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COVER STORY

03-03-2017

A new low in Tamil Nadu

Pannerselvan vs Sasikala

Briefing

Cover Story

Reluctant rebel

cover-story

A little after 8:30 p.m. on February 7, when Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam emerged out of “Thenpennai”, his official residence located off Greenways Road in Chennai and hopped into his official vehicle, no one had any idea where he was headed. His head of security had already left, after he was told that there was nothing else to do for the day. He had told his staff that he might head to Poes Garden, the residence of the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, if V.K. Sasikala, its current occupant, asked to see him.

Panneerselvam, taking a leaf out of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M. Karunanidhi’s book, misled his security staff about where he was headed. This strategy of not revealing the destination or giving misleading information about it was central to Karunanidhi’s practical approach to handling everyday politics. Surprise has its uses, he once told this correspondent, after a short-lived fast at the Anna Samadhi on the Marina in early 2009; it attracts eyeballs, throws opponents off guard—even if only for a few hours—and has the potential to significantly alter outcomes.

Even as the cavalcade reached Greenways Road, Panneerselvam asked the driver to proceed to “Beach Road” (Kamarajar Salai). No alarms went off. The top brass of the State police and the intelligence wings of multiple agencies, who are informed about the minute-to-minute details of the Chief Minister’s movements, did not think anything was amiss. After all, Fort St. George, the seat of power and the location of the Secretariat, was at one end of the stately Kamarajar Salai. Also, the police were not in the habit of according the same respect—which bordered on reverence and was reserved for Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi, and, to a lesser extent, even M.K. Stalin, when he was Deputy Chief Minister from 2006 to 2011—to OPS, as Panneerselvam is popularly known. OPS, for them, was a political lightweight.

The police were caught napping. As the Chief Minister’s convoy approached the Ezhilagam T-junction at 8:50 p.m., where Walajah Road joins Kamarajar Salai, Panneerselvam, who, like most politicians in Tamil Nadu occupies the seat next to the driver, asked him to move to the opposite side of the lane. A few feet from the junction, towards the sea, is Jayalalithaa’s make-shift memorial. As the confused driver slowed the vehicle to a crawl, Panneerselvam opened the door and alighted from the car. At 8:55 p.m., he started walking towards the memorial. He stood with folded hands for a moment, head bowed in silence. A few minutes later, he sat down cross-legged. He closed his eyes, head bowed in reverence, and folded his hands in prayer. A few late visitors to the memorial did not even realise that Panneerselvam was seated inside.

Prime-time show

In India, 9 p.m. is prime time on television, when families gather around the TV to see tear-jerker soaps with their food plates in hand. For the politically inclined and the socially conscious, there are a range of often interesting and sometimes noisy debates to choose from. Panneerselvam was on prime time television exactly at the time when households switched on their favourite shows. The first visuals of Panneerselvam at the memorial came from a respected Tamil news channel which happened to have its TV crew close by. The official All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) channel, Jaya TV, arrived a little later and was allowed to film him inside the memorial. The channel did not air the visuals.

The suspense continued for exactly 40 minutes as people across the State watched in rapt attention not knowing what to make of the spectacle. Debaters on TV channels went silent trying to figure out what was happening even as a few Delhi-based journalists, on the basis of inputs from a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician, tweeted that Panneerselvam was going to break rank with the AIADMK. One of Tamil Nadu’s most popular soap opera producers, the actor Radhika, in an informal conversation with this correspondent, said that the TRPs of their mega serials have been affected since the day Panneerselvam decided to sit in penance at the memorial.

It was as if Panneerselvam was seeking direction from Jayalalithaa on the current political situation and what he should do: in fact, he did mention that he was at the memorial to clarify the many confusions that had taken hold of him. There’s also a moral angle to Panneerselvam’s conflict: Frontline had reported (“New Leaders, Old Problems”, February 3) that Panneerselvam was on the horns of a dilemma—on how to handle the fast-paced developments in the party.

Post Jayalalithaa’s death, a lone man’s humble prayer at the memorial presented the most powerful image yet in Tamil Nadu politics. Barring two aides, there was no one from the party or his household with him for a large part of the 40-minutes that he spent at the memorial. Even as Tamil Nadu watched him sit with folded hands and closed eyes, it was clear that Panneerselvam’s stock with the people was going up. Many in the crowd at the Marina began raising slogans hailing Panneerselvam, declaring him as the true follower of Jayalalithaa and the inheritor of her legacy.

Around 9:35 p.m., Panneerselvam wiped the tears in his eyes with his bare hands, rubbed his eyes, and stood up with folded hands. He knelt and touched the ground with his forehead, and then walked around the memorial once. He then emerged from the makeshift shamiana that stands over the memorial, turned back and headed towards his car, escorted by his now-enhanced security, even as the media screamed his name out, seeking a reaction. Panneerselvam turned in the direction of the waiting media, took a few steps towards them, allowed a full seven to eight minutes for the media to settle down, and announced that he was breaking rank with Sasikala. “I have come to Amma’s memorial to reveal some truths,” declared Panneerselvam, before launching a dignified yet firm attack on Sasikala. He said that former Minister and party presidium chairman E. Madhusudhanan’s name had been proposed for the position of general secretary initially and that he was unaware of the move to depose him as Chief Minister.

From zero to hero

From Zero Panneerselvam (political opponents in the State derisively called him that; in fact, it was the DMK’s working president Stalin’s favourite phrase during the May 2016 Legislative Assembly elections and earlier) he had become Hero Panneerselvam. The transformation from zero to hero took under an hour on that nippy Tuesday night.

Some of Panneerselvam’s contentions can be easily verified. It was clear that he was being kept out of the inner circle in Poes Garden, a fact that Frontline had recorded in the past. But even the events of February 5, the day Sasikala was elected the party’s general secretary, indicate that Panneerselvam was not officially informed of the event.

On February 5, Panneerselvam left his residence at around 9 a.m. to visit the Ennore coastline, where a massive oil spill, a result of a collision between two ships on January 20, was threatening to pollute much of the Chennai coast and endangering livelihoods. He was accosted by a news TV crew there and was asked about the AIADMK MLAs’ meeting. Panneerselvam just smiled at them and walked away. Later that afternoon, he proposed Sasikala’s name for the post of Chief Minister, couriered his resignation to the Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao, and thanked the people for their cooperation.

Three actions of Panneerselvam did not sit well with the larger, staged narrative of Sasikala being the unanimous choice of the AIADMK. One, Panneerselvam had begun the day by conducting his official duties, which included the visit to the Ennore coast. Two, in his resignation note to the Governor, he used the phrase “due to my personal reasons” before saying that he was tendering his resignation. Three, he wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, thanking him for the support he had extended during his two-month tenure as Chief Minister.

If the first action was a deliberate attempt to make it look as if he was unaware of the fact that Sasikala was being elected legislature party leader, the second one dropped the hint that all was not well with his resignation. Panneerselvam’s act of thanking the Prime Minister was clearly out of line: it was not as if the Prime Minister had sanctioned the funds that the State sought after Cyclone Vardah of December 13, 2016, or for the unprecedented drought conditions across Tamil Nadu.

One of the first important persons to move from Sasikala’s camp to Panneerselvam’s was V. Maithreyan, the three-time MP who was a member of the BJP before joining the AIADMK in 2000. He reached the official residence of OPS the same night, on February 7, and pledged his support. “Being an Amma loyalist, to continue Amma’s legacy, OPS remains the people’s only choice,” Maithreyan told Frontline. “That is why I support him,” he added. Namakkal MP, P.R. Sundaram, joined the OPS camp soon after. The 65-year-old agriculturist and two-time MLA said that the one consideration in his mind was his people: “The people of my constituency and my district told me very clearly that I have to be with the Chief Minister and strengthen his hands. Amma [Jayalalithaa] chose him as Chief Minister. I have to be with him at this time.” He said it was clear that the people of Tamil Nadu were behind OPS.

A few MLAs, too, have moved over to OPS’ side, but the Sasikala camp, clearly, has the majority required in the Legislative Assembly at this point. More than a dozen MPs have pledged their support for OPS, and the OPS camp claims that it is only a matter of time before others join OPS.

Given the fact that Sasikala has kept her MLAs in captivity at a resort, this process might take a while. But this not new in Tamil Nadu. Many in the OPS camp point to two such instances in the past: When the AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) broke away from the DMK in 1972, he barely had anyone with him. But history is witness to the fact that he and his party did not lose an election ever, from the first one he fought until his death in 1987. The second is the case of the shortest-lived Chief Minister in Tamil Nadu’s history, V.N. Janaki.

After MGR’s death, his wife, V.N. Janaki, was chosen to succeed him—and this case, in a limited sense, mirrors the situation prevailing now—and she had the entire party with her. Her opponent in the party, Jayalalithaa, was humiliated in every possible way and driven out of the party. Just a few years later, Jayalalithaa not only took the party away from Janaki, but also led the AIADMK to victory with a massive mandate in 1991.

OPS growing in strength

Almost keeping in line with that script, a steady trickle of supporters is flowing into the OPS camp. On February 9, it was the turn of a former Minister and the presidium chairman Madhusudhanan. The designation might sound bombastic, but in Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, it hardly amounted to anything. But in the post-Jayalalithaa scenario, the post of presidium chairman, acting as a kind of a moral beacon for the party, becomes an important one. Political observers do not miss the irony of Madhusudhanan occupying the post: he is not someone known for his oratorical skills or path-breaking speeches. It was just his street-smart ways that differentiated him in the narrow, dirty alleys of north Chennai, where he cut out his political space. Thus, while the Sasikala camp has the numbers, two of the three ranking leaders of the party, the treasurer, OPS, and the presidium chairman, are aligned against her. Sure enough, one of the things that Madhusudhanan did was to write to the Election Commission of India asking it not to recognise the election of Sasikala as the legislature party leader, said a source in the OPS camp.

This is one of the many wars that is raging, like a subtext, within the AIADMK. OPS is clearly winning the perception war. Not a single person from among the people that this correspondent spoke to—ranging from white collar employees to daily wage labourers—accepted that it was fine for anyone to don the mantle of Chief Minister. “It is a kind of special, higher responsibility. Only certain chosen people should occupy it,” a cab driver explained to me. Sasikala was not that special someone, he added.

