently based in New York, represents the survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster in courts in the United States. He obtained his Juris Doctor degree from the American University, Washington D.C. He has written extensively on international law and politics. His most recent article, `Dispute Resolution Mechanisms in International Environmental & Investment Disputes' was published by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague and included in a collection of The Peace Palace Papers by the International Bureau of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Sharma has been profiled by The American Lawyer magazine and has been nominated for inclusion in `The Best Lawyers in America'. In an e-mail interview to V. Venkatesan, he answers questions on the Appeals Court's decision.

What makes the Appeals Court decision significant?

Never before in judicial history has a court sitting in one country ordered a multinational corporation to go some 8,000 miles [12,800 km] to clean up and remediate an environmental mess in another country literally halfway around the world. It is unprecedented. And that the precedent should be set in a case about Union Carbide's conduct in Bhopal certainly seems more than appropriate.

What is the next stage in the progress of this case? Are you optimistic about the outcome?

The case will go back before the District Court. It is, however, virtually impossible to predict the outcome or to speculate how the District Court will approach these issues. On the other hand, we believe that the legal effect of the Appeals Court rulings is very much in favour of the Bhopal victims and survivors. To that extent, I believe there is some reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Why is it important that Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) assumes responsibility for the clean-up of the site itself? What are the specific implications of this?

It is extremely important that Union Carbide be made to pay for and undertake the clean-up of the UCIL [Union Carbide India Limited] plant site. To understand this, one has to appreciate the hundreds of thousands of metric tons [tonnes] of extremely toxic waste and hazardous chemicals that have been buried in over 11 waste pits on the site, the landfill for the three solar evaporation ponds which contain several thousand metric tons of waste buried under the surface with just a thin plastic liner, and the other asbestos wall cladding, tons of crude Sevin, alpha naphthol and Sevin tarry residue, etc., on the site. These materials are gradually leaching into the groundwater aquifer beneath the surface of the plant and spreading through the drinking water supply of at least 10 neighbourhoods surrounding the factory. Some of these toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, scientifically determined in sample tests of the water supply, have been found to be at extremely high levels in the drinking water of these areas.

Tests conducted by the University of Exeter laboratories in the United Kingdom found, for example, that one carcinogenic chemical was present in the drinking water at nearly 1,705 times the maximum level permitted by the World Health Organisation. Other studies have found these chemicals in the breast milk of women living in the affected areas. Here, you have the possibility of another "slow motion Bhopal", where thousands of people over several generations may be injured or even killed by the underground contamination spreading through the water supplies of the area. In fact, although more studies are needed to determine the precise extent of the groundwater contamination, it is at least conceivable that eventually such high levels of contamination might spread to the drinking water supply of Bhopal as a whole.

The Indian government and the M.P. government now have an opportunity to redeem themselves by preventing this "slow motion Bhopal". On a more practical note, the M.P. government and the Indian government have been aware of this problem for some time but have been unable to address it properly. The M.P. government has asked the company that purchased UCIL to clean up the plant site and remove the source of the contamination. That company, Eveready Industries India Limited, has expressly and publicly refused to do so, claiming that the plant site was surrendered to the M.P. authorities in 1998 and it has no further responsibilities regarding the plant.

The Indian government has been trying to figure out how to handle the large-scale and massive nature of the task of properly remediating the plant site but is daunted by the complexity, magnitude and expense of the task. At one point, I believe they asked the Indian Department of Defence to take a look at the problem. But the problem is simply too huge and complex to be properly handled by government agencies and too expensive for them to contract it out to foreign companies. The Indian Supreme Court too has looked at the matter and asked that the international principle of "polluter pays" should be applied to the issue. Moreover, there is absolutely no reason why Indian taxpayers and the Indian public should be made to pay hundreds and hundreds of crores to clean up the plant site and the off-site contamination caused by Union Carbide, a company that has already done such egregious harm to the country and its people.

The importance of making Carbide responsible for clean-up is, in other words, a most basic proposition of justice: that this notorious corporate criminal should be held responsible for cleaning up the environmental mess that it has made in Bhopal, instead of being allowed to "socialise" this cost to the Indian public and taxpayer while it manages to "privatise" the profits from its unlawful conduct in the form of the sale of UCIL and other plant assets. From 1989 onwards, Union Carbide was actively involved with the Bhopal plant site in terms of what it called its "Bhopal Site Rehabilitation & Asset Recovery Project." Clearly, the emphasis was on "asset recovery" because, by its own admission in our case, Union Carbide has publicly conceded that it basically abandoned the plant site and any proposed remediation efforts in 1994 when the Indian Supreme Court allowed it to sell its shares in UCIL.

How will the submissions made by the Government of India and the Madhya Pradesh government before the District Court help the plaintiffs?

We do intend to approach them. All the insurmountable expenses and difficulties faced by the Indian government or the M.P. government regarding both on-site and off-site remediation can be avoided by the simple expedient of making just one submission to the U.S. court stating that they would be receptive to an order from a U.S. court requiring Carbide to undertake injunctive relief. There is simply no reason why the Indian or M.P. government should hesitate to do so. They are not required to become parties to the case or do anything that would adversely affect or even inconvenience them. It would be astonishing if the Government of India or the M.P. government would fail to avail itself of this opportunity, especially since they would benefit from it almost as much as the Bhopal survivors.

How did the Appeals Court address the District Court's argument that India's interests will get impugned by any grant of equitable relief from U.S. courts?

The District Court ruled that any grant of equitable relief will automatically interfere with India's interests in the context of this case (or, indeed, any other case). Simply put, the District Court held that any grant of such equitable relief by the U.S. courts for remediation affecting property located outside the U.S. would automatically and inevitably be inappropriate because it would interfere with or impugn a foreign sovereign's interests. This was the settled proposition of U.S. law that we were arguing against with no actual precedents in our favour because it has never been done before. Yet, our arguments prevailed over the settled, antiquated rule.

The Appeals Court said: "There may be circumstances in which it is appropriate for a court to grant injunctive relief with respect to the remediation of an environmental problem in a foreign country." It is not very dramatic-sounding, but the legal significance of the ruling is, I believe, nothing less than historic.

Encircling Russia

JOHN CHERIAN world-affairs

The latest expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation by taking in seven countries, all except one of them members of the erstwhile Warsaw Pact, is a step closer to the encirclement of Russia by the Western military alliance.

ON March 29, United States President George W. Bush formally welcomed seven new members to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) at a ceremony in the White House. The new members are Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Except Slovenia, all of them were part of the Warsaw Pact, which was the military counter-weight to NATO in Europe during the Cold War. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were part of the Soviet Union.

President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Mikhail Gorbachev was given an assurance by the West prior to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall that NATO too would be disbanded eventually. Many in the West argued that with the disappearance of the so-called Communist threat, the rationale for the existence of NATO no longer existed. In retrospect, Washington had long-term plans aimed at ensuring its continued military dominance in East and Central Europe.

NATO was formed on April 4, 1949, by 12 countries - Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. The first formal expansion of NATO took place in 1999, when three former Warsaw Pact members, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, were welcomed into the alliance.

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Moscow, while not publicly pressing the panic button, has reasons to be worried. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov has said that his country will be forced to revise its defence policy unless NATO revised its military doctrine. "Why is an organisation that was designed to oppose the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe still necessary in today's world?" he asked. The Russian leadership had made it clear to the U.S. that it considers the recent expansion as an unfriendly step and an extension of U.S. hegemony into Central-Eastern Europe. With the U.S. pulling all the strings in NATO, that means the setting up of U.S. military bases and deep penetration by the U.S. of the military and security systems of East Europe. NATO encirclement will also mean that U.S. missiles will be seconds away from Moscow and U.S. spy planes will be constantly snooping on Russian defence and scientific installations.

Even some NATO members, notably France and Germany, are not too happy with the unseemly haste with which the new members have been brought in. The seven new members form part of what U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has characterised as "new Europe". The U.S. hopes to downsize further the influence of Western Europe in NATO as it completes the encirclement of Russia. With the addition of the new members, NATO's access to the Kalingrad region as well as the Black Sea will be further circumscribed.

By European standards, barring Slovenia, the new members are relatively poor but are all part of President Bush's "coalition of the willing" in the so-called `War on Terror'. Membership of NATO was one of the inducements offered to these countries. U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel had described the new NATO members as the "Coalition of the Bought" last year. In lieu of their token participation in Iraq, the Bush administration had given these countries a lot of inducements, including the setting up of a $100-million Central European Investment Fund, enhanced trade status and easier access to international capital. Many of the new members joined the "coalition of the willing" without taking their Parliaments or people into confidence. NATO is being expanded when older NATO members such as Spain, which is the sixth biggest contributor of troops, have given notice that they are withdrawing troops from Iraq. There are 1,300 Spanish troops in Iraq. Even the Polish government has hinted that the withdrawal of its 2,460 troops from Iraq is a distinct possibility. Poland has the fourth largest number of troops in that country. The new NATO members have so far contributed only a token number of soldiers.

The Russian Defence Minster, in a signed article, has said that Russia has valid reasons to be concerned about NATO's ongoing expansion, particularly if it goes ahead with the plan to build big military bases in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. "The alliance is gaining greater ability to control and monitor Russian territory. We cannot turn a blind eye as NATO's air and military bases get much closer to cities and defence complexes in European Russia," he wrote. Russia has also expressed its concerns about NATO's new priorities, which are contrary to its charter and stated goals. At the NATO summit held in Prague in 2002, the alliance agreed to undertake military operations even outside the territory of member-nations, whenever deemed necessary, without a United Nations mandate. "Any NATO actions not approved by the U.N. should therefore be considered illegal - including `preventive wars' like that in Iraq," wrote Ivanov. He told the Russian media in early April that he regretted that NATO was "much more concerned about the deployment of military bases and strike aircraft as close to the Russian borders as possible".

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in the first week of April that NATO's enlargement would not help solve international problems. "Practice has shown that a mechanical enlargement cannot help us ward off the threats we face. This enlargement could not prevent the terrorist acts in Madrid, nor could it help us solve the problems in Afghanistan," Putin pointed out. The Kremlin has reason to be wary about Washington's game plan. In the last two years, American military bases have been established in Russia's "Asian underbelly" - the states of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The U.S. has bases in Georgia and Bulgaria. NATO now has a foothold in the Baltic, Caspian and Black Seas. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac were in Moscow in the first week of April. They were the first Western leaders to visit Moscow after Putin's re-election. The NATO expansion would have no doubt been on top of their agenda for discussion. Putin has said on several occasions that Russia, Germany and France have "practically coinciding" positions on most international issues.

Though the Russian leadership is not openly articulating it, NATO is being perceived as a political organisation that has illegally appropriated global responsibilities. Its recent actions have also shown that it is a military-political alliance inimical to Russia. NATO has made it clear that it will go on expanding until it seals once and for all the political results of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The next round of expansion could involve Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, completing the geopolitical encirclement of Russia. Some Russian commentators say that the eastward expansion of NATO constitutes the biggest threat to their country since the Great Patriotic War (Second World War ). Before its neighbours joined NATO, Russia had nothing to fear from their armies. Now it has to confront the might of NATO at its doorstep. Statements by Western leaders that they consider Russia as "a partner not an enemy" will no longer be taken seriously.

The everyday in `New New Delhi'

On `Room With A View', a participative installation project aimed at expressing the multiple meanings of urban space and art practice.

"No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it. And yet between the one and the other there is a connection."

- Italo Calvino, in Invisible Cities.

DELHI lives in several cities at once, just as an artist inhabits several mindscapes. Right at this moment, however, both the city and contemporary art practice have been through seismic shifts. "Room With A View", artist Vivan Sundaram's latest installation project, takes the viewer right into the heart of the beast that is "New New Delhi".

While it is difficult to straitjacket the form, installation art includes multi-media, multi-dimensional and multi-form works that are created temporarily for a particular space or site either outdoors or indoors, in a museum or a gallery. "Room With A View" is a piece of art you can look at, hear, feel and even walk through. A participative project, each of the five interlocking "rooms" is taken over by different individuals to express the multiple realities of urban space and art practice. Each of these fragments is a clutch on the city.

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The first section, inspired by architect Romi Khosla, is a tribute to the dream life of the city. With a soft-padded floor, floating Buddhas and an insouciantly levitating French mattress, the space is both a meditation on utopian visions of the urban, and also a dig at "Delhi being perceived as a planned garden city", says Sundaram.

New New Delhi is a city on the bleeding edge of change, as global commerce and communications rewrite our social contracts. The next section featuring the Raqs media collective takes a look at this transformation, unpeeling the invisible cities that lie beneath the official metropolis. A small TV screen blaring English lessons, placed on top of a shaky, tinny ladder invites us to look at the new world spawned by the call centre explosion in the city, the newfound social mobility and the way we transact with a global culture. The prison-like wall mimics that call-centre ethos, with cubicles painted in a black and white grid-gone-crazy.

Right next to this is the space devoted to the artist-photographer Ram Rehman that points to a whole new kind of social fluidity. As a global artist, Rehman straddles two worlds, splitting his time between New York and India. His political affiliations also place him in an international creative community and this section, scattered with postcards and pamphlets, naturally blends the personal and the political sides to him.

The wall is dominated by a collage of photographs, much like the Page Three phenomenon of society pictures. Except, it is not. This collection busts the cosy "people like us" logic of social groups, as the groups of artists and intellectuals jostle with full frontal portraits of scruffy, decidedly working-class young men. Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and social depths, writes Susan Sontag. Here, instead of the photographing of other class realities, "that gentlest of predations", the collage offers the mixed-up worldview of a homosexual, eclectic and un-pinnable artist.

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We then move to the startling space reserved for the artist couple Manmeet and Shantanu Lodh. Much like the city sidewalk at night, this is when the lurid, the transgressive, takes over - an assortment of photographs that play with the body, literally deflating and inflating the human form, are casually displayed on the floor. On the facing wall, there is a photograph of Shantanu blowing breath into a pair of bloody lungs, and another one, only half-rolled down, showing us a glimpse of the same scene. Interestingly, this section is separated from the previous adjoining spaces, all of which link into each other in some form or the other - just as some borders bleed more easily into others in this emerging global city. For example, Ram Rehman's section featured a tiny dark room with a peephole that let in the outside world.

The last section is cut off from the rest by small stones. It is dedicated to Chintan, an organisation that works with rag-pickers, and is a reminder of the unlovely underside of the city that sustains the other urban visions. (Delhi? New Delhi? New New Delhi? It's the same difference, seen from here.) A naked light-bulb and a sputtering motor underscore the point. While Romi Khosla's room at the other end almost seeks to ascend into pure spirit, a collection of dusty shoe-soles tethers this space to grim reality. On the edge that is a stark square of light, a point from where you contemplate the squalor just like the bright lights of a big city, ironically enough, actually obscure its dark details.

From the floating French mattress to the ugly rubber tyre, nothing urban is alien to Sundaram's exhibition. "Everything's got a moral, if you can find it," said the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. Merging other artists' work into the installation and curating the show himself, Vivan Sundaram has repeatedly punctured the idea of authorship and intention, since the meaning made in people's heads is as valid as the stated project. As such, "Room With A View" is a witty and layered show, and a unique invitation to decode the everyday in New New Delhi.

Remembering a genocide

JOHN CHERIAN world-affairs

Ten years after the genocide in Rwanda that killed more than 800,000 people, the international community has apparently come to terms with its failure to prevent the tragic event.

THE international community observed April 7 as "a day of reflection on the genocide" which claimed the lives of more than 800,000 citizens of Rwanda in 1994. The killings started on April 6, after the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprian Ntayamira was shot down as it was preparing to land at the Kigali airport. All on board were killed. The extremists in the Hutu tribe, which accounts for more than 85 per cent of the population of the land-locked country, embarked on a killing spree, targeting the minority Tutsis. (Habyarimana belonged to the Hutu community.) The massacre of Tutsis continued non-stop for 13 weeks, as the international community stood watching. On an average 8,000 people were killed every day. In some cases, the victims paid their killers to kill them in a "humane" way. Death by shooting was preferred to being hacked by a machete.

Churches and hospitals were turned into slaughterhouses as neighbour killed neighbour. The Catholic Church - most Rwandans are Catholics - did not exactly cover itself with glory. Evidence of the complicity of some clergy in the killings has surfaced. Significantly, since the genocide, many Rwandans embraced Islam. The few mosques in Rwanda were more hospitable to internal refugees seeking sanctuary than the many churches that dotted the country.

After the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government took power in July 1994, around 200,000 Hutus were targeted for revenge killing. The two groups have been at loggerheads since the time of the colonial rule. The Tutsis were favoured by Belgium, the colonial power that ruled Rwanda and Burundi. Both the countries, since independence in 1963, have witnessed serious bloodletting involving the two ethnic groups.

It was evident by the early 1990s that a major crisis was brewing in the Great Lakes region, centred mainly around Rwanda and Burundi. Tutsi rebel armies had already effected a regime change in Uganda, installing Yoweri Museveni in Kampala. A key commander of the rebel Ugandan forces was Paul Kagame, the current Rwandan President and an important ally of the United States in the region. His guerilla army was preparing to oust the Hutu-dominated regime in Rwanda and capture power when the plane was shot down.

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United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking at a memorial conference on the Rwanda genocide, acknowledged that "the international community failed Rwanda". He admitted that if the international community had acted promptly and with determination, it could have stopped most of the killings. In his speech, Annan recalled that a 1993 report by a U.N. Special Rapporteur had spoken specifically of "an impending catastrophe". Guns and machetes were being distributed in the preceding years in order to prepare for ethnic cleansing on a grand scale.

As the international community was commemorating the genocide, a new blame game seemed to have started. A French judicial investigation into the circumstances that led to the downing of the plane carrying Habyarimana concluded that the RPF fired the two missiles which caused the plane crash. French judge Jean Louis Brugiere has placed the guilt squarely on the shoulders of Paul Kagame, who was then the RPF commander. According to the Judge, Kagame had personally authorised the shooting down of the French-made Falcon-50 aircraft. Other reports have suggested that a Tutsi commando team in Kigali fired Russian-made missiles that had been captured by the Americans from Iraq in the first Gulf war and handed over to the Ugandans.

Kagame has dismissed the allegations. Speaking in Kigali on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the genocide, he instead accused the French government of siding with Hutu extremists who masterminded the genocide. He said that the French government had knowingly supported the genocide by arming the killers and even manning roadblocks. In response, the French Deputy Foreign Minster, who was in the Rwandan capital, cut short his visit. The French government dismissed Kagame's insinuations. However, the French and Belgian governments have done some soul-searching and admitted the shortcomings in their conduct in respect of Rwanda. The two countries had supported the Hutu-dominated government before the happenings of 1994.

It was the U.S. administration that pressured the U.N. Security Council against using the word "genocide" to describe the mass killings in Rwanda, when the issue came up for discussion in 1994. Under U.N. conventions, the international community has to act immediately to stop a genocide. But Washington was apparently not interested in the fate of innocent people in Africa. Finally, the U.N. only managed to send a small contingent of 400 peace-keepers to Rwanda in 1994. Moreover, while the Canadian commander of the U.N. forces Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire requested on several occasions for reinforcements as tensions were rising, the U.N. headquarters replied that the mission was over and that the forces should return.

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The Tutsi rebels, when they were part of the Ugandan rebel army under Museveni, were the recipients of U.S. aid. Washington was fully aware that after capturing power in Kampala, the Tutsi forces would divert their focus to Rwanda. The Tutsi incursions into Rwanda had started as early as 1991. In October 1991, a Tutsi invasion force was able to move as close as 60 km near Kigali. The French troops stationed in Rwanda helped the Hutu-dominated government to fend off the attack. The U.S. State Department, according to reports that have appeared in the U.S. media, was already working closely with its man - Paul Kagame. Washington increased its support to Uganda and allowed Museveni to step up the supply of military hardware to the Tutsi army. There was a keen contest between Washington and Paris in the 1990s to increase their respective sphere of influence in Africa, especially in the Great Lakes region.

IMMEDIATELY after the genocide in Rwanda ended, the killings spread to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). More than a million Hutus along with extremist militias had fled to the DRC to escape revenge killings by Tutsis. Some Hutus had fled to avoid facing justice.

The Rwandan army, which was emerging as one of the best fighting forces in the region, went after the Hutu militias deep into the DRC, in the process unleashing a new civil war in the country. That conflict perhaps cost more lives than the genocide in Rwanda. Again, the West and the international community remained for most of the time idle spectators to the carnage and looting. It is now estimated that more than four million people were killed in the conflict in the DRC, which started in 1997.

Only after the Congolese parties to the conflict arrived at a settlement with the help of South African mediators did the U.N. step in with a small peace-keeping force. Until 2003, armies of more than six African countries were fighting in the DRC. Ironically, Museveni and Kagame found themselves on opposite sides of the firing line in the DRC. A clash of political and economic interests led to their estrangement. Today, the erstwhile comrades are barely on speaking terms.

WITH Kagame ruling with an iron hand, there is apparent political stability in Rwanda. In the elections held in early 2004, more than 95 per cent of the electorate is said to have cast its vote in favour of Kagame. However, the Opposition and international observers have said that the elections were far from being fair and free. All opponents of Kagame are being tarred as supporters of genocide. About 90,000 people accused of participating in the genocide are still crammed into jails; they have been living under inhumane conditions for the past 10 years. Prisoners who have confessed to their involvement in the killings have been released. Many of them have even been allowed to resettle in their land, side by side with the families of their victims.

The government is claiming that a reconciliation process is very much on track. However, there are complaints from the majority Hutus that the government has not bothered to investigate the killings of their compatriots by the RPF. The government has now banned the citizens of the country from identifying themselves as Tutsis or Hutus. The colonial government had started the practice of issuing identity cards on the basis of ethnicity. The records kept by the colonial administrators had helped the killers identify their victims when the carnage started.

A historic ruling

A U.S. Court of Appeals sustains the plea of the survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster and orders Union Carbide Corporation to undertake the removal of contamination in and around the abandoned pesticide plant.

AFTER nearly 20 years of struggle for justice and due compensation, the survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, the world's worst environmental and industrial disaster, won a major legal victory against Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the perpetrator of the disaster and the then owner of the pesticide plant in Bhopal, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, New York.

Setting a significant precedent in the history of environmental litigation, on March 17, the court approved "injunctive environmental remediation" against UCC to clean up the pollution it caused in Bhopal. The judgment was delivered by Circuit Judges Wilfred Feinberg, Amalya L. Kearse and Reena Raggi.

The term "injunctive environmental remediation" encompasses any work that has to be done to remove contamination or pollution from a given site in order to restore it to certain applicable environmental standards. In this case, for example, remediation might entail a complete decontamination of the soil, the filtration and removal of contaminants in the groundwater to safe drinking levels, the removal of all the waste matter on the site such as asbestos wall cladding through the "treatment" or processing of such waste and/or transporting it to a location outside India.

Haseena Bi, one of the survivors of the tragedy, and several organisations in Bhopal representing survivors were plaintiffs in a class action suit against UCC filed before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York seeking damages and injunctive relief for the severe pollution of their land and drinking water. A class action suit enables individuals and organisations to make a complaint both individually and on behalf of all other classes of persons similarly situated. The plaintiffs alleged that thousands of residents in and around the abandoned pesticide plant in Bhopal were exposed to toxins because of the contamination of soil and water. They accused UCC of causing pollution by utilising improper technology in the design of the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) facility in Bhopal and then recklessly dumping large quantities of toxic materials at the plant site. They claimed that pollutants from the plant continued to seep into the local environment causing serious health problems for nearby residents. "If nothing is done to resolve this problem in terms of the relief sought, UCC will have bequeathed another large-scale environmental catastrophe to Bhopal," the plaintiffs warned.

In March 2003, the District Court rejected the suit on the grounds that Haseena Bi's claims were time-barred, that organisations could not be representatives of individual plaintiffs, and that it would be impossible for a U.S. court to implement a decision that required a U.S. corporation to clean up contaminated land. The plaintiffs then filed an appeal before the Second Circuit Court of Appeal on the basis of internal documents of UCC and points of law.

It is important to understand the Appeals Court's decision in terms of the overall nature of the claims made in the class action suit. Plaintiffs had claimed the following as relief: (1) Damages for personal injury caused by exposure to contaminants in drinking water and soil through the underground aquifer from the UCIL factory; (2) monetary damages for loss of value of property and private hand pumps; (3) claims for medical monitoring of an estimated 20,000 people living in the 10 municipal wards around the former Carbide plant where contamination has been found; (4) environmental clean-up and remediation of off-site contamination on private properties/residences/hand pumps of plaintiffs; and (5) environmental clean-up and remediation of the former UCIL factory itself.

The Appeals Court has reinstated virtually all the claims. The court maintained that the plaintiffs' personal injury claims must be allowed to go forward but stated that the statute of limitations for such claims must be limited to three years before the filing of the complaint in November 1999. Of course, the three-year limitation period eliminates the claims of Haseena Bi who had stated that the injuries and symptoms resulting from contamination approximately dated back to 1990. But the case is "class action" litigation and Haseena Bi's personal injury claims are not the only ones to be included. Other plaintiffs can advance their personal injury claims, subject to the three-year time period. The District Court had not addressed the issue.

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The Appeals Court reversed the District Court's conclusion that monetary relief for property damage and loss of value of property and private hand pumps must be dismissed on the basis of the three-year limitation. The court affirmed the argument of the plaintiffs that because such claims are "continuous" and "ongoing" in nature the defence of a three-year limitation is not applicable. The Appeals Court also held that notice of personal injury damage did not amount to a constructive notice of property damage. This means that Haseena Bi and the approximately 20,000 residents of the 10 municipal wards in Bhopal that have been affected are free to prosecute such claims against UCC.

The Appeals Court declined to address the District Court's dismissal of the medical monitoring claims on technical grounds. Essentially, this means that the medical monitoring claims on behalf of the 20,000 or so plaintiffs continue to remain viable for individuals and the class.

The Appeals Court reversed the District Court's dismissal of claims for "injunctive relief" regarding property, that is, the clean-up of individual properties and hand pumps off-site.

The Appeals Court did, however, affirm the District Court's dismissal of the plaintiffs' claims that UCC should be made to pay for and undertake proper environmental clean-up and remediation of the former UCIL plant site. The court did so with an important caveat: it rejected the District Court's conclusion that such clean-up or equitable relief would be either "impossible" or would automatically "interfere" with India's interest in handling its own environmental problem. The term "equitable relief" is used to suggest that the court orders the defendant to do something, in terms of an activity, as opposed to merely paying damages for the harm it caused.

According to the plaintiffs' counsel, H. Rajan Sharma (see interview), the decision seems to suggest that such equitable relief for clean-up and remediation of the source of pollution, that is, the plant where thousands of tonnes of waste were improperly stored and disposed of, would be feasible and appropriate if either the Indian government or the Madhya Pradesh government were to make a submission indicating "receptivity" to an order from a U.S. court directing UCC to pay for and undertake such a clean-up. Furthermore, the Appeals Court expressly instructed the District Court to wait for and hold open the possibility of granting injunctive relief "until the entry of final judgment" in the case.

INDEED, there is no parallel to the December 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in terms of the magnitude of destruction and the number of deaths. But the process of rendering justice to the victims has proved to be a deplorable legal tragedy. While the criminal case against those responsible for the disaster has been proceeding in the Bhopal District Court at a snail's pace, the civil case seeking due compensation appears to have been closed after the Indian Government and UCC arrived at a settlement before the Supreme Court in 1989. Under the settlement, UCC and its Indian subsidiary, UCIL, agreed to pay, and paid, $470 million to the Government of India on behalf of all the victims. Since then, the survivors of the tragedy have been questioning the unjust nature of the settlement and improper consideration of the compensation claims of individual victims and survivors. Besides, they have been deploring the extent of indifference within India and outside to the magnitude of the tragedy, and its continuing consequences for the health of the survivors and their families.

It was in this context that the organisations of the survivors and the relatives of those killed took their legal battle to the U.S. in November 1999. It coincided with the publication of the report by the Greenpeace Research Laboratories, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Exeter, based on its independent testing of the soil and water in Bhopal. The report found substantial to severe contamination of land and drinking water supplies with heavy metals and persistent organic contaminants both within and around the former UCIL plant.

In their class action suit, the survivors sought monetary and equitable relief under various common law theories for environmental harm allegedly attributable to the UCIL plant, but not related to the gas leak. The District Court had dismissed these claims, along with others. The Appeals Court returned the case to the District Court in November 2001 in order to permit the latter to consider the claims afresh, as in its view the judge had erred in dismissing them (Frontline, January 4, 2002). The dismissal of the claims by the District Court again in March 2003 on other grounds forced the plaintiffs to approach the Appeals Court again.

IF the plaintiffs' legal battle is to succeed finally, they need the cooperation of both the Union and Madhya Pradesh governments. The decision itself presents the invitation to submit a communication in express, specific language: "Madhya Pradesh has neither been made a party to this lawsuit nor sought to intervene, and the record contains no communication from Madhya Pradesh or the Indian government indicating its receptivity to an order of a United States court compelling work on the property... we believe the District Court should be free to revisit its dismissal of the claim for plant-site remediation in the event that the Indian government or the State of Madhya Pradesh seeks to intervene in the action or otherwise urges the court to order such relief."

In other words, if the District Court is to order UCC and its inheritors, Dow Chemicals, to undo the contamination in Bhopal, the two governments must first show their willingness to facilitate the execution of the order. It is up to the two governments now to seize the opportunity and help the plaintiffs-survivors obtain justice, even if it is belated.

A campaign goes awry

THE smarties of the Bharatiya Janata Party must be ruing the day when they came up with the shameful, offending and condemnable twin slogans - "Feel Good" and "India Shining". Thoughtlessly coining slogans and phrases can be counter-productive. This is precisely what has happened to these two foolish electoral slogans of the BJP.

Well thought through slogans, phrases and signs catch the imagination and gradually sink into our consciousness. Let me offer a few samples. Abraham Lincoln's "Government of the people, for the people... " and Churchill's V for victory sign are universally used. Tilak's "Swaraj is my birth right" resonates even today. Gandhiji's "loin cloth" conveyed a powerful message. Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Rendezvous with destiny" is still quoted along with Nehru's midnight "Tryst with Destiny." Subhas Chandra Bose gave us "Jai Hind", Indira Gandhi, "Garibi Hatao". John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you... " continues to transcend national and international boundaries. In each case, the message is clear. So much is conveyed in so few words. Not one of these invited criticism or ridicule. Why? Because each in its own way touched the heart, stirred the imagination. Above all, each rang true.

Why have "feel good" and "India shining" flopped? Why have they invited such derision and damning denunciation? Simply put, neither rings true. Neither reflects reality. People find each false and phoney.

I was in Rajasthan some days ago, addressing a largely attended public meeting, at Sikar, 125 km from Jaipur. A local poet made mincemeat of the "feel good" campaign. The 30,000-strong audience of farmers liked every bit of it, clapping, cheering and roaring with laughter. The poet, a "Charan" by caste, possessed a first rate political mind and left no subject untouched - prices, law and order, terrorism, Advani's yatra, Atalji's inconsistencies. He brought the house down. He stole the meeting from the politicians - Balram Jhakhar, Nawal Kishore Sharma and myself. We also joined the fun. By now the BJP must have realised that these slogans are millstones round its neck. They add insult to injury for those living below the poverty line.

Lucknow is the Prime Minister's Lok Sabha constituency. There the poverty and degradation is so monumental that women were willing to risk their lives to get a Rs.40 worth sari to cover their bodies with. The BJP politician whose birthday was the occasion for this vulgar largesse has now invented despicable untruths to hide his guilt. Shame on him. Atal Bihariji's constituency was turned into a morgue. Prime Minister, do you feel good and is this your Shining India?

IS Iraq becoming another Vietnam for the Bush establishment? So it looks. Each time I see the Bush neo-conservatives on TV - Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice - I cannot help feeling that I am in the presence of the past. Their evangelical mind-set is so dangerous. What the American troops did in Fallujah does that great country no credit. Damn it, we are in the 21st century, not in the early 19th. Not a word of condemnation from our U.S.-besotted government. But for the stand taken by the Congress party, the Vajpayee government would have decided to send Indian troops to Iraq. It would have been a major disaster. Even our troops would not have been welcomed either as friends or liberators.

U.S. Defence Secretary Rumsfeld had boasted that American troops in Iraq would be welcomed as liberators. We now know the kind of welcome these "liberators" are getting. America went to war ignoring the U.N. and world opinion. No weapons of mass destruction have been found. The world's only superpower misleads the world and the American people. Standards of morality and uprightness are lowered.

The America of Bush suddenly becomes a menace. All is not lost. The 9/11 Commission is almost daily causing the White House much discomfiture. Suddenly the Republicans look vulnerable, tentative, cornered and unconvincing. November is still seven months away, but Bush & Co could be history if Iraq, under gross American mismanagement, continues to suffer and fall apart.

On September 9, 2000, America could do no wrong. Now it cannot do anything right, not in Iraq. The fight against terrorism was given lower priority than Iraq. America today is isolated. Even Spain has turned its back on Bush and Blair. Rightly so.

I RECENTLY read Pawan Verma's new book Being Indian. I much enjoyed his almost masterful delineation of the urban Indian's character or the lack of it - vivid, sure-footed and at times tongue-in-cheek. Are we really - all of us - sanctimonious humbugs, moral somnambulists, hypocrites or all three? Verma seems to suggest we might be. Survival as a distinct culture and civilisation is no mean achievement. How has India survived? One, India's forte is crisis management. Two, we are good at reconciling contradictions - antagonistic and non-antagonistic (This is Mao Zedong for you). Three, every statement about India is true. So is its opposite. Thus we can all be right or we can all be wrong about India, that is Bharat. I am surprised when even eminently sensible Indians hold forth on the 21st being India's century. My futuristic vision is more realistic. I think in decades, not centuries. If we can sustain an 8 per cent economic growth for a decade we might beat poverty for good. Oh! Dear, I almost forgot Pawan Verma's book. It is very good and avoids the literary excesses of the late Nirad C. Chaudhuri on a similar subject. Being Indian is more contemporary and less ill-tempered.

Brian Lara. Three cheers. At my age, I don't get overexcited. I am not blas. Only detached. I surprised myself watching Lara score 400 and getting all worked up when he was stuck at 390 for eternity. I almost leapt when he got to 400. He is now approaching the Bradman one-member league. However, Lara is unlikely to come anywhere near Don Bradman's average - 99.94.

Can anyone equal Lara's 400 in the near future. Virendra Sehwag could if he keeps a cool head.

The regional route

The "Washington consensus" on an optimal development policy is unravelling rapidly. A recent meeting in New Delhi discusses the concerns of, and the possible alternatives before, the developing countries.

THE United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) will convene for its 11th session in June, at Sao Paulo, Brazil. This would be the first multi-lateral meeting involving the global trade negotiating community, since the collapse of the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) ministerial meeting at Cancun, Mexico, in September. In this sense, UNCTAD XI would mirror some of the context in which its immediate predecessor at Bangkok took place. Then again, the global trade negotiations process had drifted off course after the Seattle ministerial meeting of the WTO ended without agreement, amid scenes of unprecedented chaos and acrimony.

Yet, Bangkok witnessed a degree of cordiality and some tentative steps towards a new beginning. Developing countries insisted on revisiting the Uruguay Round agreements that had been concluded in 1994, to test their multifarious outcomes against the promises made. Developed countries remained averse to reopening what they regarded as a closed chapter, but promised that most of the concerns of the developing world would be met if a new momentum were to be given to the process of multilateral trade liberalisation.

These aspects aside, it would be evident that there are also certain stark contrasts between Bangkok and the forthcoming conclave at Sao Paulo. The world economy then, despite the East and Southeast Asian meltdown just two years prior, seemed to be on fairly even keel. There were growing signs of turbulence ahead, but the United States economy was still powering ahead with the astonishing momentum of growth it had built up through the 1990s.

The next year on, the situation took a turn for the worse. The U.S. economy officially slipped into recession in the first quarter of 2001. And new economic difficulties and vulnerabilities seemed to unravel with the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C., with the stock markets plunging and bankruptcies threatening several pivotal industries. The Doha ministerial meeting of the WTO, taking place in November 2001, was salvaged from almost certain failure only by a major - if finally rather symbolic - concession from developed countries on access to essential medicines. There was also an agreement to revisit the issue of implementation of existing trade agreements. Together with the halo of righteous struggle that the U.S. had acquired after September 11, these gestures succeeded in bringing recalcitrant nations in line for the launch of a new round of global trade negotiations. But positions only hardened as the global recession bit deeper, leading inevitably to the failure at Cancun. Will UNCTAD XI succeed in partially breaking the logjam or at least in fostering an ambience for the resumption of global trade negotiations? The portents are bleak. The U.S. is in election mode and President George W. Bush, though armed with "fast track" trade negotiating authority, would not like to risk offending one or the other special interest group just ahead of what is expected to be a close-run race. The more serious impediment still is the state of the world economy, whose underlying features today indicate that the supposed "Washington consensus" on an optimal development policy, is rapidly unravelling. A long overdue reality check that the UNCTAD Secretariat has carried out as part of its preparations for the Sao Paulo gathering shows that most developing countries in fact, grew much more robustly in the decades preceding the 1990s, before they were yoked to the so-called Washington consensus; indeed, when they were free to pursue relatively autonomous developmental policies, which invariably involved strong state participation in the economy.

MANY of these issues, including possible alternatives for the poorer countries that find themselves today at an impasse as far as development goals are concerned, were discussed at a three-day conference in Delhi in April. Jointly organised by UNCTAD and the Academy of Third World Studies (ATWS) at the Jamia Millia Islamia, the conference drew eminent participants from a number of countries. Among the issues discussed were the growing tenuousness of the global financial boom, the basic maladies afflicting the "real" economy, the linkage between trade liberalisation and development, the options available in controlling and regulating the movement of capital across borders, and the impact of growth on income distribution and poverty levels.

Sunanda Sen, a senior visiting professor with the ATWS, seemed to capture much of the essence of the discussions with a model outlining the linkage between the "real" economy and the growth of the financial sector. She used a telling phrase, borrowed from Hyman Minski - the "euphoric economy" - that seemed a particularly appropriate description of the wellsprings of growth in the global economy today (and also perhaps an ironic comment on the supposed "feel good" factor that pervades the Indian economy).

In Sen's account, the description applies to a situation in which "capital appreciation rather than returns on (capital) assets provide the firms the means to meet rising debt charges". It is now widely recognised that the world economy has for long been running on the single motor of the U.S. And the U.S. in turn, has only managed to sustain its growth by plunging deeper into debt, with the burden being passed on in a cascade through its household, corporate and governmental sectors.

As credit expansion continues apace, it is increasingly channelled into meeting debt charges or garnering speculative gains in the capital market. This sets the stage for the economy to slip into the second phase in the evolution of the link between the real and financial sectors. The real economy begins slowing down but financial expansion continues. Asset prices continue their ascent, and the "wealth effect" that this engenders, fosters the illusion that the rapid accumulation of debt will not be a serious constraint in future.

Then begins the phase of debt deflation, which starts with a "downswing in real activities". Credit sources from this point on fail to "satisfy the liquidity demand to acquire the spurious financial assets which have no real backing". How long in real time does the entire cycle take? The U.S. has been on the verge of several such boom-bust cycles since the early 1980s, but has managed time and again, to find new sources for growth. And each phase of growth has involved a more extravagant debt splurge than the preceding one.

Ever since the U.S. current account deficit became an issue that the world economy had reason to feel concerned about, the U.S. dollar has gone through two cycles of appreciation and depreciation. Yet the impact on the current account balance has been negligible. Conventional processes of adjustment, in other words, were inoperative since the U.S., aside from being the world's principal spendthrift economy, also was the owner of the world reserve currency.

Faced with the adverse repercussions of five years of a rising dollar, the world's main industrialised countries agreed in 1985, after an economic summit at the Plaza Hotel in New York, that they would take serious steps to realign currencies at more realistic levels. With the two principal surplus economies, Germany (then West Germany) and Japan, acting in concert, the dollar was slowly brought down, without any of the seismic shocks that could accompany a sharp drop. Concurrently, a fiscal correction that brought down the U.S. federal budget deficit by over 30 per cent seemed to create the appropriate conditions for restoring the current account to a semblance of balance. That did not happen. The U.S. trade and current accounts continued to plunge further into deficit. And despite the world's main industrialised economies agreeing - in the Louvre accord of 1987 - that the dollar depreciation had gone far enough, the U.S. currency continued to fall. The reason was simply that higher consumption by the household sector in the U.S., at the expense of saving, had largely offset the potentially favourable impact of fiscal correction.