OPS’ hands have been strengthened in this perception war by a few professionals, who have unhesitatingly moved to his camp without fear of the outcome in the current drama. One such professional is “Aspire” Swaminathan, who unofficially spearheaded the AIADMK’s social media campaign to great effect during the May 2016 elections. He was among the early supporters of OPS. Swaminathan proved his mettle almost immediately. In response to an “I support OPS” campaign, which listed a phone number for supporters to give a missed call, the OPS camp was flooded with calls. “The #isupportOPS missed call campaign has received overwhelming response, with over 1.2 lakh calls in just three hours,” said Swaminathan. “Of this, about 3 per cent of the calls are from outside India and about 6.5 per cent from outside Tamil Nadu,” he told Frontline.

Going by the support on social media, and anecdotal evidence from interviews and personal chats, it is clear that the people of the State are with OPS overwhelmingly. But the people’s representatives, the MLAs and the MPs, apart from the party hierarchy itself, are with Sasikala.

OPS did three things that fundamentally altered the narrative in his favour. Apart from announcing that Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence, Veda Nilayam, would be converted into a memorial, he announced the setting up of a commission of inquiry to probe the circumstances of Jayalalithaa’s death. OPS later clarified that he did not have any doubts over the death, but will be setting up an inquiry commission so that any doubts in people’s minds would be cleared. He also directed the police to probe the charge that the MLAs were being held against their will at a resort. There is some controversy over how the Police Commissioner of Chennai responded to his directive, but OPS let the issue pass.

There are many who ask uncomfortable questions about Panneerselvam. Since he also holds the Home portfolio, many wonder why he did not initiate police action against those alleged to be holding the MLAs hostage in the resort in Koovathur. Panneerselvam was also found to be lax in taking action against AIADMK goondas who attacked journalists near the resort where the party MLAs are holed up

The more pertinent question that Manu Sundaram, the DMK spokesperson, raises in a Facebook post is this: “Why did you [Panneerselvam] not take any initiative to convert Veda Nilayam into Jayalalithaa Memorial before you resigned as Chief Minister on February 5, 2017?”

One more question in the minds of many, including Mani Sundaram, is this: “If you [Panneerselvam] were coerced/threatened to submit your resignation, why have you not filed an FIR or initiated police inquiry for the very serious charges you have made?”

The rebel

Even Panneerselvam’s critics agree that it takes a lot for someone like him to rebel and strike out on his own. He has been the quintessential party man, and he has a lot to lose if his gamble fails. In fact, at a function held about a decade ago, Jayalalithaa, speaking about the greed of today’s youth to get to positions of power as soon as they join the party, pointed to Panneerselvam’s slow ascent in the party. When an example is needed to showcase how an AIADMK man grows, it is always this person whose career is recalled.

She pointed out that OPS, who ran a tea shop in Periyakulam town, joined the AIADMK in 1977 as a member. In 1980, he was made Periyakulam town’s kazhaga organising member ( melamaippu piradhinidhi) of the 18th ward. In 1984, he rose to become the secretary of the 18th ward. Later that year, he was also inducted into a feeder organisation, the MGR Forum, as deputy secretary, Periyakulam. The next major leap for him came in 1993, when he was appointed town secretary of the AIADMK in Periyakulam.

In the 1996 local body elections, he was elected Periyakulam Municipal Chairman. The first time OPS got a district-level post was in 1997—20 years after he joined the party—as Theni district MGR Forum secretary. In 1998, he was chosen for a second time as town secretary, Periyakulam. The all-important post of party district secretary, Theni district—AIADMK is an exceptionally strong party in the district—was given to him in 2000. Just a year later, in the 2001 elections to the Legislative Assembly, he was given fielded in Periyakulam, and he won the seat comfortably.

He was made Chief Minister in 2001, but that was not a natural progression; it was a sign of the faith that Jayalalithaa placed in him. (Jayalalithaa became the first Chief Minister to be convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act when special judge V. Radhakrishnan convicted and sentenced her on February 2, 2000, to one year’s rigorous imprisonment for legalising the illegal construction of five additional floors by Hotel Pleasant Stay, Kodaikanal.) After Jayalalithaa got back in the saddle, he initially held the Revenue portfolio. He was given the lucrative Public Works Department portfolio a little later, an indication of his meteoric rise after his election as MLA.

In 2004, OPS was given the task of making the AIADMK “Jayalalithaa-compliant” and was made secretary (elections) of the party. He was elevated to the post of treasurer in 2007, a post that has now come in handy as he battles Sasikala. He has sent an alert to the banks which operate the AIADMK account not to honour transactions of the AIADMK since he has not approved any.

In 2006, when the AIADMK lost power, he managed to win the same Periyakulam seat. Having seen the extent of his loyalty, Jayalalithaa gave him the difficult responsibility of being the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, a make-or-break post as far as the AIADMK was concerned. Jayalalithaa was barely attending Assembly sessions, and OPS had the responsibility to create just enough noise to make sure that the government looked incompetent, inefficient and corrupt. This involved walking a very thin line: if he overdid this act, he would be thrown out of the House, or, worse, suspended for a period of time. A suspension would equal suicide because that would give another, equally honest, straightforward and, more importantly, loyal, MLA the opportunity to take a shot at the government. OPS negotiated this turf carefully. If he took the path of least resistance, he would have been seen as being too friendly with the DMK. This was a strict no-go zone for the AIADMK.

The AIADMK and the DMK have not been mere opposition parties; they have thrived on mutual hatred for each other. Members of the AIADMK, according to a few who have had first-hand interaction with Jayalalithaa, are encouraged to treat DMK men as enemies. Even attending social functions of one another is not viewed kindly. A conversation illustrating the extent to which the leader of the party went to ensure compliance was narrated by a senior person who joined the party a few years ago. The conversation went like this: “Personally, I have no problems with you remaining a friend of [a DMK leader]. But you should remember that the party cadre will not accept it. They won’t like it if you maintain that relationship with DMK people,” Jayalalithaa is said to have told the leader.

OPS rises

OPS’ rise was not a foregone conclusion though. He was nowhere on the radar of the elite or the media of Tamil Nadu when he was catapulted to the limelight as Chief Minister in 2001. When Jayalalithaa had to step down from the post for the first time in late 2001, there was much speculation about who would occupy the post. Many names did the rounds, from party senior K.A. Sengottaiyan to Nainar Nagendran, a first-time Minister. But Jayalalithaa chose a person who nobody had heard of, and whom the media had barely heard of. The first time that many heard the name O. Panneerselvam, a tea shop owner and a former Municipal Chairman from Periyakulam, a nondescript town in the Thevar heartland in southern Tamil Nadu, was after Jayalalithaa’s announcement.

Panneerselvam, who kept the Chief Minister’s seat warm, literally, from September 21, 2001, to March 1, 2002, never once stepped out of line. He signed files as directed by Jayalalithaa, did not occupy the Chief Minister’s chamber, stayed in his own ministerial chamber, and actively discouraged his family and friends from putting up posters hailing his elevation as Chief Minister. It did not go unnoticed in Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, where the only quality that worked was loyalty.

Panneerselvam’s loyalty was rewarded again: after a court in Bengaluru held Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and a few others guilty of amassing assets disproportionate to their known sources of income and sentenced them to prison, Panneerselvam was again the choice for Chief Minister. This time, he held the chair from September 29, 2014, to May 23, 2015. Panneerselvam’s ability to remain out of the media spotlight, keep away from controversies of any kind, keep his family in check, prove his loyalty even when this is not asked of him, and, above all, his ability to convey to the leadership that he was loyal stood him in good stead.

When Jayalalithaa’s death was announced on the night of December 5, 2016, he was the natural choice to succeed her because he was the one who was chosen by Jayalalithaa herself on two different occasions. After Jayalalithaa was admitted to hospital, he was again chosen to handle her portfolios. The party did not look beyond him and he, along with a new Ministry, assumed charge just past midnight on December 6.

OPS was immediately tested. Cyclone Vardah was his first challenge. OPS went around the city soon after the cyclone hit the coast on December 13. His Ministers fanned out to the suburbs and it looked as if Jayalalithaa’s absence was not felt at all. The machinery worked like clockwork. Then came the issue of farmers’ suicides in the delta region, the January jallikattu agitation and the drought. Though the government was found wanting on some counts, it did remarkably well to recover ground and, in the final analysis, conducted itself well in the face of extreme challenges.

The immediate future

While OPS has been maintaining that he will be victorious in the long run, much work needs to be done. Refuting the claim that the BJP government is backing him is one thing. The Sasikala camp has been attacking him, saying that he has a connection with the DMK—the only point that will sell with AIADMK cadre. So far, OPS has dismissed this as nonsense and has made it clear that he will have nothing to do with the DMK.

Perceptions among the masses have a fickle life cycle. OPS’ main task now will be to make sure that the perception that he is the chosen leader stays with the people of Tamil Nadu. That is no easy task, especially if there are conciliatory noises from the BJP and the DMK. In the long run, it is this perception that will make or mar him.

As the current episode unfolds, it is clear that OPS is not without friends. Sasikala, who initially charged Panneerselvam of sleeping with the enemy, the DMK, changed tack on February 12 and ascribed the OPS revolt to the support of a particular “force”. In her anxiety to keep a window open for the BJP, she refused to name the BJP as this force.

Sasikala’s charge cannot be dismissed as nothing. The entire “show”, starting from February 7 night until now, has run very well because it seems to have been well choreographed. Capturing the people’s attention via a prime-time drama, the effort to meet all presspersons one-on-one—which lasted almost the whole night—and the events then on, indicate that there is a plan. This is not a lone man acting out his frustration.

This is where the role of the acting Governor comes in. Sasikala was elected on February 5, at around 2:45 p.m. The AIADMK sent the Governor fax messages, Sasikala claims, to his Udhagamandalam and Mumbai residences. From that time until 9:40 p.m. on February 7, there was no instability either in the AIADMK or in Tamil Nadu. It was after a full two and a half days that the trouble began. Even then, there was no word from the acting Governor.

It was not as if some huge prior commitments had held the Governor back. He was in Delhi for a meeting with the Union Home Minister, apparently attended a wedding, and attended a meeting with some Nobel laureates in Mumbai during this period. There was no political instability in Mumbai or any other emergency in the State of Maharashtra, which is under his charge too. Still, the Governor chose to come to Chennai only on February 9, two days after the media began asking why the acting Governor had still not come to Chennai.

Having swiftly met both the warring contenders, he made it clear that he was in no mood to call the leader of the majority, Sasikala, to form the government. He later denied an allegation that he had sent a report to the Centre in which he had stated that he had declined to swear in Sasikala because the judgment in the disproportionate assets case against her was expected shortly.

As the State slips into political chaos, the Governor sits tight-lipped. In the final analysis, the crisis in the AIADMK points to one issue: the manner in which Jayalalithaa emaciated the party and eliminated its second-line leadership is now coming back to haunt the party. It is pay back time. Many expected that the party would disintegrate with her passing away. That is now becoming a reality with the acrimonious and bare-all fight.

It is also a fact that the party that stands to gain most from this crisis is the DMK. The main opposition party is waiting with bated breath outside Fort St. George, looking in to see if the occupant is likely to vacate. But, more importantly, the political vacuum created by the AIADMK’s implosion will lead to gains for many political parties.

But in the current context, with the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) in tatters, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) being on the margins, and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) not seen as a force to reckon with in Tamil Nadu politics, the BJP is placed well to cash in on the situation. It is a party waiting, with the required organisational structure in Tamil Nadu, for the final push.

Cover Story

Legal restraint

cover-story

TAMIL NADU’S political stalemate may appear to unfold a constitutional crisis of sorts. The Acting Governor of Tamil Nadu, Ch. Vidyasagar Rao, as the magazine edition goes to press, wanted to wait until the delivery of the Supreme Court’s judgment in the disproportionate assets case involving V.K. Sasikala, whom the majority of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) MLAs initially elected to replace O. Panneerselvam as the Chief Minister.

With the rival factions in the ruling party preparing themselves for the possible numbers game in the Assembly, the Acting Governor was in no hurry to precipitate the showdown by inviting one or the other to form the government. Both Panneerselvam’s resignation and Sasikala’s election as the leader of the AIADMK legislature party were tainted by allegations of duress and irregularities.

The Acting Governor apparently thought that if the judgment went against Sasikala’s acquittal by the Karnataka High Court, it would result in her disqualification as a member of the Assembly and thus relieve him of the unpleasant burden of inviting her to form the government.

In the event of Sasikala being disqualified because of an adverse verdict from the Supreme Court, Sasikala’s faction would inevitably have to elect a new leader as a substitute until and if at all she is able to erase her disqualification by using further legal remedies, or by undergoing the sentence imposed on her.

Therefore, it made sense to the Governor to wait until the delivery of the judgment, which appeared imminent. One of the two judges who heard the case, Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose, promised Dushyant Dave, senior counsel for the appellant, the State of Karnataka, during court proceedings that the judgment would be delivered in the week beginning February 13.

But uncertainties made the Governor’s decision to wait, rather than respond to the political crisis, unwise. What if the two-judge bench, which heard the disproportionate assets case involving Jayalalithaa and Sasikala, delivered a split verdict, leading to its reference to a larger bench? That would entail a fresh hearing of the parties concerned and further deferring of the binding verdict. Can the democratic process of a swearing-in of a State Ministry wait for an uncertain judicial verdict?

The only constitutional bar against Sasikala’s appointment as the Chief Minister appears to be Article 164(4) of the Constitution. Under this provision, a Minister who for any period of six consecutive months is not a member of the Legislature of the State shall at the expiration of that period cease to be a Minister.

B.R. Kapoor case & threshold bar on Sasikala

Although this provision has been examined a number of times by High Courts and the Supreme Court, it is in B.R. Kapoor vs State of Tamil Nadu, delivered by the Supreme Court’s five-judge Constitution Bench in 2001, that one finds the sharpest analysis. The case arose out of writ petitions challenging the appointment of Jayalalithaa as the Chief Minister in May 2001 when she was not a member of the State Assembly. She had been convicted in a corruption case and her sentence was under stay granted by the Madras High Court. As a result, her nomination papers were rejected by the Returning Officers for the Assembly elections. The Supreme Court held in September 2001 that she stood disqualified as a result of her conviction in the case and therefore her appointment as the Chief Minister was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court held that the fact that she could legally challenge her conviction in the appellate court and thus erase her disqualification subsequently with retrospective effect was no reason to appoint her under Article 164(4) of the Constitution.

Subsequently, Jayalalithaa did prove her innocence in that case and got herself acquitted in the appellate court; she thus erased her disqualification retrospectively. But the Supreme Court’s reasoning in B.R. Kapoor was clear enough: a non-legislator who stood disqualified to be a member of the Legislative Assembly because of her conviction by a trial court for an offence specified in the Representation of the People Act could not be made a Minister or a Chief Minister under Article 164(4). The Supreme Court was categorical that any other interpretation of the provision would be contrary to the principles of the Constitution.

In 2015, a trial court in Karnataka convicted and sentenced Jayalalithaa, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, in the disproportionate assets case, and she was disqualified, for the second time, from the date of conviction. Consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling in B.R. Kapoor, she did not seek the Article 164(4) route to become Chief Minister again but waited until the Karnataka High Court acquitted her in the case and erased her conviction and disqualification retrospectively.

It is this acquittal that was appealed against in the Supreme Court by the State of Karnataka, which under the Supreme Court’s directions prosecuted the case against her. Sasikala is a co-accused in the case.

The Supreme Court’s two-judge bench, comprising Justices Pinaki Chandra Ghose and Amitava Roy, heard counsel for all the accused and the appellants in the case and reserved its verdict on June 7, 2016.

In the meantime, as Jayalalithaa passed away, the case against her is likely to abate, but those against her co-accused would survive.

But it is not this pending Supreme Court judgment but the one in B.R. Kapoor that appeared to cast a definite shadow on Sasikala’s prospects of being sworn in as the Chief Minister. All the three concurring judgments in B.R. Kapoor are unanimous that Article 164(4) cannot be used to appoint someone not qualified to be or disqualified as a member of the Assembly or as a Minister or Chief Minister. The three judgments were delivered by the then Chief Justice, G.B. Pattanaik, Justice S.P. Bharucha on behalf of himself and Justices Y.K. Sabharwal and Ruma Pal, and Justice Brijesh Kumar. Justice Pattanaik’s judgment makes the point that Article 164(4) was intended by the framers of the Constitution to appoint a competent person who was just defeated in the general election.

Justices Bharucha, Sabharwal and Ruma Pal held as follows: “The provision of sub-Article (4) of Article 164 is meant to provide for a situation where, due to political exigencies or to avail of the services of an expert in some field, it is requisite to induct into the Council of Ministers a person who is not then in the legislature.”

Justice Brijesh Kumar held in his separate judgment that the Governor was not bound by the decision of the majority party in all eventualities and that he could not be totally deprived of the element of discretion in the performance of his duties. Justice Brijesh Kumar, who had the privilege of reading the separate judgments of his colleagues on the bench, was conscious of the possible interpretation of his judgment in future.

Reading these three together, it is obvious that the person to be appointed under Article 164(4) must satisfy the following. She must have lost the just concluded general election (political exigency) but her competence is so valued by the legislature party, or the Chief Minister, that she is appointed as the Chief Minister or a Minister. The “political exigency” referred to in Justice Bharucha’s judgment need not necessarily arise only when a person loses a general election preceding the formation of a new government. It can also be a result of the non-legislator not contesting the preceding general election because of other political or constitutional commitments.

Thus Arun Jaitley would qualify to be appointed as a Union Minister under the corresponding provision of Article 75(5) in 2014: he lost the preceding general election to the Lok Sabha from Amritsar and his competence was valued by both the Prime Minister and his party.

In 1996, H.D. Deve Gowda was appointed the Prime Minister under the same provision of the Constitution because he did not contest the preceding general elections to the Lok Sabha, as he was then the Chief Minister of Karnataka who was chosen by the constituents of the United Front to be its leader in Parliament. Within six months of becoming the Prime Minister, Deve Gowda got himself elected to the Rajya Sabha. More important, he did not suffer from a possible disqualification hanging like the sword of Damocles over his head during those six months, as Sasikala would have suffered had she become the Chief Minister under Article 164(4). In S.P. Anand vs Deve Gowda, the Supreme Court, therefore, did not consider the challenge to his appointment a serious one.

Sasikala, on the contrary, was not considered as a candidate for the last Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu by the AIADMK. There is nothing to show the party or its leader considered fielding her in any of the byelections to the Assembly held after the general elections. It cannot also be said that Sasikala could not have contested the elections to the Assembly earlier because of other political or constitutional commitments.

Sasikala does not qualify for appointment under Article 164(4)

The AIADMK led by her has so far been silent on political exigency, or her competence for governance, which would have been crucial in considering her appointment under Article 164(4). As the factual ingredients necessary to invoke these grounds are absent in the case of Sasikala, she does not qualify to be considered for appointment under Article 164(4) even if the Supreme Court’s judgment in the assets case is in her favour.

This is not to suggest that Sasikala may not have any competence at all that would prove an asset in governance, as compared with others. She might very well possess leadership qualities and abilities to govern that have so far remained unutilised or unrecognised. She has, in fact, all the qualifications prescribed in the Constitution to become a member of the Assembly and, therefore, the Chief Minister.

But her handicap is that she cannot invoke Article 164(4) of the Constitution to be appointed Chief Minister as the Supreme Court has restricted its use to certain limited contexts, as explained in B.R. Kapoor. She is, therefore, free to contest a byelection to seek membership of the Assembly if she is not otherwise disqualified to be a member when she files her nomination for the election.

In B.R. Kapoor, both Chief Justice G.B. Pattanaik and Justice S.P. Bharucha relied on what B.R. Ambedkar said during the Constituent Assembly debates. While discussing the draft provision of the current Article 164(4), Ambedkar said: “It is perfectly possible to imagine that a person who is otherwise competent to hold the post of a Minister has been defeated in a constituency for some reason and which, although it may be perfectly good, might have annoyed the constituency, and he might have incurred the displeasure of that particular constituency. It is not a reason why a member so competent as that should not be permitted to be appointed a member of the Cabinet on the assumption that he shall be able to get himself elected from the same constituency or from another constituency. After all, the privilege that he is permitted is a privilege that extends only to six months.”