It was only in 1995, when the German and Japanese economies were on the verge of freezing up on account of their strong currencies, that the U.S. decided to return the favour it had been rendered in 1985. The dollar began to rise against the Deutschmark and the Japanese yen. But the trend of the current account balances continued to be moving steadily and rapidly into the red.

Large corporate and household sector borrowings more than made up for the correction that had been attained on the U.S. federal budget. From 2001, the federal budgetary balance too has begun to deteriorate and the dollar to depreciate. Despite the dollar entering into the second of its cycles of depreciation since the 1980s, the external account deficit continues to go as rapidly into deficit.

This background of theory being continually confounded by reality, led to the conference participants posing rather sharply, the question about how long the centrality of the U.S. dollar to the world trade system could be sustained. Michel Aglietta, an economist with the University of Paris, proposed that the dollar was the beneficiary of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An overwhelmingly large share of world trade is denominated in dollars, including almost all transactions in that pivotal commodity, petroleum. This has induced most countries to hold their foreign exchange reserves in dollars. Contracts that have been traditionally concluded in dollars, incorporating the complexities of hedging, futures, risk discounting and every other manoeuvre of modern commerce, cannot be switched to another currency without a tremendous short-term increase in transactions costs. In a global context of deregulated financial markets, this makes U.S. monetary and fiscal policy a decisive determinant of returns to be obtained from investment. As long as there is a sufficient stock of dollars in the world, they will chase the best possible return, whether in U.S. treasury bonds, mortgage instruments or corporate shares.

For Gary Dymski from the University of California Centre, Sacramento, the tide of financial deregulation and liberalisation that enabled the dollar to establish its global sway, had a distinctly negative side. In growing degree, he points out, the "interrelated and globally active financial firms are both reacting to the increasingly polarised distribution of income and wealth around the world, and also behaving in ways that worsen that divide". The outcome has been a divide between "financial citizenship" and "financial exclusion", which grows even as the "wealth/income and security/insecurity divides" grow. Viewed in the context of national economies, Dymski finds a hollowing out of traditional systems of financial provisioning, both from the outside and from the inside. This suggests, in his opinion, that stopping or regulating financial flows at the national border may not be sufficient. Though he does not enter into a full discussion of the range of feasible policy responses, Dymski's arguments seem to point distinctly to the conclusion that directed credit allocation may not be altogether a bad thing.

The indispensability of border controls on capital movements was strongly affirmed by Prabhat Patnaik of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. In an economy with flexible exchange rates and liberalised rules of entry and exit for capital, financial inflows would tend to raise the exchange rate. This would lower the level of economic activity by shifting demand from domestic products to imports. An outflow of capital, however, would not have an equal and opposite impact. Rather, the concomitant downward pressure on the exchange rate could conceivably raise inflationary fears and in turn occasion a cumulative slide in the currency. To prevent this outcome of a buckling currency and explosive inflation, the state would have to adopt an anti-inflationary stance, typically by curtailing its own expenditures. This would in turn, further dampen activity levels.

Finance as the dominant element in international economic relations, rightly came in for much attention at the conference. But the material dimensions were not ignored. Ajit Singh of Cambridge University entered a rather sharp criticism of the disdain that neo-liberal ideologues and trade negotiators today affect towards the principle of "special and differential treatment" (S&DT) for developing countries. Far from being antithetical to the needs of development, S&DT is its very essence, he pointed out. A passing familiarity with the historical record would bear this point out, since the reconstruction of Europe, Japan and much of East Asia after the devastation of Second World War, would have been inconceivable if they had not enjoyed certain preferential rules of access to the U.S. It was not altruism but a robust calculation of self-interest that drove this policy stance, since the U.S. itself gained much by way of markets in the bargain. The hegemony of the dollar, the wilful amnesia of the developed countries and the heightened sense of insecurity in developing countries - these do not exactly constitute the appropriate ingredients for a phase of constructive engagement in international trade diplomacy.

Economists from the trade analysis branch of UNCTAD presented the most updated findings on what the tariff reform proposals currently under discussion would imply for developing countries. In most cases, the formulae that are favoured by the developed countries, would entail crushing revenue losses for the public exchequer and serious labour dislocation and adjustment costs.

The remedy then is for developing countries to fall back increasingly upon their own devices and craft the trade and payments arrangements that would help them out of their dollar dependence. The proliferation of regional trade arrangements has been a significant feature of the 1990s, in an ironic though unintended repudiation of the virtues of multilateral trade liberalisation that the WTO proclaims. The summary message of the New Delhi conference was that the developing countries too need to consider this option and apply it with the same kind of resolve that the U.S. and other industrialised countries have brought to the mission.

BANKRUPT CAMPAIGN

A personality oriented electoral contest takes politics into the realm of the trivial and presents voters with a dilemma as they march to the polling booths with hopes of seeing a change in their lives.

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PRIME MINISTER Atal Bihari Vajpayee seems impelled by a strong sense of destiny as he campaigns around the country, setting a pace that belies all rumours of physical infirmity. At a meeting in Beed in Maharashtra late-March, he admitted that he had not been keen on contesting. But he was jolted out of his dreams of a placid retirement by the realisation that the country, were he not to contest, could well slide into chaos.

Vajpayee retracted rather half-heartedly from this hugely self-regarding statement a few days later. What he meant was only that if individuals did not manfully shoulder their public responsibilities, the country could plunge into anarchy, said the Prime Minister's spokesmen. This was no reflection, they hastened to clarify, on his own perceived indispensability to the country's future.

The reasons for the embarrassment are obvious. To say that one man is all that stands between order and chaos is not a very extravagant advertisement for all the claims of progress in the six years that the BJP has been at the helm of the ruling coalition. Besides, it also piquantly leaves open the question of who might be the agents of the anarchy that Vajpayee claims to stand as a sole bulwark against. His bombast could well have been read as an implicit admission that his party's reserves of political responsibility and sanity do not run very deep, that just behind him stand the masters of mayhem like Narendra Modi.

Precisely this inference was drawn by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who denounced Vajpayee's statement as "most insulting to the people of India", and yet a useful, if unwitting, admission of the power struggle within the BJP. In other hands, Vajpayee's explosion of self-esteem was transformed into a salutary warning that the electorate should look beyond appearances and take a measure of the true character of the BJP.

The Prime Minister has a tough job to fulfil. He is on the one hand cast as the National Democratic Alliance's single most important claim to a renewed term in office. At the same time, in an election devoid of issues, Vajpayee has to project different personality traits - often mutually incompatible - for different audiences. The initial advantage garnered by the BJP through its loud propaganda offensive prior to the formal notification of elections, was largely frittered by early-April. In an election season stretching from the balmy days of spring to the torrid heat of an early summer, this has meant playing a variety of roles for the NDA's principal campaigner.

In January in Delhi, Vajpayee was a true liberal and a trenchant critic of the policy of literary censorship through mob vigilantism. He was most disapproving of the vandalism at Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute by the front organisations of his electoral allies, ostensibly in retribution for the denigration of Maratha icon Shivaji in a book that was partly researched there. Rather than ban the book and harass and intimidate all those who may have been involved in its authorship, the appropriate course, he suggested, may be to write a better book and to engage in a civilised debate.

On the campaign trail in Maharashtra in March, Vajpayee changed tune, full-throatedly declaring his endorsement of the State government's ban on the book. The Central government, he said, was willing to do all that was necessary to avenge the insult inflicted upon the Maratha sense of honour.

These instances can be multiplied. Part of the reason for these ideological gyrations can be found in Vajpayee's assessment, affirmed repeatedly, that this round of national elections is free of any divisive and emotive issues. It involves a dispassionate judgment by the electorate of what is in their best interest, and a considered vote for the party or political formation that best reassures them that their interests are secure.

A rather shrewd calculation underlay the BJP's electoral strategy. The 2003 monsoon had been benevolent beyond expectations and the festive season that followed was truly an occasion for giving thanks. The agonies of adversity and scarcity, fresh from the 2002 season, had given way to a sense of fulfilment. The "feel good" emotion was authentic, but occasioned in the main by relief that the dark memories of just a year before had been put away.

This brief shift in the public mood coincided with the sweeping triumphs the BJP registered in three out of four State Assembly elections in December. In conjunction, the two fostered a sense that the BJP was off and running, ready to defy the conventional understanding that "anti-incumbency" is an iron-clad law of India's electoral politics. In the process, the BJP hoped to recruit the social strata that had genuine reason to "feel good", to clinch the issue in its favour.

Expert studies indicate that the "feel good" propaganda offensive launched by the BJP is not devoid of a substantive social basis. There is in other words, a genuine "feel good" strata in the Indian polity today. The top 20 per cent of the urban population for instance, has increased its consumption expenditure by 30 per cent, over roughly the period of the NDA rule. The top 20 per cent of the rural population also pushed their way ahead in the social scale, expanding their consumption expenditure by the order of 10 per cent in this period. For the rest of the rural population, this period shows up an absolute squeeze on consumption. The "feel good" strata, in other words, are being held aloft by the sacrifices and the penury of at least half the population of the country. The perceived sense of disparity may have been momentarily assuaged by the rebound from the disastrous drought of 2002. But as the generous months of the kharif harvest have given way to the dry and dreary days of summer, "feel good" has evaporated as a popular sentiment.

The "feel good strata" nevertheless have disproportionate electoral influence and can set the tone and the agenda of campaign politics. That was the final bet of the BJP. But the calculus is looking increasingly tenuous. This has compelled recourse to the cult of the personality. The Prime Minister has been variously built up as a statesman who has put India on the world map, as a renunciate who will sacrifice all worldly power were he not compelled by the realities of India to put personal preferences aside, as a liberal who can speak with credibility to the best of world scholarship, and at the same time, a sectarian who can pander to the most extreme sense of social exclusivity.

Perhaps the BJP's greatest advantage today is that it faces an opponent that is determined to play by the same rules. In terms of a positive strategy, the Congress has little to offer, except to rely on the incumbency disadvantage and its own status as the sole nationally recognised alternative. Its election manifesto on all substantive issues offers either a pale reflection of the BJP's policy stances or a stronger affirmation of potentially the more divisive economic principles. As a party, the Congress has a greater susceptibility to the cult of the personality, having imbibed the dynastic principle over the two decades and more of its existence. Its response to the Vajpayee cult has been twofold. On the one hand, it has chosen to question certain presuppositions of the NDA propaganda - though not with the kind of vigour to suggest that it intends to reverse the many inequities of NDA rule. The Congress' greater emphasis has been on projecting its own personality-oriented claims to the loyalty of the Indian voters.

With both the principals choosing not to alienate the "feel good strata" and the vast majority of the electorate - with all their anxieties and expectations - being treated as mere incidentals, general elections 2004 may well come to represent the conjuncture when Indian politics passes over into the realm of triviality. This represents an acute dilemma for the voters who march with untrammelled enthusiasm to the polling booths in the belief that the choices they exercise will make a real difference to their lives and livelihoods. The analytical idiom in vogue today characterises the ongoing contest as the first to focus predominantly on issues of development: the bijli, sadak, paani (electricity, roads, water) or BSP paradigm. But all the hype that accompanied the launch of the campaign by the ruling coalition has lost its power to sway the public mind.

General Elections 2004 are likely to be won and lost on the basis of very conventional criteria like local configurations of caste and community, organisational abilities at the grassroots, and perceptions of what would be least antithetical to popular interests. Beyond the trivial contest of personalities, the decisive electoral tests on genuine developmental issues, still lies in the future.

On the defensive

The Congress(I) campaign tends to be defensive as the ruling coalition keeps harping on Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin, even though such attacks seem to have had little impact on the voter.

"WE are damned if we do, and we are damned if we don't." This exasperated reaction from senior Congress(I) leader Jairam Ramesh explains the party's dilemma in the ongoing electoral battle. As the campaign progresses, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), especially the Bharatiya Janata Party, is increasingly jettisoning issues of development and gradually concentrating on Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin.

The Bofors issue, which has been resurrected, has proved handy in highlighting Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin. Says the BJP's master-strategist Arun Jaitley: "If the mere presence of a foreigner in the Prime Minister's residence could cause a scandal of the magnitude of Bofors, imagine what it could be if a foreigner becomes the Prime Minister."

As the polling date approaches, the BJP has ensured that all discussions begin and end with the foreign origin issue. And Congressmen have been forced on the backfoot. Once the issues of Bofors and Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin are raised, the NDA government's failures - its unedifying record of corruption scandals, its dismal performance in the agriculture and social services sectors, its indifference to the problem of growing unemployment, its callous disregard towards farmers' suicides, its apathy to the sufferings of common people - recede into the background. The only thing that catches the media's attention is the response of the Congress(I) to the BJP's attacks on Sonia Gandhi.

The Congress(I)'s calculations of taking on the NDA on the basis of the latter's dismal performance and cashing in on the anti-incumbency factor are being frustrated by the way in which the BJP has changed the course of political discourse. Says Jairam Ramesh: "But what is the option before us? We can either ignore the issue totally or take it head-on. We have opted for the latter. The problem is that even if we make a passing reference to these issues, the media picks up only that and ignores the rest. It is not that we are not highlighting issues concerning people's lives, but you people (the media) do not report it." Addressing a conference of party workers after filing her nomination papers in Rae Bareli on April 6, Sonia Gandhi dwelt at length on the failures of the NDA government and how the BJP was trying to divide society on caste, community and religious lines. The crowd response was feeble at best. However, when she talked about her "family's ties" with Rae Bareli and how the Nehru-Gandhi family had braved "personal attacks" to "uphold values", slogans such as "Sonia, tum sangharsh karo, hum tumharey saath hain," (Sonia, we are with you in your struggle onward) rent the air.

At the public meeting addressed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani in Lucknow a day before Sonia's meeting in Rae Bareli, it became clear that even senior leaders of the BJP were willing to skip real issues in favour of a personalised campaign. Vajpayee had received Advani who reached Lucknow in the course of his Bharat Uday Yatra. The thrust of the speeches of both the leaders was Vajpayee's persona and how his presence had transformed India. While State-level leaders such as Kalyan Singh and Rajnath Singh attacked Sonia Gandhi directly on the foreign origin issue, Advani was more discreet. Rajnath Singh said Sonia had humiliated Indians by claiming falsely of having secured majority support in 1999. "Ek videshi mahila ko pradhanmantri kabhi nahin banane denge," (We will never allow a foreigner to become Prime Minister) he said. Advani did not name Sonia but kept reiterating how there was nobody who could match the "towering personality" of Vajpayee in the race for Prime Ministership. The Prime Minister ridiculed Sonia on the no-confidence motion speech in which she described the NDA government's claims of prosperity as "Mungerilal ke haseen sapne" (Mungerilal's sweet dreams). The BJP's second-rung leaders such as Pramod Mahajan have not spared even Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra, suggesting that "only those who are born of mothers of Indian origin can become the Prime Minister".

For days on end, the BJP's media briefings focussed on Sonia's alleged involvement in the Bofors scandal and her "eloquent silence" on the issue. BJP leaders seem to have forgotten that it is they who have been in power for the past six years and consequently responsible for any laxity in the Bofors investigation. The Congress(I) joined issue with the BJP by asking Vajpayee three questions: Why could the government not extradite Ottavio Quatrocchi from Malaysia, a country India bent over backwards to please during NDA rule? Why did Vajpayee, as leader of the Opposition, write to the then Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, pleading on behalf of the Hinduja brothers? Why did he reverse his own position on the Indo-Oman urea joint venture after becoming Prime Minister?

But has the BJP succeeded in turning the battle into a Sonia versus Vajpayee affair? Not quite, if people's reactions are a pointer. As far as BJP supporters are concerned, Vajpayee's persona is the key motivating factor and any number of charge-sheets against the NDA government are insufficient to dissuade them. But, for the rest of the voters, the issues range from caste equations to local issues. As this correspondent followed the Sonia-Rahul cavalcade from Lucknow to Amethi and Rae Bareli on April 5 and 6, people echoed similar views. "How does it make a difference whether Sonia is from Italy? The fact is that she chose to wed in India and has displayed more Indianness than an average Indian woman. Look how she totally kept herself out of politics for so many years after Rajiv's death," said one.

In Uttar Pradesh, where it seems the Vajpayee versus Sonia factor would override everything else, caste and party affiliations dominate all other considerations. In Barabanki constituency, which is sandwiched between Rae Bareli and Amethi on one side and Lucknow on the other, people said they preferred to vote along caste lines. A Yadav would proudly announce that he would vote for a member of his caste. If two or more parties field candidates from the same caste the party becomes the criterion. By and large, Brahmins preferred the BJP and Dalits the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The candidate's local standing seemed to be the next consideration. People who claimed to be "khandaani Congresswallas" vowed to vote for the Congress(I). For example, Ram Lakhan, a Dalit from the Trivediganj kasba of the Barabanki constituency, has always voted for the Congress(I) and has no intention of shifting loyalties.

For euphoric supporters of the Congress(I), who swamped the roads to welcome Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka in Amethi and Rae Bareli, nothing could be more ridiculous than describing the three as foreigners. "Once a woman marries, she belongs to the land of her marriage. The BJP leaders, who keep talking of Indian culture all the time, should know this much at least," said a woman in Rae Bareli, visibly upset at Sonia being termed a foreigner. Even in east Varanasi, where the Congress(I) has no base, the Vajpayee vs Sonia debate has failed to catch people's imagination. It is local problems such as power shortage, bad roads and poor civic infrastructure that matter. Disappointed with the performance of the sitting MP and BJP nominee S.P. Jaiswal, they feel that the Congress(I) candidate, Rajesh Mishra is a better choice because "he is more accessible, more dynamic" and more likely to raise their problems. Mishra has been talking of solving the problems of the weavers of the famous Benarasi saris. The weavers feel that the BJP has done nothing to ameliorate their problems all these years.

However, the programmes and policies of the NDA and the Congress(I) as revealed in their manifestos are strikingly similar. Congress(I) leaders disagree: "We have been criticising the anti-people policies of the NDA government since the AICC [All India Congress Committee (I)] plenary session in March 2001. The difference between their policies and ours is in the fact that their policies benefit only some people, some parties, and ours are for all," said Jairam Ramesh. Emphasising the same point, Sonia Gandhi told party workers in Rae Bareli: "The government should not work for the benefit of only some people. I am surprised when Vajpayeeji says everybody is happy. Perhaps he does not know of the problems of women grappling with high prices, of unemployed youth, of the sufferings of khet mazdoor [farm labourers]."

Said former Prime Minister V.P. Singh: "The foreign origin issue is directly related to the aspect of birth, like that of religion or caste, and it cannot be disputed, challenged or argued about. It suits the BJP to keep up such issues because it then manages to divert attention from real issues, which could get it negative points." According to him, one reason why the BJP has been resorting to politics of "birth" for the last one decade or so is "because it is emotive and appeals to the heart to the obliteration of everything else." But whether the one-point campaign benefits the BJP or will simply backfire, remains to be seen.

Summer of discontent

THE mood in Tamil Nadu is clearly in favour of the Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and there is a groundswell of anger against the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government for its anti-farmer and anti-poor measures.

Foremost among the reasons for the anti-Jayalalithaa wave is apparently sweeping the State is the scrapping of the free supply of electricity to farmers and hut-dwellers. Although Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has announced a virtual restoration of the free supply of electricity to these categories by reimbursing the tariff collected, voters are not prepared to trust her government to continue the waiver once the elections are over.

Be it in Perambalur town, Musiri and Kurumbalur (Karur district), Kappalur (near Madurai), or Karaikudi and Devakottai (Sivaganga district), voters are unanimous about what they perceive as anti-people measures of the AIADMK government: the introduction of an income ceiling of Rs.5,000 a month for eligibility to make purchases at fair price shops; the raising of the price of rice sold at these outlets; the ban on the sacrifice of animals and birds at temples; the discontinuation of the free saris and dhotis scheme for the poor; the steep increase in the electricity tariff; the tardy implementation of the mid-day meal scheme; the government takeover of sand mining on river beds; the termination of jobs of road workers; and the sabotage of the farmers' markets (uzhavar sandhai) introduced by the previous DMK government and the scheme for the grant of Rs.10,000 to women who have studied up to the 10th standard on their marriage.

Although the government has restored the distribution of free saris and dhotis, repealed the ban on animal sacrifice, and reimbursed the electricity tariff bills of farmers and hut-dwellers, voters view these steps as being aimed at garnering pre-election goodwill.

Surprisingly, even well-meaning steps such as take-over of sand-mining and the retail trade of liquor has boomeranged on the government. Farmers in Musiri pointed to the dry Cauvery river bed, and said that the government had robbed about 6,000 men of their jobs by deploying machines to mine sand.

The three-year drought, the consequent loss of jobs and incomes and the acute scarcity of drinking water have also added to the alienation of the people from the Jayalalithaa government. People suspect her approach to the Cauvery issue. Farmers in Musiri and Kulithalai (Karur district), who have lost five paddy crops in a row, ask why she did not meet Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna and talk to him cordially to bring Cauvery water for the delta farmers if she can meet Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu to get Krishna water for Chennai.

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Of all the issues it is the "current bill" that agitates the poor. In 1990, the DMK government announced free electricity to all categories of farmers. After the AIADMK came to power in 2001, Jayalalithaa announced her intention to scrap the scheme. The government later announced that it would send farmers a certain amount through money orders (MO). The recipients of the MOs were required to use the amount, based on the horse-power of their irrigation pumpsets, to pay their bills.

K. Balakrishnan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Kisan Sabha, said the government had declined to accept a proposal from the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board to continue the free electricity supply to farmers and hut-dwellers instead of reimbursing Rs.250 crores a year. Besides, the MO scheme was riddled with defects, he said.

The government's brutal suppression of the strikes by government employees, schoolteachers, transport workers, doctors and medical students has alienated middle-class voters from the AIADMK, while the introduction of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act and the AIADMK's alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have resulted in the loss of support of the minorities for the party.

Moreover, Dalits who formed the bulk of AIADMK voters, are disillusioned with the party. At a Dalit colony at Thalavaipuram in Sivakasi constituency, the residents pulled down the AIADMK flag and hoisted the red-and-green "community flag". The 200 votes of this colony, which earlier went to the AIADMK "without exception", will this time be split among the other contestants. At Seithur, 2 km away, the AIADMK and the Puthiya Tamizhagam, a party with Dalits as its supporters, appear to have lost their pre-eminence.

However, the Mukkulathor community is solidly behind the AIADMK in Madurai, Sivaganga and Periakulam constituencies. In the villages of Chittampatti, Pallampatti, Kottampatti and Thumbapatti, which are strung around Melur near Madurai, there is a clear preference for the AIADMK. Again in Sivaganga, where Congress(I) candidate and former Union Minister P. Chidambaram will be facing an AIADMK rival, Mukkulathors flaunt their loyalty to the ruling party.

THE DPA faced a challenge of sorts when Tamil film actor Rajnikant, who has in past elections asked his fans to support a DMK-led alliance, announced that his personal vote this time would be for the BJP-led alliance. Rajnikant asserted that his fans would work to defeat the candidates of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a constituent of the DPA, in the six constituencies, including Pondicherry, that party is contesting, as a response to the PMK cadre's "violence" against his film `Baba' in 2002. Political observers have, however, dismissed the threat as a "hedging the bets" ploy, which would not pay any dividends.

The PMK has a significant presence in the northern districts of Kancheepuram, Villupuram, Thiruvannamalai, Tiruvallur, Vellore, Cuddalore and Dharmapuri, where it is contesting all the five seats allotted to it. The PMK is so entrenched in this region that the Rajni factor is unlikely to have any impact. As elsewhere in the State, the electorate in these districts had expressed discontent with AIADMK rule.

Leaders of the PMK, who seem to enjoy the support of a substantial section of the numerically strong Vanniya community, say that their greatest strength lies in the coherence and smooth functioning of the DPA and the party's own youth force, although its organisational network is not commendable. In addition, the PMK's nomination of academics and retired officers has gone well with the people. The PMK candidate for the Chengalpattu seat, A.K. Moorthy, has earned during his short spell as Union Minister of State for Railways a lot of goodwill not only in his constituency but also in the entire State. He expedited several rail works, introduced new halts and made changes in the suburban train timings to suit commuters. Although the district has not suffered much on account of the drought, the loss of jobs by agricultural workers with the introduction of harvesters in a large number of paddyfields has led to the migration of a substantial number of them, according to D. Krishnaraj, Kancheepuram district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Migration of agricultural workers has happened in Thiruppathur and Vandavasi constituencies also. The PMK candidate for the Arakkonam seat, R. Velu, a retired civil servant, said he would give priority to improving groundwater availability and to arranging governmental and institutional assistance to start cottage industries with a view to solving the rural unemployment problem. Dharmapuri, considered the poorest district in the State, is passing through an acute water scarcity. Agricultural operations have practically come to a halt in the district. "The surrender of about 70,000 family cards in the last one year indicates the extent of migration of labour force that has taken place," said P. Dillibabu, secretary of the district unit of the CPI(M). Early implementation of the long-pending Hogenakkal integrated water supply scheme would be the only solution, he said. The scheme was redrawn to benefit the region up to Vellore. The BJP candidate for the Dharmapuri seat, P.D. Elangovan, who represented the constituency in the dissolved House as a PMK member but was denied the ticket this time, told Frontline that he would endeavour to get the project sanctioned. As for his decision to leave the PMK, he said: "I am still with the NDA. Only the PMK has quit it."

Y.M. Narayanaswamy, a leading manufacturer of silk saris, said silk and cotton weavers were affected by the rise in silk and silver prices, the withdrawal or cutting down of government subsidies to cooperative societies, and heavy competition from other centres. Wage-earners among the weavers have suffered wage cuts and job losses. As a result, many of them have left their homes in search of jobs. They are displeased with the "unhelpful attitude" of both the State and Central governments. Similar sentiments were expressed by weavers in Arakkonam, Vellore and Vandavasi constituencies. Manufacturers of lungis attribute the crisis in their industry to the levy of Central Value Added Tax (Cenvat) and Sales Tax on their products.

In the Vellore-Thiruppathur region, the closure of a large number of tanneries has rendered thousands of workers jobless. The government's reluctance to help the industry build a common effluent treatment plant in accordance with a Supreme Court directive is cited as the major reason for this.

The leather industry, which has earned for the country substantial foreign exchange, is in a crisis, owing to tough competition from foreign companies and the lack of support from the Central government, according to T.R. Purushothaman, vice-president of the district unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) candidate for the Vellore seat, K.M. Khadar Mohideen, said he would accord top priority to pulling the leather industry out of the crisis.

The beedi workers of Gudiyatham are among the other sections of people who have suffered wage and job losses in recent years. The closure of a number of factories in the industrial centres of Ranipet and Arakkonam has left hundreds of workers unemployed.

Employees of the Kalpakkam nuclear plant expressed their dissatisfaction with the Vajpayee government's failure to keep its promise to raise the income-tax exemption limit. They are also sore that the government has gone back on its assurance that the interest on Provident Fund would be kept intact. The one section that is apparently happy with the government is the fishermen community. The Jayalalithaa government has constituted a fund to provide Rs.1 lakh each to families of fishermen who die while fishing in the sea. This section has no grievance against the Centre because they are not facing any competition from giant trawlers, as is the case with fishermen elsewhere.

The campaign theme of the DPA constituents (the DMK, the Congress(I), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the PMK, the CPI(M), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the IUML) is the inability of the government to combat the drinking water scarcity and the mishandling of the drought situation. Jayalalithaa, who is leading the AIADMK campaign, projects the elections as a contest between "a half-baked" Sonia Gandhi of foreign origin and "an experienced" A.B. Vajpayee. The questions that she raises are: "Should an Indian rule the country or a woman of foreign stock do so? Should a seasoned leader continue to be the Prime Minister or should a novice come to the post? How can Sonia Gandhi forge an alliance with the DMK, the MDMK and the PMK, which support the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which assassinated her husband and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi?"

In the districts of Kancheepuram and Thiruvallur, many women in the villages are aware of the media advertisement campaign against Sonia Gandhi, but they do not subscribe to the view that she could not be chosen Prime Minister on grounds of her foreign origin. "She is the daughter-in-law of this land. Poor woman, she lost her husband on our soil,'' said an 80-year-old woman at Uthiramerur village. (The place is close to Sriperumbudur, where Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991.)

The "feel good" ad has had its impact on women of both the upper middle class and the poor sections, the former because everything, from foreign furniture to expensive cosmetics made in France, are easily available and the latter because the "Delhi" government had constructed a "wide and beautiful" highway (the Golden Quadrilateral Highway), on which "hundreds of cars" whizz past.

A coalition's woes

As the election process gets under way, the ruling coalition is confronted with the absence of a wave or an undercurrent in its favour.

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EVERY general election throws up its own agenda, which sets the tone and tenor of the political discourse during and after the election. The last two general elections were fought on the issue of political stability, understood in terms of the longevity of the regime at the Centre. The Bharatiya Janata Party capitalised on the collapse of coalition governments at the Centre in 1998 and 1999 and presented to the nation a much broader coalition of about two dozen parties that would be able to form the government after the elections and promised political stability under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Ironically, as the 14th Lok Sabha elections begin on April 20, political stability is no longer an issue before the electorate. This is despite the fact that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has shrunk in size, with several constituents deserting it in the run-up to the elections. In fact, this has left a question mark over the NDA's numerical strength in Parliament and the stability of the next government if the alliance becomes the frontrunner and forms the government. At the function held in New Delhi on April 8 to mark the release of the NDA's manifesto, the coalition could claim the support of only seven constituents - the BJP, the Shiv Sena, the Janata Dal (United), the Nationalist Trinamul Congress, the Akali Dal, the Biju Janata Dal and the Indian Federal Democratic Party (IFDP). Despite a broad convergence of views on several issues, the NDA could not rope in parties such as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), who preferred to have seat adjustments with the BJP rather than join the coalition.

The BJP's spin doctors attribute the exit of several constituents from the NDA to "local compulsions" rather than to their frustration with the Vajpayee government. The absence of any threat to the stability of the Vajpayee government since the 1999 elections, they argue, is proof enough of its ability to survive. As the voters are convinced of this ability, the BJP and the NDA no longer have to harp on the issue of stable polity in order to secure a fresh mandate.

In 1999, the NDA promised to take measures to ensure a fixed term of five years for all elected bodies including legislatures. Yet, the coalition had no qualms in seeking the dissolution of the 13th Lok Sabha eight months ahead of its completion of tenure and opt for early polls. In spite of this, the NDA claims in its manifesto to have given India "a stable and purposive government under an able leader".

However, as the first phase of the elections drew nearer, the BJP appeared to be jittery about its prospects. For the first time in the campaign, Vajpayee took recourse to the stability plank, after filing his nomination papers for the Lucknow seat on April 15. He sought a second term for his government to steer the country out of "a state of crisis that might be caused by political instability" after the Lok Sabha elections.

Again, he admitted while addressing a rally at Nagpur on April 17 that a multi-party coalition government was too unwieldy to handle. He said it would be easier for him to govern the country if his party secured a majority. This was in sharp contrast to what he and his party had been claiming all along that even if the party secured a majority, it would still form a coalition government on the basis of a consensual agenda. Although Vajpayee clarified that he did not find it difficult to run the coalition, he said he could serve the nation better if he was not to lead another big coalition. Such contradictory appeals could only suggest a belated realisation that the NDA could fall short of a simple majority in the Lok Sabha and that Vajpayee would again have to depend on unpredictable post-poll allies to sustain his new government.

Although Vajpayee did not elaborate why he felt there might be political instability after the elections, the Lucknow tragedy of April 12 - in which 22 persons died in a stampede during the distribution of saris to mark the birthday celebration of Vajpayee's unofficial election in-charge and BJP leader Lalji Tandon - appeared to have cast a shadow over the BJP's poll prospects elsewhere. He even appealed to his likely opponent, former Union Minister Ram Jethmalani, to withdraw from the contest in Lucknow. Congress(I) spokesperson Kapil Sibal interpreted Vajpayee's appeal as an attempt to influence Jethmalani's free exercise of his electoral right and an offence under Section 123(2) of the Representation of the People Act. Jethamalani, who first vacillated over his decision to contest because of a personal problem, chose to remain in the fray. As a damage-control measure, the BJP asked Tandon to quit as the convener of Vajpayee's election management committee.

Vajpayee even threw broad hints that he wanted to retire before the elections but had to postpone retirement in view of the pressure from the party and his colleagues. His claim that there was a clear consensus within the party and the NDA on who would be his successor invited retorts from the Opposition parties. They considered his view as one more proof that he was only a "mukhota" (mask) and that even if elected to power he was not likely to remain as Prime Minister for the next five years. It was left to BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu to deny this only possible interpretation of Vajpayee's statement. Vajpayee himself did not clarify whether he intended to quit after the elections if voted back to power, and if so, when. The BJP's unique selling point, "Vajpayee versus a question mark", has now lost its sheen with a question mark hanging over Vajpayee's leadership itself, in view of his admission that he has only "postponed" his retirement.

Vajpayee's inclination to retire has coincided with the BJP's gradual ascendancy vis-a-vis the NDA. Having won remarkable victories in the December 2003 Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BJP's comfort level has gone up and it is taking its allies for granted. This is reflected in the manner in which the BJP sneaked into the NDA manifesto contentious issues like Ayodhya.

In 1999, the NDA manifesto put a moratorium on contentious issues, which included building of a Ram mandir at Ayodhya, enactment of a uniform civil code, and the abrogation of Article 370 - the core issues that have remained the ideological goals of the BJP for years. In 1999, the BJP did not find it necessary to issue its "Vision Document" to outline its priorities, which could be different from those of the coalition. This time round, the BJP not only felt free to reiterate its commitment to its ideological goals, but also forced the NDA to include the Ayodhya issue in the manifesto and say that it believed in resolving it early and amicably to "strengthen national integration". Having said this, the NDA held that the judiciary's verdict in this matter should be accepted by all and, simultaneously, efforts should be intensified for a negotiated settlement in an atmosphere of mutual trust and goodwill. If, as Defence Minister George Fernandes claimed, there could be no opposition to this promise, there is no credible explanation as to why the allies resisted a similar proposal in 1999. Obviously, the BJP now finds the allies too meek to question the inclusion of its pet themes in the NDA's agenda.

The promise to deprive persons like Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi their right to occupy high constitutional posts has again been included in the NDA manifesto. But the language has acquired a subtle emphasis that suggests a deep animosity towards the Nehru-Gandhi family. In 1999, the NDA promised to "enact legislation to provide an eligibility criteria that the high offices of state - legislative, executive and judicial - are held only by naturally born Indian citizens". However, through its last five years in office, the government never bothered to initiate even a national debate on the issue, let alone bring forward the promised legislation. The 2004 NDA manifesto says that "legislation will be introduced to ensure that important offices of the Indian state can be occupied only by those who are India's natural citizens by their Indian origin". The words "Indian origin" have been added probably to seek to deprive Sonia Gandhi's children of their right to hold any elected office.

The BJP and Vajpayee are perhaps worried that it may be difficult to sustain the interest of the voter in "brand Vajpayee" in the nearly month-long election process. Besides, the NDA is unsure of the potential of the anti-Sonia Gandhi campaign in influencing the electorate. This explains why Vajpayee himself has been ambivalent on the issue. While he condemned personal attacks against Sonia Gandhi, he was not forthcoming on the stand of the NDA and the BJP on her eligibility to occupy the Prime Minister's post. Apparently, an attack on Sonia Gandhi's leadership credentials would mean elevating her to the status of Vajpayee's rival for the office of Prime Minister, and this he appeared keen to avoid.

An overuse of Vajpayee's persona in these elections has its own risks, as it may alienate a section of voters because of the sheer boredom that it would cause. Similarly, such a belated realisation seems to have influenced the BJP's decision not to harp on the "Feel Good" and "India Shining" factors, which are already being mocked at in much of urban and rural India. Besides, the party could not answer the criticism that the government was wrong in funding the advertisement campaign to promote these themes, which was primarily intended to favour the party in the elections. Yet, the BJP and the rest of the NDA find that they have nothing else but the professed virtues of Vajpayee's leadership to use as their trump card.

APPEARING to make a serious departure from its 1999 manifesto, the NDA has this time felt it necessary to make a specific promise to "continue to strengthen the ideal of secularism enshrined in India's Constitution". Yet, when the Supreme Court indicted the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat for its complicity in the denial of justice to the victims of the Best Bakery violence in Vadodara, BJP spokesperson and Union Minister Arun Jaitley responded that it was no indictment of the Modi government and that the Chief Minister need not quit office. Apparently, both the BJP and Vajpayee find Modi's continuance in office more important to retain or increase its tally of Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat rather than bow to the NDA's promise and pay ethical obeisance to the Supreme Court's judgment. Moreover, the manifesto's claim that there has been a significant reduction in communal and caste violence in the past five years stands exposed in the background of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

The NDA's commitment to give "corruption-free governance at all levels" sounds hollow with the Election Commission's issue of a show-cause notice to the BJP asking it to explain why action should not be taken against it for "breaching" the model code of conduct in the Lucknow sari tragedy. The E.C. said it was prima facie satisfied with the evidence submitted by the Uttar Pradesh government that the BJP "distributed largesse to voters during election time". The E.C. has asked the U.P. government to register a case of bribery and illegal gratification against Lalji Tandon and others involved in organising the function. The E.C. has several options to punish a party for the violation of the code, including withdrawal of its recognition and symbol.

In the absence of credible issues and an alternative political and developmental vision, the challenge of the election campaign is staring the BJP in the face. The NDA, for instance, has projected development, good governance and peace as the issues in this election, but has not bothered to show how its claims are different from the model pursued by the Congress(I) before it came to power. The NDA manifesto claims that its promises of 1999, guaranteeing prosperity and upholding the nation's pride, have largely been met. However, the NDA has shown very little as its achievements in the areas of development, good governance and peace in the past five years.

In a recent interview, Vajpayee remarked that this was perhaps the first election in which people were going to decide on issues without any tension. "There is no desperate cut-throat competition," he said. Going by the trends in the previous general elections, an issue-less and as a consequence a "tension-less" election does not augur well for the BJP, which has always gained from divisive and emotional campaigns.

Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, who concluded his 33-day rath yatra on April 14 at Puri, has claimed to have noticed an unprecedentedly high degree of satisfaction among the voters about the performance of the government. As per the party's statistics, Advani covered 128 Lok Sabha constituencies and made "direct contact" with 12 million people. A normal election is bound to produce varied results across the country and even within States because of various factors. Hence partisan impressions formed by Advani during his rath yatra across the country need not necessarily reflect the NDA's real prospects in the elections.

Backwardness and a mood of cynicism

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COME election time, and the politics of hunger and deprivation takes centre stage in Orissa. Politicians of all hues start promising people the moon; never mind if the State continues to remain in the news for its gut-wrenching poverty, starvation deaths, sale of children, migration and natural calamities.

Orissa is being marketed by the State Tourism Department as the `Soul of India'. But with no perceptible change in the economic condition of the people, the feeling that all politicians are blissfully ignorant about the real issues and problems facing the people is shared by a large section of the electorate.

Nearly 50 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. Despite possessing massive mineral reserves and huge stretches of gemstone fields, the State has made little headway in industry. Although a large part of the population is dependant on agriculture, the lack of adequate irrigation facilities continues to dog the sector. To add to the woes, lakhs of poor tribal people and Dalits are migrating to distant towns in the State's coastal belt or outside to eke out a living.

For lakhs of illiterate, poverty-stricken people living in the State's interiors, elections are just a political ritual divorced from developmental issues such as the availability of roads, clean drinking water and medical facilities. Politicians visit their locality only to canvass votes.

As real issues have not been attended to for decades, the vast majority of people living in Orissa's rural areas appear to have developed a kind of cynicism towards governments both at the Centre and in the State. The bureaucracy, known for its sloth and negotiable integrity, has ensured that development remains a pipedream. The majority of people feel that it is the lack of political will that is responsible for the poor state of affairs.