Despite Ambedkar’s justification of Article 164(4) in the Constituent Assembly, the Supreme Court sought to restrict its use in practice as it was meant as an exception rather than a rule. In S.R. Chaudhuri vs State of Punjab (2001), the Supreme Court quashed the reappointment of a Minister under Article 164(4) after a gap, on completion of six months, thus: “Article 164(4) is, therefore, not a source of power or an enabling provision for appointment of a non-legislator as a Minister even for a short duration. It is actually in the nature of a disqualification or restriction for a non-member who has been appointed as a Chief Minister or a Minister, as the case may be, to continue in office without getting himself elected within a period of six consecutive months.”

In B.R. Kapoor, the Supreme Court not only reiterated this view but further strengthened the restrictions on use of Article 164(4) by non-legislators. Justice G.B. Pattanaik held: “Founding fathers allowed a competent person to be appointed as Chief Minister or a Minister for a limited period of six months, who might have been defeated.”

Justice S.P. Bharucha held in his judgment: “The framers of the Constitution had not visualised that a non-legislator could be repeatedly appointed a Minister, for a term of six months each, without getting elected because such a course struck at the very root of parliamentary democracy. It was accordingly held that the appointment of Tej Prakash Singh as a Minister in Punjab for a second time was invalid and unconstitutional.”

Similarly, it could be contended that the framers did not visualise that a non-legislator whose very ability to get elected to the Assembly within six months was under a cloud because of the final proceedings against her in the Supreme Court could be considered for appointment as a Chief Minister under Article 164(4).

Justice Bharucha held in B.R. Kapoor: “The requirement of sub-Article (4) being such, it follows as the night the day that a person who is appointed a Minister though he is not a member of the legislature shall be one who can stand for election to the legislature and satisfy the requirement of sub-Article (4).”

If one can put it differently, he or she must be someone who can stand for election to the legislature without any doubt whatsoever to the contrary. If the Supreme Court’s imminent judgment creates a doubt about this, is it advisable for the Governor to appoint that person under the very provision that seeks to rule it out if the doubt is confirmed?

Justice Brijesh Kumar held in B.R. Kapoor: “It is no doubt true that even in written Constitution, it is not possible to provide each and every detail. Practices and conventions do develop for certain matters. This is how democracy becomes workable. But the contention that in all eventualities whatsoever the Governor is bound by the decision of the majority party is not a correct proposition. The Governor cannot be totally deprived of element of discretion in performance of duties of his office, if ever any such exigency may so demand its exercise. The argument about implementing the will of the people in the context indicated above is misconceived and misplaced.”

Whatever the denouement in Tamil Nadu’s political crisis, a future historian would always be keen to know whether the Acting Governor of the State acted in consistence with the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court’s judgment in B.R. Kapoor in order to defend the higher constitutional values for which he had taken the oath.

Interview: O. Panneerselvam

‘They started ill-treating me’

OTTAKARA PANNEERSELVAM (66) has emerged as a politician who can no longer be dismissed as a lightweight. From a person who remained a non-entity behind a towering leader like Jayalalithaa, OPS, as he is popularly known, has come a long way to mount a surprise revolt against V.K. Sasikala within the party. He is deftly converting to his advantage the frayed tempers of the cadres and the seething anger of the people against the tacit manoeuvres of Sasikala and her family to usurp power. When he raised a banner of revolt from the sands of Marina he became an instant hero. The most startling announcement he has made is that he will appoint an inquiry commission on Jayalalithaa’s death, which, he told Frontline, will also cover her health condition during the week before her admission to hospital.

A simple and down-to-earth person, he “cried but did not lose heart”, as he explained to the party cadre in his “war against a gang of power and money-grubbers”. He shook hands with children and rubbed shoulders with all those who came to his residence to greet him. His connect with the cadres and simple ways are in total contrast to pompous and vulgar display of power by politicians. Remaining unperturbed by the fast-paced political developments that centred around him, he spoke to Frontline in Tamil on the issues that confront him. Excerpts from the interview:

The main accusation from the Sasikala camp is that you enacted a drama to remain in power and that you betrayed the party when you sat at the Jayalalithaa memorial.

Who enacts a drama? Who is the betrayer? The people and the cadre know all. My leader’s ‘atma’ [soul] knows. Sasikala was her close aide and was like a sister to her. Had my leader ever announced that Sasikala would lead the party in her absence? As a journalist, have you ever heard the leader saying that Sasikala would be her heir-apparent? But she made me Chief Minister, not once but twice and whenever she faced a crisis. That much of confidence and trust she had in me. These accusations do not merit any response. A family, which Amma kept inside her residence, is now out in the open to grab the party and power through unethical and fraudulent attempts, which no loyal cadre of Jayalalithaa would accept.

Do you mean to say that you are Jayalalithaa’s political heir? Some people claim that she was not very happy with your performance during her last days.

No. It was not so. Then why should she give me the party ticket to contest from Bodinaickanur in the last Assembly elections and make me a Minister again? Why should she retain me as the senior Minister, second only to her, in the Cabinet? Amma appointed me the party treasurer. But can anyone deny that she made me Chief Minister twice and gave me the senior-most position, similar to that of V.R. Nedunchezhiyan in both MGR Cabinets and Amma’s earlier Ministry? She thus, I feel, symbolically suggested to all that I would be her political heir. It was a message from our leader and it is you [media] who should disseminate this. Her unassailable confidence in me had irritated a few within the party. They waited for an opportunity for long for this moment.

But you are widely known for your political servitude. What is the reason behind this transformation? Your detractors say you are an opportunist and question your credentials.

By nature I am [simple]. And with a towering personality as a leader around, you naturally become one. I owe all to my leader and I do not see why I should not be subservient in front of her. I came up in the party from the lowest position—ward member of Periyakulam town panchayat in the late 1970s. Gradually I rose up in the ranks. Even Sasikala’s nephew T.T.V. Dinakaran knew about my loyalty when he contested from Periyakulam parliamentary constituency. But Amma made me an MLA and also a Minister. She gave me a name and a face. But after her demise I felt orphaned.

The vacuum my leader left emboldened undesirable elements within the party who despite knowing about my leader’s confidence in me attempted to settle scores. The way they conducted themselves when Amma was admitted to Apollo Hospitals and the way they treated many of us disturbed me. After her demise, when I was asked to take over the Chief Minister’s post for the third time I flatly refused. But Sasikala insisted on my taking over because the party was going through a crisis. She told me that I would be the consensus candidate and as the person identified by the late leader none would raise a question if I took over as Chief Minister. Realising the gravity of the situation, I accepted.

But since then things have gone from bad to worse. They started ill-treating me whenever I went to Poes Garden to meet Sasikala to discuss party affairs. I accepted her as general secretary since a few persons close to her insisted that she should be elected to the post to keep the party united. But they began interfering in the administration, instigating a few Ministers to give press briefings against me and declare that Sasikala should be the Chief Minister. Mind you, I was the Chief Minister and the Ministers who were appointed by me were launching a broadside against me. When I told Sasikala this, she just ignored it. Intimidations from her family members and those few persons close to her increased, causing trauma and pain. I remained silent initially, watching the family’s activities helplessly.

Why did such a complete and sudden turnaround take place?

From the moment I proposed Sasikala’s name at the legislators’ meeting on February 5, I lost my peace of mind and remained disturbed. I realised I had done something I should not have done, which my leader would not have approved of. I underwent a thorough self-introspection. Then I decided to go to the Amma memorial to calm my mind on the night of February 7. After a solemn prayer, clarity emerged. It was time to retrieve the party from the clutches of this one family. This I thought would keep Amma’s atma at peace. My conscience is clear now. I got liberated from the oppressiveness of a family that I had been facing since the days of the demise of Amma.

On M. Natarajan [Sasikala’s husband] and his role.

I need not tell this to a journalist. Our MLAs, MPs and functionaries know who is controlling the party today. A family, which had the advantage of being in her house, is attempting to usurp the party and power. Then how could you justify the expulsion of Sasikala and her family in 2011 and the readmission on sympathetic grounds the next year? In her letter of apology to Amma then, Sasikala pleaded that she had no political ambition and promised never to encourage anyone from her family to interfere in either party or State affairs. These people accuse me of enacting a drama. Who is enacting the drama today?

INQUIRY COMMISSION

What prompted you to announce that you would constitute a commission to inquire into the death of Jayalalithaa? You were at the hospital then and know more about it than the press and the general public.

Yes. From the day our leader was admitted to the hospital and until her demise after more than two months, all senior party functionaries, including me, were present. But none of us was allowed to see her. We were told that it was better not to put the patient at risk of infection. Hence no visitor, barring Sasikala and her family members, was allowed. But what disturbed me was the manner in which the Sasikala family handled the whole issue. We were kept out of the loop and did not know what was really happening. We, too, like the general public, were provided with bare details. There was an utter lack of transparency.

Hence, after going into all details and taking into account the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu, I have proposed an inquiry into the circumstances that led to the deterioration in Amma’s health, her hospitalisation, the treatment that was given to her, etc. The people have the right to know about their leader’s health.

The commission would also go into the developments that preceded her admission to Apollo Hospitals. The treatment she received at her residence, the doctors who monitored her heath, the medicines and whether she was brought to the hospital within the “golden hour” also would be probed. Her overall medical history would be sought from those who are today living in our leader’s residence, which would be made a memorial as per the wishes of the people of the State.

Cover Story

Acts of ambition

cover-story

Power, once attained, should not be shared. The axiom seemed to be at play in the extraordinary political twists and turns witnessed in Tamil Nadu beginning with the revolt against All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) general secretary and legislature party leader V.K. Sasikala by O. Panneerselvam, who had resigned from his post as Chief Minister and was asked to continue in office until alternative arrangements were made. If Sasikala claimed to have the support of the party legislators, Panneerselvam was confident that he had the people.

In fact, there was palpable resentment among a vast majority of the people over what they saw as an attempt to hijack the party and the government by Sasikala and her cohorts. After all, according to them, the vote in the 2016 Assembly elections was for Jayalalithaa, the party supremo who passed away on December 5, and no one else, least of all Sasikala.

Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao, who came to Chennai from Mumbai on February 9, received letters from both Sasikala and Panneerselvam. While Sasikala submitted a list of the names of MLAs who supported her, Panneerselvam refused to divulge any details about his letter to the Governor. Meanwhile, the Sasikala-led AIADMK, boasting the support of the majority of the lawmakers, threatened to take the delay in the swearing-in of Sasikala to the President.

Until the time of this article going to press, no concrete decision had been taken over government formation though the Governor had two options before him: ask the rival factions to prove their majority on the floor of the Assembly or to recommend President’s Rule if he came to the conclusion that government formation was not possible. The chances of the latter, however, seemed remote.

With Panneerselvam’s revolt, the elevation of Sasikala as party general secretary and leader of the legislature party, and Sasikala’s summary expulsion of AIADMK presidium chairman E. Madhusudhanan from the primary membership of the party, it was sure that the third largest political party in the Lok Sabha was under severe stress and on the verge of a split, similar to the one in 1987 after its founder-leader M.G. Ramachandran, or MGR, died.

Sasikala “sacrificed her life for our Amma [Jayalalithaa]”, as a senior Minister put it, but little did she think that she would face the wrath of the people after the unexpected revolt from within. The people and a major faction of the party cadre alike believed that she was in an unseemly hurry to become general secretary on December 29 and subsequently Chief Minister.

While many a legal luminary pointed out that with the majority of the MLAs on her side there “is nothing constitutionally and legally wrong” in her getting elected as the legislature party leader and Chief Minister consequently, people saw it differently and expressed as much openly on social media platforms. Memes, messages, campaigns and comments on social media and other platforms point to her attempt to grab power through the back door to install “one family rule” in the State, as Madhusudhanan termed it.

The cracks that had developed in the party after Panneerselvam became Chief Minister following Jayalalithaa’s death widened when he consolidated his position as an able administrator overseeing relief operations after Cyclone Vardah, and tackling the water crisis in the State, and the jallikattu issue. Sensing a threat to her ambition, Sasikala decided to strike at the earliest to grab power on the grounds that in the party’s tradition established by Amma one person had to hold the posts of the party general secretary and Chief Minister.

Jayalalithaa was all in all in the party and no one else mattered, and Sasikala wished to be the same. But in the eyes of the people and the majority of the AIADMK cadre, Sasikala could just not be equated with Jayalalithaa. Thus it irked them when the party’s rules were tweaked and the “close aide’s” long association with Jayalalithaa was invoked to ease Sasikala’s path to power. As they saw it, the party was being usurped by an outsider whose role was confined to that of a caretaker of “Veda Nilayam”, Jayalalithaa’s house at Poes Garden in Chennai.

“Any act that has political and constitutional validation, if executed tacitly, would be viewed as dark and sinister. It has to be dealt in a transparent manner,” said former Minister K.P. Munusamy, one of the early voices of dissent against Sasikala and now in the Panneerselvam camp. “Such an act has a profound negative effect on the values of democracy,” he said.

Flawed election

In fact, several questions were raised on the ethical aspects of her elevation to power in the party. Under the ruse of keeping the party intact, said a general council member, its members succumbed to pressure to elect her as general secretary. Many functionaries who attended the general council meeting said they were not given adequate time to “think and vote”.

“We were forced to sit in the meeting hall where an announcement was made that Sasikala would be asked to take over the party’s mantle. Not even our signatures were obtained. We put our signatures in the roster kept outside the hall to mark our attendance,” said Magilanban, a council member from Egmore, Chennai.

The entire election process smacked of impropriety. According to rule, all membership cardholders of the party—1.5 crore roughly—should vote to elect the general secretary, besides the 2,000-odd general council members (“Going by the rules”, Frontline, January 20). But it was impressed on them that since an extraordinary situation prevailed following the death of Jayalalithaa, the election of a general secretary (here Sasikala) was going to be an interim arrangement.

“We accepted it. Thus the entire mass base of cadres who, as per the party rule should have voted to elect their general secretary, was kept out of the democratic process, which is sheer injustice,” said Madhusudhanan, who was expelled from the primary membership of the party for shifting his loyalty to the Panneerselvam camp. He said there had not been any visible attempt to make her post permanent though he had been insisting on it. “Not doing so is against the very spirit of the rules of the party,” he said.

Another question that did the rounds was whether Sasikala had completed five continuous years as a primary member, a prerequisite for election to a party post according to its rule. Madhusudhanan said that Sasikala was expelled from the party by Jayalalithaa for “anti-party activities” and also from Veda Nilayam on March 3, 2011. “She was readmitted after a series of letters of apology on March 31, 2012. Hence, her elevation stands disqualified,” he said. As presidium chairman, he faxed a message to the Election Commission of India (ECI) in this regard and, in turn, got expelled by the Sasikala faction. In retaliation, he expelled her.

Back-room manoeuvres

The Mannargudi clan’s—Sasikala’s family from Mannargudi town in Thiruvarur district—alleged back-room manoeuvres to grab power were eventually out in the open and became a hot topic of discussion and analysis. A few people, including Sasikala Pushpa, a Rajya Sabha member from Tuticorin who had differences of opinion with Sasikala even when Jayalalithaa was alive and was expelled from the party, went to court against Sasikala’s elevation. The case was subsequently dismissed. She too wrote to the ECI on the issue.

“I have been fighting against this family for long. My husband was brutally beaten up by them in full public view when he went to get a nomination form to contest the post of general secretary. Tamil Nadu should not fall to such evil forces,” she told Frontline over phone from New Delhi.

“Kitchen cabinets” behind many a political regime are not something new. Not even MGR’s government escaped the charge. But here was a woman who literally emerged from the anteroom of Veda Nilayam with the hope of being anointed head of the government. If she were to succeed, she would be the State’s third woman Chief Minister.

In her first ever public address after becoming party general secretary, Sasikala spoke of her three-decade-long association with Jayalalithaa and claimed that she had been with her almost everywhere and at all times. Her death, Sasikala said, had hit her hard. “The party was the life for Amma, while for me she was my life,” Sasikala said, adding that she had spent 33 of the 62 years of her life looking after Jayalalithaa.

Her inexplicable proximity to Jayalalithaa baffles many. “In fact, this closeness of Sasikala alienated our madam Jayalalithaa from all of us, cadres and functionaries,” said Bader Sayeed, a former MLA from Triplicane and a classmate of Jayalalithaa during her Church Park Convent days. The 70-year-old Bader Sayeed, a lawyer-cum-activist, who has been fighting against the triple talaq custom, told Frontline that once on a request to meet the leader, she received a curt message from Veda Nilayam that she could stand amid the crowds on the roadside and see her. Wounded, she has since then kept away from active politics. Such tales of rebuff are aplenty and indicate that Jayalalithaa had been kept “isolated”.

The pertinent question here, however, is how Sasikala, as Chief Minister, will handle the people’s dislike for her and the discomfiture of the party cadre. The answer may lie in the fact that she has been schooled in Jayalalithaa’s style of administration. She was first introduced to Jayalalithaa in 1982 and moved into the Poes Garden residence in the early 1990s ( Frontline, January 6, 2017). Since then she has lived there along with her family members and was allegedly operating as an extraconstitutional authority too.

That Sasikala and her family members have several serious cases against them is the main factor that works against her today with the public. Legal experts wonder whether it was prudent on Sasikala’s part to opt for the Chief Minister’s post at a time when the verdict in the Rs.66.65 crore disproportionate assets case in the Supreme Court was impending. The verdict has been pending since June 7, 2016, in which Sasikala and her family members J. Ilavarasi and V.N. Sudhagaran are the co-accused.

The prosecution case was that Jayalalithaa, during her tenure as Chief Minister from 1991 to 1996, amassed assets worth Rs.66 crore disproportionate to her known sources of income. The assets included bungalows, a tea estate, agricultural land and jewellery in her name and in the names of the other accused. Jayalalithaa had claimed that she drew a salary of Re.1 a month for 27 months as Chief Minister ( Frontline, January 6).

The prosecution began after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), headed by M. Karunanidhi, was voted to power in 1996. Officers of the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption, Tamil Nadu, filed a charge sheet on June 4, 1997, before the Special Court-III. The case dragged on for 19 years. On a writ petition from DMK general secretary K. Anbazhagan, the Supreme Court transferred the trial from Chennai to Bengaluru on November 18, 2003. Jayalalithaa was the Chief Minister then. The Karnataka government became the prosecuting agency.

On September 27, 2014, Special Judge John Michael D’Cunha in Bengaluru found Jayalalithaa guilty. He convicted and sentenced her to four years’ simple imprisonment under Section 13(1)(e) read with Section 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act and imposed a fine of Rs.100 crore on her besides convicting and sentencing all the three co-accused to four years’ simple imprisonment. Soon thereafter, Jayalalithaa and the other accused were taken into custody and sent to prison. Jayalalithaa was unseated as Chief Minister from the date of her conviction and Panneerselvam took over the mantle briefly.

Sasikala had spent a year in jail in the TANSI land scam case. She also faces four other cases of the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation, which include Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) violations, while her husband, M. Natarajan, is fighting two cases in connection with the import of a Lexus car.

Besides, her nephews, T.T.V. Dinakaran and Sudhagaran, her brother Divakaran, and her late brother Jayaraman’s widow, Ilavarasi, are facing various charges. Dinakaran, a former MP of Periyakulam, has a fine of Rs.28 crore slapped on him for FERA violations and in two other cases relating to JJTV. Divakaran also has two land grab cases against him, for which Jayalalithaa got him arrested in 2012.

Social media reactions

That the people have clarity in their minds about who should be their ruler is well demonstrated and documented in social media where the response to Sasikala’s power-grabbing moves is a loud “NO”. The bashing of Sasikala, especially on social media, is just an extended expression of the youth and other people who exhibited the same spirit of defiance during the struggle for jallikattu. Otherwise how can one understand “OPS for CM” and similar hashtags going viral and drawing support from 18 lakh netizens?

Donning the role of victim to perfection, Panneerselvam burst into the limelight. This, it is widely claimed, cannot be construed as an isolated act. M.H. Jawahirullah, a senior leader of the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, told Frontline that “the BJP has been trying to find a foothold in Tamil Nadu against Dravidian parties. The BJP finds itself more comfortable with Panneerselvam than with Sasikala.” Jawahirullah said it was a cleverly manipulated move to keep Panneerselvam on their side.

Sasikala’s elevation was “political bullying”, claimed the rapper-activist Sophia Ashraf, who sprang a surprise on the night of the February 5 at Poes Garden where Sasikala and her extended family lives. Accompanied by a guitarist and a group of singers and defying policemen there, she rapped along questioning the validity of Sasikala’s elevation as the leader of the AIADMK legislature party and saying that “democracy is dead”.