Ramesh Pradhan, a resident of Loisingha in Bolangir district who supports the demand for the creation of a separate Koshal State, says: "While our big towns are shining so much, why can't our villages shine even a bit? All we need is irrigation facilities and employment opportunities. Nothing is changing in our villages despite the tall talk of development. Maybe our politicians don't want anything from us except our votes."

Taking note of the backwardness of the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region (KBK districts) and the western districts, the government has formulated a revised long-term action plan (RLTAP) for the development of the first three districts and the Western Orissa Development Council for the latter. But both the organisations are headquartered in Bhubaneswar and development continues to take a back seat. The reason could be either a lack of or improper utilisation of funds.

Anuradha Mohanty of Jana Adhikar Abhiyan, a network of civil society groups in the State which brought out a `people's manifesto' in the run-up to the polls, says: "No political party is taking up issues concerning the poor people. Politicians win elections through gimmicks and by highlighting the image of their leaders. In the process, Orissa remains backward in various spheres."

Anuradha adds: "Those fighting the polls are hardly entering the villages. Unless those seeking votes go to the remote villages and assess the situation prevailing at the grassroots level, they would not be able to know the needs and aspirations of the people. Good governance will continue to be a pre-election promise of politicians."

In their election manifestoes, both the ruling Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJD-BJP) alliance and the Opposition Congress(I) promise to impress upon the Centre to accord Orissa the status of a special category State in order to hasten its development.

Although both sides have been unable to convince the people that they can deliver on their promises, the ruling coalition appears to be ahead of the Congress(I). By and large, people feel that nothing tangible has been done so far for the development of the State. Political parties are far from being accountable to the people. Meanwhile, Orissa seems to have fallen off the development map.

Bucking the trend, consistently

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THE Congress(I) and the Nationalist Trinamul Congress (NTC) and the sections of the media that are sympathetic to them insist that electoral malpractices alone keep the Commuist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front (L.F.) in power in West Bengal. This, however, not only is an oversimplification, but also betrays a `grapes are sour' mentality. There are electoral irregularities in West Bengal as in any other State, but the continuance of nearly three-decades-old, uninterrupted L.F. rule cannot be explained away so easily.

A senior CPI(M) leader told Frontline: "There is indeed an anti-incumbency factor. Look at the inroads that the Opposition has made in the cities. But our gains in rural Bengal are so substantial and solid that they cannot dislodge us. Further, when Jyoti Basu stepped down in favour of the younger Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the people wanted to give the new incumbent an opportunity and no doubt he has not failed them."

A senior bureaucrat in the State held a different view: "Of course there is an anti-incumbency sentiment as anywhere else. But there is no Opposition leader to crystallise this into votes. The public expectation in Mamata Banerjee's leadership was frustrated by her political somersaults, and the Congress(I), though it has been garnering a substantial percentage of votes, is yet to throw up a charismatic leader acceptable to all factions."

The Opposition also makes a mistake in thinking that the CPI(M) has been flogging the old horse of land reforms and democratic decentralisation. It is not often understood that land reform is not a one-time measure, like clothes distributed during floods. It is a redistribution of assets worth crores of rupees; about 10 lakh acres (four lakh hectares) of agricultural land has been redistributed. Moreover, landholding is a major indicator of status and dignity in all rural societies. A landless labourer is regarded almost as a `non-person'. Therefore, the distribution of land has transformed manikins into men and gives them a new dignity in life.

Bani Tudu is a teacher in a village school in Berenda Gram Panchayat in Bardhaman district. She said: "We are all tribal people here in this village (Laikini Para). Earlier all of us, especially women, were landless and timid. But thanks to the CPI(M) we have our own land and can be proud of ourselves. Where we used to walk on mud, we now have roads. Most importantly, the party gave us pride and confidence."

The loyalty of the people of rural Bengal to the L.F. is unflinching and handed down to the next generation. The land reforms initiated by the late CPI(M) leader Harekrishna Konar during the tenure of the United Front government of 1969-70 ushered in a new era involving social changes in the rural areas, spread of education and literacy being one of the most visible ones. In Jadavganj village in the Bolpur constituency represented by eminent parliamentarian Somnath Chatterjee, Utpal Besra is a graduate preparing for School Service Commission examinations. His father, who is practically illiterate, belongs to the first generation to benefit from the land reforms. "I want to teach in a high school, and work among the children of villages," Besra told Frontline.

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In Bhalki village of Bardhaman district, women, guided by CPI(M) workers, have formed self-help groups to make themselves financially independent and self-reliant. Gaining in confidence, the women of the village even waged a successful battle against their husbands' habit of drinking. "Our men have stopped drinking now," said Jhumri Misra of the village.

Moreover, the change of power structure in rural society has also been reflected in the class composition of the elected panchayats, which have a large representation of the rural poor and women. This acquisition of asset, power and dignity is not something that the rural poor are willing to forget easily by counter-propaganda.

It is also noteworthy that West Bengal has never had any catastrophe - natural or man-made - where the administration has failed to make a timely response. It is a known fact that many potential communal conflicts are nipped in the bud at the local level itself. This points to the excellent organisational network which the Left Front, especially the CPI(M), has built over the years. It is helpful not only in administering relief, and organising protests and rallies, but also in mobilising public opinion, especially among the poor, many of whom do not have access to the mainstream media. The organisational network has enhanced the reputation and popularity of the party and the government among the local people through various constructive activities.

Whereas agriculture - cultivation of rice and potato - was the main source of sustenance for the rural masses earlier, the government has over the years, through persistent persuasion, been able to convince them of the advantages of diversification. By encouraging alternate cropping and other means of livelihood like pisciculture and the making of bamboo products, more cash has come into the hands of the rural masses of West Bengal. In particularly impoverished communities, the party even provides free netting and livestock.

"One of the reasons why the anti-incumbency factor does not work here is that we have not allowed ourselves to become the establishment. The people of West Bengal realise that we do not represent state power, rather the people themselves," Uday Sarkar, the Zilla Parishad Sabhadhipati of Bardhaman district told Frontline.

The party's work in Bardhaman district, which is arguably the strongest CPI(M) bastion in the State, is an example of how it has been able to establish its presence all over rural Bengal and retain its position for nearly three decades. In every nook and cranny of the district, the CPI(M)'s presence is felt in some form or the other. The Krishak Sabha (farmers' association) membership in the district is 19 lakhs, the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) 12.3 lakhs, the Students Federation of India 2.1 lakhs and the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) 5.4 lakhs. "Although party membership is not that large, the CPI(M)'s participation in mass organisations is huge. Even in organisations that appear non-political, the party's presence is there," Amal Haldar, secretary of the CPI(M)'s Bardhaman district committee, told Frontline.

The foreign origin of Sonia Gandhi is of much less interest to people than the impact of large-scale disinvestment and continuously falling interest rates. The last two phenomena have disillusioned the urban segments. A vast section of the urban middle class in Bengal has been affected by the continuous reduction in the interest rate of deposits in commercial banks. Even the victims of disinvestment who were partly compensated by voluntary retirement schemes (VRS) saw to their dismay that their returns by way of interest on savings were dwindling rapidly. The L.F. has been systematically opposing indiscriminate disinvestment and reduction in interest rates. The Congress(I)'s response is ambivalent. Being the pioneer of liberalisation, the party cannot oppose it seriously. So even in the urban areas, where the NTC and the Congress(I) held sway, the edge of the anti-incumbency factor has been blunted.

Issues galore, loyalties divided

VOTERS in Maharashtra do not make a distinction between Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in terms of issues. Candidates too seem to be following the same pattern, with several of them projecting achievements irrelevant to their powers as Members of Parliament (MPs). Broadly speaking, two factors come into play in the decision-making process - day-to-day matters that affect people's lives and the voter's familiarity with the candidate.

The 48 Lok Sabha seats in the State fall under the six regions - Mumbai, Konkan, Western Maharashtra, Marathwada, Vidarbha and North Maharashtra. In 1999, the Congress(I) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) contested separately and won nine and six seats respectively. The Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance won 27 seats. In 1998, while a united Congress(I) won in 33 constituencies, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine got 10.

In 1999, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance dominated the Mumbai region by winning five of the six seats. This time round, the ruling Congress(I)-NCP combine has fielded candidates who can make the going tough for the Shiv Sena-BJP candidates.

In Mumbai North, Hindi film actor Govinda is expected to give the BJP's five-time winner and Union Minister Ram Naik a run for his money. Govinda is using the Virar ka chokra (boy from Virar) slogan to woo voters from the area he grew up in. Moreover, the Shiv Sena's revival of its anti-North Indian propaganda may affect Naik's chances since there is a high concentration of North Indians in some pockets of the constituency. In Mumbai North-East, Mumbai Regional Congress Committee president Gurudas Kamath is taking on the BJP's sitting MP Kirit Somaiyya. Last time Kamath lost by a small margin, and this allows the Congress(I) to be optimistic. In 1999, Mumbai North-West was the only seat the Congress(I) won in the region. This time the party has fielded its sitting MP and four-time winner Sunil Dutt to take on the Shiv Sena's Sanjay Nirupam. Mumbai South-Central, the heart of the mill area, is expected to see an interesting distribution of votes. The seat has been the stronghold of the Shiv Sena's Mohan Rawale, who has won it three times. Gangster Arun Gawli is contesting from the constituency. Popularly known as "Daddy", Gawli has been working hard to raise his popularity by improving the living conditions in the chawls. The partly elite, middle class and Muslim neighbourhoods of Mumbai South will choose between BJP leader and Union Minister Jaiwantiben Mehta and first-timer Milind Deora. The 27-year-old Deora, son of Congress(I) leader Murli Deora, is among the youngsters whom the party is depending on to draw the vote of the youth. South Mumbai, the fourth smallest constituency in the country, has seven candidates, a far cry from the time when this prestigious constituency saw battles featuring more than 20 candidates.

In 1999, coastal Konkan continued with its tradition of being a Shiv Sena bastion - three of the five seats went to the party. The BJP won the Dahanu (Reserved) constituency. The Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) holds the Kulaba seat. The PWP's power has been diminishing steadily in the State and Kulaba is the only seat it has managed to retain a hold on.

Although the coastal parts of the region are relatively fertile, agriculture has never received state-sponsored benefits. The Konkan hinterland suffers the most, with poor soil being a deterrent to agriculture. For decades people here survived on a "money order economy". The absence of a railway network used to be the main complaint, but since the inauguration of the Konkan Railway this is no longer an issue.

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Western Maharashtra, the sugar belt of the State, has been nurtured by and has prospered under the Congress(I). However, in 1999, while the party retained only two of the 12 seats, the NCP secured six. The failure of the government to provide adequate drought relief in parts of Sangli, Satara and Ahmednagar districts is expected to play a role in the voting pattern this time. A consistent demand of the people of this rain-shadow region has been an efficient irrigation network. Athough the region has the largest number of irrigation projects in the State, the cultivation of water-intensive sugarcane puts heavy pressure on irrigation water.

In Marathwada, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine built on the foothold it gained in 1998 and captured six of the eight seats in 1999. The Congress(I)-NCP alliance hopes to recapture at least five seats this time. The saffron combine, however, appears unwilling to relinquish its hold without putting up a tough fight. In Latur, the BJP has fielded Rupatai Nilangekar against Shivraj Patil, the Congress(I)'s seven-time winner and former Lok Sabha Speaker. Nilangekar belongs to a politically prominent family in the area and banks on its influence. Osmanabad (Reserved), which the Shiv Sena has won twice, will probably re-elect the party's candidate. The Congress(I)-NCP combine's candidate Laxman Dhobale is alleged to have said at a rally that he would not allow water from the Usni dam to flow into drought-ridden Osmanabad. More important, "he is not from this district, so he doesn't stand a chance," says Kiran Mane, a social worker in Osmanabad.

Although Marathwada is reeling under an acute drinking water shortage, the deciding factors there seem to be the candidates' origins and level of personal interaction with the constituency. In Beed, for instance, Jaisingrao Gaikwad, who won the seat for the Shiv Sena-BJP last time, is now fighting on the NCP ticket. Gaikwad is popular in the area and is known to travel the length and breath of the district, interacting with the people. Nanded is held by Bhaskarrao Khatgaonkar of the Congress(I). Although he has done little for the area, which has experienced communal problems, water pollution and drought, the voters still seem to prefer the Congress(I). Apparently, Khatgoankar enjoys a certain loyalty because he is the son-in-law of the late Congress(I) leader and Union Minister S.B. Chavan and belongs to the district. Moreover, he has the support of the numerically strong Muslim community.

Vidarbha, in northeastern Maharashtra, was traditionally a Congress(I) stronghold. Perhaps the region worst hit by the Congress(I) split, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine bagged five of the 11 Lok Sabha seats here in 1999. However, the alliance between the Congress(I) and the NCP could see the former making a comeback with six seats. Chandrapur district in the tribal belt and the cotton-producing district of Yavatmal are expected to return Congress(I) candidates. In Nagpur, Banwarilal Purohit, leader of the Vidarbha Vikas Party, may claim a part of the vote. The demand for a separate State of Vidarbha has been put on the back burner and issues such as unemployment and industrialisation in the region have gained more importance.

Northern Maharashtra, an area that has been pro-Congress(I), saw startling changes with the Shiv Sena-BJP combine taking four of the six seats - three reserved (Dhule, Nandurbar and Malegaon) and three unreserved (Jalgaon, Nasik and Erandol) - in 1999.

In the unreserved constituencies, the issues that dominate are unemployment, increasing business competition and falling profit, especially in the small-scale sector. The industrial sector, which for a brief while was seen as the hope of northern Maharashtra, has not picked up as expected. There is resentment against past and present governments for not having maximised the opportunities offered by the fertile land. In Dhule, the stamp paper scam is expected to dominate the campaign because of the alleged involvement of a Samajwadi Janata Party legislator, Anil Gote, who was arrested last year. Gote had pointed a finger at the then Deputy Chief Minister, Chhagan Bhujbal, and had demanded he be questioned in the scam.

The major issues in the reserved constituencies, especially those of Dhule and Nandurbar, are related to employment, land rights, and rights to natural resource management in conjunction with wildlife and forest conservation. In Nandurbar, an important subject of discussion is the issue of those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar project.

Of charisma and unkept promises

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THE campaigning in the northeastern States has not been different from that in the rest of the country as far as the intention of the two major parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I), is concerned - to project the elections as an Atal Bihari Vajpayee vs Sonia Gandhi contest. Each of these, bolstered by the rally of Prime Minister Vajpayee and Opposition Leader and Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi respectively in Assam in the first fortnight of April, has tried to whip up electoral support centred around the charisma of the two leaders. Local issues were also highlighted, the promises made being the same as those of previous elections, which were never kept.

Even the BJP's allies in some of the northeastern States have depended heavily on the "Vajpayee factor". However, others like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) hold successive Congress(I) and BJP governments at the Centre and the five-decade-long Congress(I) rule in Assam responsible for the State's burning problems such as infiltration, insurgency and unemployment. State BJP president Indramoni Bora and the leader in charge of party affairs in the northeastern States V. Satish have maintained that Vajpayee's image and growing popularity will help the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) improve its tally in Assam and the other northeastern States. Legendary Assamese singer and BJP candidate for Guwahati Lok Sabha constituency, Bhupen Hazarika, sang in praise of Vajpayee at every election meeting. The BJP also lined up several Bollywood actors such as Shatrughan Sinha, Hema Malini and Dara Singh to praise Vajpayee at election rallies.

On the other hand, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi made it a point to assert at every election meeting that the party under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi will sweep the Lok Sabha polls in the State. The Congress(I) candidate from Guwahati, Kirip Chalia, also pledged "loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family" to win the hearts of traditional party supporters.

However, for voters like Hem Chandra Rabha of Boko in the Guwahati parliamentary constituency neither Vajpayee nor Sonia Gandhi is important. He said: "The representative whom we are going to elect is more important. After all, we have to analyse carefully as to which candidate would work for the development of our areas. During the election campaign tall promises are made. But they are hardly kept." The BJP and the AGP accuse the Congress(I), which won 10 of the 14 seats in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, of failing to highlight the burning issues of the State in Parliament. In that year, the AGP drew a blank and the BJP won two seats.

The Congress(I) and the BJP have also projected the infiltration issue, with the BJP reiterating its promise made in 1999 to scrap the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983 in order to exploit the sentiments of indigenous Assamese voters, the traditional support base of the AGP. The Congress(I), in contrast, vowed to oppose the BJP's move in Parliament in order to win over the minority community. The AGP accused both the parties of politicising the issue and keeping it alive merely for electoral gains.

The State unit of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, which initially was inclined towards the AGP, decided to support Congress(I) candidates after a discussion with Gogoi and the All India Congress Committee(I) observer for Assam and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh. The Jamiat's support is likely to work to the Congress(I)'s advantage as the former is influential with a large section of Muslim voters, particularly the immigrant settlers of the Chars of Brahamaputra. The BJP has made efforts to make inroads into the tea plantation belt with the same promises that the Congress(I) has made in all elections but hardly kept - more wages, drinking water and healthcare facilities.

In Tripura, campaigning by the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) for the two Lok Sabha seats has remained focussed on two issues - installation of a secular government at the Centre and the achievements of the successive Left Front governments in the State. Huge crowds attended the election rallies of Left Front candidates and Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. Backwardness of the tribal areas has been exploited by insurgent groups such as the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT; both Biswamohan and Nayan Bashi factions) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) to persuade the tribal youth to take up arms against the state.

Significantly, this time round tribal people have mustered the courage to defy the diktats of the two militant outfits. Sustained campaign by the Left Front government to mobilise public opinion against insurgency seemed to have succeeded. "We have suffered for a long time because of insurgency. The militants take away the money that comes to our village for development work. We will not allow the militants to prevent us from participating freely in the election this time," said Mandadhari Debuburma of Bathanmura, an insurgency-affected tribal-dominated village near the India-Bangladesh border.

The BJP-Nationalist Trinamul Congress (NTC) combine, which has entered into a tie-up with the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), focussed its campaign on the success of Vajpayee in "bringing back political stability" to the country and claimed that the Left Front failed to utilise the funds provided by the Centre. However, the allegations sounded hollow as during the 2002 Assembly elections, the BJP had campaigned against the Congress(I)-INPT alliance in a desperate bid to garner the support of the non-tribal people by exploiting the tribal-non-tribal divide. The State unit of the Congress(I) is handicapped by internal squabbles and even the "Sonia Gandhi factor" could not do any magic to motivate the warring factions to join hands.

In Manipur, with the insurgent groups imposing a ban on campaigning, there has practically been no election work for the April 26 polling in the Inner Manipur constituency. The only issue that has got prominence in the media is the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from the State, a demand raised by several underground organisations. However, in the Outer Manipur constituency, where the militants' ban did not have much impact, the BJP succeeded in pushing through its campaign. The party claimed that there would be a massive flow of development funds into the constituency if it was voted back to power at the Centre.

Huge portraits of Vajpayee at the BJP office in Ukhrul, the home district of National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, and other districts that fall under the constituency speak volumes about the party's efforts to woo the voters on the basis of the "Vajpayee factor". While the Congress(I) has no candidate in the constituency, the sitting MP of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Holkhomang Haokip, focussed his campaign on the development works he had initiated.

During the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the voter turnout in the hill areas of Manipur was very poor as the NSCN (I-M) had called for a poll boycott.

In the Tura constituency of Meghalaya, former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Agitok Sangma has spent more campaigning time explaining the change in his poll symbol, from the NCP's clock to grass and flower of the NTC, than focussing on other issues. However, he had to praise Vajpayee to convince the voters that his joining hands with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress (now NTC), an alliance partner of the BJP in the NDA, was for the better.

To capitalise on the sentiments of the Christian Garo people of Sangma's constituency, the Congress(I) highlighted the attacks on churches and Christians during Vajpayee's tenure. Pamphlets were distributed, purportedly by the Congress(I), to warn voters that if Sangma was re-elected "the Garos would not be able to eat beef as Purno has joined the BJP". Sangma, however, countered the Congress(I) campaign by pointing out that though Vajpayee had been the Prime Minister for the last five years, Garos did not have to stop eating beef or going to church.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the ruling BJP's efforts to create a Vajpayee wave fizzled out as the vexed issue of Chakma-Hajong refugees came to the fore with the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU) calling for a poll boycott to protest against the Election Commission's decision to grant the right to vote to the refugees. The Congress(I) too joined the AAPSU campaign and accused the BJP of double-speak on the issue. The Congress(I) hopes to retain both the Lok Sabha seats in the State, which it won in 1999.

In Mizoram, the three major Opposition parties - the Congress(I), the Mizoram People's Conference (MPC) and the Zoram Nationalist Party (ZNP) - have formed the Mizo Secular Force (MSF) and adopted the "danger of Hindu fundamentalism" as its main campaign issue. The MSF candidate for the only Lok Sabha seat in the State is Laltluangliana Khiangte. The MSF has branded the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF) as "pro-Hindu and anti-Christian". On the other hand, the MNF, a constituent of the NDA, highlighted peace and good governance as achievements of both the Vajpyee-led NDA government and the Zoramthanga-led MNF government in the State. The MNF has renominated its sitting MP Vanlalzawma.

The return of the strongman

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THE town of Rampur is not more than 130 kilometres from Shimla. Apart from being a Congress(I) stronghold, it is the home town of the Raja of Rampur who is, incidentally, the present Chief Minister, Virbhadra Singh. The Padam Singh Palace, established circa 1919, is a formidable building. The aura of the Raja and his fiefdom extends beyond Rampur. Even among those who might disagree with his style of functioning, it is accepted that he is the only leader in the Congress(I) who can lead the party to victory. The recent merger of the Himachal Vikas Congress (HVC) and the return of its founder, Sukh Ram, to the Congress(I) would not have been possible without Virbhadra's intervention. In fact, even before Sukh Ram's volte-face, the lone HVC member of Parliament from Shimla, Dhani Ram Shandil, had joined the Congress(I). The return of the strongman of Mandi to the Congress(I) prior to the Lok Sabha elections may help the party's nominee Pratibha Singh, who also happens to be the wife of the Chief Minister.

It is more than a year now since Virbhadra Singh was sworn in Chief Minister. Although both the Congress(I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party were riven by factionalism, it was the anger of the electorate against the government led by Prem Kumar Dhumal that gave the Congress(I) a comfortable majority in the Assembly.

In 1999, while the BJP won the Mandi, Hamirpur and Kangra seats and the HVC won the reserved seat of Shimla, in February 2003 the HVC found itself marginalised; it could retain just one of the 17 Assembly segments in Mandi, considered to be a stronghold of Sukh Ram. But with a support base of 80,000 to one lakh votes, the HVC is in a position to tilt the odds in favour of Pratibha Singh.

This time the contest will be a bipolar one with the Congress(I) enjoying an edge. It is too early to work up an anti-incumbency sentiment against the Virbhadra Singh government. The electorate is more likely to take stock of the Central government's achievements, especially its much publicised declaration of creating one crore jobs. Rakesh Singha, State secretary of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions, pointed out that since 1977 Lok Sabha elections had tended to favour the party in power in the State.

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There have been other developments that are likely to give the Congress(I) an edge. First, the merger of the HVC with the Congress(I) and second, the decision of the Congress(I) to field a candidate from the dominant Girth community in Kangra to take on the BJP's Shanta Kumar, former Union Minister for Rural Development. The Girth community, a peasant caste, which falls in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, has a formidable political presence. From being active supporters of the Left during the peasant struggles against feudalism in the region, Girths shifted allegiance and their political loyalty became divided between the BJP and the Congress(I). For the first time, a candidate from the community has been given the ticket, and observers hint at the possibility of a strong caste polarisation, at least in Kangra. The Congress(I) has nominated two Ministers from the Virbhadra Singh government to contest the parliamentary elections: Forest Minister Chander Kumar from Kangra and Ram Lal Thakur from Hamirpur.

The BJP has re-nominated all its candidates in the previous elections - Shanta Kumar from Kangra, Suresh Chandel from Hamirpur and Maheswar Singh from Mandi - and nominated H.N. Kashyap, an Indian Administrative Service officer, for the Shimla seat.

For the BJP, the Vajpayee factor is going to play the key role. Says Narendra Bragta, BJP campaign committee member and former Minister in the Dhumal government: "Atalji's image will be our axis." The party is focussing on development issues, especially schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. "We shall ask for votes on the basis of Atalji's leadership, and win all four seats," Bragta claimed. He said that Sukh Ram joining the Congress(I) would not affect the BJP as the HVC's importance had diminished after two of its Ministers joined the BJP.

However, the mood and opinion of a section of the electorate seemed unclear. "We cannot say anything at the moment. But Sukh Ram has given an advantage to the Congress(I)," said Ajay Kumar, the owner of a roadside eatery in Phagu. He voted for the BJP in the 1999 elections but rooted for the Congress(I) in the Assembly polls. Is the foreign origin of Sonia Gandhi an issue then? "In Himachal, it is no issue. Even if it is, it may be within a very small section only. Here, there is only one Congress(I) leader, Virbhadra Singh," he said. According to a government employee, "Virbhadra is the only star campaigner and has the capacity to sweep all seats."

Voters are likely to factor in local issues, the image of the candidate and the performance of the State government. Said Shiv Ram Chandel, a former panchayat pradhan in Theog: "Last time we voted for Vajpayee. But nothing really happened. I have met some people from Lucknow who say that he has even neglected his own constituency."

The highly literate electorate in the State is not likely to buy the "India Shining" campaign that easily. In a State where 90 per cent of the population subsists on agriculture on very small holdings, regular employment has always been in great demand. "I am unemployed. I have a post-graduate degree in hotel management but there are no jobs going around. We have some land and now I work on it," said Narender Sharma in Theog.

Two parties, one voice

PRAVEEN SWAMI cover-story

`MUZAFFARABAD 170,' reads the huge hoarding put up by the People's Democratic Party (PDP) at the TRC Chowk in Srinagar. If taxi driver Abdul Rashid's comments on the issue were on television, all that the audience would get to hear would be one long beep. "Before we get a highway to Pakistan," he says, his monologue laced with expletives, "I'd really like someone to build a road in my village. With any luck, the first bus to Muzaffarabad will fall off a cliff with all the politicians inside it."

Travel almost anywhere in the Kashmir valley, and voices like Rashid's are not in short supply. Complaints of schools without teachers, hospitals without doctors and roads made up mainly of potholes are widespread. Srinagar residents complain about poor sewerage, water supply and health care. In southern Kashmir, in areas such as Shopian or Kulgam, orchard owners have been hit hard by a price slump, the result of cheap imports and an ineffectual price-support mechanism. Everywhere, young people are bitter about shrinking employment opportunities.

Everywhere, that is, except in the speeches of the PDP and the National Conference (N.C.), the two major parties in the Kashmir valley. Given their dismal record in office, the two major political formations have wisely chosen to sidestep these issues. Little is said about issues that touch the everyday lives of ordinary people. Although candidates have been mouthing the usual pieties about addressing unemployment and bringing about development, no party has outlined a vision of just what it intends to do to solve these problems. Many of the PDP's unpopular measures in office - electricity tariff hikes, for example, or job cuts - were endorsed in principle if not in practice by the National Conference while it was in office.

Both the N.C. and the PDP, which generally agree on little, have remarkably similar visions on what needs to be done. Both, for one, seem to agree that dialogue with terrorists is essential. On April 12, N.C. candidate from Srinagar Omar Abdullah claimed that the Hizbul Mujahideen was "butchered under PDP rule". The allegation was entirely true - but it neatly ignored the fact that the same thing had happened under N.C. rule. PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, who is contesting from Anantnag, had said a few days earlier in Soibug that the Hizbul Mujahideen had "an important role to play" in future dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir.

Both parties also agree that human rights violations by the Indian forces are a major problem - and that killings by terrorists need not be addressed. In a recent speech Omar Abdullah claimed that "there has been no let-up in rights violations and dozens of people are killed every day". No mention was made of his party's endorsement of aggressive anti-terrorism operations while in office. Despite being in power, Mehbooba Mufti has made similar allegations against the police. After the April 11 attack on her rally at Uri (story on page 36), the PDP leader described the police as "an enemy of peace", but remained quiet on why her government, which controls the department, had not brought about such reforms as it thought necessary.

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Significantly, both parties have sought to use Islam as a major component of their campaign strategies. Omar Abdullah's campaign managers believe his marriage to a Punjabi Hindu and the recent marriage of his sister Sara to Congress politician Sachin Pilot have dented his legitimacy. The N.C., therefore, takes care to begin rallies with Islamic incantations. Former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah has claimed that the Bharatiya Janata Party is not a "well-wisher of Muslims". The Union government's refusal to fund an Islamic University in Kashmir, he claimed, showed that New Delhi "does not want people to get enlightened". PDP campaigners have also liberally used Islam as a motif in their campaign, saying their green flag is a symbol of their commitment to defend the faith.

No one has missed just how similar these three plans - dialogue with terrorists, human rights and the defence of Islam - are to the traditional platform held by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference and Islamist groups over the last decade. Failure to actually provide meaningful governance has led to a situation where mainstream parties have, so to speak, shifted the ideological goalposts. Indeed, Farooq Abdullah has gone one step further than the PDP in this regard, and threatened to "revive a movement for a plebiscite if the elections are rigged" - a remarkable re-formulation of the Opposition's allegations that the rigging of elections by the National Conference in 1987 led to the outbreak of terrorism in the first place.

Perhaps the polemic represents the desperation in both camps.

It is a process that holds out real dangers. "If politicians do not deliver on issues relevant to people," says Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate standing against Mehbooba Mufti in Anantnag, "it will breed cynicism about democracy itself. Yes, everyone should be concerned with the future of Jammu and Kashmir, but there is a lot to be done while this problem is resolved. We can't build a road to Pakistan, but we can push for a road from Poonch to the valley. We can spend money on schools and hospitals, instead of spending on just expanding the Cabinet endlessly." The Congress, which is contesting against the PDP in Baramulla, has also been talking of development, but its credibility is compromised by supporting the PDP in adjoining Srinagar and Anantnag, as well as Jammu.

Both the PDP and the National Conference are fond of talking about the masla-e-Kashmir, the problem of Kashmir. If democracy is to have meaning in Jammu and Kashmir, its time they started addressing the problems of Kashmiris as well.

Challenges before Chautala

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ON March 24, while addressing an election meeting in Barwala in the Hisar Lok Sabha constituency, Haryana Chief Minister and Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) chief Om Prakash Chautala made a statement that perhaps underscored the pivotal role of regional parties in national politics. He said that if the people would elect INLD candidates contesting in all the 10 seats in the State, he would make the Centre literally dance on the tip of the seed of Tindsi, a kind of gourd. In other words, Chautala was telling the people about the necessity to vote for his party, which would then hypothetically increase the clout of Haryana at the Centre.

The electoral battle in Haryana may be a four-cornered one with the Congress(I), the INLD, Bansi Lal's Haryana Vikas Party (HVP) and the BJP contesting independently. It would have been a three-cornered one had the BJP not decided to break its alliance with the INLD. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and the INLD contested and won five seats each. In February 2000, the INLD went in for early Assembly elections to consolidate its base and returned to power with a comfortable majority with the BJP supporting it from outside.

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Four years since then the BJP realised that the odds in the State were against Chautala. With Assembly elections scheduled for 2005, the BJP thought it prudent to sever its ties with the INLD if it were to escape the anti-incumbency factor. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani even suggested at Palwal that the people should not waste their votes on any regional party. Chautala, on the other hand, has been using Advani's statement to the hilt and has highlighted the BJP's alleged bias against regional parties.

For four years, Chautala never spoke a word against the BJP, least of all calling it communal. But now he attacks the party on every occasion but taking care not to name Vajpayee. Chautala also reminds the people of his late father Choudhary Devi Lal as the only true representative of the Jat community, which has a dominant presence in Haryana. He has, like Devi Lal, begun to use terms like poonjipati (capitalist) to describe the BJP. He has even gone to the extent of asking for the people's forgiveness for allying with the BJP and requesting them not to vent their anger against him by pressing the "wrong button". Meanwhile, the exit of senior Minister Kartar Singh Bhadana from the party and the government has dealt a blow to the INLD. Bhadana joined the BJP.

Inderjit Singh, secretary of the Haryana unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), says: "It is sheer opportunism. While the sole agenda is to capture power in Chandigarh, none of these parties wants to antagonise the ruling party at the Centre. Chautala is still not criticising the BJP for its policies. Both the HVP and the INLD are in a dilemma as they cannot oppose the BJP for they have been its alliance partner."

The Congress(I), which barely managed to hold on to three seats in 1998 and drew a blank the following year, appears to be in an advantageous situation. But the party is yet to get its act together. The Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, says that the worst phase for the Congress(I) was in 1996 when its vote share plummeted to 22.8 per cent and not 1999, when its vote share rose to 35 per cent. On the factionalism in the party, he told Frontline that it was a fact and that there was a difference of opinion between him and Bhajan Lal on how to run the party. "The party will fight the elections unitedly on the issues of unemployment and the worsening law and order situation," he said.

Signs of discontent

cover-story

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Sikar, Jhunjhunu and Churu

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IF its decisive victory in the December 2003 Assembly elections is an indication to go by, the Bharatiya Janata Party in Rajasthan seems to be in a position to perform well in the Lok Sabha elections too. The BJP currently holds 16 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the State. It is justifiably felt that the Congress(I) may have to struggle hard to retain its tally of nine seats. The BJP's Sikar district president Mahesh Sharma said the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee would be the focus of the party's campaign in the State. "Atalji's image and the work that the NDA did in the last four years will be projected," he says.

However, this does not obfuscate the fact that both parties are vying hard for the vote of the Jat community, which is spread all over the State. Seven seats each have been given to members of this community by both parties. However, a close look at a section of this community would reveal that neither party is thought about in lofty terms. In fact, there is resentment over unfulfilled promises and an acknowledgment that the real issues have been sidelined. In Sikar as well as other Shekhawati districts such as Jhunjhunu and Churu, the water table has been falling alarmingly. There is no system for rainwater harvesting and, as a result, almost 52 per cent of the surface water in the State goes waste. With the region entirely dependent on tubewells for irrigation, availability of power is an imperative. Instead of increasing the power supply, farmers were booked for stealing electricity. Farmers Frontline spoke to said that 40 per cent of the State's farmers were not eligible for Kisan credit cards. The small size of the landholdings was a reason.

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Wheat farmers in the region are worried about the standing crop, which they say may not be good owing to erratic power supply. Arjun Choudhary, a farmer, said: "Government employees and farmers were responsible for [Congress-I Chief Minister] Ashok Gehlot's defeat, but we find that this government is no better. Before the elections, the BJP promised us 16 hours of power supply. But we did not get even eight hours' supply in the past one and a half months, which was crucial for the wheat crop." In the Chomu Assembly constituency in the Sikar Lok Sabha seat, from where Union Minister Subhash Mahariya is contesting on the BJP ticket, the farmers are angry with the State government. "Gehlot lost because he did not attend to the power problems of the farmers. Mahariya has not done anything for Sikar," says Suhalal Saini. Mahariya is pitted against Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee (I) president Narain Singh and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and legislator from Dhod Amra Ram.

In Mehrauli village in the Sikar constituency, residents alleged that Mahariya and Narain Singh had never visited the area. Another point they made augurs badly for the two - that the performance of the candidate counts more than national issues. "We look at the candidate, not at Vajpayee or Sonia Gandhi. The foreign origin issue is no issue for us. But tell us, how can we feel good when there are no government facilities here. We removed the Congress(I) because we did not feel good," said Gopal Singh, a government employee. He says that Mehrauli does not even have a proper hospital.

Sikar is the second largest producer of onions after Pune in Maharashtra. But there are no cold storage facilities. Farmers often have to sell their produce at throwaway prices. The cost per acre of investment for the crop works out to about Rs.5,000 as it is a labour-intensive crop. Barring Amra Ram, no other politician has found it necessary to raise the issue of cold storage facilities. Said Navrang Singh, a farmer in Rasheedpura, Sikar: "We told our MLA Amra Ram to raise the issue in the State Assembly. He did it several times but there was no reaction from the government."

The elections in Rajasthan will also decide the political future of the children, spouses and relatives of many a BJP and Congress(I) leader. While the Congress(I) nominee in Dausa is the late leader Rajesh Pilot's son Sachin Pilot, the BJP nominee in Jhalawar is Dushyant Singh, son of Chief Minister Vasundhra Raje Scindia. Finance Minister Jaswant Singh's son Manavendra Singh is contesting from Barmer and former BJP president Bangaru Laxman's wife Susheela Laxman is the party candidate for Jalore.

Advantage Modi, thanks to Congress

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"Let a standard four student and Sonia sing `Vande Mataram' together without a sheet of paper for reference. A kid from Khambhat will win this contest. All our freedom fighters - Rajguru, Sukhdev, Bhagat Singh and Mahatma Gandhi - have died for Vande Mataram. But she does not know the national song."

- Chief Minister Narendra Modi, at an election rally in Khambat, Anand.

BHIKABHAI PATEL, a farmer from Gandhinagar, does not care whether Sonia Gandhi can sing Vande Mataram. He is drowning in losses. Agriculture has become unprofitable and his debts are piling up. "Our expenses are much higher than the price we get in the market for our produce," he said. "We spend Rs.550 to grow 20 kg of wheat. But the market rate is only Rs.125 for 20 kg. Farmers are already incurring heavy losses. By almost doubling electricity prices, the government has added to our burdens."

Bhikabhai is a member of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), the farmer's wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But, he is upset with the Modi government. "Why should we pay more when they don't deliver on their promise of 14 hours uninterrupted power supply? We get electricity for only six hours a day. Sometimes, at odd hours of the night," Bhikabhai pointed out. In the water scarce areas of Gujarat, farmers who pump groundwater dependent heavily on electricity. Groundwater meets the needs of around 85 per cent of Gujarat's irrigated land, as compared to the all-India average of 60 per cent.

Some months back, Bhikabhai participated in the BKS agitation against the BJP government's power policy. The first signs of opposition were from within the party itself. Later, BJP leaders from Delhi forced a compromise. But farmers are still upset.

But there is not much talk of their problems during this election campaign. The Congress(I), the only Opposition party, mentions it in passing. Narendra Modi, who has a penchant for passing cheap shots, keeps taking digs at Sonia Gandhi, calling her a `jersey cow' and Rahul Gandhi a `hybrid calf'.

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NATHUBHAI PADIAR cannot eat the grain that he grows in his field. He buys his provisions from the market, even though they are more expensive. "Our grain tastes bad," he says.

His village Umraya, on the outskirts of Vadodara, lies in Gujarat's `golden corridor', an industrial belt stretching from Mehsana in the north to Vapi in the south. This corridor is the heart of the State's industry and of indiscriminate pollution.

Around 95 per cent of industrial units did not have consent to operate under the Air Act, said the Comptroller and Auditor General's report 2001. And, 92 per cent of industrial units in the hazardous waste-producing sector were functioning without the Pollution Control Board's authorisation.

Industries here get sufficient water. But not farmers. Villages are dry. Nathubhai's farm is adjacent to the effluent canal of a large chemical company. He uses the dark, maroon effluent from the factory to irrigate his field. "There's no other source of water here. So we use the effluent instead," Nathubhai explains. "Large farmers have borewells. But they charge us Rs.40 an hour. That's at least Rs. 400 a week. It's too expensive. This water is free."

Soil irrigated with effluent water have 100-250 times more heavy metals such as lead, zinc, copper, chromium and nickel, according to chemical analysis research done by environmental scientist Dr. Avnesh Sharma. An analysis of crops showed that food grown with effluent water has high heavy metal contamination.

Pollution has poisoned farms. The air smells of toxic gases. The water is laced with a deadly cocktail of chemicals. Ever since the factory became operational, farmers have had to cope with rising medical bills. Gases released every night keep children awake, gasping for breath and vomiting. Several people have stomach and skin problems.

Farming is no longer viable. "My kharif rice crop was destroyed. I spent Rs.5,000 on seeds and fertilizers. It has all gone down the drain. We are food producers, but we don't even get two meals a day," says Nathubhai. Farmers estimate that productivity has fallen by more than one-third. Some do not get market rates for their produce. "If the traders know that the crop is from this area, they offer us only 50 or 60 per cent of the normal market price," he adds. With losses mounting, many farmers are deeply in debt. Nathubhai had to sell two of his three buffaloes. This has further reduced his income.

The factory has not opened up new jobs for the people of the village. "Even those who lost their land to the factory and were promised jobs did not get them. There is no work for us in there," says Nathubhai. "Most workers are on contract. They get Rs.60 for 12 hours, which is much less than the minimum wage. And, the contractor can throw you out whenever he feels like."

But the BJP's `feel good' campaign has overlooked the downside of Gujarat's industrial development. When Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani visited his constituency, Gandhinagar, he talked about stability and `India Shining'. Of the 26 seats in Gujarat, the BJP is confident of retaining the 21 seats it won last time.

Walk through the lanes of Gomtipur, Ahmedabad's mill area and many unemployed men are just hanging around the streets. Most mills have shut down. Mehru Vaghela used to work in Ramkrishna mills, earning Rs.75 daily. The mill closed in 1986. For many years he was without work. Now, he labours in a spinning factory where daily wages are Rs. 50. "See how we have fallen. I don't have money to shave. In every house here, people are sitting redundant. Their wives have become rag pickers. They scrape together only one meal," he says.

Some have seen through the BJP's eyewash. "Because of the riots, we voted for the BJP. But we won't make the same mistake again," says Mehru. "They fooled us. They started the riots. But they made us believe that they would save us. This time we won't vote for them." But many youth have fallen for the communal game plan. "The BJP protected Hindus. The Congress supported Muslims," says Kanu Macwana, a local BJP supporter.

Although Narendra Modi won the 2002 Assembly elections with communal politics, this time he has been told not to use his communal rhetoric.

The BJP central command is keen to focus on the `feel good' factor. Both parties are being careful about what they say about the Supreme Court's criticism of Modi's government in the Best Bakery verdict.

Modi returned to his `Gujarati Asmita (pride)' rhetoric. "We Gujarati's were compared with killers, looters, rapists and killers of Muslims," he said at an election rally in Khambat. "Madam (Sonia) is here. She should come here in Khambhat. She too referred to Gujarat as land of Godse instead of Gandhi. People of Gujarat will teach her a lesson." Soon after the Best Bakery verdict, Modi planned a `Kesari Yatra' of north and central Gujarat where the BJP could face some setbacks.

The Congress was far more careful while talking about the Best Bakery judgment. At a rally in north Gujarat, Sonia Gandhi made a passing reference to how the Supreme Court had criticised the Modi government for its role in the riots. But Gujarat Congress leader Shankarsinh Vaghela lashed out at the Modi government. The Congress fears that raking up such issues could polarise votes along communal lines, which will only benefit the BJP and deflect attention from voters' concerns.

Although there is no dearth of development problems, people's discontent may not translate into votes simply because the Congress is still very weak. The Sangh Parivar's network is a far more organised and visible force. The Congress presence, if any, offers no reassurance to people. "People are not happy with the BJP. But the Congress didn't do anything for us in the last 50 years," says a teacher in a tribal area of Bharuch district in south Gujarat.

It does not matter whether Sonia can sing or Modi can dance, as long as they deliver the goods. But that is something political parties are silent about during the campaign tamasha.

Maintaining the momentum

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FRESH from its massive victory in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party is confident of its chances in the Lok Sabha elections. The issues the party raised mainly in the Assembly elections were the condition of roads, the shortage of power and the steep power tariffs. Although Chief Minister Uma Bharati promised to solve these problems within 100 days, it is too early to judge the performance of the government. Says Mahendra Tiwari, a shop owner in Biawra town in Rajgarh district: "Yes, we have power cuts for 12 hours a day, but things were no better when the Congress(I) was in power. Uma Bharati needs time to solve these problems."

The government's efforts to build new roads have already run into trouble. Contractors hired to repair roads rejected State Public Works Minister Kailash Vijayvargiya's condition that free repair services must be provided for the roads for three years from the date of their completion. The contractors refused to take responsibility for roads that were constructed during the tenure of the government led by Digvijay Singh.

In Bhopal, people believe that the Uma Bharati government has made efforts to fulfil its promises. Says Mahesh Prasad, an autorickshaw driver: "The roads have improved in the city since Uma Bharati came to power. Power cuts are less frequent and the government is planning to get Narmada water for the city." The State government has sought more funds from the Centre to revamp the power sector under the Accelerated Power Development Reform Programme (APDRP). Under this programme, the Madhya Pradesh government was entitled to Rs.587 crores to strengthen the State's electricity distribution network as per estimates drawn up three years ago. Following Uma Bharati's intervention, the Union Ministry of Power has recommended that the Finance Ministry release Rs.256 crores to the State. The government has also approved a Rs.300-crore plan to bring Narmada water to Bhopal by 2007.

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Of the 29 Lok Sabha seats in the State, the BJP holds 21 and the Congress(I) eight. BJP leaders in the State say they are aiming at `Mission 29'. Says party spokesperson Uma Shankar Gupta: "Our internal reports say that we will win all the 29 seats. Not a single Congress(I) leader is willing to contest these elections. They now have a jumbo-sized committee but no one to fight these elections." However, there have been tensions within the BJP and party workers say that they are unhappy with Uma Bharati's style of functioning and her preoccupation with religious activities. There is intense speculation both within and outside the party that Uma Bharati may be asked to step down as Chief Minister after the Lok Sabha elections. The man tipped to replace her is Kaptan Singh Solanki, the party's organising secretary and a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

Although the Congress(I) is in disarray in Madhya Pradesh with many senior leaders, including Arjun Singh and Digvijay Singh, not contesting, the party has finalised its list of candidates and fielded strong contestants in many constituencies. Former Union Minister Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia, son of the late Madhavrao Scindia, are contesting from Chhindwara and Guna respectively. The BJP has put up Prahlad Patel, Union Minister of State for Coal, against Kamal Nath but it will be difficult to defeat the latter.

The Congress(I) will find it hard to replace Digvijay Singh, who is coordinating the party's efforts in Assam and Orissa. Although Pradesh Congress Committee leader Subhash Yadav is technically the head of the party, he has been sidelined and most comparisons in the media are still between Uma Bharati and Digvijay Singh.

So far the BJP has managed to turn the focus of the campaign away from issues such as the rising prices of essential commodities to Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin and the Prime Minister's planks of good governance and stability. Says Uma Shankar Gupta, "We need a person who understands the country and who will be able to take everyone along and run a coalition government." Congress(I) spokesperson Manak Agarwal counters, "The BJP and its leaders are targeting a woman because they are threatened by the emergence of Sonia. If there is a clash of personalities, it is Sonia's which will prevail as she is from the Gandhi family while Vajpayee helped the British during the Independence movement." BJP candidates have not hesitated in attacking Sonia and the Congress(I) has been equally quick to defend her and question the achievements of the Vajpayee government. However, much to the party's discomfiture, Sonia versus Vajpayee has become the central theme of the campaign.

Avoiding sensitive issues

NAUNIDHI KAUR cover-story

IF one were to go by the current election campaign, only two things are wrong with Punjab - the corrupt ways of the Akali leaders and the foreign origin of Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi. Not for poll campaigners sensitive issues such as the alarming increase in atrocities against Dalits, the religious fundamentalism nurtured by the Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the insurmountable debt of farmers, or the rising cases of drug abuse in the villages. Political mudslinging is the order of the day. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has said that his party will use the details of property belonging to his predecessor and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Prakash Singh Badal, which have been gathered by the Punjab Vigilance Bureau, in his election campaign. The Akali leaders are seeking votes emphasising the benefits that would accrue to the State as a result of the SAD's alliance with the BJP and the possibility of having Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister once again.

Tohra village, which falls under the Ropar parliamentary constituency, has been witnessing political activity of a different kind. Three days before Baisakhi, the social-religious festival of Punjab, political bigwigs joined a large numbers of people in the village at the bhog ceremony of the late Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee chief Gurcharan Singh Tohra. The general consensus there was that the departed leader had undertaken tremendous development work in his village. Any visitor to the village can see the concrete roads that link the houses of its 1,500 voters. It is no small achievement that the village has its own school, a bank and a hospital with 10 beds. A temple, a gurdwara and a mosque located within the village point to communal amity. During the harvest season, when the wheat fields assume a golden hue, every hand in the village is seen working at the fields. The image of a happy village community ends here.

An inquiry at the local bank branch reveals that every family has taken a loan. Said farmer Nirmal Singh: "The high cost of diesel, rising prices of urea and low procurement rates have meant that I had to take a bank loan and pay an interest of 10 per cent." The picture gets bleaker still.

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Behind the pucca houses of the landed upper castes is the colony of Dalits. Poverty and hunger are evident on their faces, and so is the increasing frustration owing to underemployment or unemployment. The 20 Dalit houses are segregated from the rest of the village. There are separate taps for water. None of the Dalit residents owns a piece of land. The Dalits provide cheap labour to the wealthy land-owners. Though the refrain is that Tohra did not forget his village, his clout did not help Dalits as much as it did other communities. Said Ajeet Singh, an accountant in the bank: "Our debts and the rising costs of agriculture will remain whichever party comes to power. We are fortunate that Tohra got us government jobs."

Village Hassanpur is less fortunate. Given the fact that it is situated near Patiala town, most of the villagers have sold their land to urban builders. The few farmers left in the village complain about the high cost of electricity. Said farmer Darshan Singh: "There will be no hike in the power tarriff for the next six months. We understand that this is an election gimmick." As political parties campaign on the basis of the development work done by them, the villagers realise that some incentives will come to an end when the elections are over. Voters are aware that the Punjab State Electricity Board (PSEB) has withdrawn its proposal for an increase in the power tariff, only for the time being. The PSEB had sought to increase the power bill by an average of 10 per cent in the domestic and agricultural sectors. The increased rates were to be effective from April 1. When the Lok Sabha elections were announced, the State government considered it prudent to delay this tarriff hike. Said Member of Parliament from Patiala Parneet Kaur: "I am stressing the development activity carried out by me and I promise to continue the work further." Her campaign managers dismiss the vicious infighting in the party as a mere difference of opinion. Said campaign manager Sant Ram Singla: "There is no infighting. It is like `I came to you to get some work of mine done and you did not respond immediately. So I will feel a bit neglected.' This is not infighting but minor disagreement between politicians, all of whom want the betterment of the people in the constituency." He was obviously trying to cover up the fact that cadre loyal to Deputy Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal in the Lehra Gagga area of Patiala constituency are not working for Parneet Kaur.

Two senior State party leaders and MPs Balbir Singh and Charanjeet Singh Channi have joined the Akali Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party respectively. Elsewhere, taking their cue from Sonia Gandhi, Congressmen are campaigning for votes on the basis of the work done by their respective families. Said Congress candidate from Ludhiana, Manish Tewari: "I am asking for votes as a victim of militancy as well as the champion of Punjabiyat." Militants had gunned down his father V.N. Tewari, a Punjabi litterateur, in 1984.

The issue-deficient elections sees Badal's son Sukhbir Badal asking people not to vote for the Congress(I) as it was responsible for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. The other campaign issues in Lambi, where Sukhbir Badal is testing his political fortunes, are unemployment and lack of health care. Nothing has been said of the growing violence against Dalits. The Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (PKMU) has been agitating against growing cases of violence against Dalits in Lambi. None of the political parties is ready to touch this sensitive topic.

Lack of an alternative vision

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OVER the nine years that he has presided over Andhra Pradesh, Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has repeatedly said that all `isms' are redundant expect `tourism', which can contribute to employment and revenue generation.

He has argued that development has no ideology and often quoted the Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping - "It does not matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice" - to rebuke his former allies, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), when they criticised his policies as "anti-people" and "dictated by the World Bank".

With the money provided by international donor agencies such as the World Bank and the British government's Department for International Development (DFID), the Chandrababu Naidu government initiated many schemes. Some were directed towards ameliorating the condition of the poor and vulnerable sections of society while others were directed at reforming the administrative structure and making it more responsive to the citizens. The government undertook comprehensive reforms in the power and irrigation sectors and set about privatising many public sector enterprises with a view to reforming government finances.

A document titled `Vision 2020', prepared by the international consultants McKinsey, outlines the State government's development strategy, one that has been celebrated by international donor agencies, the media and corporates as a model for all governments to tackle issues of social and economic underdevelopment in a market-friendly manner. Radical reforms in governance earned Chandrababu Naidu the title of `CEO' of Andhra Pradesh.

Given this background, many people were surprised that the the ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which he leads, chose to go in for early elections hoping to cash in on the "sympathy factor" at play in the wake of the assassination attempt on him by members of the People's War Naxalite group a few months ago. Development was not an election-winning slogan anymore.

Responding to criticisms of having dumped development as a political slogan, TDP spin doctors argued that fresh elections were necessary to renew the popular mandate for the government's development agenda, which was being thwarted by the Opposition. Chandrababu Naidu accused his opponents - the Naxalites, the Congress(I) and the Left parties - of colluding in an "unholy alliance" to impede the government's development agenda. The murderous attack on him was sought to be portrayed as just another form of opposition attempt to derail the development agenda. Later, the issue of Andhra Pradesh's unity in the face of Telangana separatism became the TDP's central campaign point. Recently, while addressing election rallies, Chandrababu Naidu has been raising Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin as the "main" issue.

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Posters of Chandrababu Naidu soaked in blood after escaping the Naxalite attack vie for voters' attention with those showing development-related statistics and appeals to preserve the unity of Andhra Pradesh.

The TDP campaign, surprisingly, lacks focus though the State is scheduled to go to the polls on April 20 and 26. Over the past one month, the TDP has found that it has not evoked the kind of response it expected. For example, in East Godavari district, where the TDP won 20 out of the 21 Assembly seats in the last elections, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had reportedly to wait for two hours before a crowd could be gathered, even after which the meeting venue was half-empty.

Development has become merely one of the tunes being sung in a desperate attempt to try and woo the voter.

A popular witticism doing the rounds is that Chandrababu Naidu has been the best Chief Minister of Hyderabad but not of Andhra Pradesh, a reference to the stupendous urban growth of the State's capital led by the Information Technology sector, in contrast with the crisis in agriculture. It is to address this widespread grievance regarding the neglect of agriculture that the TDP has promised in its manifesto investments totalling Rs.60,000 crores in agriculture. Another Rs.40,000 crores has been promised for rural development. But these have come a little too late.

Ironically, it is the election campaign of the Congress(I) that has brought the development issue to the fore; the party has been focussing solely on the omissions and commissions of the State government. The party has targeted the TDP's alleged corruption, failure to manage the drought, and neglect of irrigation and the high levels of unemployment and poverty in rural areas.

The Congress(I)'s election campaign actually began in May last year when Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who was then leader of the Congress(I) Legislature Party (CLP), undertook a 1,600-km long padyatra through the State to express solidarity with the people during the third successive year of drought in many parts of the State. The two-month long yatra highlighted the State government's neglect of agriculture and irrigation and drew public attention to the issues of migration and suicides by farmers. It catapulted Rajasekhara Reddy to the position of a mass leader and a "worthy" contender for chief ministership.

It has been relatively easy for the Congress(I) to highlight the shortcomings in the policies of the ruling party. In this the party has been aided in great measure by the regular and detailed critiques put out by the CPI(M), especially on issues such as power, irrigation and administrative reforms and the growing evidence of corruption and misappropriation of welfare funds.

If popular participation in the rallies and public meetings is any indication, the Congress(I)'s criticism of the TDP regime seems to have struck a chord. Reports suggest that Rajasekhara Reddy's impromptu roadside stops draw large crowds. This is in contrast to the attendance, for example, at the well-advertised public meetings of the TDP-BJP alliance in Rajahmundry and Visakhapatnam, which were addressed by Vajpayee and Chandrababu Naidu.

But other than its promise to distribute power free of cost to farmers in drought-affected areas, the Congress(I) has not been able to come out with an alternative policy package for development; a return to "Indramma raj" (Indira Gandhi rule) is used as a substitute. And despite the criticism of the TDP's reform agenda, Rajasekhara Reddy said: "The Congress is not totally against reforms. Some see it as a `Zinda Tilismath' (a cure-all), while others construe it as destructive. Reforms should be taken up in such a way that the ultimate goal, the betterment of the people, is achieved."

Even though the lack of water is the central grievance behind the demand for a separate Telangana State, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi's campaign has been marked by the use of intemperate language and histrionics rather than specific measures to resolve the issue of under-development.

This lack of alternative policies may be the Opposition's undoing. While there is palpable anger against specific policies of the incumbent regime, it may not be sufficient to neutralise the effect of the well-organised cadre of the TDP and the doubts in the voter's mind about the Congress(I)'s ability to deliver.

Asif, an autorickshaw driver in Hyderabad, said: "What can the Congress do different from the TDP? In any case, these Congresswallahs are so hungry after being out of power for nine years that they will eat the very concrete off the roads."

DRIVEN TO DEATH

the-nation

The once-prosperous farming villages of Wayanad district in Kerala are witnessing a spate of suicides by farmers, who are unable to repay loans because of a severe drought and the resultant crop failure.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Wayanad Photographs: S. Ramesh Kurup

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TRAGIC, theatrical events are taking place in Kerala's once-prosperous farming villages. In the first week of April, at Mundakkayam, in the central district of Kottayam, a 58-year-old indebted coffee cultivator consumed poison in front of a crowd. He died the next day in a local hospital. He had a suicide note in his pocket.

A few weeks earlier, in the northern hill district of Wayanad, a middle-aged pepper cultivator at Pulpally in Sulthan Bathery taluk amassed firewood in his courtyard and set it ablaze in order to kill himself and raze his home and the surrounding slope of yellow pepper vines, destroyed beyond redemption by the severe drought that has hit the district. Neighbours who saved him now advise visitors not to speak to the man, who they say is under the spell of alcohol and ganja and mistakes every stranger for a "bank employee out to recover a loan".

In late March, at another village in the same taluk, a 69-year-old widow with four children, ended her life minutes after a bank employee made her sign a notice informing the family of some debt-relief measures announced in the wake of the drought. The woman had inherited a huge burden of debt from her husband. When crops failed repeatedly and a severe drought descended on the hills, she was forced to go in for more loans. Living as she did under the constant fear of recovery proceedings, she misunderstood the bank notice to be the final straw.

By April 11, over a two-month period, 19 farmers had committed suicide in Kerala, some of them in dramatic circumstances. Thirteen of them were from the predominantly farming district of Wayanad, known the world over for its pepper, cardamom, ginger and other spices and condiments and coffee. At villages like Pulpally and Mullankolli, previously known as the `Kuwait in Kerala' or `the Gulf in Kerala' for the prosperity that came with booming pepper and coffee prices, farmers are distraught and have more or less similar tales of woe to recount.

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When the prices of pepper, coffee, tea and ginger touched a high a few years ago, life suddenly became rosy for the farmers. Private financiers were dime a dozen then and they competed with the nationalised and cooperative banks, which have established branches in every nook and corner of the `lucrative' district to offer `agricultural loans' to the farmers. Many farmers took loans beyond their repayment capability, from several sources and at high rates of interest.

Agricultural loans were offered even for non-agricultural purposes. Consumer goods and four-wheeler sales touched a high in the district. For example, of the total bank loans in the district, 76.5 per cent have been disbursed in the priority sector. (The State average is 52.5 per cent.) According to officials of the lead bank in the district, Canara Bank, the majority of the loans are given in the farm sector. While the average credit-deposit ratio in Kerala is 46 per cent, in Wayanad it is 188 per cent.

K.M. Pundarikakshan, District Manager of the lead bank, said: "Banks were quite liberal in disbursing loans to the farmers of Wayanad. The farmers too were eager to obtain loans and often borrowed beyond their means. If there were five members in a family, all five would borrow. Per family borrowings are very high in the district. Last year, the credit target for the district was fixed at Rs.398 crores. By December, Rs.288 crores had already been disbursed. The target for the next year has been fixed at Rs.450 crores."

According to M. Sreedharan Nair, General Manager of Wayanad District Cooperative Bank Ltd., the apex bank in the cooperative sector, banks were liberal in giving loans because Wayanad continued to be the lead producer of cash crops and it had a multi-cropping pattern. "For example, coffee is grown as a pure crop and as a mixed crop along with pepper. Most farmers therefore take separate loans for various crops on the same piece of land. Moreover, cash crops require high investment. For example, the production cost of an acre of pepper is around Rs.50,000. Farmers take loans for the same crop from different banks as also from the `blade companies' (private financiers who charge interest at cut-throat rates)," he said.

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All seemed well in Wayanad until 2000, when the prices of farm commodities began to plummet along with farm production as a result of the drought and the widespread occurrence of plant diseases. This correspondent was swamped by distraught farmers at small village junctions in the worst-affected panchayats of Pulpally and Mullankolli on April 5, a day before the first summer rains hit Wayanad. Many of them wanted the media to understand "the real situation under the (still) green, picturesque canopy of Wayanad."

Under the yellowing trees providing shade and support in the coffee-pepper plantations and homestead gardens, the earth was brown and dry, and acres of high-value pepper crop lay burnt by the heat of the past two years. "A new crop would take over three years, if at all the majority of the small-holder farmers are able to raise it," P.J. Isaac, a retired schoolteacher and a farmer, told Frontline. He said that a quintal of pepper used to fetch Rs.26,000 in 2000 but the price was only around Rs.7,800 today. Coffee, which was priced at Rs.70 a kg four years ago, was worth only Rs.16.50 a kg now.

At Paadithara, Anandavalli, a 62-year-old woman said people of the locality had started moving elsewhere in search of jobs. "Many farmers have turned labourers. Young women are now willing to move to other districts in search of unfamiliar jobs. Several women have been offered jobs as home nurses in districts such as Kannur and Pathanamthitta," she said.

At Sita Mount, Chacko, who owns a five-acre (two-hectare) homestead crop of pepper, ginger, banana and coffee, said 99 per cent of the crop had been destroyed in the drought. He had taken loans totalling nearly Rs.6 lakhs from several local banks, in addition to other "private loans". "I was very prompt in paying the loan instalments until 2000. From then on I have been unable to repay my debts," he said. Chacko said that despite the fall in prices, he could have managed to repay at least part of the loan had he not lost his crop.

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"Successive drought years have led to spiralling losses. Production has come down drastically. It has left no one in this village untouched," Thomas, another farmer, who owns six acres (2.4 ha) of drought-hit pepper crop, said.

The majority of the farmers in the region are descendants of settlers from other parts of Kerala, especially the central parts, who moved into the virgin, fertile forests in large numbers. K.I. Mathew, a local representative of the Indian Farmers' Movement (INFAM), is a typical settler farmer in the region, with large tracts of pepper and coffee crop that have been laid waste. He moved to Wayanad in the early 1960s and started cultivating paddy and tapioca and later the golden crops, pepper, coffee and ginger, on reclaimed land. "Never in recent years have farmers here faced such a drought. Never have prices fallen to the extent they have in the past few years. It is an alarming situation," he said.

According to the Lead Bank Office at Kalpetta, the district headquarters, there has been a huge backlog in loan repayments to banks over the past three years. A total sum of Rs.162.46 crores remains to be repaid. Until December 2003, the total loans disbursed by all the banks in the district amounted to Rs.706.8 crores, of which Rs.187 crores was provided by the cooperative sector banks. According to District Cooperative Bank officials, loans to the tune of Rs.74.8 crores are overdue in the cooperative sector. The overdue amount in the case of the nationalised and gramin banks is Rs.87.56 crores, of which Rs.67.3 crores is accounted for by farm loans. The banks "recovered" 88 per cent of the agricultural loans in 2001, 72 per cent in 2002 and merely 68 per cent in 2003. Bank officials said that often "recovery" meant that outstanding loans were "closed by converting them into fresh loans".

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Chandran, who lost 2.25 acres (0.9 ha) of pepper crop, the sole source of income for his family, told Frontline: "When production and prices were high, farmers were induced by the banks into taking loans at very high interest rates. When things began to go wrong, they offered to convert the high interest and principal into fresh loans, putting us into debt far in excess of the original loan amount. We will never be able to repay these loans. Every year, by offering to re-phase the loans, the banks in effect were pushing the farmer further and further into debt."

This is a common refrain among farmers in the district, who are increasingly being organised by some organisations into militant action against the banks and government authorities. "In the past two months there were several instances of farmers' organisations besieging government offices and preventing people from repaying or renewing loans, especially in the context of a series of suicides by indebted farmers. The non-repayment of loans is pushing the cooperative banks into a crisis," Sreedharan Nair said. Mainstream bankers say that farmers are harassed more by private financiers, who charge exorbitant interest rates and use coercive methods to force repayment. "They make you sign a stamp paper and a blank cheque and give you the money. It is easy to get loans from the private financiers. Hence they get customers. The interest rates are exorbitant, often as high as 36 per cent - and farmers will be under tremendous pressure to repay," Joseph, a farmer at Sulthan Bathery, said.

The number of persons who commit suicide has been steadily increasing in Kerala, from 9,778 in 1999 to 9,304 in 2000 and 9,572 in 2001. The rate of suicides rose from 13 per lakh persons in 1981 to 32 per lakh persons in 2002, which was three times the all-India rate. In many districts, counselling centres established by NGOs and other agencies are flooded with phone calls from persons seeking support. According to the organisers of a recent seminar in Thiruvananthapuram, nearly 80,000 people attempt to commit suicide every year in the State. In Wayanad, a crisis management centre opened by INFAM received in the first two days of its inauguration nearly 300 calls from people wanting to end their own lives. In the past decade, on an average over 300 persons committed suicide every year in Wayanad district alone. The figure was 320 in 2002. Though a sudden fall in financial status and loss of social reputation, along with family problems and illness, are among the major causes of suicides in Kerala, domino-suicides by farmers who are unable to cope with mounting debts and crop losses in such a short period constitute a new trend in the State.

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Farmers' suicides have been reported from six of the 14 districts, including Wayanad, the intensely drought-hit Palakkad, Kottayam, Kannur, Idukki and Thiruvananthapuram. Sucides by farmers continued to take place even after the first package of relief measures was announced by the State government. In response to an appeal by the government, the State-level Bankers' Committee announced a six-month moratorium on revenue recovery measures on agricultural loans, and the conversion of short-term loans and crop loans that are due for repayment during the period of drought to medium-term loans repayable in three to seven years, with the interest portion of such loans to be paid only during the harvesting/marketing of the next crop. Banks also expressed their readiness to provide fresh crop loans to farmers.

But, at the dingy village office at Mullankolli, the sight of nearly 200-odd farmers waiting in a queue to submit applications for drought relief brought home the mood of the farmers. "We are deep in debt and they are offering us more loans," one of them said. The village officer, R. Manikantan, said that over 6,500 applications had been received from Mullankolli for drought relief for 34 varieties of crops.

The Farmers Relief Forum, another organisation, had been mobilising farmers all over the State to fight against recovery proceedings and to demand that farm loans be written off. The forum organised protests at several places, with farmers carrying farm produce instead of loan instalments to the banks and demanding that they be paid the price that existed at the time when the banks fixed the high interest rates. It organised farmers in order to prevent recovery proceedings and to get back property attached by banks from indebted farmers.

On April 13, over a thousand farmers under the banner of INFAM organised a siege of the lead bank at Kalpetta and declared that the farmers of Wayanad were "on their own writing off their bank loans". Director of the Wayanad unit of INFAM Fr. Robin Vadakkencheril told Frontline that the organisation, with over 650 units and nearly 11,000 active members in the districts, would spread the message that the farmers of Wayanad need not bother about their debt burden any more. He said that with the April 13 declaration they would consider all loans as closed and would fight any kind of recovery measures collectively. "We won't bother about our debts any longer. If a bank initiates recovery measures against a farmer, we will force the closure of that branch. This is the only way we can save our brethren from committing suicide. Three of our members are soon to launch a `fast unto death' at Kalpetta demanding complete debt relief for farmers," he said. The same day Chief Minister A. K. Antony announced a one-year moratorium on recovery proceedings against farmers and a five-year repayment period for farm loans originally due for repayment in 2003-2004 and availed through primary cooperative societies. The cooperative banks have been asked to provide Rs.50,000 to the families of farmers who died.

But, for the farmers of Wayanad, especially the members of the families of those who committed suicide, the collective action by farmers and the relief measures announced by the government mean too little, too late.

The long arm of Lashkar

PRAVEEN SWAMI the-nation

The arrest in Iraq of a member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is waging a `jehad' in Jammu and Kashmir, confirms Pakistan's links with international terrorism, even if the U.S. would like to pretend ignorance about it.

THERE are several good reasons why people ride horses and camels rather than tigers, all of them obvious to anyone who is not a counter-terrorism expert in the administration of United States President George W. Bush.

Arrests made earlier this month near Baghdad have blown the lid off the links between the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Islamist groups who have joined the nationalist resistance to the United States occupation of Iraq: evidence that ought to cause at least some embarrassment to the U.S.' South Asia diplomatic establishment, currently in the throes of a syrupy dtente with Pakistan. Parts of the deal are well known. The U.S. has overlooked, for example, Pakistan's nuclear proliferation record in return for its cooperation in fighting the Taliban. From India's point of view, one part of this sordid arrangement constitutes a serious threat: the U.S. also seems to have given Pakistan's military considerable freedom to continue its support to officially-authorised jehadis. If nothing else, the arrests have once again shown that terror, like chickens, comes home to roost.

In March - and possibly even earlier - U.S. forces arrested Pakistani national Dilshad Ahmad, a long-time Lashkar operative from the Bhawalpur area of the province of Punjab. Ahmad had played a key role in the Lashkar's trans-Line of Control operations, serving between 1997 and 2001 as its commander for the forward camps from where infiltrating groups of terrorists are launched into Jammu and Kashmir with Pakistani military support. Ahmad is believed to have made at least six secret visits to Lashkar groups operating in Jammu and Kashmir during this period. Although there are no verifiable records of Ahmad actually having carried out terrorist acts in India, he authored several articles on the fitfully-functioning Lashkar web site, one describing in particularly macabre detail the merits of severing Indian soldiers' limbs from their bodies.

A close associate of Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, the second-in-command in the Lashkar military hierarchy, Ahmad had for a long time played a key role in shaping the organisation's ideological and military agenda: a fact that raises obvious questions about his work in Iraq. In 1998, he addressed a major Lashkar-e-Taiba conference in Muridke, arguing for the need to extend the organisation's activities outside Jammu and Kashmir. Ahmad is believed to have played a key role in building the infrastructure for the dozens of Lashkar cells that have since carried out bombings in several major Indian cities. At least four other Lashkar operatives are known to have been arrested in the intelligence-led operation that ended in Ahmad's arrest, but nothing else is available publicly on their intentions or origins. U.S. officials had kept a tight lid on news of the arrests until it was first reported in The Hindu on April 1.

FOR the U.S. the arrests are a potentially embarrassing election-time reminder that the Lashkar-e-Taiba, proscribed by all major Western capitals including Washington, continues to operate freely in Pakistan. In January, as politicians across the subcontinent prepared for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad, Pakistan took stern measures to put a lid on the Lashkar-e-Taiba's anti-India polemic. The Lashkar's web site was shut down, and its overall political and religious chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed was barred from addressing a rally in the town of Multan. Soon after SAARC, however, the restraints on the Lashkar were lifted. In February, Saeed was allowed to travel to Islamabad to attend the funeral prayers organised by Pakistani bureaucrat-businessman Zahoor Ahmad Awan, whose son, a Lashkar operative, was killed by Indian troops. Saeed told the assembly that the fighting in Jammu and Kashmir was "the greatest jehad in the entire history of Islam".

As important, the Lashkar has again been given considerable freedom to continue building its military infrastructure. In the build-up to the Id festival this month, the organisation, now operating under the new label of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, was reported to have raised Rs.780 million from the sale of hides of sacrificial animals donated by followers. The Lashkar proclaimed, through advertisements and announcements by loyal clerics, that the proceeds would be used for the benefit of "mujahideen who have sacrificed their lives for Islam" and for "the parents, widows and children of martyrs who waged jehad in Kashmir and Afghanistan". Although this activity seems in express violation of the Pakistan government's ban on raising funds for jehad-related activities, no real action seems to have been taken against those involved. Two Lashkar cadre were briefly detained in Karachi during the fund-raising drive, a purely token gesture. The web-site, packed with fundamentalist calls to violence, is up and running again.

Such activity has serious consequences for India. Police authorities in New Delhi recently arrested three members of a Lashkar squad tasked to attack Indira Gandhi International Airport. The organisation has also been active in targeted attacks on candidates contesting the Lok Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir, and has issued warnings to voters not to exercise their franchise. According to police officials in Jammu and Kashmir, a little over half of all terrorist acts in the State are now committed by the organisation. This escalating military activity is part of a pattern. Pakistan formally banned the Lashkar-e-Taiba in the wake of the 2001-2002 near-war with India, but soon allowed the organisation to resume operations under a new label, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa is on the Pakistani terrorism watch-list, but publicly collects funds and recruits cadre. Similarly, despite claims that the Jaish-e-Mohammad was behind an assassination attempt directed at Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, its leader Masood Azhar is at liberty.

IN other words, Pakistan seems willing to temporarily close the terror tap - cross-border infiltration is at an all-time low, and violence levels in Jammu and Kashmir have fallen substantially. It is equally clear, however, that Pakistan's military establishment is not willing to seal the pipeline that feeds these taps just yet. Washington's tolerance seems to be driven by Musharraf's claims that he cannot take on the entire religious Right without provoking a major backlash. As a result, Pakistan's military establishment has been able to keep the infrastructure of anti-India terrorism intact. It is worth noting that this infrastructure has, historically, imposed great costs on the U.S. itself. General Zia-ul-Haq's diversion of Afghan war equipment for jehadis in Jammu and Kashmir helped build the Lashkar-e-Taiba in the first place, as well as several other groups hostile to the U.S., like Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Jehadi groups seem to have respected the unspoken U.S.-Pakistan deal - a romance that obviously cannot speak its name - this time around. Although Lashkar cadre were in the past believed to have fought in northern Afghanistan and Chechnya, no similar global activity was noticed until the recent arrests. The Lashkar's house journal, Majallah al-Dawa, has been relatively restrained in its criticism of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In the current issue of the magazine, Saeed calls on believers to "never to make friends with Jews and Christians". There is, however, no express call for jehad directed at the U.S. By contrast, Majallah al-Dawa's position on India is more aggressive. One article claims that Indian Muslims have come to realise that "without migration and jehad there is no future"; another, in a recent issue, asks Pakistani schoolchildren to join the jehad and advises them on how to identify Indian soldiers to be attacked.

For anyone familiar with the history of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, its involvement in Iraq is no surprise. Nor, sadly, is the U.S.' unwillingness to take a principled position on forcing Pakistan to disband terrorism-related infrastructure. In January 1999, the Delhi Police arrested Lashkar operative Syed Abu Nasir on charges of attempting to bomb the U.S. consular office in Chennai. The U.S. sent Federal Bureau of Investigation personnel to question Nasir, but refused to pressure Pakistan despite their own experts' finding that he was telling the truth about his intentions. Again, in August 2001, after the Delhi Police arrested four men believed to have planned to blow up the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, the U.S. responded dismissively, claiming Indian accounts of the plot were "overblown". This confidence, however, did not stop the embassy from asking for enhanced perimeter security from the Delhi Police. After a 2002 attack on its consulate in Chennai, the U.S. quietly helped India secure the extradition of Jaish-e-Mohammad-linked mafioso Aftab Ansari, but did nothing to impel Pakistan to shut down the organisation's camps or arrest its leadership.

"As long as someone has a gun in his hand," says a senior Indian military official, "he decides when he wants to use it, not you. If someone is walking around with a gun, and you want to stop him from using it, the only really sure-fire solution is to take it away." With an election to win, and little reason for voters to help it do so, the Bush administration does not mind who is wandering the world carrying guns, just as long as there is a chance one of them might be pointed at Osama bin Laden.

A campaign with guns

Terror will be the real winner of the coming Lok Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir, irrespective of who gets elected to Parliament.

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IT is not particularly threatening to look at, just an untidy hand-written scrawl running across a sheet of crumpled paper that someone pasted on to the walls of the village mosque. But in the small southern Kashmir village of Mitari, near Shopian, most people know well enough to take the note seriously: it is, after all, an election-time guide to staying alive.

The Jaish-e-Mohammad leaflet left in Mitari, typical of terrorist threats now widely visible in southern Kashmir, lays out a seven-point code of conduct for local residents. People's Democratic Party (PDF) workers are asked "not to participate in the elections, or else face the consequences". Political workers are not the only people to be governed by the Jaish-e-Mohammad's code. Truck and bus operators must respect calls for strikes, while public works contractors have been given a "last chance" to stop executing projects for Indian forces. Local residents who had applied for recruitment in the Indian Army will have to abandon their new jobs "and thus save their lives". Finally, villagers will have to switch off their lights at night if they "want to keep your transformer intact", and remove fences from around their orchards, "which create problems for the Mujahideen".

On April 8, terrorists targeted an election rally led by PDF leader Mehbooba Mufti, the daughter of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. The attack, the first ever executed by terrorists in the frontier town of Uri, claimed 11 lives. Fifty-three people were injured, including Jammu and Kashmir Ministers Muzaffar Beigh and Ghulam Hassan Mir. The Save Kashmir Movement (SKM), a loose label used by elements of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and al-Umar, claimed responsibility for the attack. Since the assassination of pro-dialogue Hizbul Mujahideen dissident Abdul Majid Dar last year, the SKM has claimed responsibility for at least six major attacks. Three, including the December 20 assassination of Abdul Aziz Mir, who was a Member of the Legislative Assembly, and the February killings of block-level political workers Ghulam Mohammad Dar and Ali Mohammad Bhat, have been directed at the PDP.

Since the killing of Mukhtar Ahmad Bhat of the Janata Dal(United) last month, a wave of terrorist attacks have been executed on mainstream politicians and their families. Two days before Bhat's killing, terrorists executed a grenade attack on the home of the daughter of Communist Party of India(Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, who represents Kulgam in the Assembly. A PDP activist, Ghulam Hassan, and a former MLA, also named Ghulam Hassan, were targeted on the same day. Soon after, terrorists ambushed former Jammu and Kashmir Minister and National Conference (N.C.) leader Abdul Rahim Rather and executed Ghulam Mohiuddin Dar, a Shopian contractor affiliated to the N.C. A campaign convoy led by Mehbooba Mufti was ambushed in southern Kashmir, followed, most recently, by the execution of one of her party workers, Assadullah Bhat, in Bund Numbal, a village near Mattan. No organisation claimed responsibility for most of these killings.

For politicians in Jammu and Kashmir, this is the stuff of business as usual - something factored into everyday political life. The 2002 Assembly elections, hailed across India as free and fair, cost the lives of 41 political workers in the month of September alone. In all, 99 political workers died in 2002. The last Lok Sabha elections in 1999 saw the deaths of 49 political workers; The toll during the Lok Sabha elections in 1998 was 41 and during the Assembly elections in 1996 it was 69. The numbers indicate just how violent the 2002 elections were, notwithstanding widespread claims about their fairness. Election Commission officials have been promising that people with anti-election views will not be compelled to exercise their franchise, but no one seems to have a blueprint for ensuring that those who do wish to do so can live to see the outcome. During the 2002 Assembly elections, some 250 companies of the police and paramilitaries had been pressed into service to hold the ground. Now, Jammu and Kashmir authorities will have to make do with just 6,000 additional men.

Terrorist groups have made no secret that they are sensing opportunity. On March 30, for example, the Lashkar-e-Taiba called on voters to support the election boycott campaign led by Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, saying that he was "the only true leader of the Kashmiri people". The same day, an al-Umar commander code-named Khalid Javed warned people not to participate in the election process. "We have made sacrifices of one lakh people for the movement and we take it to its logical end," he noted, adding that al-Umar would escalate attacks in the coming days. Wireless control stations operating from other terrorist groups' headquarters in Pakistan have been sending out much the same message to their cadre for weeks. On February 29, for example, a Hizbul Mujahideen control station told a field unit that "the enemy is preparing for the elections, and you have to do something". Other transmissions have spoken of the need to pressure political workers, and to target campaign processions and political rallies.