“We are not comfortable with her,” said the singer-activist. The public dissent against her was strong since she was a woman “who had not been elected” by the people of the State.

“A gang that wishes to loot propels Sasikala,” said Selvam, a lawyer and a spokesperson for the Panneerselvam faction from Tuticorin. Electing Sasikala would usher in an age of darkness in Tamil Nadu, said the Pattali Makkal Katchi’s youth wing leader Dr Anbumani Ramadoss. The Tamil Nadu unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) expressed its displeasure but cautiously over the “hurried” move of Sasikala to capture power.

Clearly, “gen-next” in Tamil Nadu is uneasy with the personality-centred politics in the State. People are growing weary of a system that represses their aspirations and ambitions and constantly keeps them in the dark on many issues that keep coming up. “We have the right to know,” said a youth who represents a group that created a hashtag in support of Panneerselvam.

Change.org, on which a person posted a message against Sasikala’s elevation, logged 2.5 lakh signatures in support as of the second week of February. They see in Panneerselvam’s brief reign as Chief Minister a down-to-earth approach in handling administrative issues. It is a refreshingly new political culture in the State which in the past few years was used to the overbearing, non-transparent rule of Jayalalithaa, the Numero Uno of the party and government.

High drama at Koovathur

It was also high drama at Koovathur, a coastal hamlet on East Coast Road near Chennai where the majority of the MLAs (at the time of going to press) were kept in a private resort since February 8 evening by the Sasikala camp under the ruse of “keeping them safe from possible poaching”. The media were prevented from entering the vicinity of the resort, with over 100 private guards on the job. Some of the media personnel were threatened by unidentified goons claiming that it was private property and no trespassers would be allowed. Mobile phones of a few reporters also were snatched away by unidentified persons. Residents of the village complained that since the day the MLAs were brought there, their normal life had been disrupted. They alleged that some men from outside were preventing them from moving freely. “There are threats and our women are afraid to venture out,” said a resident.

None of the MLAs was allowed to speak to the media, leading to widespread accusations that the MLAs were kept in Sasikala’s custody against their wishes. But she denied it strongly saying that “they are here of their own will since they fear intimidation and harassment from our rivals”. Twice she made visits from the Poes Garden residence in Chennai to Koovathur, a 50-kilometre drive, to “reassure them and keep their morale high”.

“I have asked them to remain calm and patient. No covert attempt to dislodge us can win if we remain united,” she said. Informed sources claimed that these MLAs were also asked to take an oath on the portrait of Jayalalithaa that they would stand by Sasikala. It is not clear who will emerge winner in this battle for succession. What is becoming clear is that the party founded by M.G. Ramachandran in 1972 after breaking away from the DMK is hurtling towards disintegration.

Populist demagogues

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THE menace is as ancient as the Greeks and the Romans—democracies’ proneness to self-destruction. The prime architect of this disaster is the demagogue who arouses the latent fears of the masses, paints dreams of greatness (“ache din”), and leads them as they respond to his treacherous calls to amass power for himself. He lays democracy low before it can check him.

Plutarch recalls in his magnificent work Fall of the Roman Republic that Cicero, who launched himself on a political career with the highest hopes, had his eagerness somewhat blunted by a reply that he received from an oracle. He had consulted the god at Delphi, asking how he could gain the greatest favour. The Pythian priestess told him that his guide to life should be “not popular opinion, but his own nature”.

In modern times, Walter Lippmann repeatedly commented on the pitfalls of the democratic process; the electorate’s vulnerability to populist calls; and “the strong” leader’s insidious appeal. “Governments are unable to cope with reality when elected assemblies and mass opinions become decisive in the state, when there are no statesmen to resist the inclination of the voters and there are only politicians to excite and to exploit them” ( The Public Philosophy, 1955, page 46). That is a fair description of the calling of the modern populist demagogue. Sadly, there is little scrutiny and analysis of the phenomenon in India. In the United States, some of its finest minds studied it, apparently to little avail.

Cass Mudde of the University of Georgia co-authored Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Since populism has spread to Europe, he referred to a “Populist International” in an article in The New York Times in January. Well before Donald Trump’s election as President of the U.S., Michael Kazin, Editor of Dissent, who teaches history at Georgetown University, wrote a brilliant article in Foreign Affairs (November-December 2016) entitled “Trump and American Populism”. The book under review is authored by Professor Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University.

Indians would do well to study them carefully, for the vice holds the country in its grip and only a concerted intellectual effort can help in liberating us. As one reads these writers’ analyses, one is struck, again and again, by the similarities between the twin demagogues Donald Modi and Narendra Trump. In both the streak of vulgarity in speech is pronounced. The cry of “America First” and the rejection of immigration has its parallel in Modi’s yearning for ancient times which knew plastic surgery but lost it and its achievements. The credo of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), heir to V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva, holds that Hindus alone are the true nationals of the country. The rest need to be Hinduised, as the RSS’ chief, M.S. Golwalkar, expounded in his Bunch of Thoughts. In Modi’s time you have ghar wapsi (return to the fold). No wonder his supporters in the U.S. and India enthusiastically support Trump. A pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Sunday weekly protectively warned of “conspiracies” against Trump.

Populism is not a Western ailment; it is very much an Indian disease. Modi won only partly because of Hindutva. He won because he promised to perform and deliver on “development”. Read Michael Kazin and the affinities hit you in the eye. “Trump has tapped into a deep vein of distress and resentment among millions of white working- and middle-class Americans. Trump is hardly the first politician to bash elites and champion the interests of ordinary people.”

Both demagogues have a very private definition of who “the people” are. “For most of U.S. history, it meant only citizens of European heritage—‘real Americans’, whose ethnicity alone afforded them a claim to share in the country’s bounty. Typically, this breed of populist alleges that there is a nefarious alliance between evil forces on high and the unworthy, dark-skinned poor below —a cabal that imperils the interests and values of the patriotic (white) majority in the middle.” In India it is not colour but religion that is exploited to divide the people.

In April 2016, months before the election, Trump vowed in a major speech that ‘“America First’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration”. Kazin also states: “He has even led crowds in chants of the slogan, while feigning indifference towards its dark provenance.”

Kazin’s analysis proved prophetic. “Trump will struggle to win the White House. Despite the manifest weaknesses of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee—including a lack of public trust and an awkward speaking style—her opponent has earned a reputation for vicious harangues against minority groups and individuals rather than statesmanlike conduct or creative policies.… It would be foolish to ignore the anxieties and anger of those who have flocked to Trump with a passion they have shown for no other presidential candidate in decades. According to a recent study by the political scientist Justin Gest, 65 per cent of white Americans—about two-fifths of the population—would be open to voting for a party that stood for ‘stopping mass immigration, providing American jobs to American workers, preserving America’s Christian heritage, and stopping the threat of Islam’. These men and women believe that most politicians ignore or patronise them.”

Have you noticed one singularly ugly feature of Modi’s election campaign in Uttar Pradesh? He has written off the Muslim vote and concentrates on Hindu mobilisation. The abolition of the triple talaq figures in the election manifesto; the party knows that even Muslims opposed to that hideous practice will resent the BJP’s intervention in this matter.

Anti-pluralist

Jan-Werner Müller’s book deserves a wide readership in India. He points out repeatedly that the core of populism is exclusion; the populist is anti-pluralist. He and he alone represents the people. “Populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite; when ruling, they refuse to recognise the opposition as legitimate. The populist logic also implies that whoever does not support populist parties might not be a proper part of the people—always defined as righteous and morally pure. Put simply, populists do not claim ‘We are the 99 percent’. What they imply instead is ‘We are the 100 percent.’ …

“Populism tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens. The idea of the single, homogeneous, authentic people is a fantasy; as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas once put it, ‘the people’ can only appear in the plural. And it’s a dangerous fantasy, because populists do not just thrive on conflict and encourage polarisation; they also treat their political opponents as ‘enemies of the people’ and seek to exclude them altogether.”

Populism is a degraded form of democracy in which its institutions— elections and the rest—are used to undermine its values. The structure is stripped of its life. “That the end result is a form of politics that is blatantly anti-democratic should trouble us all—and demonstrate the need for nuanced political judgment to help us determine precisely where democracy ends and populist peril begins.”

Populism has, for over a century, flourished in many a State in the U.S. It flourished in Gujarat after the pogrom of 2002. Once in New Delhi, Modi lost no time in consigning to the wilderness those who had saved him in 2002.

“This is the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people. Think of Nigel Farage celebrating the Brexit vote by claiming that it had been a ‘victory for real people’ (thus making the 48 per cent of the British electorate who had opposed taking the U.K. out of the European Union somehow less than real—or, put more directly, questioning their status as proper members of the political community). Or consider a remark by Donald Trump that went virtually unnoticed, given the frequency with which the New York billionaire has made outrageous and deeply offensive statements. At a campaign rally in May, Trump announced that ‘the only important thing is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything’.”

The populist leader disdains accountability. In all the three months since demonetisation on November 8, not once has Modi cared to meet the specific criticisms in Parliament. He has, instead, accused critics of corruption.

The author reckons with India’s experience. “The leader does not have to ‘embody’ the people, as statements such as ‘India is India, and India is Indira’ might suggest. But a sense of direct connection and identification needs to be there. Populists always want to cut out the middleman, so to speak, and to rely as little as possible on complex party organisations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true of wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of ‘mediating’, which, as the very word indicates, is what they are actually supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.” The populist leader avoids press conferences. He rides above his party and his colleagues, indeed, above the institutions of democracy. His style of speech is coarse and abounds in calumny. “Some populists test the limits of how rude one can be in a debate.”

Why blame the populist when he acts on his proposals once he is in office? “The notion that populists in power are bound to fail one way or another is comforting. It’s also an illusion. For one thing, while populist parties do indeed protest against elites, this does not mean that populism in government will become contradictory. First of all, all failures of populists in government can still be blamed on elites acting behind the scenes, whether at home or abroad (here we see again the not-so-accidental connection between populism and conspiracy theories). Many populist victors continue to behave like victims; majorities act like mistreated minorities.…

“Populists in office continue to polarise and prepare the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. They seek to moralise political conflict as much as possible. There is never a dearth of enemies—and these are always nothing less than enemies of the people as a whole.”