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On the ground, most mainstream political parties have responded by cutting local-level deals with terrorists. The PDP, for example, has the backing of several key Hizbul Mujahideen commanders, particularly in southern Kashmir. PDP cadre are believed to have secured the support of Mohammad Abid, the Hizbul Mujahideen's new southern division commander, its central division commander Abdul Ahad Pir, as well as the Nagbal area commander, Ashiq Shah, and Kokernag area commander, Shabbir Bahduri. Abid hails from Bijbehara, Mehbooba Mufti's political home turf. Others within the organisation's northern Kashmir hierarchy, however, are less sympathetic to the PDP, notably Bandipora area commander Bashir Ahmad Pir. The lines are not neatly drawn - the Hizbul Mujahideen is believed to have executed the ambush on Mehbooba Mufti in Seer, in alliance with the Lashkar - but they do point to the existence of a web of interests that cut across public ideological positions.

PDP leaders, of course, are not the only ones putting together deals with the more malleable elements of the Hizbul Mujahideen. A top N.C. leader from northern Kashmir is also known to have met Abdul Ahad Pir, and there is hard evidence of deals having been stitched together on the ground. After a recent assassination attempt on former Jammu and Kashmir Minister Abdul Rahim Rather, for example, Indian signals intelligence intercepted communications between a Hizbul Mujahideen operative code-named `Ghaznavi', and a field operative code-named `Muslim'. `Ghaznavi' complained bitterly that the attack was executed without his authorisation, and asserted that `Muslim' had "created a big problem". "Why did you target him when we ourselves wanted him to contest the election," `Ghaznavi' asked, according to transcripts of the conversation made available to Frontline.

No evidence exists to suggest that Rather, a well-respected politician, either asked for such support or knew of his selection as the Hizbul Mujahideen's candidate of choice. As the case of the recently-killed south Kashmir Hizbul Mujahideen commander Arif Khan illustrates, such political deals are part of a freewheeling quid pro quo. Terrorists use election time favours to pressure party workers for the grant of lucrative government contracts to their immediate family and close relatives. Several of Khan's relatives - and a number of family members of active Hizbul Mujahideen cadre - have won railway construction contracts in southern Kashmir. Although the Hizbul Mujahideen has haemorrhaged leadership over the last year, losing top commanders Ghulam Rasool Khan, Ghulam Rasool Dar, Saif-ur-Rahman Bajwa and Arif Khan, it has benefited from political patronage. Police operations against its overground apparatus of sympathisers have come to a grinding halt, as politicians often step in to demand the release of detained suspects.

All of this is part of a time-hallowed, if dishonourable, practice. Several N.C. leaders backed elements in the Hizbul Mujahideen when they were in power from 1996 to 2002, notably one-time Minister of State for Home Mushtaq Lone, who was himself eventually assassinated. In the last Assembly elections, however, the screw turned, and posters were put in several parts of southern Kashmir asking voters to oppose the N.C.

It does not take a great deal of perspicacity to understand just how profoundly this competition for favour skews politics. Both the N.C. and the PDP, who agree on little, are today building their campaign on criticism of the security forces and on demands for dialogue with terrorists. After the attack on her in Uri, Mehboob Mufti blamed almost everyone for the outrage - her coalition ally, the Congress; the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Jammu and Kashmir Police - except the terrorists who actually carried it out.

Indian forces are doing what they can - six top Jaish-e-Mohammad commanders have died in April, including their overall chief for military operations, Qari Mohammad Asif, the latest in a series of high-value hits against major terrorist groups. Such military action is not, however, a substitute for a clear political voice against terror.

Grandstanding by politicians has not helped matters, either. Part of the reason for the Uri attack was the refusal of the PDP to allow thorough searches and screening of its cadre, who travelled there by bus from Srinagar and Baramulla. Beigh, for his part, has rejected official security after the Uri attack to protest the failure of the police to provide him with an bomb jamming device - equipment which cannot be provided because the Jammu and Kashmir government owns only two such pieces. Unless politicians find the courage to stand up for the process which vests them with power, terror will be the real winner of the coming Lok Sabha elections, irrespective of who gets elected to Parliament.

The Lindstrom disclosures

The revelations made by former Swedish investigator Sten Lindstrom provide campaign ammunition for the NDA but its government will have to account for the loss of momentum in the CBI's pursuit of Quattrocchi.

STEN LINDSTROM, the Swedish police officer who led the investigations into the Bofors-India payoffs scandal, naturally has much to contribute to the public discourse in India. That Indian media interest in his revelations should periodically spike upwards in the lead-up to national elections that feature the Congress party leadership in a potentially decisive role, is quite in the order of things. When he chose to speak to The Asian Age - a multi-edition newspaper headquartered in Delhi - to put on record his frustration at the manner in which the course of justice in the Bofors investigation had been thwarted, he presumably thought he was doing little else than performing his civic duty. That his intervention turned into campaign ammunition for ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), does not reflect any political calculation on his part.

The choice of timing, said M.J. Akbar, editor-in-chief of The Asian Age, was entirely Lindstrom's. Akbar chose to make this claim at the launch event for a book on the suitability of a naturalised citizen to hold high elected office in India. The focus of the book was, naturally enough, Congress president Sonia Gandhi. This made for a curious coincidence, since the novelty of Lindstrom's disclosures lay partly in the six questions that he had posed rather sharply to Sonia Gandhi. Congress spokesmen were quick to brush off the entire Asian Age expose as a motivated piece of journalism - a "plant" in the trade jargon. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for its part, urged that journalistic motives were immaterial. Rather than divert attention to a debate on media ethics, the Congress leadership, they said, needed to answer the questions that had been posed.

The substance of Lindstrom's revelations, shorn of the details that are by now familiar to anyone who has followed the media investigation into the Bofors scandal and the subsequent phase of prosecution by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), is merely that he encountered bad faith at every stage of his inquiries. When the scandal broke in 1987, he managed to make rapid progress, impounding crucial documents that pointed unequivocally towards promising lines of investigation. He then ran up against a stonewall. In the words of Seema Mustafa, the senior Asian Age journalist who reported the Lindstrom disclosures after extensive interviews in Stockholm: "The Swedish investigation into the kickbacks in the Bofors deal became hostage to a major cover-up launched by the governments of both Sweden and India at the time. The investigation hit roadblocks at every corner with the enthusiasm of the investigators turning into frustration as they encountered witnesses who would not speak, trails that led nowhere, and pressure from their own authorities to go slow on the case... "

In Lindstrom's account, Martin Ardbo, president of AB Bofors when the deal was struck, seemed to act with a deep sense of conviction in his own impunity. "When I asked Martin Ardbo about his diaries, when he met who, where and things like that, he just said: "I won't answer that question. He was very confident", he recalls. This suggested a measure of certainty and a brazen defiance of the law that would be inexplicable in the normal course. The sanctions available in Swedish law for obstructing the course of justice are stringent. As Lindstrom points out, in the normal course, Ardbo "would have been jailed until he answered the question".

Ardbo clearly knew a great deal that was potentially explosive. Towards the final stages of closing out the Bofors howitzer deal, he signed an agreement that established a 3 per cent entitlement of contract value for a mysterious shell company, A.E. Services, which had not featured in any capacity in prior negotiations. Dated November 1985, the agreement bears a "sunset clause": that it would stand cancelled if the howitzer gun contract is not awarded to Bofors by April 1 the following year. As Bofors president, Ardbo attached great importance to the deal, departing from the convention of fielding the company sales manager as signatory to commission agreements. And Lindstrom's assessment here, derived from years of investigative experience, is unambiguous: "He (Ardbo) was especially quiet about the last-minute contract with A.E. Services, a deal that he personally oversaw. It was clear to me that this was the political pay-off. Police officers know that the person who comes in last and walks off with a sum of money for no apparent work is a political payment made to people who have the power to close the deal."

Lindstrom is convinced that the political payoffs were negotiated through A.E. Services by Ottavio Quattrocchi, the Italian businessman then resident in Delhi. Documents have been unearthed detailing a commission payment of over 50 million Swedish kronor from Bofors to A.E. Services. Lindstrom recalls that the money then "moved very fast to avoid detection". Within a fortnight, the money had been transferred to accounts held in the name of Colbar Investment Ltd., for which Quattrocchi held the power of attorney.

As the scandal erupted and public pressure mounted in both Sweden and India, Ardbo began showing signs of worry, which he recorded in his personal diary. Among the few candid remarks he allowed himself under interrogation was his conviction that he was being made a scapegoat to protect big people. On July 2, 1987, he recorded a meeting with Bob Wilson, a retired British army officer turned liaison agent for weapons contracts, and a mysterious individual referred to as a "Gandhi truste (sic) lawyer". His diary is also full of cryptic references to "R", who must be protected at all costs, and his worrying links to "Q".

For the seasoned policeman, now Detective Superintendent in the Swedish Economic Crimes Bureau, six questions seem logically to arise from this sequence of events. In Lindstrom's own words, these are:

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* Who introduced Ottavio Quattrocchi to Bofors officials?

* What was (his) value proposition that led him to assure Bofors contractually that he need not be paid if the deal was not closed in their favour?

* Why did Bofors pay (him)?

* What services did his company A.E. Services offer?

* What are the links between Ottavio Quattrocchi and Sonia Gandhi?

* Who is the Gandhi trustee lawyer that Martin Ardbo met in Geneva?

The identity of the Gandhi trustee lawyer was revealed to the Central Bureau of Investigation in 1997 by one of the journalists involved in the media investigation of the Bofors scandal. His interrogation, however, is believed to have produced nothing beyond stout denial and disavowals of all knowledge.

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The Congress for its part made an attempt to answer Lindstrom's six questions by targeting the individual code-named "N" in the Ardbo diaries. It is widely believed that the coded reference is to Arun Nehru, till mid-1987 an influential Minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government. But that effort to deflect the focus has not worked simply because Arun Nehru's name does not feature in any of the documentation uncovered by the media investigation, nor in any of the records transferred from Sweden and Switzerland in the course of the CBI inquiries.

Lindstrom suggests that the Swiss banking system was thoroughly impermeable to all his requests for assistance: "We ran into a wall in Switzerland that refused to answer our queries about the accounts." By this account, the fact that the CBI managed, after arduous legal effort, to obtain the transfer of vital Swiss bank documents that decisively moved its prosecution forward in 1997, must count as a tribute to the diligence and professionalism of the Indian agency. Experts in international criminal law then pointed out that the Swiss authorities, who are zealous guardians of banking secrecy, had in transferring the documents, effectively conceded that Bofors involved a major criminal offence.

Quattrocchi had sensed that the net was closing in on him as early as 1993, when he quietly left India after being named as one of the appellants against a lower Swiss court's decision to transfer the bank documents. His Malaysian sanctuary was to prove relatively hospitable until his dramatic arrest in December 2000, in response to an extradition request from India. He won a reprieve in December 2002, when a Sessions court in Malaysia ruled that there were no grounds for his extradition. Soon afterwards, India lost an appeal at a Malaysian High Court. In delivering his verdict, High Court Judge Augustin Paul ruled that "an act or omission complained of in India must also be an offence in Malaysia in order to qualify as an extradition offence". "Sufficient material", he said, "must be placed before the court at the commencement of the extradition inquiry to show, inter alia, that the fugitive criminal is an accused person. If he is not an accused person, then there can be no extradition proceedings against him".

That the CBI had managed to pass the crucial test of "dual criminality" in the Swiss courts, only to fall at a Malaysian legal hurdle, points either to serious differences in criminal law in the two countries, or to a failure to make the case with similar logic and coherence. Whatever the underlying judicial reasoning, Quattrocchi was clearly in no mood to wait around to bask in his moment of victory. He left Malaysia the day after the High Court verdict. Two days later, the Malaysian court of appeals admitted an Indian appeal and directed that his passport be impounded. Quattrocchi's whereabouts were by then a mystery. It was a dramatic reprise of his great escape from India nine years before. More durable solace was to come his way in April 2003, when the Malaysian court of appeals dismissed the Indian appeal against the two successive orders of the lower courts.

The CBI has since made some patchy progress. In July last year, it managed to obtain the freezing of an account held by Quattrocchi in a British bank. It has also since submitted a number of suspect sites to Interpol for verification as possible sanctuaries of the fugitive businessman. But in February 2004, its investigations were set back by the Delhi High Court, which held the Bofors charge-sheet invalid since it named Rajiv Gandhi as an accused without a "scintilla of evidence". The CBI now intends to appeal this ruling in the Supreme Court and to make a renewed effort to gain access to Quattrocchi. But in the light of the Lindstrom revelations, the Ministries that exercise administrative control over the CBI need to explain how a case that was strong enough to run the gauntlet of Swiss legal procedures, suddenly ran out of momentum in the Malaysian courts. Beyond the temporary political gratification that Lindstrom's disclosures have afforded, there is a more fundamental question of administrative accountability involved here.

The Congress' paradox

Even as the NDA demonstrates bankruptcy in its programmes and campaign issues, it is not clear whether the Congress can mount an effective challenge to it by radicalising and reinventing itself and offering an alternative future vision of India.

THE Indian National Congress confronts secular democrats with a peculiar dilemma. On the one hand, the party's political balance-sheet is badly smudged by a record of venality, cynically manipulative politics, compromises with communal forces and socially retrograde tendencies, and proclivity to elitist right-wing economic policy-making, especially since the 1990s. This, compounded by a grossly hierarchical organisation dependent on small cabals, has not only dented or deflated the positive side of the Congress' contribution to politics (mostly until the 1970s). It has also made its rejuvenation difficult.

On the other, secularists and progressives cannot be indifferent to how the Congress performs in practical politics, in particular whether it can effectively contribute to countering and containing the historic evil of communalism and the menace to democracy embodied in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its now more-servile-than-ever followers in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Far too much is at stake in the coming elections for those who truly believe in the values of popular sovereignty, modernity, equity and social justice.

And yet, there is not much that outsiders - and often, even insiders - can assuredly do to promote a positive outcome for the Congress' political evolution along its extremely uneven, tortuous and bumpy path. The Congress is at once a local adversary and a national ally. It is also both a status quoist force and, at times, a source of hope - a site of many contradictions and anomalies.

How has the Congress girded itself up for what could be a make-or-break political battle for it? If the Congress' Lok Sabha tally falls short of, say, 100 seats or thereabouts, the party may not survive in its present form. It could split, get badly fragmented and face disintegration. If, on the other hand, it significantly improves on its 1999 total to reach 130 to 150 seats, it has a future and a real potential for rejuvenation. (In the latter event, it is likely to exceed the BJP's national vote share by a decent margin and come close to its seat tally too). The two outcomes are sharply divergent. Yet, both are equally plausible. They clearly mean the Congress cannot be smug about its electoral prospects.

To its credit, and at the risk of inviting criticism, it must be said that the Congress seems to be reading the writing on the wall. It has shed some of its monumental complacency and allowed itself to be jolted by its recent humiliating electoral defeats in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. It no longer behaves as if it assumed it is the "natural" party of governance, which only got temporarily unseated and will soon return to power. It has taken to alliance-building seriously, even if somewhat clumsily.

The Congress is cranking up its organisational machine in a number of States, where it exists in some strength. Its president has run her "Jan Sampark Abhiyan" with serious determination and zeal. She has received a strong response - far in excess of any BJP leader's public meetings, including the star, Atal BihariVajpayee's, even in the heartland of Uttar Pradesh.

Sonia Gandhi has demonstrated remarkable humility - long uncharacteristic of the Congress "High Command" - in making overtures to second- and even third-rank leaders of other Opposition parties. She also conveys the image of an earnest and focussed campaigner, eager to communicate with ordinary people without resorting to cheap gimmicks - albeit with the limited tools available within the party's political-programmatic framework.

Although bound up with the dynasty principle, the nomination of Rahul Gandhi as the Congress candidate for Amethi, and the likely induction of Priyanka Gandhi as a national-level campaigner, has energised the party and boosted its image. To the popular eye, the "second" or "future" generation of Congress leaders, including the two young Gandhis, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and Kumari Selja (a Dalit), looks far more youthful, earnest and confident than the abrasive dyed-in-the-wool cynics and jaded leaders who comprise the group most likely to succeed Vajpayee and Advani, including M. Venkaiah Naidu, Narendra Modi, Pramod Mahajan, Uma Bharati, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, etc.

The Congress has not succeeded in building strong and broad alliances in major northern States like U.P. and Bihar, and it only has a limited alliance (with two "friendly" contests) in Jharkhand. This is a setback. But it may be unfair to blame the Congress for this. The Samajwadi Party probably had no intention of joining hands with it. Its belated claim that it offered the Congress 18 seats in U.P. is not convincing. This was at best a vague, "informal" proposal, made way before the elections were announced. The S.P.'s reluctance to ally with any major party stands to reason given that Mulayam Singh Yadav would like to emerge as an independent "king-maker" or "balance-tilting" player in a hung Parliament. As for Mayawati, she first indicated many times that she would ally with the Congress. But she was probably blackmailed by the BJP over the Taj Corridor case.

In Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav drove an extremely hard bargain with his allies, barring Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janashakti Party. The Congress had to be content with four seats and the Left with even less or with no alliance.

The Congress has worked out its big alliances mainly in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. But elsewhere, it has gone for tiny outfits. For instance, in U.P., it tied up with small, but locally significant caste/community-based parties like the (Kurmi-dominated) Apna Dal, the Momin (weavers') Conference and the (most backward classes') Samanta Dal. In other States too, the Congress is exploring alliances with small parties like Gondwana Gana Parishad (Madhya Pradesh), various Republican Party factions (Maharashtra), etc.

The limitations of alliance-building seem more to arise from the regionalisation or fragmentation of Indian politics and the plebeian castes' aspirations for self-representation, rather than the Congress' arrogance or tactlessness. Nevertheless, the Congress would do well, where it has really weak candidates, to ask voters to back strong secular candidates in order to defeat the BJP.

All in all, the Congress is putting up a fight. It has certainly got its media apparatus ready and going, although that cannot even remotely match the BJP's reach and resources, nor overcome media bias. The Congress put L.K. Advani on the defensive by reminding him of the absurdity of taking the "foreign origin" issue to the extreme. (He was born in today's Pakistan). The BJP got rattled enough for one "senior leader" to concede in an off-the-record briefing (March 27) that the "foreign origin" campaign is purely "tactical" (read, insincere and opportunist); it won't be pursued after the elections through the enactment of a law to ban naturalised citizens from holding high public office.

Remarkably, unlike the BJP, the Congress has not descended to mud-slinging and ad hominem attacks. It has responded with dignity to The Asian Age's Bofors "disclosures", which falsely implicate Sonia Gandhi without establishing even a remotely tenable case - on the basis of a Swedish policeman's suspicions, which he could not validate in his country's courts despite his personal integrity. Her name is being dragged in although it appears in no Bofors document.

Having said this, the Congress remains severely deficient in certain vital areas, both tactical, and more important, policy-related. Consider a few.

Economic tailism: The Congress has failed to formulate a pro-active economic policy of its own. Rather, it tends to weave its formulations around the pattern or template set by the BJP, whether on macroeconomic issues or liberalisation-deregulation, and privatisation (where it advocates a "selective" approach) or globalisation. Just some weeks ago, Sonia Gandhi decried the BJP's claim to generate 8 per cent gross domestic product (GDP) growth as "Mungeri Lal Ke Haseen Sapne" (a mere dream). She also seemed to be emphasising issues of equity, employment and empowerment of the poor. But the Congress manifesto, released since, peddles BJP-style growth-obsession. It promises 10 per cent GDP growth, rather than just 8 per cent.

Appeasing BJP-style nationalism: Over the past few years, the Congress has been critical of the BJP's jingoism and its chauvinistic, aggressive brand of nationalism, (although not always consistently). It advocated diplomacy rather than confrontation with Pakistan - way before the recent peace process started. After Pokhran-II in 1998, it did not capitulate to Hindutva-trademark nuclearism nor advocated induction and deployment of nuclear weapons. Rather, it warned against and opposed "a nuclear arms race in South Asia". More important, it continued to emphasise the relevance of the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi plan for a nuclear-free world, which he presented to the United Nations. This is a worthy document advocating step-by-step nuclear restraint, arms reduction and disarmament.

But suddenly, in early April, the Congress executed a U-turn by demanding "a credible nuclear weapons programme". Worse, it accused Vajpayee of not being pro-nuclear enough. It cited a 1979 Cabinet resolution in which Vajpayee voted with Prime Minister Morarji Desai (and against Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram and H.M. Patel) opposing a revival of India's nuclear weapons programme, which was suspended following an international uproar against the Pokhran-I test in 1974.

Vajpayee did so not out of an anti-nuclear weapons sentiment (he had long advocated that India cross the nuclear threshold), but for pragmatic reasons: he feared further international opprobrium; and he was factionally allied with Desai after the Janata Party plunged into a crisis on the "dual membership" issue. Inadvertently, Vajpayee (temporarily) ended up supporting the cause of peace.

By attacking Vajpayee for this, and by implication, charging him with ignoring India's security needs, the Congress has tried to appropriate the BJP's own chauvinist-jingoistic platform, thus giving legitimacy to nuclear weapons as instruments of security and making nuclearism a test of "patriotism".

The Congress should not fool itself that it is turning the tables on the BJP by stealing its "super-patriotic" clothes. Rather, it is moving dangerously rightwards and vacating the centrist space within Indian politics. This is similar to its practice of soft-Hindutva in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh as a means of "countering" the BJP in the recently held Assembly elections. It will prove as disastrous.

Exclusive focus on a few personalities: If it wants to rejuvenate itself, the Congress must project a plural, variegated leadership - a broad mix of campaigners, strategists, orators, grassroots mobilisers, and so on. It has not succeeded in doing this. It is excessively dependent on Sonia Gandhi for its campaign, especially in the Hindi-speaking States. But Sonia Gandhi, even with Priyanka's help, cannot effectively cover the entire region.

The Congress must create teams of campaigners with young as well as experienced leaders from different social backgrounds and geographical areas, including Adivasis, Dalits, OBCs, as well as upper-caste leaders. It must reach out especially to the rural areas and small towns, where its manifesto's stress on relieving the agrarian crisis will evoke empathy. Equally, it must promote collegial decision-making in its organisational structure, based on broad consultation with and involvement of different social constituencies.

Obsession with the middle class: The Congress often seems to imitate the BJP in regarding the urban, especially metropolitan, upper-middle class as its primary point of reference or basic constituency. It certainly takes positions on many issues as if that were the case. It is so concerned not to attract the charge of "populism" that it dare not espouse left-of-centre policies that are strongly pro-poor. For instance, the Congress does not promise free primary health care and rejuvenation and universalisation of the public distribution system (PDS) for food. Nor does it demand the right to shelter and housing in the urban areas, although that would greatly enhance its appeal to the poor.

The shift from the slogan "Congress ka haath, garib ke saath" to "Congress ka haath aam admi ke saath" (targeting the "Common person" rather than "the poor") is fine at the tactical level. But it could be heavily counterproductive if it means that the focus is shifting away from a basic reference to the poor who form the majority of our population. The Congress should know that it is futile beyond a point to woo an urban elite, large sections of which are already sold on the BJP because of its neoliberalism.

Unless the Congress addresses and overcomes these flaws, it will not be able to project an alternative vision of India's future, nor demarcate itself fully from the BJP. And unless it sharply demarcates itself and re-acquires a clear left-of-centre identity, it cannot combat the twin challenges the BJP poses: communalism and neoliberalism.

Pleasure and pain in Pakistan

JAYATI GOSH columns

Pakistan's geopolitical stance and strategic choices are at once the cause of economic revival and source of instability.

ACCORDING to the international financial press, Pakistanis have much to smile about today, despite their cricket team's loss of the series against India. Certainly, according to the conventional economic indicators, there is source for some pleasure. Economic growth is up, after a dismal period of more than a decade, especially in the commodity-producing sector. Exports have increased substantially in the past year and the current account shows ever-growing surpluses.

The exchange rate has largely remained within a narrow range, unlike the volatility of just a few years ago. Capital inflows are up, and the relatively small stock market has zoomed. Budgetary trends are consistent with the declared targets. While inflation rates have gone up recently, they are still within manageable limits.

All this would have appeared unlikely, even a few years ago. The 1990s was a very adverse decade as far as the material conditions of most Pakistani people were concerned. Average growth rates of national income plummeted in the 1990s to less than 4 per cent per annum compared to the earlier decade's rates of more than 6 per cent per annum. This deceleration in growth was associated with historically low rates of investment, as private investment failed to pick up and counterbalance the decline in public spending.

Industrial growth rates almost halved from 8.2 per cent to 4.8 per cent per annum. The earlier success at reducing poverty was reversed in the 1990s, as the per cent of households living in absolute poverty increased from 21.4 per cent in 1990-91 to 40.1 per cent in 2000-01. By June 2001, more than 56 million Pakistanis were living below the official poverty line.

Even the growth that did take place was associated with very inadequate performance in terms of human development indicators. This was true over the longer period since Independence, when economic growth rates were in the region of 5 to 6 per cent per annum. The Pakistani pattern has been characterised as "growth without development", because despite its respectable per capita growth over the second half of the 20th century, the country systematically underperformed on most social and political indicators, such as education, health, sanitation, fertility, gender equality, corruption, political instability and violence, and democracy. Significantly, output growth was also associated with very low employment growth, at the trend rate of only 2 per cent per annum for the long period 1960-99.

In the 1990s, the growth process became much more volatile even as the trend rate of growth was lower. And this growth was based largely on unsustainable public expenditure using a build-up of public debt. By the end of the 1990s, total debt-servicing (of external and internal debt together) accounted for more than 70 per cent of current government revenues, which also meant that future expansion could not rely on debt-driven public spending alone.

One strange feature of the Pakistani economic growth process was the lack of any direct relation between growth and employment generation. Output growth was relatively low in the 1970s, increased in the 1980s and dropped again in the 1990s. But employment growth followed the opposite pattern, being at its highest at 3 per cent over the 1970s and dropping to 2 per cent in the next two decades.

One important factor in explaining the poor employment performance was the behaviour of the manufacturing sector. In Pakistan, as in most other developing nations, the sector is characterised by a high degree of dualism, with a large-scale sector that dominates output (producing two-thirds of the value added in manufacturing) but employs only 17 per cent of manufacturing workers, and a small-scale sector that dominates employment (with 83 per cent of the manufacturing workforce) but accounts for only one-third of the manufacturing value added. The output and employment shares of these two categories have been remarkably stable over time.

The small-scale sector, operating under major and increasing constraints and with huge disadvantages, has been relatively moribund in the past decade, and shows all the characteristics of a refuge labour sector. As in India, this was largely owing to the threat posed by imports, poor infrastructure conditions and reduced access to institutional credit. Meanwhile, the large-scale sector has been plagued by excess capacity (owing to deficient aggregate demand resulting from deflationary structural adjustment policies, and import penetration) as well as by increasing capital intensity and in capital productivity due to newer technologies, which have had the effect of reducing labour demand.

So, investment and output growth in manufacturing in Pakistan tended to be capital-augmenting and labour-displacing, much as they were in India over the same period. Since manufacturing was the lead sector in employment generation, this then affected the employment possibilities elsewhere in the economy, and contributed to both the persistence of low-productivity employment in the other sectors and the low and declining rates of employment generation.

The pattern of both income growth and employment over the 1990s was affected by the economic "reforms" introduced in Pakistan over this period. A major and direct role was played in this case by the constraints imposed on public investment. The investment-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio declined from 17.3 per cent in 1998-99 to 14.7 per cent in 2000-01, and this was entirely owing to the collapse in public investment from 8.5 per cent of GDP to 5.6 per cent over the same period. Private investment, which was strongly interlinked with public investment and expenditure, faced a deficiency of demand as a result, and did not rise to meet the emerging slack.

In addition, various other elements of the structural adjustment programme operated to reduce average growth rates, accelerate inflation, and thereby increase unemployment and poverty. The standard package of structural reforms included privatisation of public assets, ceilings on wages and employment in the public sector, cuts in subsidies, cuts in development expenditure, including "social sectors", increases in user charges for public utilities and services and frequent devaluation. This last feature also had the unintended consequence of reducing the inflow of remittances from foreign workers, which has been an important source of sustenance of Pakistan's balance of payments.

Thus, ironically, the macroeconomic strategy based on Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) imposed and approved by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank supposedly to change the structure of the economy so as to improve the balance of payments, control inflation and revive growth, had the opposite effects in practice. This was also why the incidence of poverty increased over the 1990s, as the combination of deflationary macro-economic measures and de-industrialisation following upon trade liberalisation has made itself felt.

WITHIN a year after Pakistan's third military coup that brought the military government of General Pervez Musharraf to power, roughly 15.4 million more people were pushed below the poverty line. Unemployment rose, real wages fell and income distribution worsened. Human development indicators, which were poor to start with, worsened over this period.

The first two years were especially bad because the insistence on the IMF-style reform measures was combined with even more economic volatility, the effect of sanctions by the West because of the nuclear tests, and then military instability in the region (including both the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan and the build-up of troops along the border with India).

However, recent geopolitics has impacted in different and more positive ways upon Pakistan's economy. In several ways, the willingness of the Musharraf regime to be a key ally of the U.S. in the so-called "war on terror" also had substantial effects upon the economy. It has meant the waiver or rescheduling of more than one-third of Pakistan's external debt, which provided much-needed short-term relief. It has led to increased foreign aid flowing back to Pakistan and the reinstating of export quotas in textiles and garments. It has led to a massive increase in remittances (to as much as 14 per cent of GDP) allowing the build-up of foreign exchange reserves. However, since the domestic investment rate is still below the savings rate, the inflow of aid and remittances is not really contributing to future economic activity, but simply being stored as foreign exchange reserves.

So the current economic revival is essentially based on the particular geopolitical position of Pakistan and the strategic choices made by the Musharraf regime. Internally, the same economic policies that generated the desolate decade of the 1990s remain in operation, which means that the impetus to growth and employment generation from within the economy is very limited. Since the current recovery is based so much on the (fickle) goodwill of the Western powers, it is inherently unstable.

Further, it has still not entailed any real improvement in the conditions of ordinary people, either in terms of more productive employment opportunities or better provision of basic services. As has been the case, the current growth is essentially benefiting a small elite that includes both the landed and industrial classes and the urban professional groups.

There are other sources of instability. The same political expediency that has dictated the Musharraf regime's pro-U.S. tilt has also created dissatisfaction and resentment among important sections of Pakistanis. This means potential for unrest that can undermine the still fragile economic recovery.

So maybe, after all, cricket will still be a more reliable source of pleasure for the average Pakistani than the economy.

The `historical struggle' in Iraq

columns

Even as the people's uprising against the occupying forces in Iraq intensifies, the moral justification for war offered by the U.S. and the U.K. crumbles.

"WE are locked in a historical struggle in Iraq. On its outcome hangs more than the fate of the Iraqi people. Were we to fail, and we will not... the hope of freedom and religious tolerance in Iraq would be snuffed out." These could well have been the words of Moktada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric who is leading the fierce resistance against the occupying forces led by the United States. They could have been the words of one of the leaders of the Sunni resistance groups. But they are not; they are the words of Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, contained in a letter he sent to The Observer. One can see how, if one left out the reference to the "power of America" the sentiments expressed by him are not very different from those of the leaders of the resistance to the occupying forces, because the Iraqi resistance is to oppression and foreign occupation, while Tony Blair has merely taken over their sentiments to justify the U.S.-led invasion.

Blair sees the resistance in Iraq as the work of "terrorists, an extremist who has created his own militia, and remnants of a brutal dictatorship that murdered hundreds of thousands of its own people and enslaved the rest". The American ruler of Iraq, Paul Bremer III, goes even further. He, who is the overlord of a force that has murdered over 10,000 Iraqi civilians, including women and children, in less than a year, has the gall to denounce groups who "think power in Iraq should come out of the barrel of a gun... that is intolerable." And the spokesman for the U.S. President describes the resistance fighters as "thugs and terrorists". Is fighting foreign troops in their own country terrorism? And do those who do so deserve to be called thugs?

What we are seeing is a blurring of moral definitions; of the mixing of global political ambition with the rhetoric of a freedom movement. These Western leaders, including Blair repeatedly say that Moktada al-Sadr is leading a "small minority". How do they know that it is a small minority? If it is indeed a handful of disgruntled people, then why are the majority not crushing them? After all, the tremendous fire-power of the occupying forces will back the majority up. The truth seems to be, whatever Blair may say, that the resistance has the tacit support of many more than he says, of those who are not impressed by the figures he gives in his letter to The Observer. He says, for example, by June there "will be" 6000 MW of power, but admits that it will be less than the 7500 MW Iraq needs "because of the massive opening up of the economy, set to grow by 60 per cent this year and 25 per cent the next". He also says the Internet has started up in Iraq, that 30 per cent have satellite television, and so on. Does that really make them eager supporters of the occupying forces?

Consider what these forces, these "peacekeepers", have done. Some weeks ago, Ann Clwyd, an MP who has been Blair's "human rights envoy" to Iraq, found it difficult to admit that attacks by U.S. aircraft could well have caused not only injuries, but deaths. The day after, 16 children were reported to have been killed in Fallujah. Worse, after the resistance began, U.S. aircraft attacked a Shia mosque during afternoon prayers, killing a number of civilians. That would only have inflamed the resentment, not allayed it.

Writing in The New York Times, Thom Shanker reports that military officials in Baghdad and Washington said that military commanders "had been surprised by the fierceness of the Sadr militia, and by the discipline shown by a number of the Sunni fighting units that engaged marine forces in Falluja and Ramadi in the restive region west of Baghdad". He quotes a senior Pentagon official as saying that "attacking the Sadr militia was not an option anybody wanted".

That is precisely the point. The U.S. has been saying that the hostile elements are Sunnis, presumably because Saddam Hussein is a Sunni; now the majority community, Shias, are also up in arms. This, more than anything else, speaks eloquently of the fact that the Iraqi people as a whole are seething with anger at the occupying forces' continued presence and want them out. It is not a question of providing Internet facilities or opening a bank, as Blair seems to think. It is about the humiliation of a proud people by taking over their country by brute force and then keeping troops there only because the powers that sent them there have the military strength to do so.

Is it not apparent to policymakers in the U.S. and in Britain that the situation in Iraq is rapidly becoming no different from the situation in Palestine and the Gaza Strip, and that the occupying forces are doing to the Iraqis what the Israeli troops are doing to the Palestinians? And is it not also clear that this is not a situation that is likely to be resolved for a long time? Terrorism has to be fought, certainly. We are doing just that in Kashmir, and in the operations carried out by our security forces there have occasionally been, tragically, casualties among innocent civilians. It is nobody's case that in such operations that may happen but it is surely the exception; the emphasis is on peace, on reconciliation, on providing security.

Why has the apparent jubilation at the overthrow of the Saddam regime now given way to an anger that is more widespread than the occupying forces admit? And why have both Shias and Sunnis now taken to armed resistance? In a replay of history, this resistance is going to make occupation not only more expensive but more hazardous. The parallel to Vietnam cannot be avoided for too long. The media report that U.S. President George Bush's popularity has begun to slide even more, and John Kerry, who may well be the Democratic candidate in the next Presidential election, has lost no time in taking advantage of this. "This administration has been gridlocked by its own ideology and its own arrogance," he has been reported as saying.

Seamus Milne, writing in The Guardian, says: "Foreign troops in Iraq are not peacekeepers, but aggressors. The lessons of empire are having to be learned all over again." It is truly tragic that it has come to this, that the U.S. and Britain do not see the wisdom of stepping back and letting the United Nations come in and set this tormented nation back on the road to peace and return to it the sovereignty that is the right of all nations; and the longer they refuse to do this the longer there will be strife in Iraq, which will mean the loss of life on both sides, with Iraqis paying a far heavier price in terms of lives and misery. It is time that nations at the U.N. that are concerned at what is going on took the initiative to persuade the two countries to see reason, and work for a lasting peace.

Towards a showdown in Kathmandu

Recovering lost strength, Nepal's political parties take to the streets demanding the restoration of democracy. But the monarchy is trying for a tighter grip on power and the Maoists are pushing for republicanism.

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ON April 10, the daily swell of demonstrators on the streets of Kathmandu grew as members of the five-party alliance that is leading the agitation were joined, for the first time, by the politically conscious professional elite of the capital, in what appears to be a replay of the 1990 Jana Andolan that ushered in multi-party democracy in Nepal.

They were defying the prohibitory orders to continue the agitation against the constitutional monarch's seizure of power and the undermining of democracy.

In the past couple of months, Nepal's drift into a deepening crisis has moved into top gear with the three political forces - the King, the political parties and the Maoists - pulling in three different directions, but the difference being that the balance among them is shifting thanks to the snowballing street agitation organised by the political parties, until recently considered a sideshow in what was a polarised conflict between the Monarchy-Royal Nepal Army (RNA) combine and the Maoists. In recent weeks, it is the momentum of the democratic politics of street protests that is driving a more radical and militant politics that the political leadership is hard-pressed to contain and keep within the compromise bounds of constitutional monarchy.

"I'm not supporting the political parties, I've come out in support of the principle of democracy because I feel this is a crucial historic moment for those of us who believe in democracy," explained Rohit Nepal, director of a well-known non-governmental organisation (NGO).

"I don't believe in the political parties completely but the fact remains that they are leading this movement. Among the three forces in the country... the parliamentary faction is better than the King, and the Maoists have guns. In these times we need to support a peaceful movement," Manjushree Thapa, the author of The Tutor of History (the first novel published by Penguin in Nepal), said before riot police rained lathi blows on her skull.

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Ram Pradhan, Editor of Himalayan Times, a daily newspaper, describes the mounting uneasiness that is driving sections of the cocooned Kathmandu elite to join the street agitations thus: "If something is not done quickly enough to check the widening gulf between the Palace and the political parties, things could indeed reach a point of no return."

Even American policy-makers who tended to view the Nepal crisis through the optic of "war against terrorism", thus backing the King and the RNA as the bulwark against the Maoists overrunning Nepal, are readjusting their focus. "Washington, for now, is more worried about the implications of what is happening on the streets of Kathmandu," a senior United States policy-maker told this writer. It appears that the U.S. is beginning to take more seriously the imperative of supporting the democratic political forces. A visiting team of U.S. Congressmen met a few important political leaders in Kathmandu to reassure themselves that reconciliation between the two constitutional forces was still possible. However, the more the RNA is strengthened against the Maoists, the more entrenched is the position of the King in the power play.

Shyam Srestha, editor of the leftist monthly Mulyankan, cautions that the street agitation has yet to reach that decisive moment. According to him, the trend towards republican radicalisation and militancy is growing and will increase if the state continues to suppress democratic protest. The extension by ordinance of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Control and Punishment) Act, 2002, which provides for 90 days preventive detention, portends more arbitrary arrests, disappearances, custodial violence and extrajudicial killings. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have warned of an alarming human rights situation. "However, the lower middle class is yet to be drawn into the agitation and the contagion is yet to spread to other districts and urban centres," Srestha said. "There is no sense of do or die," Rohit Nepal said.

On April 10, a week after the launch of the latest phase of the agitation, the daily afternoon ritual of demonstrations at Ratna Park, near the Palace, saw militant students and young party workers hurling stones at the armed police.

On April 9 the government declared much of Kathmandu "riot-prone" but hundreds of people, including top political leaders such as Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala and Communist Party of Nepal (UML) leader Madhav Nepal, who was arrested along with 500 demonstrators, violated the orders. Within half an hour the police broke through the human chain protecting senior leaders Sushil Koirala and Lilamani Pokhrel and whisked them away in waiting vans and trucks, provoking young supporters to hurl stones and bricks, one of which struck a Deputy Superintendent of Police, Sarveshwar Khanal, below his right eye. The police reportedly tried to use tear gas shells to disperse the students but they reassembled. The standoff continued for two hours with students shouting anti-monarchy slogans and hurling brickbats, setting up barricades, burning tyres and taunting the police to come after them. "This stretch of Bagh Bazar is the centre point of the struggle here," a student leader proudly asserted. The warren of streets ands shops afforded many escape roots for the students. People's support was discernible from their willingness to come forward and give water to relieve the tear gas effect. Nepali Congress leader Arjun Narasingh, who is nursing a fractured arm, reiterated the party's commitment to constitutional monarchy, hopeful that the King would take the initiative to arrive at a compromise. But the rift is fast becoming irreconcilable.