The checks and balances of democratic constitutions are abandoned. Populists try to “colonise the state”, to own it. They seek next to perpetuate their rule. The civil service is suborned. Journalists are co-opted as “clients”. The unwilling are denounced but also persuaded. The judiciary fares no better. “New judges were appointed. Where a reshaping of the entire system proved difficult, as has been the case in Poland so far, paralysis of the judiciary proved an acceptable second best for the governing party. Media authorities were also immediately captured; the clear signal went out that journalists should not report in ways that violate the interests of the nation (which were of course equated with the interests of the governing party).… The end result is that political parties create a state to their own political liking and in their own political image.”

Such a strategy to consolidate or even perpetuate power is not the exclusive preserve of populists, of course. What is special about populists is that they can undertake such colonisation openly and with the support of their core lay claim to more representation of the people. Why, populists can ask indignantly, should the people not take possession of their state through their only rightful representatives? Since the state belongs to the people, their representative, the populist, is entitled to wield power unchecked, while keeping up the appearances of democratic rul e.

The people, so long deceived, wake up when it is too late. But there will always be some who will argue that corruption is okay because the populist is their own man doing good on their behalf. They do not understand that in the long run it will harm them.

Suppressing civil society

Why were people in India surprised when Modi’s axe fell on non-governmental organisations? “Populists in power tend to be harsh [to say the least] with non-governmental organisations that criticise them. Again, harassing or even suppressing civil society is not a practice exclusive to populists. But for them, opposition from within civil society creates a particular moral and symbolic problem: it potentially undermines their claim to exclusive moral representation of the people.”

There is an insidious effort to test the limits, but no total break. Yet in the process “cultural nationalism and authoritarian politics become inextricably linked”. And Hindutva, according to the RSS-BJP family, is synonymous with “cultural nationalism”. Call it what you will. “Populism is inherently hostile to the mechanisms and, ultimately, the values commonly associated with constitutionalism: constraints on the will of the majority, checks and balances, protections for minorities, and even fundamental rights. Populists are supposedly impatient with procedures; they are even said to be ‘against institutions as such’, preferring a direct, unmediated relationship between the personal leader and the people.” Modi prefers the rally, where he is applauded, to Parliament, where he is questioned.

We, in India, have learnt much by experience—Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship, the Janata Party’s rifts and her return. Our polity is hopelessly divided. So are large sections of the media. TV is a revolting spectacle. There is a dire need for a disinterested group of persons who belong to no faction but study the politics of the country impartially and present the results to the people. The Association for Democratic Reforms in Hyderabad is a shining example of such a group. Its integrity and commitment are equalled by the labours it devotes to study.

Letters to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

letters

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Jallikattu protest

THE people of Tamil Nadu are emotionally attached to jallikattu because it has been a part of their culture since the Sangam era (Cover Story, February 17). The sudden and spontaneous protests that one witnessed in the Marina beach in Chennai and in Madurai, Coimbatore and other places were against the Supreme Court’s judgment banning the use of bulls in jallikattu or other such events. The judgment, which went in favour of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), was perceived as an assault on Tamil culture and pride, and the agitation became a mass movement, channelling people’s, especially the youths’, simmering discontent over many issues.

The government of Tamil Nadu failed to read the true nature of the protest, leading to police excesses on the last day. This protest has larger implications for Tamil Nadu’s polity.

N.C. Sreedharan, Kannur, Kerala

THE Marina protest, which drew youths in large numbers in an unprecedented show of unity and strength, surprised the world.

The city had shown during the floods of 2015 and Cyclone Vardha of 2016 that its people could come together in the face of great natural calamities. One saw something of the same sprit in the protests to revoke the ban on jallikattu. The youths, who protested peacefully for seven days, should have dispersed when the police asked them to do so. Perhaps they thought the police were their friends and well-wishers, but it is unfortunate that it ended in violence. Still, the protest remains a unique, landmark event.

A.J. Rangarajan, Chennai

SO-CALLED animal lovers must understand that the bulls used in jallikattu are the same ones used for agricultural work throughout the year and are looked after very well by farmers. These bulls are used for breeding, and jallikattu is one of the physical activities that prepares them for it. Furthermore, there are clearly laid out rules for the conduct of the sport. One is allowed to hold the bull only by its hump. Holding its neck or horns or twisting its tail will lead to disqualification.

Sustaining a protest for seven days is not easy, but these youngsters, aided by technology, the Internet and social media, not only pulled it off but also managed to get the government to fulfil their demands. They deserve applause and appreciation.

P. Senthil Saravana Durai, Mumbai

BSF soldiers

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THE Border Security Force soldier’s video, posted on social media drawing attention to the substandard food given to soldiers posted in inhospitable terrain, was a shocker (“Food for thought”, February 17).

The inhuman treatment meted out to soldiers guarding our borders is shameful. The defence put forward by the BSF station chief seems calculated to defend the guilty. It is unfair that even before the official probe instituted by the BSF could come out with its findings, senior officers have accused the soldier of mental instability and transferred him to another location. An independent high-level probe should be instituted and the guilty should be brought to book so that such practices do not continue.

K.R. Srinivasan, Secunderabad, Telangana

SOLDIERS’ grievances should be given top priority. But soldiers should not approach the media directly to air them. Other internal official channels should be tried first, like raising the issue with senior officers or higher authorities.

Mahesh Kumar, New Delhi

Obama’s record

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GOING by his track record, it is clear that Barack Obama did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize (“Trail of blood”, February 17). He should have pardoned Edward Snowden and paved the way for his return to the United States, but Obama chose not to do it. A Nobel Peace prize winner is not expected to harass whistle-blowers, but a number of them have been jailed during his regime.

Civilian casualties because of air raids by U.S. planes have been high in conflict zones such as Syria. Obama should have brokered a peace deal in Ukraine instead of blaming Russia for the crisis and imposing sanctions on it.

Deendayal M. Lulla, Mumbai

Islamic banking

THE concept of interest-free banking that seeks to generate wealth through sharing risks and rewards is not to be brushed aside (“Well worth a try”, February 3).

Since Islamic banking has proved to be conducive to developing entrepreneurship, why should we shy away from embracing it? When diversification of financial products makes economic sense, the time-tested idea of Islamic banking should not be ignored because of unfounded prejudices.

Ayyasseri Raveendranath, Aranmula, Kerala



THE interview with Shariq Nizar cleared all misconceptions regarding Islamic banking (“Islamic banking will help develop entrepreneurship”, February 3). Islamic banking is not for Muslims alone. The entire world can benefit from it. People are beginning to realise that it is a sophisticated banking and finance structure based on moral and social values, yet compatible with modern-day financial needs. “Islamic counters” in conventional banks is not a bad idea.

Shafeeq Rahman V.P., Nellaya, Kerala

Om Puri

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OM PURI’S baritone voice, body language and effortless ease in essaying complex roles made him a versatile actor (“One who rose above his roles”, February 3). He was a courageous actor who was not scared of playing off-beat roles, bringing sensitivity and humanity to the characters he played. Who can forget his work in “Sadgati” (1981), “Gandhi” (1982) or “Tamas” (1987)? In a career spanning 40 years, he acted in over 250 films and over 20 TV serials. He won the heart of millions not just for his roles in serious films but also for comic roles in films such as “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro” and “Chachi 420”. His passing is an irreparable loss to the world of cinema.

Bidyut Kumar Chatterjee, Faridabad, Haryana

Cho Ramaswamy

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CHO RAMASWAMY was always a supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party. He had campaigned tirelessly for the party’s previous incarnation as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1971 in Delhi and Mumbai (“On the Right trajectory”, January 6). His electioneering did not help the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which performed dismally in that election. Despite his constant criticism of the political processes in India, he was constantly patching up coalitions that suited his fancy in Tamil Nadu rather than following the lofty political principles that he harked upon in his political satires, dramas, speeches, and writings. As the article stated, it was appalling that Cho was a director in an alcohol-producing company in which Sasikala and her family members are stakeholders. How he was able to reconcile this with his world view that upheld varnashrama dharma, with Brahmins at the top of the hierarchy, is something that only his twisted logic could explain.

Narayana Menon, Canberra, Australia

United States

Trump, turmoil and resistance

world-affairs

Time is of no consequence in America these days. President Donald Trump awakens early and fires off a tweet. These are as important as the executive orders he has been signing with remarkable frequency. He is a man in a hurry. There is a great deal, he feels, to undo from the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is almost as if Trump does not believe that he will be long in the job. Changes must be made, and speed is of the essence. The midnight oil burns in the White House feverishly.

The executive orders are hard to keep up with. Serious issues are deliberated in a few pages. Trump ordered federal agencies to set aside Obama’s health care initiative, which was one of the main social reforms passed in recent memory. Trump’s anger at what is known as Obamacare is part of the general corporate sensibility against regulations of any kind. Trump pushed for oil companies to be able to build their controversial pipelines and demanded that federal agencies must ease up on financial and environmental regulations. One order said that if the government introduces a new regulation, it must first abolish two others. This is sweet music to the corporate sector, which instinctively dislikes the fetters of government intervention. The Trump claim is that deregulation will spur business activity, produce growth and therefore deliver jobs to the “forgotten Americans” —Trump’s base.

The deregulation orders did not receive the kind of attention they deserve. These are dull compared with the more flashy orders, the ones that reflected Trump’s most dramatic campaign promises: build the wall against Mexico, ban Muslims, and fight “radical Islamic terrorism”. It was the flash of the orders on these issues that drew all the attention. No one expected Trump to actually enact these policies. It was felt by the encrusted establishment that Trump—like other politicians—would make grand social claims during the campaign but would then ignore these promises when the “realities” of governance settled in. But Trump and his team had no patience for such formulas. Trump and his advisers know full well that his base—the “forgotten Americans”—is hungry for action. They want their man to deliver something fast. Trump will not be able to take the American economy by the throat and make it cough out jobs. That is simply impossible. Far easier to tackle these social issues to prove his fidelity to his base.