Moreover, the King's determination to rule is no secret. On October 4, 2002, he dismissed Parliament and took over power as the guardian of the Constitution that he had, in the process, rendered defunct. Notwithstanding his divide-and-rule games with the ever-hopeful political leaders, the royal propagandists had been whispering loudly the King's growing unhappiness with the political parties. Finally, at a civic reception at Nepalgunj, amidst multiple rings of security and hovering helicopter gunships, the King trashed the political parties and voiced his desire to be a constructive monarch. Asserting his new role as a constructive monarch, the King issued a 10-point directive to the government to undertake programmes for the welfare of the people of the western region. A few weeks later at a civic reception in Pokhra, he announced the holding of elections within a year, but the move was rejected as a ruse to extend his rule. Arjun Narsingh remarked: "When we have a security situation where armed Maoists in broad daylight parade at will, political workers have fled to the district headquarters or Kathmandu, and more than 200,000 people have migrated, elections will only create more problems." He accused the King of eroding the gains of the 1990 pro-democracy movement in order to restore a despotic monarchy. The decree to allocate to the Palace 142 million Nepali rupees to finance the purchase of three new luxury cars and a string of civic receptions at a time when the country was being bled dry has provoked wide criticism in the media. UML leader K.P. Oli described the allocation as "ill-timed".

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Support for the agitation has come from the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Prachanda. However, the alliance has ruled out any unity with the Maoists unless there is a consensus on unity of purpose and means. The bottom line for the Maoists is the setting up of an elected constituent Assembly that is expected to deliver a republican polity for Nepal. The Nepali Congress and the UML are still clinging to the constitutional monarchy frame although they have increasingly voiced the opinion, as UML leader Madhav Nepal did, that "it's the King who is sowing the seeds of a republic". Jhala Nath Khanal, also of the UML, was equally blunt: "It is high time the King talked to the rebels." Evidently, the initiative is still seen to rest with the King. After Madhav Nepal's Lucknow (in Uttar Pradesh, India) meeting with the Maoist leadership, channels of direct communication have not existed. "How can we trust them when they attack our party workers?" asks Arjun Narasingh. Prachanda promptly replied: "Workers should refrain from spying for feudal forces." While Prachanda appeals for a united struggle, he insists that "there is no alternative to military struggle as the feudal forces have time and again fallen back in finding a peaceful solution".

DEVASTATING armed attacks by the Maoists in March at Bhojpur and Beni Bazar have demonstrated their continuing capacity to launch mass strikes. In Bhojpur 32 security personnel were killed. In Beni, according to the Maoist FM radio, only 50 Maoists were killed although Army sources put the toll at 500. The toll on the side of the security forces has been steadily rising from the initial figure of 51. In Beni the Maoists fired mortars. According to the Nepal Red Cross, some 30 civilians were killed largely, in strafing by attack helicopters. The Maoists unilaterally released 37 people taken hostage at Beni, including the District Officer and the Superintendent of Police. Home Minister Kamal Thapa has ruled out any negotiations for ceasefire with the Maoists. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan and the U.S. government spokesperson Richard Boucher appealed for peace. But the government remains committed to a strategy of militarily "cutting them (Maoists) down to size before any negotiations can take place". Thapa is confident that the ongoing military operations will control Maoist activities and, on the basis of the optimism, visiting U.S. generals were led to believe that the Maoists were getting "weaker" and their military capacity was getting degraded. Bhojpur and Beni proved the theory wrong.

The RNA's modernising and rearming spree has not been able to shift the strategic equilibrium to its advantage. The boast of the RNA's transformation from a ceremonial to a modern fighting force has still to be demonstrated. Some 200,000 M-16 rifles and the Indian INSAS guns are in the pipeline, as also two Indian attack helicopters. Discussions have begun on the possible supply of U.S. transport helicopters. All this has resulted in a quantum leap in the level of destructive violence in the civil war, with the Maoists having taken away sophisticated weapons during their raids. Moreover, access to human intelligence remains a critical issue and is undermined by the RNA's human rights record. The RNA has grown to a 70,000-strong force but it remains reactive and overstretched with 30-40 per cent of the force locked in the defence of the valley and providing security to the King. The Maoists have enforced extended bandhs and economic blockades, virtually bringing to a halt all movement on the main highway for three weeks. The Maoist strategy of economic encirclement eased only after public protests, says Shyam Sreshtha.

However, the recent arrest in India of three top Maoist leaders, Matrika Prasad Yadav, Suresh Ali Magar and the No.2 in the party, Mohan Vaidya, has exposed the vulnerability of the sanctuary on the Indian side of the border. While Yadav and Magar were handed over to the Nepal authorities, Vaidya, who was arrested on March 28 in Siliguri in West Bengal, has been charged with waging war against India. The initial reaction to the arrest of Matrika Yadav and Suresh Magar was low key with Prachanda asserting that "by kidnapping a popular Terai leader and a member of the janajati (indigenous people), Indian rulers have distanced themselves from the Nepali people. Baburam Bhattarai, hit out at the "nexus" between the monarch and India based on the trading away of Nepal's water resources. Maoist cadre struck at 18 water tankers with Indian registration plates and roughed up the Indian crew. It has reinforced the demand by State governments on the Indian side of the border for greater border control to counter the challenge of the growing cross-border cooperation between Naxalites and co-ethnic groups. There is a huge Nepali diaspora in the five Indian States that are contiguous with the border.

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"Whether the Maoist leadership is now disassociating itself from the attack by cadre, or is being conciliatory or confrontationist, is not important. What is significant is our interest. And that is, that we cannot allow the state to collapse and allow the Maoists to overrun it," an Indian policy-maker told Frontline. That predicates India bolstering the strength of the RNA and consequently the King in his increasingly anti-democratic stance.

In Kathmandu, the international community is divided, almost physically, with those on the Kathmandu side of the Bagmati bridge - the Indian, U.S. and British embassies - on one side, and the European and U.N. representatives, based largely in Patan, on the other. The U.N. and the European Union have been pushing for peace talks and criticising the overly military approach of the three forces. "Ask the E.U. and the others, do they want us to withdraw support and let the Maoist make a clean sweep of Nepal?" a highly placed Indian source said. They can make these brave statements because they are 3,000 miles away. They won't have to face the influx of hundreds of people. We don't have the luxury of distance," he said.

Political analysts in Kathmandu wonder at the way the King has been able, wittingly or unwittingly, to manipulate the international community. The King knows that New Delhi and Washington see the monarchy as the symbol of stability and identity and the RNA as the means to contain the Maoists. Consequently, India agreed to bail out the RNA in the matter of its deteriorating human rights record, at the meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The problem is that you strengthen the RNA and you strengthen the King in Nepal's power-play. Narayanhiti Palace has also been able to exploit India's determination to be the top player. U.S. sources here protest that "we're not here for the long-term and budgetary constraints will whittle down our commitments". However, the high-profile activities of the U.S. Ambassador (flying in a U.S. military plane to Bhojpur) and the regular visits in C-130 aircraft of U.S. military trainers, tell another story.

Indian Ambassador Shyam Saran's reiteration of support for the twin constitutional features of Nepal - the monarchy and multi-party democracy - has, however, been favourably remarked upon by the media but apparently not where it matters. While all eyes are on the street agitation, the Indian embassy is worried about the economic squeeze as the spate of blockades and bandhs begin to bite into the bubble economy of the Kathmandu valley. With the Maoist having penetrated the Terai, Nepal `s agricultural base and the major trade-transit links, economic pressures could induce a surge of disaffection.

Encircling Russia

JOHN CHERIAN world-affairs

The latest expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation by taking in seven countries, all except one of them members of the erstwhile Warsaw Pact, is a step closer to the encirclement of Russia by the Western military alliance.

ON March 29, United States President George W. Bush formally welcomed seven new members to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) at a ceremony in the White House. The new members are Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Except Slovenia, all of them were part of the Warsaw Pact, which was the military counter-weight to NATO in Europe during the Cold War. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were part of the Soviet Union.

President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Mikhail Gorbachev was given an assurance by the West prior to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall that NATO too would be disbanded eventually. Many in the West argued that with the disappearance of the so-called Communist threat, the rationale for the existence of NATO no longer existed. In retrospect, Washington had long-term plans aimed at ensuring its continued military dominance in East and Central Europe.

NATO was formed on April 4, 1949, by 12 countries - Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. The first formal expansion of NATO took place in 1999, when three former Warsaw Pact members, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, were welcomed into the alliance.

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Moscow, while not publicly pressing the panic button, has reasons to be worried. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov has said that his country will be forced to revise its defence policy unless NATO revised its military doctrine. "Why is an organisation that was designed to oppose the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe still necessary in today's world?" he asked. The Russian leadership had made it clear to the U.S. that it considers the recent expansion as an unfriendly step and an extension of U.S. hegemony into Central-Eastern Europe. With the U.S. pulling all the strings in NATO, that means the setting up of U.S. military bases and deep penetration by the U.S. of the military and security systems of East Europe. NATO encirclement will also mean that U.S. missiles will be seconds away from Moscow and U.S. spy planes will be constantly snooping on Russian defence and scientific installations.

Even some NATO members, notably France and Germany, are not too happy with the unseemly haste with which the new members have been brought in. The seven new members form part of what U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has characterised as "new Europe". The U.S. hopes to downsize further the influence of Western Europe in NATO as it completes the encirclement of Russia. With the addition of the new members, NATO's access to the Kalingrad region as well as the Black Sea will be further circumscribed.

By European standards, barring Slovenia, the new members are relatively poor but are all part of President Bush's "coalition of the willing" in the so-called `War on Terror'. Membership of NATO was one of the inducements offered to these countries. U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel had described the new NATO members as the "Coalition of the Bought" last year. In lieu of their token participation in Iraq, the Bush administration had given these countries a lot of inducements, including the setting up of a $100-million Central European Investment Fund, enhanced trade status and easier access to international capital. Many of the new members joined the "coalition of the willing" without taking their Parliaments or people into confidence. NATO is being expanded when older NATO members such as Spain, which is the sixth biggest contributor of troops, have given notice that they are withdrawing troops from Iraq. There are 1,300 Spanish troops in Iraq. Even the Polish government has hinted that the withdrawal of its 2,460 troops from Iraq is a distinct possibility. Poland has the fourth largest number of troops in that country. The new NATO members have so far contributed only a token number of soldiers.

The Russian Defence Minster, in a signed article, has said that Russia has valid reasons to be concerned about NATO's ongoing expansion, particularly if it goes ahead with the plan to build big military bases in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. "The alliance is gaining greater ability to control and monitor Russian territory. We cannot turn a blind eye as NATO's air and military bases get much closer to cities and defence complexes in European Russia," he wrote. Russia has also expressed its concerns about NATO's new priorities, which are contrary to its charter and stated goals. At the NATO summit held in Prague in 2002, the alliance agreed to undertake military operations even outside the territory of member-nations, whenever deemed necessary, without a United Nations mandate. "Any NATO actions not approved by the U.N. should therefore be considered illegal - including `preventive wars' like that in Iraq," wrote Ivanov. He told the Russian media in early April that he regretted that NATO was "much more concerned about the deployment of military bases and strike aircraft as close to the Russian borders as possible".

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in the first week of April that NATO's enlargement would not help solve international problems. "Practice has shown that a mechanical enlargement cannot help us ward off the threats we face. This enlargement could not prevent the terrorist acts in Madrid, nor could it help us solve the problems in Afghanistan," Putin pointed out. The Kremlin has reason to be wary about Washington's game plan. In the last two years, American military bases have been established in Russia's "Asian underbelly" - the states of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The U.S. has bases in Georgia and Bulgaria. NATO now has a foothold in the Baltic, Caspian and Black Seas. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac were in Moscow in the first week of April. They were the first Western leaders to visit Moscow after Putin's re-election. The NATO expansion would have no doubt been on top of their agenda for discussion. Putin has said on several occasions that Russia, Germany and France have "practically coinciding" positions on most international issues.

Though the Russian leadership is not openly articulating it, NATO is being perceived as a political organisation that has illegally appropriated global responsibilities. Its recent actions have also shown that it is a military-political alliance inimical to Russia. NATO has made it clear that it will go on expanding until it seals once and for all the political results of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The next round of expansion could involve Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, completing the geopolitical encirclement of Russia. Some Russian commentators say that the eastward expansion of NATO constitutes the biggest threat to their country since the Great Patriotic War (Second World War ). Before its neighbours joined NATO, Russia had nothing to fear from their armies. Now it has to confront the might of NATO at its doorstep. Statements by Western leaders that they consider Russia as "a partner not an enemy" will no longer be taken seriously.

Remembering a genocide

JOHN CHERIAN world-affairs

Ten years after the genocide in Rwanda that killed more than 800,000 people, the international community has apparently come to terms with its failure to prevent the tragic event.

THE international community observed April 7 as "a day of reflection on the genocide" which claimed the lives of more than 800,000 citizens of Rwanda in 1994. The killings started on April 6, after the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprian Ntayamira was shot down as it was preparing to land at the Kigali airport. All on board were killed. The extremists in the Hutu tribe, which accounts for more than 85 per cent of the population of the land-locked country, embarked on a killing spree, targeting the minority Tutsis. (Habyarimana belonged to the Hutu community.) The massacre of Tutsis continued non-stop for 13 weeks, as the international community stood watching. On an average 8,000 people were killed every day. In some cases, the victims paid their killers to kill them in a "humane" way. Death by shooting was preferred to being hacked by a machete.

Churches and hospitals were turned into slaughterhouses as neighbour killed neighbour. The Catholic Church - most Rwandans are Catholics - did not exactly cover itself with glory. Evidence of the complicity of some clergy in the killings has surfaced. Significantly, since the genocide, many Rwandans embraced Islam. The few mosques in Rwanda were more hospitable to internal refugees seeking sanctuary than the many churches that dotted the country.

After the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government took power in July 1994, around 200,000 Hutus were targeted for revenge killing. The two groups have been at loggerheads since the time of the colonial rule. The Tutsis were favoured by Belgium, the colonial power that ruled Rwanda and Burundi. Both the countries, since independence in 1963, have witnessed serious bloodletting involving the two ethnic groups.

It was evident by the early 1990s that a major crisis was brewing in the Great Lakes region, centred mainly around Rwanda and Burundi. Tutsi rebel armies had already effected a regime change in Uganda, installing Yoweri Museveni in Kampala. A key commander of the rebel Ugandan forces was Paul Kagame, the current Rwandan President and an important ally of the United States in the region. His guerilla army was preparing to oust the Hutu-dominated regime in Rwanda and capture power when the plane was shot down.

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United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking at a memorial conference on the Rwanda genocide, acknowledged that "the international community failed Rwanda". He admitted that if the international community had acted promptly and with determination, it could have stopped most of the killings. In his speech, Annan recalled that a 1993 report by a U.N. Special Rapporteur had spoken specifically of "an impending catastrophe". Guns and machetes were being distributed in the preceding years in order to prepare for ethnic cleansing on a grand scale.

As the international community was commemorating the genocide, a new blame game seemed to have started. A French judicial investigation into the circumstances that led to the downing of the plane carrying Habyarimana concluded that the RPF fired the two missiles which caused the plane crash. French judge Jean Louis Brugiere has placed the guilt squarely on the shoulders of Paul Kagame, who was then the RPF commander. According to the Judge, Kagame had personally authorised the shooting down of the French-made Falcon-50 aircraft. Other reports have suggested that a Tutsi commando team in Kigali fired Russian-made missiles that had been captured by the Americans from Iraq in the first Gulf war and handed over to the Ugandans.

Kagame has dismissed the allegations. Speaking in Kigali on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the genocide, he instead accused the French government of siding with Hutu extremists who masterminded the genocide. He said that the French government had knowingly supported the genocide by arming the killers and even manning roadblocks. In response, the French Deputy Foreign Minster, who was in the Rwandan capital, cut short his visit. The French government dismissed Kagame's insinuations. However, the French and Belgian governments have done some soul-searching and admitted the shortcomings in their conduct in respect of Rwanda. The two countries had supported the Hutu-dominated government before the happenings of 1994.

It was the U.S. administration that pressured the U.N. Security Council against using the word "genocide" to describe the mass killings in Rwanda, when the issue came up for discussion in 1994. Under U.N. conventions, the international community has to act immediately to stop a genocide. But Washington was apparently not interested in the fate of innocent people in Africa. Finally, the U.N. only managed to send a small contingent of 400 peace-keepers to Rwanda in 1994. Moreover, while the Canadian commander of the U.N. forces Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire requested on several occasions for reinforcements as tensions were rising, the U.N. headquarters replied that the mission was over and that the forces should return.

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The Tutsi rebels, when they were part of the Ugandan rebel army under Museveni, were the recipients of U.S. aid. Washington was fully aware that after capturing power in Kampala, the Tutsi forces would divert their focus to Rwanda. The Tutsi incursions into Rwanda had started as early as 1991. In October 1991, a Tutsi invasion force was able to move as close as 60 km near Kigali. The French troops stationed in Rwanda helped the Hutu-dominated government to fend off the attack. The U.S. State Department, according to reports that have appeared in the U.S. media, was already working closely with its man - Paul Kagame. Washington increased its support to Uganda and allowed Museveni to step up the supply of military hardware to the Tutsi army. There was a keen contest between Washington and Paris in the 1990s to increase their respective sphere of influence in Africa, especially in the Great Lakes region.

IMMEDIATELY after the genocide in Rwanda ended, the killings spread to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). More than a million Hutus along with extremist militias had fled to the DRC to escape revenge killings by Tutsis. Some Hutus had fled to avoid facing justice.

The Rwandan army, which was emerging as one of the best fighting forces in the region, went after the Hutu militias deep into the DRC, in the process unleashing a new civil war in the country. That conflict perhaps cost more lives than the genocide in Rwanda. Again, the West and the international community remained for most of the time idle spectators to the carnage and looting. It is now estimated that more than four million people were killed in the conflict in the DRC, which started in 1997.

Only after the Congolese parties to the conflict arrived at a settlement with the help of South African mediators did the U.N. step in with a small peace-keeping force. Until 2003, armies of more than six African countries were fighting in the DRC. Ironically, Museveni and Kagame found themselves on opposite sides of the firing line in the DRC. A clash of political and economic interests led to their estrangement. Today, the erstwhile comrades are barely on speaking terms.

WITH Kagame ruling with an iron hand, there is apparent political stability in Rwanda. In the elections held in early 2004, more than 95 per cent of the electorate is said to have cast its vote in favour of Kagame. However, the Opposition and international observers have said that the elections were far from being fair and free. All opponents of Kagame are being tarred as supporters of genocide. About 90,000 people accused of participating in the genocide are still crammed into jails; they have been living under inhumane conditions for the past 10 years. Prisoners who have confessed to their involvement in the killings have been released. Many of them have even been allowed to resettle in their land, side by side with the families of their victims.

The government is claiming that a reconciliation process is very much on track. However, there are complaints from the majority Hutus that the government has not bothered to investigate the killings of their compatriots by the RPF. The government has now banned the citizens of the country from identifying themselves as Tutsis or Hutus. The colonial government had started the practice of issuing identity cards on the basis of ethnicity. The records kept by the colonial administrators had helped the killers identify their victims when the carnage started.

The fall of Karuna

D.B.S. JEYARAJ world-affairs

The LTTE snuffs out the eastern rebellion but the political issues raised by the rebel leader Karuna are too serious to rule out any dissension in future.

THE eastern revolt within the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has come to an end after renegade ex-commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna called it off on Easter Sunday (April 11) and escaped to Colombo with some of his trusted confidants.

The rebellion, which became public on March 3, "unofficially", ended six weeks later after a discreet deal was struck between Karuna and the LTTE leadership based in the northern Wanni mainland.

It was made possible by the collective efforts of several people in Sri Lanka and abroad who tried to end the crisis in the best interests of the eastern people and the LTTE itself.

The lives of LTTE cadres on both sides, the safe return of child conscripts to their homes, safety and peaceful life of civilians and the overall impact on the East were the issues at stake.

According to the arrangement worked out, Karuna was required to provide and deliver on certain undertakings. They are: 1. to cease fighting permanently; 2. to disband and disperse his forces and send them home; 3. to facilitate arrangements for the smooth handing over of military assets including arms, armaments and ammunition to the LTTE; 4. to release all Tigers and supporters in Karuna's custody safely; 5. to vacate "the soil of Tamil Eelam" (Northeastern Province) immediately and never return to it again; 6. to refrain from any direct or indirect military or political activity in future; 7. to maintain silence about all matters concerning the LTTE and avoid all related media publicity; and 8. to seek a new life outside Sri Lanka as early as possible.

In return the LTTE provided the following assurances to Karuna: 1. will not deter Karuna from leaving the East or Sri Lanka; 2. will not try to eliminate him while in Sri Lanka or abroad; 3. will not demand return of any money or things of value taken away by Karuna. 4. will not harm all cadre under Karuna's control and allow them to return to a normal life. 5. to reabsorb only those cadres willing to rejoin the movement; 6. to refrain from punishing all senior cadre who stood by Karuna against the LTTE leadership; 7. to permit them wherever possible to leave the East and/or Sri Lanka; 8. to refrain from taking revenge on Eastern civilians who supported Karuna and engaged in acts like burning effigies, destroying LTTE offices and so on.

After the deal was struck, Karuna disbanded his units and dispersed around 3,500 to 4,000 cadre, asking them to go home and resume normal lives. The weapons, uniforms, cyanide capsules, identity tags and so on were confiscated.

Karuna, along with more than 20 trusted associates and some of their family members travelled by road in six vehicles to a Colombo suburb. Though his whereabouts are unknown, it is reported that he will soon travel to a South-East Asian country for an indefinite period of stay.

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There is much speculation in the media that Karuna is being helped by Sri Lanka's military intelligence. There are also reports that hundreds of cadre loyal to Karuna have taken refuge at the military camps of Minneriya, Welikanda and Punanai.

Defence Secretary Cyril Herath has denied these allegations and stated that they are not in contact with Karuna. Army Chief Lionel Balagalle, however, admitted to maintaining links with Karuna, in interviews to sections of the media.

Though an unpublicised arrangement was arrived at with Karuna that he would not be harmed if he flees, the mainstream LTTE is reportedly angry with him because of a grave breach of discipline.

Karuna had released a number of LTTE men and supporters in his custody after striking the deal on April 11. On April 12, Karuna allegedly killed a senior Tiger in his custody before fleeing Batticaloa.

The LTTE considers this a serious offence and indications are that an intensive manhunt will be launched against Karuna despite the arrangement. The Tigers regard the deal as invalid now.

The person reportedly killed by Karuna is `Lt. Col' Neelan Sinnathamby, a native of Aarayiampathy in Batticaloa. Neelan was the deputy chief of the intelligence wing led by the dreaded Pottu Amman, and was wanted in India for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Neelan himself was involved with the assassination squad led by the one-eyed Sivarasan and had contacts with several others convicted in the case, including Nalini.

He had many aliases in India, including Kanthan, Santhan, Kundu Santhan and Periya Santhan. He and another Tiger cadre Nixon were proclaimed as offenders in India. Despite a widespread search, Neelan succeeded in evading capture and returned to Sri Lanka.

Later, Neelan was involved in planning several assassinations in Colombo. The Tigers hold him in high esteem and have organised and elaborate funeral. He was arrested on March 1 by Karuna after attending a meeting at the Tiger district political headquarters housed at "Thenagam" in Karadiyanaaru.

KARUNA'S decision to call it quits was heavily influenced by ground realities. The mainstream LTTE had militarily outmanoeuvred and politically outsmarted him. Protracted warfare would have debilitated him further, and without extraneous assistance, ended in abject failure.

There was also a regional backlash, as parents of cadre did not want a fratricidal fight in which people from the East would have been casualties. Eighty-five to 90 per cent of the invading force consisted of Batticaloa cadres too (Frontline, April 9).

Since Karuna justified his revolt against the leadership on regional lines and objected to eastern cadres fighting and dying unnecessarily, he could not allow a massacre of eastern cadre on either side to happen on account of his revolt.

The LTTE too knew the pitfalls of protracted warfare. After the Good Friday fighting of April 9, in which the LTTE got the upper hand, it suspended the fighting. It also issued a statement saying that efforts are on to expel Karuna from "Tamil Eelam soil". This indicated that the LTTE wanted Karuna to leave rather than stay and fight. This made the task of peacemakers easier.

After rebelling, Karuna, in many interviews to the media, had ridiculed LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran and boasted that he (Karuna) was the military genius behind earlier Tiger victories. The recent fighting, however, demonstrated that Prabakaran was indeed a better military strategist of the two.

AFTER the split, Karuna had concentrated the bulk of his forces in the Koralaipattru division of north Batticaloa. He expected an invasion across the Verugal river, which demarcates the border between Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts. Karuna set up lines of defence to the south of the river.

Initially, Karuna also patrolled most major highways coming into Batticaloa-Amparai districts and also the coast. Later, he relaxed his guard along the seaboard and roads because a large-scale movement of Tiger cadre and weapons would be considered a violation of the ceasefire. Besides, such movement had to be through government-controlled zones.

He also left the sprawling Amparai district virtually unguarded. As for Batticaloa, Karuna mainly focussed on fortifying the areas north of Chenkalladdy, some areas on the western shore of the lagoon and the Tharavai-Kudumbimalai region. This left many gaping holes in his defence.

The LTTE exploited these skilfully by infiltrating the region in twos and threes. Many members of the intelligence wing moved in clandestinely as well. Some trained LTTE "Leopard" commandos also did so. Thus a powerful fifth column was created.

Karuna failed to retain the loyalty of several frontline eastern leaders. Among those who fled to the Wanni were Karikalan, Ramesh, Kausalyan, Praba, Jegathan, Bawa, Ram, Ramananand Nagesh.

Another advantage Prabakaran had was the presence of nearly 1,800 eastern cadre in the Wanni on various assignments and as part of different units. (Frontline, April 9). After the split, most of these cadre were found trustworthy enough to be sent along with the commandos for combat.

Thus, Prabakaran was able to dilute the regional divide to some extent. The inevitable clash was between the East and the East and not between the North and the East. Apart from this, the eastern cadre knew the terrain and were also familiar with cadre in Karuna's camp. Most eastern leaders who defected were in the vanguard of military advances and fighting.

THE LTTE formally declared war on Karuna on March 25 after issuing a harsh statement against him. It was, therefore, anticipated that a military campaign would be inevitable after elections.

Despite Prabakaran's assertion that the problem would be resolved without bloodshed, most eastern Tamils were concerned that a bloodbath was on the cards. This too was to Prabakaran's advantage as a lot of internal pressure was exerted on Karuna to avoid a fratricidal fight.

The military campaign was preceded by selective terror in typical LTTE fashion. A Tiger pistol squad shot and wounded an eastern university professor and the Batticaloa Government Agent (a designation similar to the District Collector in India). Both were regarded as being close to Karuna.

A Karuna-supported Tamil National Alliance (TNA) candidate and his brother-in-law were shot dead as they left a shrine after morning puja. A teastall owner in the Batticaloa bus stand, Kiran, was hacked to death. He was from Karuna's village and had displayed a large picture of Karuna behind the counter.

The LTTE's targeting of these people was to drive home the message that anybody partial to Karuna was in danger. Thus it gave out a stern signal to the people not to support Karuna.

Karuna retaliated by conducting a predawn raid on some homes and arresting suspected LTTE intelligence operatives. A campaign was also started to drive away people of Jaffna origin from Batticaloa. Karuna with his strong regional mindset felt that all Jaffna Tamils were potential enemies.

While the tensions were on, it became apparent that the five Members of Parliament elected on the TNA ticket from Batticaloa and Amparai would be under Karuna's control. The military was assisting Karuna to maintain this control. This further irritated the LTTE high command as its monopoly on the 22 TNA parliamentarians was eroded.

Few people would have thought that the LTTE would pick April 9 to commence the attack, as it was Good Friday. It was only last year that V. Puthirasigamani, an up-country Tamil MP in President Chandrika Kumaratunga's party, quit in protest against the launch of a political demonstration on Deepavali day.

Sigamani charged that Kumaratunga was insensitive to the Hindu minority. The issue was given prominence in the Tamil media and Kumaratunga was severely criticised for this "fault".

Against this backdrop, the possibility of the LTTE launching an attack on Good Friday and hurting Christian sentiments seemed improbable. The LTTE obviously ignored this.

The LTTE's operation was multi-pronged and began around 1.30 a.m. on April 9. Karuna had placed 600 cadre in batches of 30 at various points south of the Verugal river. A Tiger contingent came by sea and landed south of Verugal estuary and proceeded inwards.

Simultaneously, a group of Tigers came across saying they wanted to surrender. These included some senior cadre who had defected from Karuna earlier. Some of Karuna's cadre had been trained by these men and they welcomed their former "gurus" and "Annans" ("masters" and "elder brothers").

But the LTTE men suddenly opened fire on the unsuspecting Karuna cadre and took control of the ferry point. More Tigers started coming over. The Tigers from the beach, too, proceeded inwards.

Thereafter, fighting commenced. The eastern cadre, mostly in their teens, were no match for the LTTE. The LTTE also maintained a steady artillery barrage. But at least eight 120 mm guns in the hands of Karuna along Verugal river were seized.

Karuna's command control system too went haywire. An LTTE flotilla of 50 boats landed near a place called Paalchenai situated on the coast between Kathiraveli and Vaaharai. The men were led by Karuna's former deputy Ramesh. They took control of Paalchenai and proceeded north and south in two batches.

One contingent took Kathiraveli and the other the Kandalady base near Vaaharai. This was the operational headquarters of Karuna with his own brother Sivanesathurai alias Reggie in charge. Apparently Reggie was taken by surprise and fled after sustaining injuries.

The LTTE had also infiltrated the area in small boats and bullock carts, carrying arms. Unarmed infiltrators now joined up and struck after collecting arms. This enabled Prabakaran's men to commence an attack in the rear too. Thus Karuna's cadre was trapped on three sides.

The infiltrators also functioned as classic fifth columnists and set up landmines along interior roads to hamper the movement of Karuna's cadre. Several civilians too were killed and injured in landmine blasts.

The fighting at Verugal was savage initially. Though the LTTE claims a bloodless victory and makes no mention of casualties, several lives were lost. This writer spoke on the telephone to two young cadre of Karuna and the family members of two others.

According to them, several groups fighting at Verugal had begun surrendering after receiving no instructions from their superiors. Several of them had been shot for offering resistance. This frightened others cadre, which led to their surrender without resistance.

One 17-year-old boy who returned home on April 11 told this writer that the members of the group he belonged to were shot at for running instead of surrendering. He said he fell into a mud hole and lay there as other comrades were shot brutally. He claimed to have hidden in the underbrush for a day and a half before making his way home. Karuna's cadre had been killed in Vaaharai too.

By the evening of April 9 the LTTE had taken control of the Verugal-Kathiraveli-Vaaharai region, including eight small and big camps. Apart from those killed, at least 500 of Karuna's cadre had surrendered. Of these 269 child soldiers have been returned to the United Nations Children's Fund.

On the night of April 9, two counter-attacks were launched by Karuna against the main base under LTTE control in Kandaladdy, Vaaharai. They were led by Robert and Jim Kelly Thatha respectively. The Tigers, with a battery of heavy guns, beat the attackers back.

Karuna changed tactics and asked his cadre to fall back from the area. They were asked to go to camps in the interior. These consisted of the Tharavai-Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai region and the Kokkatticholai-Karadiyanaaru areas on the west coast.

The LTTE, however, began following and had, by Saturday, entered several spots on the west coast of the lagoon known as "Paduvaankarai" (shore of the setting sun). It is also reported that at least two incursions were made into the Tharavai-Vadamunai-Kudumbimalai region known also as Thoppikkal.

Meanwhile, another batch of cadre landed off the Thirukkovil coast in Amparai district. They first took control of the famous Kanchikudicharu base in the jungles. With more than 350 Karuna cadre fleeing from Amparai to Batticaloa without a fight, the LTTE men established control easily.

Many remaining cadre simply switched sides. Soon the LTTE had taken control of most Tamil areas in the multi-ethnic Amparai and also began moving from the south into the western hinterland.

Karuna's political headquarters "Thenagam" was at Karadiyanaaru and military headquarters "Meenagam" at Tharavai. His own jungle hide out "Marutham" was at Kudumbimalai. Karuna, therefore, was expected to entrench himself in this region and hold out.

It became clear to Karuna that a long drawn out struggle would cause serious logistical difficulties. It also appeared that the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Norwegian facilitators would not prevent further violence against him. Continuous supply of food and ammunition was going to be a problem with the LTTE slowly creeping in.

There was also strong dissension within Karuna's ranks about continuing a fratricidal fight. The enemy was not the Sinhala army or even northern Tigers but their own kith and kin. There was strong pressure from parents of cadre to end the fighting.

So Karuna decided to throw in the towel. Concerned persons in Sri Lanka and abroad acted as mediators. The LTTE too was willing to end fighting because it knew the dangers of protracted warfare.

Verbal assurances were given on both sides. Karuna faxed a letter to Kilinochchi promising to disband and leave. The Tiger statement of April 10 gave a sign of the envisaged settlement when it referred to sending Karuna out from Tamil Eelam soil.

So Sunday and Monday saw more than 3,500 cadre leaving the camps. The last to leave were about 400 girls at Meenaham. When Karuna assembled them and asked them to go home they refused thinking Karuna was testing their loyalty. To demonstrate his seriousness Karuna had to explode a few grenades.

Given the LTTE's reputation for untrustworthiness there is every chance that the Tigers after removing Karuna from the East and isolating him would pursue their vendetta despite the ad hoc arrangement. Karuna too knows this and may take precautions.

The media publicity generated by the Tiger victory makes out that Karuna was defeated militarily and, therefore, gave up. This is only part of the truth. The reality is that Karuna gave in more due to a desire to avoid further bloodshed. There are many eastern citizens who are happy that Karuna has avoided an East versus East fratricidal fight.

The safe future of cadre under Karuna is also a serious question. So too is the safety of those who supported Karuna and went to the extent of burning Prabakaran's effigies - an unpardonable sin from an LTTE perspective.

The LTTE prefers to resolve issues militarily and has treated the Karuna rebellion the same way. The issues raised by Karuna, however, are political in nature. Eastern grievances vis-a-vis the North cannot be glossed over. Unless and until these issues are constructively addressed, problems like the Karuna phenomenon will not cease to emerge.

`Some reason to be cautiously optimistic'

other

Interview with H. Rajan Sharma, lawyer of the survivors.

H. Rajan Sharma, an international lawyer and author currently based in New York, represents the survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster in courts in the United States. He obtained his Juris Doctor degree from the American University, Washington D.C. He has written extensively on international law and politics. His most recent article, `Dispute Resolution Mechanisms in International Environmental & Investment Disputes' was published by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague and included in a collection of The Peace Palace Papers by the International Bureau of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Sharma has been profiled by The American Lawyer magazine and has been nominated for inclusion in `The Best Lawyers in America'. In an e-mail interview to V. Venkatesan, he answers questions on the Appeals Court's decision.

What makes the Appeals Court decision significant?

Never before in judicial history has a court sitting in one country ordered a multinational corporation to go some 8,000 miles [12,800 km] to clean up and remediate an environmental mess in another country literally halfway around the world. It is unprecedented. And that the precedent should be set in a case about Union Carbide's conduct in Bhopal certainly seems more than appropriate.

What is the next stage in the progress of this case? Are you optimistic about the outcome?

The case will go back before the District Court. It is, however, virtually impossible to predict the outcome or to speculate how the District Court will approach these issues. On the other hand, we believe that the legal effect of the Appeals Court rulings is very much in favour of the Bhopal victims and survivors. To that extent, I believe there is some reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Why is it important that Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) assumes responsibility for the clean-up of the site itself? What are the specific implications of this?

It is extremely important that Union Carbide be made to pay for and undertake the clean-up of the UCIL [Union Carbide India Limited] plant site. To understand this, one has to appreciate the hundreds of thousands of metric tons [tonnes] of extremely toxic waste and hazardous chemicals that have been buried in over 11 waste pits on the site, the landfill for the three solar evaporation ponds which contain several thousand metric tons of waste buried under the surface with just a thin plastic liner, and the other asbestos wall cladding, tons of crude Sevin, alpha naphthol and Sevin tarry residue, etc., on the site. These materials are gradually leaching into the groundwater aquifer beneath the surface of the plant and spreading through the drinking water supply of at least 10 neighbourhoods surrounding the factory. Some of these toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, scientifically determined in sample tests of the water supply, have been found to be at extremely high levels in the drinking water of these areas.

Tests conducted by the University of Exeter laboratories in the United Kingdom found, for example, that one carcinogenic chemical was present in the drinking water at nearly 1,705 times the maximum level permitted by the World Health Organisation. Other studies have found these chemicals in the breast milk of women living in the affected areas. Here, you have the possibility of another "slow motion Bhopal", where thousands of people over several generations may be injured or even killed by the underground contamination spreading through the water supplies of the area. In fact, although more studies are needed to determine the precise extent of the groundwater contamination, it is at least conceivable that eventually such high levels of contamination might spread to the drinking water supply of Bhopal as a whole.

The Indian government and the M.P. government now have an opportunity to redeem themselves by preventing this "slow motion Bhopal". On a more practical note, the M.P. government and the Indian government have been aware of this problem for some time but have been unable to address it properly. The M.P. government has asked the company that purchased UCIL to clean up the plant site and remove the source of the contamination. That company, Eveready Industries India Limited, has expressly and publicly refused to do so, claiming that the plant site was surrendered to the M.P. authorities in 1998 and it has no further responsibilities regarding the plant.

The Indian government has been trying to figure out how to handle the large-scale and massive nature of the task of properly remediating the plant site but is daunted by the complexity, magnitude and expense of the task. At one point, I believe they asked the Indian Department of Defence to take a look at the problem. But the problem is simply too huge and complex to be properly handled by government agencies and too expensive for them to contract it out to foreign companies. The Indian Supreme Court too has looked at the matter and asked that the international principle of "polluter pays" should be applied to the issue. Moreover, there is absolutely no reason why Indian taxpayers and the Indian public should be made to pay hundreds and hundreds of crores to clean up the plant site and the off-site contamination caused by Union Carbide, a company that has already done such egregious harm to the country and its people.

The importance of making Carbide responsible for clean-up is, in other words, a most basic proposition of justice: that this notorious corporate criminal should be held responsible for cleaning up the environmental mess that it has made in Bhopal, instead of being allowed to "socialise" this cost to the Indian public and taxpayer while it manages to "privatise" the profits from its unlawful conduct in the form of the sale of UCIL and other plant assets. From 1989 onwards, Union Carbide was actively involved with the Bhopal plant site in terms of what it called its "Bhopal Site Rehabilitation & Asset Recovery Project." Clearly, the emphasis was on "asset recovery" because, by its own admission in our case, Union Carbide has publicly conceded that it basically abandoned the plant site and any proposed remediation efforts in 1994 when the Indian Supreme Court allowed it to sell its shares in UCIL.

How will the submissions made by the Government of India and the Madhya Pradesh government before the District Court help the plaintiffs?

We do intend to approach them. All the insurmountable expenses and difficulties faced by the Indian government or the M.P. government regarding both on-site and off-site remediation can be avoided by the simple expedient of making just one submission to the U.S. court stating that they would be receptive to an order from a U.S. court requiring Carbide to undertake injunctive relief. There is simply no reason why the Indian or M.P. government should hesitate to do so. They are not required to become parties to the case or do anything that would adversely affect or even inconvenience them. It would be astonishing if the Government of India or the M.P. government would fail to avail itself of this opportunity, especially since they would benefit from it almost as much as the Bhopal survivors.

How did the Appeals Court address the District Court's argument that India's interests will get impugned by any grant of equitable relief from U.S. courts?

The District Court ruled that any grant of equitable relief will automatically interfere with India's interests in the context of this case (or, indeed, any other case). Simply put, the District Court held that any grant of such equitable relief by the U.S. courts for remediation affecting property located outside the U.S. would automatically and inevitably be inappropriate because it would interfere with or impugn a foreign sovereign's interests. This was the settled proposition of U.S. law that we were arguing against with no actual precedents in our favour because it has never been done before. Yet, our arguments prevailed over the settled, antiquated rule.

The Appeals Court said: "There may be circumstances in which it is appropriate for a court to grant injunctive relief with respect to the remediation of an environmental problem in a foreign country." It is not very dramatic-sounding, but the legal significance of the ruling is, I believe, nothing less than historic.

The everyday in `New New Delhi'

On `Room With A View', a participative installation project aimed at expressing the multiple meanings of urban space and art practice.

"No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it. And yet between the one and the other there is a connection."

- Italo Calvino, in Invisible Cities.

DELHI lives in several cities at once, just as an artist inhabits several mindscapes. Right at this moment, however, both the city and contemporary art practice have been through seismic shifts. "Room With A View", artist Vivan Sundaram's latest installation project, takes the viewer right into the heart of the beast that is "New New Delhi".

While it is difficult to straitjacket the form, installation art includes multi-media, multi-dimensional and multi-form works that are created temporarily for a particular space or site either outdoors or indoors, in a museum or a gallery. "Room With A View" is a piece of art you can look at, hear, feel and even walk through. A participative project, each of the five interlocking "rooms" is taken over by different individuals to express the multiple realities of urban space and art practice. Each of these fragments is a clutch on the city.

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The first section, inspired by architect Romi Khosla, is a tribute to the dream life of the city. With a soft-padded floor, floating Buddhas and an insouciantly levitating French mattress, the space is both a meditation on utopian visions of the urban, and also a dig at "Delhi being perceived as a planned garden city", says Sundaram.

New New Delhi is a city on the bleeding edge of change, as global commerce and communications rewrite our social contracts. The next section featuring the Raqs media collective takes a look at this transformation, unpeeling the invisible cities that lie beneath the official metropolis. A small TV screen blaring English lessons, placed on top of a shaky, tinny ladder invites us to look at the new world spawned by the call centre explosion in the city, the newfound social mobility and the way we transact with a global culture. The prison-like wall mimics that call-centre ethos, with cubicles painted in a black and white grid-gone-crazy.

Right next to this is the space devoted to the artist-photographer Ram Rehman that points to a whole new kind of social fluidity. As a global artist, Rehman straddles two worlds, splitting his time between New York and India. His political affiliations also place him in an international creative community and this section, scattered with postcards and pamphlets, naturally blends the personal and the political sides to him.

The wall is dominated by a collage of photographs, much like the Page Three phenomenon of society pictures. Except, it is not. This collection busts the cosy "people like us" logic of social groups, as the groups of artists and intellectuals jostle with full frontal portraits of scruffy, decidedly working-class young men. Photography has always been fascinated by social heights and social depths, writes Susan Sontag. Here, instead of the photographing of other class realities, "that gentlest of predations", the collage offers the mixed-up worldview of a homosexual, eclectic and un-pinnable artist.

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We then move to the startling space reserved for the artist couple Manmeet and Shantanu Lodh. Much like the city sidewalk at night, this is when the lurid, the transgressive, takes over - an assortment of photographs that play with the body, literally deflating and inflating the human form, are casually displayed on the floor. On the facing wall, there is a photograph of Shantanu blowing breath into a pair of bloody lungs, and another one, only half-rolled down, showing us a glimpse of the same scene. Interestingly, this section is separated from the previous adjoining spaces, all of which link into each other in some form or the other - just as some borders bleed more easily into others in this emerging global city. For example, Ram Rehman's section featured a tiny dark room with a peephole that let in the outside world.

The last section is cut off from the rest by small stones. It is dedicated to Chintan, an organisation that works with rag-pickers, and is a reminder of the unlovely underside of the city that sustains the other urban visions. (Delhi? New Delhi? New New Delhi? It's the same difference, seen from here.) A naked light-bulb and a sputtering motor underscore the point. While Romi Khosla's room at the other end almost seeks to ascend into pure spirit, a collection of dusty shoe-soles tethers this space to grim reality. On the edge that is a stark square of light, a point from where you contemplate the squalor just like the bright lights of a big city, ironically enough, actually obscure its dark details.

From the floating French mattress to the ugly rubber tyre, nothing urban is alien to Sundaram's exhibition. "Everything's got a moral, if you can find it," said the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. Merging other artists' work into the installation and curating the show himself, Vivan Sundaram has repeatedly punctured the idea of authorship and intention, since the meaning made in people's heads is as valid as the stated project. As such, "Room With A View" is a witty and layered show, and a unique invitation to decode the everyday in New New Delhi.

A historic ruling

A U.S. Court of Appeals sustains the plea of the survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster and orders Union Carbide Corporation to undertake the removal of contamination in and around the abandoned pesticide plant.

AFTER nearly 20 years of struggle for justice and due compensation, the survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, the world's worst environmental and industrial disaster, won a major legal victory against Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the perpetrator of the disaster and the then owner of the pesticide plant in Bhopal, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, New York.

Setting a significant precedent in the history of environmental litigation, on March 17, the court approved "injunctive environmental remediation" against UCC to clean up the pollution it caused in Bhopal. The judgment was delivered by Circuit Judges Wilfred Feinberg, Amalya L. Kearse and Reena Raggi.

The term "injunctive environmental remediation" encompasses any work that has to be done to remove contamination or pollution from a given site in order to restore it to certain applicable environmental standards. In this case, for example, remediation might entail a complete decontamination of the soil, the filtration and removal of contaminants in the groundwater to safe drinking levels, the removal of all the waste matter on the site such as asbestos wall cladding through the "treatment" or processing of such waste and/or transporting it to a location outside India.

Haseena Bi, one of the survivors of the tragedy, and several organisations in Bhopal representing survivors were plaintiffs in a class action suit against UCC filed before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York seeking damages and injunctive relief for the severe pollution of their land and drinking water. A class action suit enables individuals and organisations to make a complaint both individually and on behalf of all other classes of persons similarly situated. The plaintiffs alleged that thousands of residents in and around the abandoned pesticide plant in Bhopal were exposed to toxins because of the contamination of soil and water. They accused UCC of causing pollution by utilising improper technology in the design of the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) facility in Bhopal and then recklessly dumping large quantities of toxic materials at the plant site. They claimed that pollutants from the plant continued to seep into the local environment causing serious health problems for nearby residents. "If nothing is done to resolve this problem in terms of the relief sought, UCC will have bequeathed another large-scale environmental catastrophe to Bhopal," the plaintiffs warned.

In March 2003, the District Court rejected the suit on the grounds that Haseena Bi's claims were time-barred, that organisations could not be representatives of individual plaintiffs, and that it would be impossible for a U.S. court to implement a decision that required a U.S. corporation to clean up contaminated land. The plaintiffs then filed an appeal before the Second Circuit Court of Appeal on the basis of internal documents of UCC and points of law.

It is important to understand the Appeals Court's decision in terms of the overall nature of the claims made in the class action suit. Plaintiffs had claimed the following as relief: (1) Damages for personal injury caused by exposure to contaminants in drinking water and soil through the underground aquifer from the UCIL factory; (2) monetary damages for loss of value of property and private hand pumps; (3) claims for medical monitoring of an estimated 20,000 people living in the 10 municipal wards around the former Carbide plant where contamination has been found; (4) environmental clean-up and remediation of off-site contamination on private properties/residences/hand pumps of plaintiffs; and (5) environmental clean-up and remediation of the former UCIL factory itself.

The Appeals Court has reinstated virtually all the claims. The court maintained that the plaintiffs' personal injury claims must be allowed to go forward but stated that the statute of limitations for such claims must be limited to three years before the filing of the complaint in November 1999. Of course, the three-year limitation period eliminates the claims of Haseena Bi who had stated that the injuries and symptoms resulting from contamination approximately dated back to 1990. But the case is "class action" litigation and Haseena Bi's personal injury claims are not the only ones to be included. Other plaintiffs can advance their personal injury claims, subject to the three-year time period. The District Court had not addressed the issue.

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The Appeals Court reversed the District Court's conclusion that monetary relief for property damage and loss of value of property and private hand pumps must be dismissed on the basis of the three-year limitation. The court affirmed the argument of the plaintiffs that because such claims are "continuous" and "ongoing" in nature the defence of a three-year limitation is not applicable. The Appeals Court also held that notice of personal injury damage did not amount to a constructive notice of property damage. This means that Haseena Bi and the approximately 20,000 residents of the 10 municipal wards in Bhopal that have been affected are free to prosecute such claims against UCC.

The Appeals Court declined to address the District Court's dismissal of the medical monitoring claims on technical grounds. Essentially, this means that the medical monitoring claims on behalf of the 20,000 or so plaintiffs continue to remain viable for individuals and the class.

The Appeals Court reversed the District Court's dismissal of claims for "injunctive relief" regarding property, that is, the clean-up of individual properties and hand pumps off-site.

The Appeals Court did, however, affirm the District Court's dismissal of the plaintiffs' claims that UCC should be made to pay for and undertake proper environmental clean-up and remediation of the former UCIL plant site. The court did so with an important caveat: it rejected the District Court's conclusion that such clean-up or equitable relief would be either "impossible" or would automatically "interfere" with India's interest in handling its own environmental problem. The term "equitable relief" is used to suggest that the court orders the defendant to do something, in terms of an activity, as opposed to merely paying damages for the harm it caused.

According to the plaintiffs' counsel, H. Rajan Sharma (see interview), the decision seems to suggest that such equitable relief for clean-up and remediation of the source of pollution, that is, the plant where thousands of tonnes of waste were improperly stored and disposed of, would be feasible and appropriate if either the Indian government or the Madhya Pradesh government were to make a submission indicating "receptivity" to an order from a U.S. court directing UCC to pay for and undertake such a clean-up. Furthermore, the Appeals Court expressly instructed the District Court to wait for and hold open the possibility of granting injunctive relief "until the entry of final judgment" in the case.

INDEED, there is no parallel to the December 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in terms of the magnitude of destruction and the number of deaths. But the process of rendering justice to the victims has proved to be a deplorable legal tragedy. While the criminal case against those responsible for the disaster has been proceeding in the Bhopal District Court at a snail's pace, the civil case seeking due compensation appears to have been closed after the Indian Government and UCC arrived at a settlement before the Supreme Court in 1989. Under the settlement, UCC and its Indian subsidiary, UCIL, agreed to pay, and paid, $470 million to the Government of India on behalf of all the victims. Since then, the survivors of the tragedy have been questioning the unjust nature of the settlement and improper consideration of the compensation claims of individual victims and survivors. Besides, they have been deploring the extent of indifference within India and outside to the magnitude of the tragedy, and its continuing consequences for the health of the survivors and their families.

It was in this context that the organisations of the survivors and the relatives of those killed took their legal battle to the U.S. in November 1999. It coincided with the publication of the report by the Greenpeace Research Laboratories, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Exeter, based on its independent testing of the soil and water in Bhopal. The report found substantial to severe contamination of land and drinking water supplies with heavy metals and persistent organic contaminants both within and around the former UCIL plant.

In their class action suit, the survivors sought monetary and equitable relief under various common law theories for environmental harm allegedly attributable to the UCIL plant, but not related to the gas leak. The District Court had dismissed these claims, along with others. The Appeals Court returned the case to the District Court in November 2001 in order to permit the latter to consider the claims afresh, as in its view the judge had erred in dismissing them (Frontline, January 4, 2002). The dismissal of the claims by the District Court again in March 2003 on other grounds forced the plaintiffs to approach the Appeals Court again.

IF the plaintiffs' legal battle is to succeed finally, they need the cooperation of both the Union and Madhya Pradesh governments. The decision itself presents the invitation to submit a communication in express, specific language: "Madhya Pradesh has neither been made a party to this lawsuit nor sought to intervene, and the record contains no communication from Madhya Pradesh or the Indian government indicating its receptivity to an order of a United States court compelling work on the property... we believe the District Court should be free to revisit its dismissal of the claim for plant-site remediation in the event that the Indian government or the State of Madhya Pradesh seeks to intervene in the action or otherwise urges the court to order such relief."

In other words, if the District Court is to order UCC and its inheritors, Dow Chemicals, to undo the contamination in Bhopal, the two governments must first show their willingness to facilitate the execution of the order. It is up to the two governments now to seize the opportunity and help the plaintiffs-survivors obtain justice, even if it is belated.

An institute reborn

The reincarnation of State Observatory, Nainital, as an autonomous institute, ARIES, augurs well for the overall development of astronomy in India.

A NEW national institute of astronomy is born under the zodiacal sign of Aries. Well, not quite. The 50-year-old, historical Uttar Pradesh State Observatory (UPSO) at Nainital, an institute specialising in optical astronomy, underwent an important metamorphosis on March 22. And, for the observatory staff and authorities, the timing of its rebirth is of some significance. No astrological mumbo-jumbo here. Fifty years ago - before it moved to Nainital from the dust and haze of the plains in 1961 - UPSO was founded at Varanasi on April 20, 1954, at the initiative of Dr. Sampurnanand, the then Education Minister and later the Chief Minister of the State, and Prof. A.N. Singh, a Professor of Mathematics at Lucknow University. To signify the sun sign of the month of April, Aries, the observatory in its new avatar will be called ARIES, short for Aryabhata Research Institute of Observational Sciences. The acronym is no doubt highly contrived but equally unusual is the happy coincidence of an institution's golden jubilee also marking the beginning of a new phase that promises a good deal better and brighter times ahead.

On January 7, the Union Cabinet took the decision to convert this State observatory into an autonomous national research institute under the Department of Science and Technology (DST) at the Centre. The new institute was registered as a society on March 12 and, according to the government order, the institute and all its assets (movable and immovable) were formally transferred from the Government of Uttaranchal (under whose administrative control it has been functioning as State Observatory, Nainital (SON) since the creation of the new State in November 2000) to the Centre with effect from March 22.

The observatory is equipped in the main with four telescopes - a 32-year-old 104 cm aperture reflector (called Sampurnanand Telescope), a 36-year-old 56-cm reflector, a 43-year-old 52-cm reflector, a 43-year-old 38-cm reflector - and associated instrumentation. It also has a 15-cm reflecting telescope, acquired in 1960, and a 25-cm refracting telescope, with which the observatory began functioning at Sarnath. These are at present used for public outreach activities. Besides, the observatory also has two 15-cm refractors acquired during 1988-92, which enable solar observations. The total assets transferred, which include the 32.38 hectares of land at Manora Peak (altitude 1,951 metres) in Nainital and 4.48 ha of land at the newly identified observation site at Devasthal, about 50 km from Nainital (altitude 2,500 m), have been valued at Rs.10-15 crores, depending on whether the land is regarded as agricultural or not. Of the total 111 employees at the time of its transfer, 40 (mainly non-academic personnel) have opted to stay with the State government. They will be absorbed in other State institutions in due course. Effective April 1, Prof. Ram Sagar, the Director of the erstwhile State Observatory, took charge as the Director of the new institution.

ARIES now has a 12-member governing council headed by Dr. K. Kasturirangan, the former Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation who is currently a member of the Rajya Sabha. The other scientist-members of the council include Prof. V.S. Ramamurthy, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology; Prof. J.V. Narlikar Emeritus Professor, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune; Prof. G. Srinivasan, Raman Research Institute (RRI), Bangalore; Prof. P.C. Agrawal, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai; Prof. Ramanath Cowsik, former Director and now Distinguished Professor, Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bangalore; Dr. S.D. Sinvhal former Director of the State Observatory and Prof. Ram Sagar. The council held its first meeting in New Delhi on April 13.

Though UPSO/SON had the unique distinction of being the only astronomy research institution in the country under a State government, its existence had been far from comfortable and congenial for growth under both governments. The excessive bureaucratic control did not allow the potentially good observatory to be run effectively. Consider the following. Even though the sanctioned staff strength is 140, since 1995, 18 academic/engineering posts have remained vacant and not been filled chiefly because of complex bureaucratic procedures like recruitment through the State Public Service Commission, reservation issues and government-dictated personnel policies that are not conducive to filling academic posts. According to Prof. Ram Sagar, once the observatory's requirement was forwarded to the Ministry, the actual appointment could take as along as four years, often rendering the process meaningless for academic posts. Since 1982 not a single member has gone abroad on institute expenditure. The lack of autonomy under the earlier dispensation was such that under U.P. governance, members were denied permission to attend conferences abroad three times even when the expenditure was being borne by external agencies.

But the most glaring is the observatory's budget over the years. In all the 50 years of its existence, the total budget has been an unbelievably small sum of around Rs.30 crores (about Rs.11 crores plan plus Rs.19 crores non-plan). The situation had become worse under the Uttaranchal government. Last year, apparently the plan allocation (of about Rs.30 lakhs) came with the condition that no money be spent on computers and books! Compare UPSO/SON's present level of annual funding of about Rs.2 crores to Rs.10 crores of a Centrally-funded institute such as the RRI, a relatively small institute. Considering that the observatory has significant observational facilities to operate and maintain, the funding has been grossly inadequate all along.

It is not that the State governments were not interested in supporting science but they were constrained by the limited financial resources at their disposal for funding institutions of research in basic sciences. In fact, when feasible, suitable funding was made available during the 1990s to enable the observatory acquire appropriate focal plane instrumentation like Charge Coupled Device (CCD) cameras and the like required for photometric measurements.

Indeed, as a member of UPSO's advisory board, Prof. Narlikar had tried to impress upon the U.P. government to grant autonomy to the institution and had even formulated appropriate by-laws for effecting the same. However, the U.P. government took no action on that front. In April 1998, he wrote to Union Minister for Science and Technology Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi that under a State government the observatory could not have the financial and functional autonomy necessary for an academic institution that was expected to do world-class research and suggested that the observatory be brought under the Centre's DST. However, the Minister took the view that the Centre would not interfere in the affairs of a State and would initiate such a move only if there was a request from the State government.

While the U.P. government did not take any such step despite the board's urging, within months of its formation the Uttaranchal government, faced with financial constraints, saw merit in Prof. Narlikar's recommendation. In February 2001, it wrote to the Union Ministry of Science and Technology to look into the possibility of bringing the institute under its umbrella. The letter clearly stated the government's inability to commit adequate funds towards the effective running of the observatory. The DST, in turn, constituted a 10-member committee, which included Prof. Narlikar, Prof. Srinivasan and Prof. Cowsik as scientist-members, to study the transfer proposal. The committee unanimously recommended that the observatory be converted into an autonomous institution under the DST. It also wanted the Astronomical Society of India (ASI) to constitute a sub-committee to prepare a Vision Document for the observatory and identify possibilities of integrating the activities of the observatory with other institutes and their activities.

In his remarks to the committee, Prof. Srinivasan, the then President of the ASI, argued against a suggestion that the observatory be merged with a large astronomical institute such as the IIA. He observed that small autonomous institutions were far more preferable to large institutions. He also saw merit in establishing more independent institutions specialising in astronomy. His point was that the new Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) near Pune, the new 2m optical Himalayan Chandra Telescope (HCT) of the IIA at Hanle in Leh, and the multi-wavelength astronomy satellite Astrosat scheduled to be launched in 2007 required the building up of a larger user community rather than creating more observing facilities. This, he felt, was best done by creating more autonomous research centres with strong links with the universities in the neighbourhood and UPSO/SNO could eminently serve that purpose.

The creation of ARIES is a consequence of the recommendation of this committee. The Cabinet Note explaining its decision said that, in fulfilling its objective of doing research in basic sciences, the State Observatory had been handicapped in its functioning both administratively and financially. The meagre resources at the disposal of the State inhibited the observatory from establishing pro-active linkages with other institutions of the country and it has thus been performing far below its potential.

Interestingly enough, while the original proposal for transfer came from a Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttaranchal, the transfer itself is being effected under a Congress government, which too has endorsed the proposal. Given the distinct history of the observatory, the Uttaranchal administration in fact wishes to maintain its links with the observatory and has offered continued help in running it. The government would particularly like the new institution to continue its public outreach activities like the daily night sky viewing by visitors, which has even become a major tourist attraction. Indeed, Chief Minister N.D. Tiwari even waived the stamp duty (about Rs.1.2 crores) payable to the State government on the assets transferred to the Centre.

Despite the limitations of functioning under a State government, it is to the credit of the observatory that it has been able to do internationally noteworthy research and promote astronomy as an area of research in universities in the neighbourhood. As Prof. D. Narasimha of the TIFR, who has an active research collaboration with the observatory, points out: "Knowing the strong and weak points of the site, which was perhaps chosen more from an easy accessibility point of view than based on a proper survey, and the facility, the observatory has done well to make optimum utilisation of their resources." The principal research interests at the observatory have been in photometric studies of galaxies, stellar populations, stellar variability, stellar energy distribution, star clusters, planetary physics, solar activity and molecular and atomic spectra of the sun. The observatory has so far produced 38 Ph.D. theses and 782 research papers, a large part of which were published in internationally reputed journals.

The strong point of the observatory is its geographical location. The longitude locates in the middle of a wide longitudinal band of about 180 degrees between Canary Islands (about 20 deg. West) and Eastern Australia (about 157 deg East) having reasonably good viewing conditions for a good part of the year (October to April) and astronomical facilities. With its latitude of about 30 deg. North, astronomical objects of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres are accessible from the place. Because of this, even small-aperture, 1 to 2 m-class telescopes located in India can make important contributions to astronomical research, particularly time critical phenomena. For example, time series observation of certain astronomical phenomena like pulsation of white dwarfs require 24-hour observation, which would not be possible (due to day light) from Canary Islands or Australia. Such research activity can be supplemented by observations from India under collaborative programmes.

Even though UPSO/SON is limited by the fact that it has only a 1-m telescope with limited instrumentation, the observatory has been able to identify and pursue research programmes, both in-house and collaborative, that are commensurate with its capabilities. Two significant examples of research testify to this. One is the observatory's contribution when the rings of Uranus were discovered in 1977 and, two, the earliest optical observation of the afterglow of the gamma ray burst (GRB) 000301C in 1999. Indeed, the observation of the optical afterglow of GRBs - which release enormous amount of energy in a very short period of time and whose origin remains a mystery - has since formed an important component of the observatory's activity and several significant contributions have been made in this area.

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Besides GRB afterglow monitoring, the observatory has in the last one decade participated in three other important surveys.

The Nainital Indo-French Microlens survey to detect and characterise dark matter in galactic halos. Between 1998 and 2002, 140 days of monitoring the Andromeda galaxy (M31) was done. A new technique called the Pixel Method has been evolved, which uses the CCD camera-based photometric data with the 104m telescope, which has yielded excellent data and a potential dark matter candidate has been identified. This survey is likely to be enlarged in scope over the next five years when the 2m HCT at Leh will be used in conjunction.

The other is the survey of optical microvariability of powerful active galactic nuclei (AGN) where important results have been obtained. The third is the Nainital-Cape A-peculiar (Ap) stars survey in collaboration with the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) and University of Central Lancashire for which a special three-channel photometer has been developed in association with ISRO. Other important studies carried out (mainly using the 104m telescope) relate to star clusters - to trace the evolution of the galaxy and its present dynamic state - and 35 open star clusters have been studied extensively.

In recent years, a new dimension has been added to the observatory's research programmes. This relates to aerosol measurements in the Himalayan region. The observatory already has 40 years of day-night atmospheric extinction data obtained from the monitoring of viewing conditions for the telescope. A Multiwavelength Solar Radiometer (MWR), designed by Space Physics Laboratory (SPL) of ISRO at Thiruvananthapuram has been set up at the observatory for continuous spectral extinction measurements of directly transmitted solar radiation that reaches the ground. Aerosol measurements during day-time have been carried out successfully during January-June 2002. The findings have important implications for weather and climatic studies. Besides envisioning expanded programmes of research in all the key areas of UPSO/SNO's past activities, the ASI Vision Document, has proposed a major programme of high-altitude (around 2 km) aerosol studies in the Central Himalayas using both day and night times as part of ISRO's Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

In fact, atmospheric science is likely to become an important feature of ARIES in the years to come and aerosol studies will be a part of it. The new name includes the phrase `Observational Sciences' precisely for this reason. As part of the climate studies initiative, ARIES is also likely to be linked to a network of atmospheric radars being envisaged by ISRO, which would be linked to ISRO's Mesosphere, Stratosphere and Troposphere (MST) Radar facility at Gadanki, near Tirupati. According to ISRO Chairman G. Madhavan Nair, the idea is to establish an integrated national climatological laboratory based on this radar network in the near future. Accordingly, an expert committee under the chairmanship of Dr. B.M. Reddy of National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI), Hyderabad, has been constituted by the DST to prepare a detailed proposal for establishing a Science and Technology Radar Facility (that will include a LIDAR as well) at Nainital, as part of ARIES. The scientific objective of this facility will be to study convection, tropopause variations, vertical wind velocities and the type of precipitating systems that prevail over the region. The data could be used in atmospheric modelling studies.

Setting the agenda in astronomy, ASI Vision Document says that the new institution can make unique contributions in the studies of galactic and extragalactic variables, optical identification of the sources detected by the GMRT and the upcoming Astrosat, observation of optical transient events such as GRBs and stellar evolution using star clusters. In order to carry out these studies, the document envisages close interaction of ARIES with other national observational facilities such as the GMRT, the 2 m HCT at Hanle and the 2.34 m Vainu Bappu Telescope (VBT) at Kavalur. Specifically, it has been proposed to set up a real-time observing station for the HCT at Nanital just as the IIA operates the telescope remotely from Hoskote near Bangalore. The observatory has already been partnered to carry out ground-based observations for the India-Israel satellite-based astronomy project called TAUVAX. This is due to be launched next year aboard the GSLV.

An important component of UPSO/SNO's activity has been its linkages with universities such as Kumaon University, Garhwal University, G.B. Pant Nagar Agricultural University, Punjabi University, and Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee, particularly for doctoral thesis work of students from these universities. The document envisages expanded collaborative programmes with universities in astronomy, astrophysics and space physics. The objective is that ARIES should be able to play a major role in generating the much-needed highly skilled manpower by implementing appropriate astrophysical research projects.

In order to achieve the goals, the document has pointed out that the observing time in the existing major facility of 104-m telescope, which is being used by Indian institutions and researchers from abroad, is oversubscribed by a factor of nearly three. The enlarged agenda of the future would call for more optical and near-infrared observations for which a new observing facility would be required. But, more pertinently, the control, tracking and other mechanical systems of this telescope of the 1960s are outdated and have begun to give operational problems. The document has recommended the setting up of a 1.5m-class modern telescope at the new site at Devasthal where extensive site survey studies have been done since the 1990s. It has been found to be an excellent site with 200 clear nights of which 80 per cent are good for photometric observations. The studies were done to identify an alternative observational site because, with increasing activity in and around Nainital town, light pollution at Manora Peak was affecting observations.

In fact, in the year 2000, a 3m telescope to be established jointly by the TIFR and the U.P. government at Devasthal almost came to fruition. The project had been cleared by the State government and, under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two, even some funds had been sanctioned to begin the project. However, before the money could be released, the new State of Uttaranchal was formed, which stated its inability to undertake the financial burden - even though it had to meet only half the cost - of a venture of this scale, and the project fell through. The open question now for ARIES is whether such a project will be revived immediately. As regards funding, ARIES has a provisional approved outlay of Rs.12 crores for this year, of which Rs.3.88 crores has been sanctioned in the vote on account budget for the quarter.

"We are terribly excited and we see it as a golden opportunity for the observatory," Prof. Ram Sagar said during this correspondent's visit to the observatory a fortnight ago. "We are looking forward to the Council's decisions," he said. As per the decisions arrived at the first meeting of the council on April 13, the Director of ARIES has been given the go-ahead to improve the basic infrastructure both at Nainital and Devasthal so that the observatory becomes attractive for researchers. As part of the climate studies programme, the council has approved the setting up of a Research Centre and Training Institute in Climate Studies as proposed by the India Meteorological Department (IMD). As regards establishing a new telescope, apparently Kasturirangan has asked the Director to make a focussed proposal for the facility, but indications are that if at all approved, it will be of a large aperture (3-4 m class), but not in the near term.

"Our primary objective is to convert it into a world-class infrastructure and a manpower source and establish ARIES as a good astronomy manpower base," Kasturirangan said. "Astronomers in the country are only a handful and the level of utilisation of the existing new facilities like the GMRT and the HCT is low. Moreover, we have projects like Astrosat coming up, for which we need people. The idea is to create a first rate ambience here to attract students. Additional observational facilities can be thought of later," he added. But some scientists point out the catch-22-like situation here. "Why would a place like Nainital attract youngsters and other scientists if there are no attractive new astronomy projects?"

"It is essential to have a new observational facility in India to make best use of our strategic location," points out Narasimha. "Since our seeing condition is not the best in the world, we should strive to have a moderate facility at an accessible site like Devasthal. For the best scientific results and for bringing Indian astronomers together, the new institution can try to build the new facility indigenously as a collaborative effort," he adds. How the council and the ARIES Director are going to resolve this difficult dilemma remains to be seen. But ARIES has certainly been launched with a lot of hope and promise for Indian astronomy and space sciences.

Vigyan Rail as peace train

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Interview with M.V. Kamath, president, Vigyan Prasar Society.

M.V. Kamath, president of the Vigyan Prasar Society and recipient of Padma Bhushan for 2004, has been the inspiration behind many of the society's successful projects. His aim is to take science and technology to the millions of people across the country. In this interview, he shared some of his innovative ideas with Anupama Katakam. Excerpts:

What is your vision for Vigyan Prasar?

We need to continue our work of inspiring and educating people throughout the country, particularly in areas that have little access to novel forms of learning. The Vigyan Rail - science exhibition on wheels - for instance, has been immensely successful. There has never been something as a science train. It is the first such and we hope to come up with many more such projects. When we started the train we knew it would be a good idea, but the public response to it has been overwhelming. In towns like Bareilly and Allahabad, over two lakh people visited the train. We need to build on the idea and promote science and technology in other interesting ways. My vision for Vigyan Prasar is for it to become a body that is responsible for spreading science as widely as possible and making it a popular subject among all categories of people. From school children to college students and from farmers to professionals, everyone must feel the need to know more.

What are your plans for the near future?

I would like India to send the Vigyan Rail to Pakistan and Bangladesh. In this climate of friendship, I think it would be a wonderful idea for the Vigyan Rail to play the role of a peace train to Pakistan. That is my big ambition right now. It will be a terrific idea for an Indian science train to go across to at least some SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] countries. Not only will it amount to a gesture of friendship but it will be educative for people of those countries as well. I will be speaking to the government about this idea soon. The train will complete its journey by August. After that there is every likelihood that the government may continue to run the train. The other plan I have in mind is to invite a group of 60 Nobel laureates to India in 2007 to coincide with the Diamond Jubilee of India's Independence and arrange for their lectures at colleges and other educational institutions all over India. It would be a wonderful opportunity for our students.

Do you think Vigyan Prasar is moving ahead with its objectives?

Vigyan Prasar's work is highly commendable. It has demonstrated that a staff of just 20 people can do a significant amount of work with limited resources. We have the ideas. We are not short of commitment, enthusiasm, skills or energy. Vigyan Prasar is already doing some first class work. We will grow and enhance our reach. Hopefully, we will be able to garner enough resources and support to carry out our objectives. My ambition for Vigyan Prasar is that it should expand to meet the various demands in science communication. Our aim should be: science should create wealth, create employment, and most of all happiness.

A judicial stricture

In a severe indictment of the Gujarat government and High Court, the Supreme Court orders fresh investigation of the Best Bakery case and the retrial of the case in Maharashtra.

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IT is not uncommon for the Supreme Court to come to the aid of an individual when his or her fundamental rights are at stake owing to the actions of the state. But the court's April 12 judgment in the Best Bakery case was unique in that it not only indicted the Gujarat government for failing to take action against the perpetrators of the post-Godhra violence of March 2002, but deplored the Gujarat High Court's January 12 decision upholding the trial court's acquittal of all the 21 accused in the case. The court ordered fresh investigation of the case and its retrial by a court under the jurisdiction of the Bombay High Court, as a result of its loss of faith in the Gujarat government and the Gujarat High Court in ensuring a fair retrial within the State under the present political dispensation.

Allowing the appeal of Zahira Sheikh, a key witness to the Best Bakery incident in which 14 persons were burnt alive, nine of them belonging to Zahira's family, in Vadodara in March 2002, the Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Doraiswamy Raju and Arijit Pasayat described the acquittal as a fraud on the legal process.

The basis of the highest court's decision to interfere in the verdicts of lower courts can be found in its explanation of what constitutes a fair trial and how significant it is for protecting human rights. Fair trial, the Bench said, would obviously mean a trial before an impartial Judge, a fair prosecutor and an atmosphere of judicial calm. It also involved the elimination of all kinds of bias and the absence of threats and use of force against the witnesses to pressure them to give false evidence, it explained.

The Bench enumerated other principles of fair trial. Fair trial for a criminal offence involves not only the technical observance of the frame and forms of law, but also the recognition and just application of its principles in substance, to find out the truth and prevent miscarriage of justice. It said that it was inherent in the concept of due process of law that condemnation should be rendered only after the trial in which the hearing was a real one, not a mere farce or pretence.

"Since the fair hearing requires an opportunity to preserve the process, it may be vitiated and violated by an overhasty, stage-managed, tailored and partisan trial," the Bench warned.

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The High Court had come to a definite conclusion that the investigation carried out by the police was dishonest and faulty. "That was and should have been per se sufficient justification to direct a retrial of the case," the Bench ruled.

It added: "If one even cursorily glances through the records of the case, one gets a feeling that the justice delivery system was being taken for a ride and literally allowed to be abused, misused and mutilated by subterfuge. The Public Prosecutor appears to have acted more as a defence counsel than one whose duty was to present the truth before the court. The court in turn appeared to be a silent spectator, mute to the manipulations and preferred to be indifferent to sacrilege being committed to justice... . There was really no seriousness in the State's approach in assailing the trial court's judgment."

The court expressed its shock over the manner in which the State government came to the aid of the perpetrators of violence against the minority community during the riots. Although the Bench made a general observation, the inference was obvious. It said: "The modern-day `Neros' were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected. Law and justice become flies in the hands of these `wanton boys'. When fences start to swallow the crops, no scope will be left for survival of law and order or truth and justice."

The Bench agreed that just because an affidavit had been filed stating that the witnesses had been threatened, as a matter of routine, additional evidence should not be permitted. It, however, cautioned that when the circumstances, as in this case, clearly indicated that there was some truth or prima facie substance in the grievance made, the appropriate course for the courts would have been to admit additional evidence for final adjudication.

The Bench clarified that whenever additional evidence was accepted, retrial may not be a necessary corollary. However, on the facts of this case, the Bench justified its direction for retrial in Maharashtra as "inevitable", as it found ample evidence of subversion of the justice delivery system and no congenial atmosphere prevailing in Gujarat. It requested the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court to fix a court of competent jurisdiction for the retrial.

The Bench directed the Gujarat government to appoint a new Public Prosecutor, who would conduct the trial on a day-to-day basis in consultation with the victims and witnesses. It deemed it appropriate to accord such liberties to the complainants in view of the "unusual factors noticed in this case". All expenses necessary for the trial shall be initially borne by the State of Maharashtra but shall be reimbursed by Gujarat, the Bench ruled.

A corollary of retrial would be re-investigation. The Bench asked the Director-General of Police, Gujarat, to monitor the re-investigation with the urgency and sincerity the circumstance warranted.

A significant aspect of the April 12 verdict is the Supreme Court's keenness to correct the gross misgivings created by the High Court judgment delivered by Justices B.J. Shethna and J.R. Vora. The Bench even expunged and deleted certain objectionable portions of the judgment that cast aspersions on the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and Citizens for Justice and Peace, the human rights body which encouraged Zahira Sheikh to speak out.

The Shethna-Vora Bench quoted at length the contention of Sushil Kumar, counsel for the accused, that it was highly improper on the part of NHRC Chairperson Justice A.S. Anand to call the trial court's judgment an instance of miscarriage of justice, a reference that might amount to "contempt of court". It also attributed to Sushil Kumar the question whether the NHRC should directly approach the Supreme Court against the trial court's acquittal.

Sushil Kumar, who was counsel for the accused in the Supreme Court, too, denied that he ever made the remarks attributed to him by the High Court. The apex court found Sushil Kumar's revelation intriguing. It said in unmistakable terms: "The High Court appears to have miserably failed to maintain the required judicial balance and sobriety in making unwarranted references to personalities and their legitimate moves before competent courts - the highest court of the nation - despite knowing fully well that it could not deal with such aspects or matters."

Whatever the final outcome in the Best Bakery case, the Supreme Court's intervention has sent clear signals to those in power and to the lower courts that it would not remain a silent spectator to deliberate defiance of principles governing the rule of law and due process.

A celestial transit

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IT is being billed as the rarest of rare spectacles. On June 8, planet Venus will come in between the Earth and the Sun.

The phenomenon, called Venus Transit, has taken place only six times over the past four centuries - in 1631, 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874 and 1882. It shows a definite pattern of recurrence at intervals of 8, 121.5, 8 and 105.5 years. In the present century, it will occur twice, on June 8, 2004 and on June 6, 2012 after which it will take place only in the year 2117.

India is fortunate in that the entire sequence of the Venus transit on June 8, 2004 will be visible from the country. Europe, parts of Africa, West Asia and most of Asia are the other regions from where the phenomenon can be viewed.

When the Moon comes between the Sun and the Earth, it is called an eclipse; when Venus or Mercury comes between the Sun and the Earth it is called a transit. The discs of Mercury and Venus, as seen from the Earth, are much smaller than that of the Moon. Therefore, unlike the Moon, which practically blots out the Sun, they appear no bigger than small black dots when they move across the face of the Sun. Depending on the geometry involved, the dot may traverse a different path across the face of the Sun during each transit.

According to Dr. V.B. Kamble, acting Director of Vigyan Prasar, the transits of Venus do not take place frequently because its orbit is tilted at small angles to the ecliptic and is usually either above or below the ecliptic. A transit will occur if the inferior conjunction occurs within a day or two of the date on which the planet crosses the ecliptic. The transit of Mercury occurs 13 to 14 times in a century and the transit of Venus is a rarer event.

The transits are significant because they can be used to measure the distance of the Sun from the Earth. Although the determination of the actual scale of the astronomical world dates back to the 6th century B.C., it was Edmond Halley who announced in 1691 that by observing the transit of Venus the distance of the Sun from the Earth can be determined. In 1716, he published a paper outlining a practical method of determining the dimensions of the solar system during Venus transit. However, he could not execute the plan as there was no Venus transit during his lifetime. His efforts inspired scientists to organise expeditions to measure the distance between the Sun and the Earth during transits of Venus in the 18th and the 19th centuries.

For Vigyan Prasar, there can be no better occasion to explain to the general public the basic scientific aspects related to astronomical phenomena. It has drawn up a list of activities involving students, teachers and the general public, in order to enable them to view the Venus transit through telescopes and measure the distance between the Sun and the Earth using simple geometrical instruments. Vigyan Prasar has planned a series of articles on the Venus transit in its monthly newsletter, Dream 2047.

'There is a perceptible improvement in awareness'

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Interview with Dr. V.B. Kamble, Acting Director of Vigyan Prasar.

Having kindled the interest of students and the general public in science and technology (S&T) over the past 10 years, Vigyan Prasar is all set to expand its activities by adopting the latest digital communication technologies and enlarging its network of science clubs. Its Acting Director Dr. V.B. Kamble explained to B.S. Padmanabhan the impact of the initiatives taken so far and the future plans of the organisation to inculcate a scientific outlook among the people. Excerpts from the interview:

The basic objective of Vigyan Prasar is science popularisation. What exactly does this mean?

It is necessary to have a scientific outlook in life. Unless we are able to think in a rational manner it becomes difficult to look at problems in such a way as to arrive at logical solutions. That is one of the reasons for taking the initiative to make the people aware of the progress in S&T and the scientific principles behind the technologies they have been using in their daily life. Creating awareness about science does not mean popularisation of science. What is important is to inculcate a scientific temper and outlook so that people are able to think logically and rationally. Scientific method has to be emphasised along with scientific awareness. This, in my opinion, is science popularisation.

I would like to give a couple of examples. Some 12 years ago in a nondescript village in Madhya Pradesh people suddenly stopped eating bitter gourd because they found white lines on the leaves of the plant. They thought that it was due to the curse of the snake god. An NGO [non-governmental organisation], which was working in a school in this village, had been given some small plastic microscopes. Some girl students tried to find out the cause of the white lines on the bitter gourd leaves with the help of the microscope. They discovered that a tiny insect left its traces while moving on the leaves. The people then realised that it was not the curse of the snake god after all. This is where science popularisation becomes important.

I will give another example. This happened a few years ago in Gwalior. The drinking water supplied by the municipality was found to be polluted and some schoolchildren with the help of an NGO took it upon themselves to determine the quality of water. They collected samples from different areas and tested them with a kit supplied to them. The tests confirmed that the water quality was not up to the mark. Once this was highlighted in the newspapers, the municipality took remedial measures. This could happen because of people's participation. With improvement in literacy levels and increasing scientific awareness, people want to know what effect modern technologies, such as genetically modified foods, would have on their lives before accepting them. They would like to be involved in decision-making. The objective of Vigyan Prasar is to help the people in this process.

What strategy is Vigyan Prasar adopting to achieve its aims?

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What is your assessment of the impact of these efforts?

Surely, we cannot quantify the impact. But I can tell you what we perceive. A few years ago we conducted a survey of S&T coverage in newspapers and found that only 3.3 news items and articles on S&T-related topics appeared every day in a newspaper on an average. Most newspapers did not provide adequate space for S&T news and whatever they carried was from foreign sources. The coverage has been improving of late. Another indicator of the impact of our efforts is the changing perception among the people about eclipse. I have seen the last three total solar eclipses. In 1980, I was in Karnataka and it was a self-imposed curfew on the day of the total solar eclipse. Nobody would come out of the house. Even hotels were closed during the eclipse. In 1995, there was a drastic change. Thanks to the initiative taken by Vigyan Prasar and the National Council for Science and Technology Communication, the entire sequence of eclipse was shown on television. Many people directly observed the eclipse through the safe solar filters supplied by Vigyan Prasar. It was a satisfying sight. People, including children, came out to observe the eclipse. A similar thing happened in 1999. We have been able to remove the superstitious beliefs about solar eclipse to a considerable extent.

I would like to mention another development. As you know, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, science popularisation efforts were done through jathas. The Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha in 1987 brought together a number of organisations engaged in science popularisation, which led to the formation of the All-India People's Science Network. That was a landmark in the history of S&T communication in the country. Then the 1992, jatha combined literacy programmes with science popularisation and this led to a perceptible improvement in the literacy level by providing post-literacy activities to the neo-literates. In the northeastern region, science popularisation activities were earlier chiefly confined to Assam but now in every State in that region a lot of activities to popularise science are taking place.

Yet another initiative is the Vigyan Rail, which has been a big draw wherever it has gone until now. It will cover 56 towns over a period of eight months. This is the first time that a full train with 12 exhibition coaches, showcasing the country's achievements in S&T since Independence, has been organised. It has evoked interest not only among students but even among those appearing for civil service examinations. Students are seen taking down copious notes. Those who are appearing for civil service examinations have found it useful because one cannot otherwise get such a range of information at one place. In some places I found schoolchildren quite excited about the exhibits. Some of them even exclaimed, `I want to be a scientist'. Vigyan Rail has been inspiring children and making the people aware of our achievements in the area. Vigyan Rail is scheduled to complete its journey in August but there is a possibility of extending the journey as 2004 has been declared as the Year of Scientific Awareness.

I would say that a perceptible improvement in science awareness has taken place over the years owing to the initiatives taken by Vigyan Prasar with active support from other organisations.

What are your plans for the future?

I am of the view that we should use the latest communication technologies for science popularisation. We have made a beginning. We are using the WorldSpace digital communication technology. Since the transmission is digital the sound quality is high, and we can also send graphics and sound as two separate files. Moreover, we can reach the entire country at the same time. Vigyan Prasar is using this medium for one hour daily to transmit programmes in Hindi and English. The graphics and pictures can be transmitted as a datafile and stored in the computer with the help of an adaptor. When the audio transmission takes place, one can synchronise the pictures with the audio and the same can be projected on a screen. An entire class can watch the audio-visual presentation. If the WorldSpace receiver is connected to the computer through an adapter one can receive the lecture-demonstrations on one's computer. Wherever one may be, whether in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh or on the top of Mount Everest, one can receive it. We have distributed the digital receiving sets to some of the VIPNET science clubs. The response has been overwhelming. We are producing software especially created for transmission through WorldSpace radio. This software is also broadcast through the Gyan Vani channel of IGNOU and made available on our web site.

Another medium we use is the Ham radio. Although Ham operation is basically a hobby it is an important means of communication in times of calamities. The number of lives we have been able to save by communication through Ham radio is more than that through any other means. When the normal communication network fails how else can one communicate? Vigyan Prasar has, along with NCSTC, set up a Ham radio club at Technology Bhavan. Vigyan Prasar is also planning to set up Ham radio stations in disaster-prone areas. We intend to take up special programmes on disaster-preparedness.

We are also planning to spread the network of science clubs. Every month 100 clubs are added to our network. We intend to set up 50,000 science clubs all over the country. This means one club in each village. Further, Vigyan Prasar is planning to set up core groups of science communicators in different States.

To raise the level of dissemination

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Interview with Prof V.S. Ramamurthy, Secretary, DST.

Vigyan Prasar has taken a number of initiatives to promote greater awareness among the public about the progress made in the field of science and technology (S&T). But one area where it has yet to make a visible impact relates to media coverage of S&T news. Professor V.S. Ramamurthy, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, and Chairman of the Governing Body of Vigyan Prasar, shared his thoughts on this and other issues relating to science communication with B.S. Padmanabhan. In his opinion, a team of trained science communicators together with a media willing to introduce news relating to S&T as one of its major contents would go a long way in raising the level of dissemination of S&T information. Excerpts from the interview:

The National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) has been promoting science communication. What is the need for an organisation like Vigyan Prasar? What is the difference between the two?

Science communication is one of the mandates of the Department of Science and Technology. The NCSTC was formed with the idea of implementing programmes in science communication through other agencies. But as we moved along, it became obvious that there were not many organisations (doing this work). Vigyan Prasar is the outcome of the realisation that we must have a dedicated organisation with science communication as its mandate. Vigyan Prasar is an implementing agency whereas the NCSTC is a promotional agency. That is the basic difference between the two. Both have the same mandate. Vigyan Prasar is a totally autonomous organisation and the link between Vigyan Prasar and the DST is only at the level of funding.

What is your assessment of the performance of Vigyan Prasar?

It has been doing a good job. But certainly a lot more can be expected of it. It has been engaged in a wide range of activities, starting from preparing material for inclusion in newspapers to publication of popular science books and organising children's programmes around events like solar eclipses. But the number of people Vigyan Prasar has and the budget it has been allocated are nominal. Vigyan Prasar deserves a much higher level of support. Vigyan Rail is probably one single event with a budget of almost Rs.5 crores with contributions from other agencies. Vigyan Prasar has demonstrated that it can organise big events. The government has to take a decision on raising the level of support to Vigyan Prasar and also the level of its activities.

What new strategies would you recommend for Vigyan Prasar to achieve its objectives?

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One strategy is to let the youngsters address their own problems. It should not be a typical teacher-student kind of one-way transfer of information and instruction. It should be participatory. You should give overall activity direction and let the student decide how it should be done. There are a large number of such programmes where Vigyan Prasar has shown that one need not be in the "teacher teaching mode" and that the teacher should give only the basic guidelines. In fact, I have heard students asking, `When will the teacher stop teaching and instead enable us to learn'? Students do not appreciate teaching as a one-way activity. In future, Vigyan Prasar will need to lay greater emphasis on people deciding what they want to do and how they want to do it and play the role of an enabler.

An important area relates to media participation in science communication, which is now low. Very few newspapers have dedicated pages for S&T. The media need to be convinced that this [science communication] is in the interest of the nation and there should be more thrust. The general complaint from the media is that they do not get enough material and the right material that would be of interest to the readers. It is for science communicators and organisations such as Vigyan Prasar to make available the material in the form in which the newspapers want. Vigyan Prasar has a programme for training youngsters in science communication. A basket of trained science communicators and a media willing to introduce science as one of their major contents would go a long way in spreading science. It is a good sign that the regional newspapers and television channels are interested in scientific topics. It shows that people are interested in these topics. The media have to sustain the public interest. The material that goes into the newspapers should be of interest to the readers. It is packaging that matters.

In this context, are you thinking of launching an exclusive science television channel on the lines of the Krishi Channel launched by the Ministry of Agriculture?

The Department of Space is planning a dedicated science channel on EDUSAT, the education satellite which is to be launched by ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisation] later this year. We are in the process of discussing what this channel should contain and whom it should address. Vigyan Prasar and the Development Educational Communication Unit (DECU) of ISRO are working together on various aspects of running the channel. When it becomes a reality, the demand for science communicators would go up. We are also planning to tap the full potential of digital technology in broadcasting, say, with WorldSpace satellite radio. For this, we want the cost of digital radio receiver sets to come down to a level that the common man can afford. This would happen once the demand picks up and this in turn would require sensitising the prospective end-users about the advantages of digital radio technology. This is a technology that could revolutionise communication.

Vigyan Rail is reported to have evoked considerable interest among the public in the places it has covered so far. Do you feel the need for extending it beyond August 2004?

Although Vigyan Rail is scheduled to go round the country for almost one year, only some major cities have been covered. For instance, in Tamil Nadu the train covers only Chennai, Kanyakumari and Coimbatore. This is true of other States as well. That means the coverage is sparse. One idea is to take Vigyan Rail on a second round, with the exhibits updated, covering the places left out in the first round. Similarly, further rounds can be organised covering more places. The second idea, which is somewhat more difficult, is to take selected exhibits to places around the railhead on road. That will also be science exhibition on wheels, but on the road. The rail route does not cover the entire country and hence Vigyan Rail can cover only those places that are on the rail route. A sort of feeder service can help take a scaled-down version of the exhibition to those who could not come to the railhead. Both the proposals are being considered. Vigyan Rail has definitely created public awareness about the country's progress in S&T. It fulfils a unique requirement of people in far-flung places.

Joint resistance

A united Shia-Sunni rebellion has resulted in the highest number of American causalities in a month so far, and the occupier now appears to be sinking in the quagmire that is Iraq.

A YEAR after the United States troops occupied Iraq, a full-scale Iraqi "intifada" (uprising) is on. Iraqi partisans have risen to confront the new colonial army, transcending the denominational divide. The Shia and Sunni resistance forces are coordinating their military moves for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Cities such as Fallujah, Baghdad, Ramadi and Nasirriya witnessed heroic battles for days in early April. The fighting spread beyond "the Sunni triangle" after a call was given by the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to "terrorise" the occupation forces. Around the same time, the U.S. launched a brutal assault against Fallujah in retaliation to the killing of four mercenaries in late March.

In the fighting that ensued, more than a thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed, most of them in Fallujah, where the occupiers used F-16 fighter planes and Apache helicopter gunships on civilian targets. From all accounts, the people of Fallujah are putting up a brave fight against overwhelming firepower. In the few parts of Fallujah where the U.S. forces managed to subdue the resistance, they did so after house-to-house fighting. The occupation forces used 500-pound bombs to level a mosque were resistance fighters were suspected to be hiding. U.S. volunteers working for a Christian charity organisation inside Fallujah told the U.S. media that one of the main hospitals in the city was destroyed in the bombing. They reported that among the 700 Iraqis killed in Fallujah, 157 were women and 146 children.

The city has been blockaded by U.S. troops since the first week of April. The valour and suffering of Fallujah has inspired and united the Iraqi people as never before. Shia and Sunni organisations have been jointly organising blood donation camps all over Iraq. Graphic footage of the carnage inflicted on Fallujah has been broadcast all over the world, thanks to courageous Arab television correspondents reporting from the city.

In the second week of April, U.S. forces unilaterally declared a ceasefire, but the fighting continued on a lesser scale. Fallujah has shown that the mighty U.S. military can be stopped in its tracks by fighters with AK-47s and Soviet-era rocket-launchers. The U.S. Army had to abandon control of parts of the Amman-Baghdad highway passing through Fallujah, cutting off one of its main supply lines. The town of Abu Ghraib, which is between Fallujah and Baghdad, was captured by the resistance fighters in the second week of April. A U.S. Apache helicopter was shot down over the town.

U.S. military commander Gen. Ricardo Sanchez has warned that Fallujah would be taken and Muqtada al-Sadr "captured or killed". Al-Sadr is sheltered in a mosque at the holy city of Najaf. The senior-most Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has warned of a serious backlash if U.S. troops tried to enforce their authority in Najaf. A senior member of the Iraqi Interim Council, Abdel Basset Turki, who was in charge of the Human Rights Ministry, tendered his resignation, accusing the U.S. of serious human rights violations.

Muqtada al-Sadr, in his early thirties, has from the outset wanted a confrontational approach to the occupation forces. His support base is among the poorest Shiites, many of whom are concentrated in the slums of Baghdad. His father was an ayatollah, who was killed when the Baathists were in power. Many other prominent Shiites, including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have been more accommodating to the occupiers. Sadr is under pressure from influential Shia parties and personalities to avoid further confrontation. Even Iran may be putting pressure on him to negotiate. In a statement Sadr said defiantly that the "Mahdi" militia owing allegiance to him would not be disbanded. "Some Muslims are asking me to disband the Mahdi Army. It will not be disbanded," Sadr said.

In the first two weeks of April, the U.S. lost around 90 soldiers, the highest member in a month since the invasion started in March last year. The number of mercenaries killed has not been publicised. Senior U.S. officials in Iraq are now openly expressing their pessimism about the U.S.' ability to control events in the country. U.S. military officials continue to insist that they are fighting two different groups. "Let us see what this is not. This is not a general uprising. We are fighting two separate groups," said Gen. Mark Kimmit, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. In the U.S. and international media, the most common metaphor being used is "Vietnam".

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Head of the Interim Coalition Authority Paul Bremer said that the upsurge in violence provided "a legal basis for American troops to continue their military control over the security situation in Iraq". Bremer had at last found an excuse for keeping U.S. forces indefinitely on Iraqi soil. Iraqis, including some members of the Interim Council, felt that the proposed transfer of power in June would lack legitimacy if U.S. troops continued to be stationed in Iraq. Bremer had explicitly stated on March 25 that the U.S. was definitely going to keep a huge force in Iraq irrespective of the wishes of the government that would be put in place in June this year. The U.S. is planning to set up 14 bases that would accommodate more than 100,000 troops on a permanent basis in Iraq.

U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced on April 15 that 20,000 soldiers who were scheduled to return home after a long and arduous tour of duty had been told to stay back in Iraq.

The number of U.S. troops in Iraq remains at 130,000, despite the Bush administration having announced earlier that their number would be reduced to 110,000. President George W. Bush, after having pledged to stay the course, has really no alternative but to increase the troop strength as the quagmire in Iraq gets wider and deeper.

Many of the countries in the so-called "alliance of the willing" have given notice about their intention to quit Iraq. The new socialist government in Spain has reiterated its resolve to withdraw Spanish forces if the United Nations does not take over by June this year. If Spain quits, the small Central American and Latin American countries such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, which have sent token contingents of troops to Iraq, are likely to follow suit. The German and French leaderships have indicated that even if the U.N. nominally takes charge of Iraq after June, their countries will not send in troops. The U.N., on its part, is reluctant to re-enter Iraq: recent comments by Secretary-General Kofi Annan indicate this. The spate of kidnappings of citizens of countries aligned to the U.S. is aimed at forcing their military presence out of the country. More than 40 foreign nationals were kidnapped in the second week of April. The killing of one of the three Italian mercenaries in the third week of April has put additional pressure on Italy to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

The three Japanese hostages who were threatened with execution may have been spared because of their pacifist views. All three were against their government's policy of sending troops to Iraq.

With elections round the corner in many West European countries, there will be second thoughts about the continued stationing of their troops in Iraq. The Labour Party in the United Kingdom is known to be divided sharply over Iraq. Romano Prodi, who will lead the Centre-Left in Italy, has been against the U.S. policies in Iraq from the outset.

The Bush administration's isolation is illustrated by the fact that the desperate circumstances it is in have forced it to turn to the Iranian government for help. Washington wants Teheran's help in persuading the recalcitrant Muqtada al-Sadr to back down.

A historic victory

Even as India records its first series victory against Paksitan players and spectators help build a new bond of friendship between the peoples of the two countries.

THE investment made in youth paid off handsomely, and nothing signified it better than the roles played by the likes of Yuvraj Singh, Lakshmipathy Balaji and Irfan Pathan in India's historic series victory in Pakistan. By winning the one-day series and the Test series, the Indian team firmly established its dominance over an opposition that had not known defeat against it at home in the 52 years since they met for the first time on the cricket ground.

The newfound self-belief in the Indian cricketers had its roots in the success achieved in Australia on the preceding tour when the series ended in a 1-1 draw. "We had the right kind of preparation for the Pakistan series in Australia. Playing against a tough opposition helped us and I must say that it was a team effort in every sense," said skipper Sourav Ganguly.

The emphasis remained on making a concerted effort than expecting individual brilliance to show the way. The team drew its strength from the rich experience and talent, with the seniors performing their roles to perfection and the juniors grabbing the chance to establish themselves. After all, success against Pakistan was the key to cementing one's place in the side, and there was plenty for the team management to bank upon.

The pre-series prediction of India's domination came true for many reasons. The Pakistan team was in the process of transition. It was short of confidence once the one-day series was won by India. The manner in which India trampled the opposition at Multan in the opening test confirmed the home team's fears that it was in for a tough time in the longer version of the game too. But Pakistan hit back to square the series, only to suffer ignominy in the decider when India exploited the conditions to document one of its finest triumphs overseas.

"The one-day series had shown us the way actually. We had to play to our potential to dominate the Test matches too and nothing proved it better than our bench strength. We had the right combination to win," said Ganguly, who missed the first two Tests and returned to lead the side in the last. The win at Rawalpindi meant Ganguly is the most successful India captain.

It was a series that attracted the attention of the world. The fact that the governments of both countries had worked tirelessly to ensure the success of the series was just an indication of its importance. The overwhelming security measures were necessary and the Indian cricketers' apprehensions at the start of the tour were understandable, considering the recent happenings in Pakistan. But the tour opened new avenues for friendship, even though time will decide how far cricket has succeeded in easing the tension between the two countries who have fought three wars.

War minus shooting was how cricket between India and Pakistan was visualised before the first ball was bowled, but there was nothing to suggest any increase of animosity between the players or the spectators. Stories of excellent hospitality and camaraderie flooded the media, and cricket seemed to have taken the right course. There was fierce competition on the field, but there was also genuine appreciation of the opposition by both teams. That, one thought, was the feature of the series.

India moved in the right direction from the time Virender Sehwag blazed his way to 228 on the opening day of the first Test at Multan. He eventually became the first Indian batsman to compile a triple century in Test cricket, and his innings reflected the spirit of the team. Confidence was high on the Indian side, and its positive approach led to a domination that may have surprised even the Indian team.

Pakistan's meek surrender at Multan and Rawalpindi was against the character of the home team. This team had a legacy to live by. The huge success achieved by Mushtaq Mohammad's team in 1978-79 and Imran Khan's assault squad in 1982-83 continues to give nightmares to some Indian cricketers, but Inzamam-ul-Haq had a mediocre combination, in comparison.

To put things in perspective, it is important to remember that Pakistan lacked the attack to challenge India's formidable batting line-up. True, India was bowled out twice in the second Test by the sustained seam and swing that Umar Gul achieved. But then Gul missed the next Test owing to injury and Pakistan appeared to have lost the sting in its bowling. The presence of Mohammad Sami did not help much, and the over-rated Shoaib Akhtar proved that his team could not rely on him as consistently as it could have relied on Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis. The failure of Akhtar, now being accused of having shirked responsibility, was a big blow to Pakistan's hopes.

In comparison, the Indian team propelled ahead on the strength of its batting. Sehwag and Rahul Dravid played two stellar innings when it mattered most. Sachin Tendulkar batted below his potential even though he made his presence felt with a highly committed knock in the first Test when he was left stranded at 194 following a senseless declaration by acting skipper Dravid. It is another matter that Ganguly later admitted it was a mistake to have declared the innings and Tendulkar himself dismissed the incident after initially expressing his disappointment. To say that the decision implied the team's new attitude towards approaching a match was silly because none understood the importance of time more than Tendulkar, who was batting. And it would be most uncharitable to suggest that the declaration meant that the team was more important than the individual. Tendulkar has been as selfless as any in the team, without really looking for individual honours. The declaration only conveyed the lack of communication between the team management and the batsmen in the middle.

To Dravid's credit, he led the team astutely in the absence of Ganguly, who did play his role perfectly in the decider. The fact that the team was performing collectively made matters easy for Dravid and Ganguly. Pakistan lacked the character to handle the pressure that the Indians created in every session of the first and last Tests. For once, the street-smart Javed Miandad met his match in the Indians, who opted to let their cricket do the talking.

The rise of the genial Balaji and the pleasant Pathan was the biggest gain for India from this series. The spirit of the contests was captured in the fact that the two Indian seamers received priceless and timely tips from two Pakistani greats, Imran Khan and Waqar Younis, not to forget the session they had with Wasim Akram during the tour of Australia.

The Indian cricketers lived up to the expectations of their well-wishers, and at every stage they remembered the message of the Prime Minister to win not just in cricket. "Win their hearts too," was the refrain and new bonds were established as the younger generation in Pakistan acknowledged the presence of Indian cricketers with a warm response. Cricket became the binding force as fans interacted with each other and Indian cricket won on and off the field.

The fact that the series ended without one unpleasant incident, on the field and off it, was a tribute to the spirit in which it was played. Cricket followers in the two nations have indeed come of age.

Back on the throne

Brian Lara regains a record he once set, by scoring 400 (not out) with supreme confidence.

IT was Brian Lara's tribute to this great game. It was his innovative style of raising the standards of batsmanship and setting new goals for the present and future generations of cricketers. The pursuit of scaling greater heights will now be far more intense, for compiling an individual 400 runs in a Test innings will take some effort and time indeed. Unless, of course, Lara himself decides to raise the bar again.

The Trinidadian's mansion in Port of Spain, nestling amidst greenery and facing the savannah, is an important landmark on the scenic island. The local people take immense pride in pointing to Lara's house in the hills and his cricket, as they quickly shift the discussion to the left-hander's grand feats at home and overseas. He is a national treasure in Trinidad and Tobago, and a priceless gem for the natives of Antigua, who have enjoyed the rare privilege of watching Lara set new marks in batting brilliance.

Let us rejoice in the fact that Lara snatched the record back within six months from another modern-day cricketer who also revels in attacking and entertaining batsmanship. Let us also rejoice in the fact that Lara was back at the top of the list, for it would have been tragic had this majestic West Indian not regained the honour.

Lara, a batsman for all seasons, has been acknowledged the best in the world for years, and he deserves the distinction. True, Mathew Hayden, a viciously destructive batsman, batted his way into the record books with a well-crafted innings against Zimbabwe, but Lara's effort had come against a better opposition.

Lara's 375 runs against England at St. John's 10 years ago had been a flawless performance. It was an innings that captured the essence of quality batting,the stroke play as breathtaking as one could visualise. This effort was equally sensational, for Lara offered just one half-chance during his epic march.

From the time he arrived as a natural stroke-maker, Lara had promised to conquer all attacks with a consistency that only underlined his value to the game. He remained one of the most significant figures in cricket as he strode over all opposition with authority and served his team with distinction. It was another matter that the team continued to struggle.

It was often said that Lara lacked the temperament to be hailed as a man for the crisis, but his critics failed to notice his predicament when it came to adopting the right approach in the middle. Instructions required him to chain his attacking instincts but his heart drove him to play the way he was born to - whipping the bowlers around with disdain.

Comparisons were made every time Lara failed. It was said that Lara was not a team man. He was grossly misunderstood, for he never put self-interest ahead of the team. He valued the legacy of his glorious predecessors and nothing pained him more than those one-sided defeats. The West Indies cricket slid under his captaincy and his best efforts were not seen as best by his detractors.

Lara's battles were often with himself. It was a matter of steeling his resolve and it came to a stage where he did doubt his credentials. He went through very bad times as runs deserted him and his motivation to play the game went for a six. He found refuge in golf and it was said that he was close to giving up cricket.

Lester Armoogam, the late West Indian cheerleader, was close to Lara. He told me once how unfair criticism had shattered the batsman's confidence, 10 years after he made his international debut. "Why did I ever play this game?" Lara reportedly confided to Armoogam. It was a very difficult period for Lara, who was now considered a spent force. All because he had struck a bad patch.

For a sportsman who was a role model for millions of youngsters, Lara appeared lost. He treaded carefully and still encountered disaster as he got out to innocuous deliveries and looked a shadow of the brilliant batsman that he was. Lara faced his greatest test. Will he survive? Or perish?

Lara became a forgotten name in international cricket, literally. His loss of form coincided with the decline of West Indian cricket even though there were matches that he won with his bat alone. Two great knocks that separated him from the rest came against Pakistan and Australia as West Indies won Tests in nail-biting climaxes. But the world demanded more from this exciting 5 ft 5 inch left-hander who gave a new dimension to batting under pressure. It did not help if Lara scored and the team lost and in those defeats lay buried his substantial contributions.

His batting looked jaded in the series against England. His scores in the preceding eight innings had been 33, 36, 8, 0, 0, 23, 6 and 34 before he exploded with the unbeaten 400. It was typical Lara, hitting back when the world thought he had fallen. He had indeed, even as a growing number of former players in the entire West Indies demanded that Lara be sacked for the team's poor show. The response from Lara was typical of the man, unaffected by the happenings around him.

It was strange how critics forgot Lara's sublime batting in the three series preceding the one against England. His sensational acts in South Africa when he hit a century and a double; his attractive show against Zimbabwe when he played his part well; his consistency against Sri Lanka, including a double century. He was batting as solidly as he had in his fifth Test when he smashed the Australian bowlers to make 277 at Sydney 12 years ago, an innings that evoked praise from Don Bradman.

Lara has suffered bad patches at various stages of his career - some short and some long - but every time he has hit back in style with a big century. Nothing, of course, can signify his determination as the recent 400, a feat few could dream of. This was the Lara the world had known and it was good for the game that he emerged from the rut with a shining knock that belonged to the highest category.

For the discerning, nothing can be more trivial than comparisons between Lara and his contemporaries. Sachin Tendulkar has often acknowledged Lara as the best simply because of the joy that he brings to the spectators. Lara's brand of batting is unique - it is entertaining no doubt but it is absolutely authoritative too. For me, one of the finest examples of quality batting is Lara's handling of Muthiah Muralitharan.

Murali's forte is his ability to snare left-handers, but in Lara he encountered an opponent who was keen to settle a few points. The West Indian aggregated 572 runs in six innings with two outstanding innings of 221 and 178 once again highlighting his versatility. He could bat on bouncy tracks and dominate on spinner-friendly surfaces too. When Murali made life miserable for the rest, Lara treated him with disdain. It was a sight to behold as Lara would repeatedly dance down to drive Murali on either side, the ball never rising an inch above the grass. Rarely had a batsman excelled in such a rousing fashion as Lara on those completely bowler-friendly pitches in Sri Lanka. To this day, Murali regards Lara's performance in that series in 2001-02 as the best against his wily bowling.

It is a defining statement on Lara's technique that opponents have never pointed out a flaw in his approach. He has remained one of the few batsmen in history never influenced by the state of the pitch or the quality of the opposition. There has been enough evidence to prove that Lara is the most compact batsman of the modern era.

Batsmen like Lara are a rare happening and one should document his contribution to the game for posterity. He has had his brushes with the administrators, and at times with opponents and teammates, but he remains a precious jewel in international cricket. If there is a cricketer who would attract spectators to a Test arena, it is only Lara, with his own brand of pristine batsmanship.

Hail Lara for his monumental innings and salute him for emerging from the ashes, when the world treated him as one who belonged to the past. Lara has two firsts to his credit - the first to score 400 runs in a Test innings and the first to cross the 500-mark in a first-class innings. Considering Lara's abilities, he might as well become the first to slam a 200 in a one-day match. That well might be the motivation for this grand achiever who has settled the argument about who is the best in the world. Bob Willis, commentating at the moment he reached 400 at St. John's, remarked, "Perhaps he is the best batsman in the world." Why perhaps, when the majority of top-class bowlers rate Lara as the best. And that should settle the debate - Lara is the best indeed.

Science for social progress

B.S. PADMANABHAN advertorial

The tireless efforts of Vigyan Prasar to popularise science and inculcate a scientific temperament in people through the media and through various innovative methods are yielding results.

IN a country where literacy has eluded nearly a third of the population, promoting scientific awareness is not an easy task. But that is what Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous body under the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India, has been doing for the past one decade with its message, "Think scientifically, act scientifically".

People do not question traditional practices that are handed down from one generation to the next. Similarly, there is a general lack of awareness about the scientific basis of many natural phenomena.

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In view of the rapid strides being made in the field of science and technology, and their influence on the day-to-day life of the people, inculcating a scientific temperament and a rational outlook in them has become all the more important. This would help people to make the right choices.

It is in this context that the science popularisation efforts of Vigyan Prasar assume significance.

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Although it was set up in 1989, Vigyan Prasar started functioning effectively only in 1994 when it undertook science popularisation activities on a large scale by deploying emerging communication technologies through the media. Publication of popular science books and periodicals has been the mainstay of Vigyan Prasar since its inception. It has brought out over 100 titles authored by experts and well-known science communicators in English, Hindi and other Indian languages. The topics include India's scientific heritage, natural history, health, environment and biographies of scientists. It has brought out some books in Braille for the benefit of the visually handicapped.

Vigyan Prasar has been utilising fully the wide reach of the print and the electronic media. A survey on the coverage of science and technology (S&T) in Indian newspapers revealed a dismal picture. According to the survey, newspapers are not reluctant to cover S&T but the inflow of information has been inadequate. Vigyan Prasar has chosen to correct the situation by improving the flow of information to the print media, particularly the regional and language newspapers. Among other things, it has made available ready-to-print science pages to the print media, promoted regular columns in newspapers, organised science quiz programmes and supplied articles on contemporary topics. It also issues a monthly newsletter titled Dream 2047.

Vigyan Prasar has been utilising the services of All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan too. A number of radio serials and phone-in-programmes on various scientific phenomena have been broadcast in different languages through the regional stations of AIR. Video films on eclipses, comets, scientific institutions and so on have been telecast on Doordarshan. Vigyan Prasar produces video films and documentaries on S&T-related topics. A noteworthy production was a three-part programme in Hindi, "Ananth Yatra", commemorating 100 years of the golden decade of 1895-1905 when major discoveries that changed the face of the world were made. Currently, Vigyan Prasar is producing documentaries on the life and work of eminent Indian scientists, besides projecting the development of India's scientific capability through the country's historical and heritage sites. Vigyan Prasar hopes to build a national repository of S&T video films.

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In addition to AIR, the worldwide satellite digital radio system, "WorldSpace", and the FM radio network of the Indira Gandhi National Open University, "Gyan Vani", are being utilised to popularise S&T. Three programmes were produced to be broadcast on WorldSpace on an experimental basis. The inaugural broadcast took place in May 2002 in five schools in Delhi. In January 2003, similar demonstrations were organised in schools in Bangalore and Chennai. Vigyan Prasar plans to extend such demonstrations to schools across seven metropolitan cities. A variety of software that would be of interest to students, teachers and the general public is being produced with the cooperation of schools, scientific organisations and departments concerned. The main objective is to introduce teachers and students to the power of digital satellite transmission. Vigyan Prasar broadcasted the 110-episode serial `Manav Ka Vikas' (Human Evolution) on WorldSpace channel from February 28, 2003, both in Hindi and English. It continues to broadcast S&T programmes on Equalaccess, the WorldSpace channel, for one hour every day.

Ham radio is another important tool that Vigyan Prasar is using to popularise science. Awareness programmes are organised on ham radio for the benefit of schoolchildren and the general public. It maintains a Ham Radio Club station at Technology Bhawan in New Delhi and a VHF Ham Repeater Station, which is widely used by radio amateurs in Delhi and its neighbourhood. It is trying to develop indigenous and inexpensive ham radio transceiver sets. In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Gujarat in January 2001, Vigyan Prasar established contact with other ham radio stations set up in the quake-affected areas in order to pass on messages relating to relief measures. Realising the important role of ham radio as a medium of communication, Vigyan Prasar has been organising workshops and other programmes for those interested in radio.

The goal of inculcating a scientific temperament and a rational outlook among the people could be achieved easily if science as a subject is made interesting for the younger generation. Vigyan Prasar has been promoting the establishment of science clubs all over the country to make science learning joyful and meaningful. Currently, the Vigyan Prasar Network (VIPNET) consists of 6,000 science clubs. If 10 persons get together they can form a science club and get it affiliated to VIPNET. Vigyan Prasar has been involved in designing and developing activity kits and other source materials for VIPNET clubs. The activities of these clubs are highlighted through a monthly newsletter titled VIPNET News. The State S&T councils have evinced a keen interest in VIPNET in order to popularise science in rural areas. It is proposed to connect clusters of VIPNET clubs through WorldSpace Digital Radio and disseminate and market S&T software through VIPNET clubs, especially in rural areas. VIPNET clubs have not only disseminated information but also mobilised the community for action. At a meeting of VIPNET club activists in Indore a few months ago, it was reported that the VIPNET clubs in the Ratlam region had successfully mobilised the community to build water-harvesting masonry.

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The activities undertaken by Vigyan Prasar have had a positive impact. For instance, public awareness about the scientific aspects of eclipses is found to have improved. An ambitious programme to expand its activities in the coming years is on the anvil. It plans to bring out publications on a variety of topics in all the Indian languages and develop its monthly newsletter, Dream 2047, into a popular science magazine. It hopes to get 50,000 science clubs under VIPNET in the years to come and have them connected through satellite radio and television network. Dedicated core-groups would be developed in all States to look after, promote and supplement its activities. Efforts would be made to set up small FM stations that are dedicated to the creation of scientific awareness in remote areas. The number of training programmes would be increased and learning material, including kits, software, charts, posters and slides on different aspects of science would be developed.

Major scientific events are being used by Vigyan Prasar to spread scientific awareness. For instance, the transit of Mercury on May 7, 2003 was a rare phenomenon, which takes place only 13 to 14 times in a century. Vigyan Prasar made use of the occasion during which Mercury comes between the Earth and the Sun, to spread awareness among the public. Arrangements were made for the public to view the celestial event through a telescope with the image of the Sun projected on to a screen. An online demonstration was organised at the Office of the Department of Science and Technology and on the Vigyan Prasar's website. During the phenomenon, which lasted five hours, the web site recorded 3,000 hits. A lecture-demonstration was also organised to make the public familiar with different aspects of the transit.

On August 28, 2003, when Mars came closest to the earth, arrangements were made to enable the public to view the red planet through a telescope. Vigyan Prasar is looking forward to the transit of Venus, which will occur on June 8, 2004, to launch a nation-wide programme of science awareness in collaboration with the National Council for Science and Technology Communication. The transits of Venus, which offered scientists opportunities to measure the planetary distances from the Sun in the 18th and 19th centuries, will provide science communicators an occasion to disseminate information to the general public on the scientific aspects of various astronomical phenomena. Programmes will also be organised in time for the total solar eclipse, which will occur in 2009. The National Science Day, observed every year on February 28, is another occasion to popularise science.

As its basic aim is to inculcate scientific spirit among the masses, Vigyan Prasar has recognised that it cannot depend on English alone for the sourcing of materials needed for science popularisation. According to Dr. V.B. Kamble, acting Director of Vigyan Prasar, quality works in one language need to be translated into other Indian languages. For this purpose the idea of setting up a translation bureau has been mooted.

To raise the level of dissemination

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Interview with Prof V.S. Ramamurthy, Secretary, DST.

Vigyan Prasar has taken a number of initiatives to promote greater awareness among the public about the progress made in the field of science and technology (S&T). But one area where it has yet to make a visible impact relates to media coverage of S&T news. Professor V.S. Ramamurthy, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, and Chairman of the Governing Body of Vigyan Prasar, shared his thoughts on this and other issues relating to science communication with B.S. Padmanabhan. In his opinion, a team of trained science communicators together with a media willing to introduce news relating to S&T as one of its major contents would go a long way in raising the level of dissemination of S&T information. Excerpts from the interview:

The National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC) has been promoting science communication. What is the need for an organisation like Vigyan Prasar? What is the difference between the two?

Science communication is one of the mandates of the Department of Science and Technology. The NCSTC was formed with the idea of implementing programmes in science communication through other agencies. But as we moved along, it became obvious that there were not many organisations (doing this work). Vigyan Prasar is the outcome of the realisation that we must have a dedicated organisation with science communication as its mandate. Vigyan Prasar is an implementing agency whereas the NCSTC is a promotional agency. That is the basic difference between the two. Both have the same mandate. Vigyan Prasar is a totally autonomous organisation and the link between Vigyan Prasar and the DST is only at the level of funding.

What is your assessment of the performance of Vigyan Prasar?

It has been doing a good job. But certainly a lot more can be expected of it. It has been engaged in a wide range of activities, starting from preparing material for inclusion in newspapers to publication of popular science books and organising children's programmes around events like solar eclipses. But the number of people Vigyan Prasar has and the budget it has been allocated are nominal. Vigyan Prasar deserves a much higher level of support. Vigyan Rail is probably one single event with a budget of almost Rs.5 crores with contributions from other agencies. Vigyan Prasar has demonstrated that it can organise big events. The government has to take a decision on raising the level of support to Vigyan Prasar and also the level of its activities.

What new strategies would you recommend for Vigyan Prasar to achieve its objectives?

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One strategy is to let the youngsters address their own problems. It should not be a typical teacher-student kind of one-way transfer of information and instruction. It should be participatory. You should give overall activity direction and let the student decide how it should be done. There are a large number of such programmes where Vigyan Prasar has shown that one need not be in the "teacher teaching mode" and that the teacher should give only the basic guidelines. In fact, I have heard students asking, `When will the teacher stop teaching and instead enable us to learn'? Students do not appreciate teaching as a one-way activity. In future, Vigyan Prasar will need to lay greater emphasis on people deciding what they want to do and how they want to do it and play the role of an enabler.

An important area relates to media participation in science communication, which is now low. Very few newspapers have dedicated pages for S&T. The media need to be convinced that this [science communication] is in the interest of the nation and there should be more thrust. The general complaint from the media is that they do not get enough material and the right material that would be of interest to the readers. It is for science communicators and organisations such as Vigyan Prasar to make available the material in the form in which the newspapers want. Vigyan Prasar has a programme for training youngsters in science communication. A basket of trained science communicators and a media willing to introduce science as one of their major contents would go a long way in spreading science. It is a good sign that the regional newspapers and television channels are interested in scientific topics. It shows that people are interested in these topics. The media have to sustain the public interest. The material that goes into the newspapers should be of interest to the readers. It is packaging that matters.

In this context, are you thinking of launching an exclusive science television channel on the lines of the Krishi Channel launched by the Ministry of Agriculture?

The Department of Space is planning a dedicated science channel on EDUSAT, the education satellite which is to be launched by ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisation] later this year. We are in the process of discussing what this channel should contain and whom it should address. Vigyan Prasar and the Development Educational Communication Unit (DECU) of ISRO are working together on various aspects of running the channel. When it becomes a reality, the demand for science communicators would go up. We are also planning to tap the full potential of digital technology in broadcasting, say, with WorldSpace satellite radio. For this, we want the cost of digital radio receiver sets to come down to a level that the common man can afford. This would happen once the demand picks up and this in turn would require sensitising the prospective end-users about the advantages of digital radio technology. This is a technology that could revolutionise communication.

Vigyan Rail is reported to have evoked considerable interest among the public in the places it has covered so far. Do you feel the need for extending it beyond August 2004?

Although Vigyan Rail is scheduled to go round the country for almost one year, only some major cities have been covered. For instance, in Tamil Nadu the train covers only Chennai, Kanyakumari and Coimbatore. This is true of other States as well. That means the coverage is sparse. One idea is to take Vigyan Rail on a second round, with the exhibits updated, covering the places left out in the first round. Similarly, further rounds can be organised covering more places. The second idea, which is somewhat more difficult, is to take selected exhibits to places around the railhead on road. That will also be science exhibition on wheels, but on the road. The rail route does not cover the entire country and hence Vigyan Rail can cover only those places that are on the rail route. A sort of feeder service can help take a scaled-down version of the exhibition to those who could not come to the railhead. Both the proposals are being considered. Vigyan Rail has definitely created public awareness about the country's progress in S&T. It fulfils a unique requirement of people in far-flung places.

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Oct 9,2020