When the orders came out, a frisson of delight went through Trump’s base. Early polls showed that the majority of Americans disapproved of Trump’s “Muslim Ban”, but 45 per cent of those asked said that they approved of it. That is about the same percentage of the electorate that voted for Trump. A seam of the Far Right —including the fascists—have long said that the decline in the fortunes of the white Americans came from the enfranchisement of blacks, Latinos, immigrants, gays, lesbians and Muslims. “Make America Great Again” is a line that Ronald Reagan used as his campaign slogan in 1980. During a speech in that campaign, Reagan said that his project was for a “national crusade to make America great again”. The word “crusade” with all its Christian implications is an old one for the American Right, but here it was linked to the suggestion that America—in 1980—had been lessened by the gains of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which had been driven by secularism. These had to be put in their place. Reagan, and now Trump, would cleanse the country of its crud and reveal it for what it was always supposed to be: a white, Christian nation. It is fitting that the Trump administration will remove the white supremacist groups and the fascist groups from the terror listing; only “radical Islamic terrorists” will be on that list.

Orders can be delivered with ease, but implementation is another story. The “Muslim Ban”, for instance, created chaos between the Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security. Officials in these government agencies, as well as in the State Department, did not know how to act on the basis of the orders. A hundred thousand visas were cancelled in the chaos. One minute no one from the seven countries was allowed to board a flight to the U.S., and the next minute people were allowed on aircraft. It is this chaos that has come to define the Trump administration. Deliberative statements from above do not translate easily for the massive apparatus of the U.S. government.

These orders came from Trump’s pen with a great flourish of royalty. Trump did not deign to explain his decisions or make any argument. There is no time for that. His language is simple and direct. “We’re going to do great,” he says, “we’ll make America great.” Complexity is not necessary. There is no conversation here about how computers and other technology have made workers more productive, which has led to a great haemorrhaging of jobs. It is this, rather than foreign trade, that has truly cut deep into the heart of employment in factories and in fields. None of this is on the table. Trump is able to blame a long list of people who have gained socially for the ailments of those who have been defeated economically. Hate crimes against the long list of Trump’s enemies —Mexicans, Muslims and those who look like them —have risen. Hatred has taken on a mundane quality. “Muslim-free zones” is a sign that can be found in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where there are only a handful of Muslims in residence. In Little Falls, Minnesota, two white men came to the home of a Somali family and told them to move out or else they would burn down the home. The Roth Family Jewish Community Centre of Greater Orlando (Florida), which runs a preschool, received three bomb threats in two weeks. In San Francisco (California), a white man accosted an Asian woman and said to her: “I hate your fucking race. We’re in charge of this country now.”

Will removing Bannon help?

Hatred of Obama defined Trump’s political life over the past eight years. He was one of the first to stoke the rumour that Obama was not an American and that he was a Kenyan immigrant. The “Birther Movement” embraced Trump, who thumped on this theme right until he became a presidential candidate. The sewers of the American Far Right—the fascists and racists—welcomed the attention given them by Trump’s celebrity. Here was a rich real estate baron and television star who was giving credence to the worst kind of falsehoods. It was in this drain that Trump met Breitbart News’ Steve Bannon.

Bannon drifted from Wall Street into the propaganda world of the Far Right, where he made films and curated a website that produced what is now known as “alt-facts” (alternative facts or, in more common language, lies). Over the years, Bannon has made clear his great dislike of the gains made by minority communities and of H-1B visa technocrats who surrounded him in the world of finance and media. His hatred of them was clarified in a March 2016 radio show, when he said: “Engineering schools are all full of people from South Asia, and East Asia. They’ve come in here to take these jobs.” American students, he said bitterly, “can’t get into these graduate schools”. Twenty per cent of the U.S. population is made up of immigrants, Bannon noted. “Is that not the beating heart of the problem?” These technocrats not only surrounded him, but they made him feel uneasy. “These are not Jeffersonian democrats,” he complained. “These are not people with thousands of years of democracy in their DNA coming in here.” Resentment and revenge are the contours of Bannon’s viewpoint. It is fitting that he used the term DNA in his statement. Skin is the limit of ideas such as democracy. America made an error, Bannon suggests, in allowing darker skins to participate in its democratic experiment. Trump brought him in as his main adviser for his campaign. Bannon is now, it is said, one of the main intellectuals of the Trump presidency.

Is Bannon Trump’s brain? Bewilderment at the depth of the Trump presidency has led some to think that the removal of Bannon would somehow bring normalcy to Trump’s world. But this might be wishful thinking. Each of Trump’s Cabinet appointments and many of his political appointments into the agencies seem Bannonesque in their world view. They are behind the “Muslim Ban” and the “Mexican Wall”; they would like to undermine public education and eviscerate regulations; they would like to lift up “alt-facts” to the status of reality and send pesky reporters to prison. This is a world view shared across the administration, from Vice President Mike Pence to Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. Talking to people in the Trump administration is startling: they believe that they have been out of power and are now, finally, in charge, with little time to spare. Bannon is not their leader. What unites them is the feeling of resentment and revenge that he articulates and Trump embodies.

Resistance

Trump’s ban on the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries was not going to be taken quietly. Organisations that work on civil liberties and refugee relief as well as Left groups and platforms such as Black Lives Matter and Occupy hastily mobilised people to flood the airports. From John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to San Francisco International Airport, the crowds chanted “Let Them In” and “Not My President”. It was a powerful demonstration, with bodies on the line to resist the Trump order and to make it clear that such actions would not go unchallenged on the streets.

Democratic Party politicians hastened to the airports to give their support to the protests. Senator Elizabeth Warren went to Boston airport and said: “We will make our voices heard all around the world. We will not turn away children, we will not turn away families, we will not turn away anyone because of their religion.” Senator Kamala Harris, the first Indian American Senator in U.S. history, was forthright in her criticism. “On Holocaust Memorial Day, President Trump enacted an executive order that will restrict refugees from Muslim-majority countries. Make no mistake—this is a Muslim ban. During the Holocaust, we failed to let refugees like Anne Frank into our country. We can’t let history repeat itself.”

Trump’s threat to deport undocumented migrants received a sharp rebuke from Democratic politicians. Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh said that any migrant who felt threatened could come to City Hall and take shelter. “If people want to live here,” he said, “they’ll live here. They can use my office. They can use any office in this building.” When a reporter asked him if this applied to “illegal immigrants”, Walsh was sharp with his rebuke saying that no one was illegal. Trump has threatened to withdraw federal money from cities and towns that do not enforce his anti-immigration agenda. “We will not be intimidated by a threat of federal funding,” said Walsh. “We will not retreat one inch.”

Popular resistance strengthened the spine of these leaders, many of whom come from political traditions not used to such forthright resistance. This is not the time for politeness, they suggest. Stiffer measures are needed.

Boycotts of businesses that operate alongside the Trump agenda have had an impact. During the airport protests, the New York Taxi Workers’ Union decided to go on strike at the airport. Seeing an opportunity, Uber suspended its surge fees and decided to break the strike. Thousands of people deleted their Uber app, sending a strong message to the company. Its CEO felt the pressure to resign from Trump’s business council. Department stores such as Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus have dropped the Ivanka Trump jewellery line. Amazon and Expedia took the Trump administration to court saying that the immigration orders would hurt their business.

When the acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, refused to execute the “Muslim Ban”, Trump fired her. The view from the White House is that officials of the federal government must be loyal to Trump and not worry about the U.S. Constitution. Trump’s allies came in to defend his action, blaming the bureaucracy for their allegiance to liberal and secular values. “This is essentially the opposition in waiting,” said Trump’s friend Newt Gingrich. “He may have to clean out the Justice Department because there are so many left-wingers there. [The] State [Department] is even worse.” A chill has gone through the administration. Judge James Robarts, nominated to the federal courts by Trump’s fellow Republican George W. Bush, stayed the “Muslim Ban”. Trump called him a “so-called judge”, like the “so-called protesters”. These are not real people to Trump. They are to be swatted aside. Whether by an executive order or on Twitter.

United States

Outsourcing worries

world-affairs

The old bogey of limiting the entry of highly skilled professionals into the U.S. is back again, this time fuelled by fears that Donald Trump would set in place barriers to their entry. The Indian software services industry, dependent to a large extent on the H-1B visa which allows foreign nationals to work in the U.S., is worried that barriers to entry would increase their costs and make their operations unviable. This fear comes at a time when they are reeling under the pressure of lower margins, tardy growth in revenues and a general slowdown in business that has been characteristic of its performance since the global economic meltdown in 2009.

While the move to amend U.S. legislation that allows “guest” workers to work on a temporary basis has been an existential threat for Indian companies for more than a decade, there is greater anxiety now because it comes in the wake of Trump’s bugle call to put “America First”. Although the immediate fears of Trump issuing an executive order to provide legal firepower to such a move have abated, the industry remains nervous. The leadership of its main lobbying organisation, the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), plans to visit the U.S. soon to discuss the matter with the U.S. authorities and business partners.

The High-Skilled Integrity and Fairness Act of 2017, which was introduced by U.S. Congress woman Zoe Lofgren in Congress, sets a pathway to a “market-based” allocation of visas to companies that are willing to pay 200 per cent of a wage calculated by survey, eliminates the category of lowest pay, and raises the salary level at which an H-1B dependent employer is exempt from non-displacement and recruitment attestation requirements to a floor level of about $132,000 for Computer and Mathematical Occupations published by the U.S. Department of Labour Occupational Employment Statistics. The proposed legislation also removes the need for fresh legislation to review the wage level in the future. It also does away with the quota system that is currently used so that smaller companies and start-ups can also access talent using the H-1B visa route.

Incidentally, this floor, which was set in 1989, is currently at $60,000. In 2016, according to a recent analyst report, Indian IT services companies paid an average of about $75,000, implying that if the new legislation goes through, the wage bill of these companies for this class of workers temporarily resident in the U.S. would have to increase by almost 75 per cent.

For a level playing field

Zoe Lofgren claims that her proposal encourages companies that are willing to pay more for bringing foreign workers into the U.S. While ensuring the availability of talent from a global pool, it would “remove incentives for companies to undercut American wages and outsource jobs,” she claimed. Zoe Lofgren said the removal of country-specific caps on employment-based immigrant visas would ensure a global level playing field for talent coming into the U.S.

Although the Indian software services companies do not give out information on how many of their employees hold H-1B visas, U.S. media sources claim that 86 per cent of such visas in computer-related jobs, and more than 46 per cent in engineering jobs, were given to Indian citizens. Last year, there were 250,000 applicants for this class of visas.

Robotic Process Automation is a technology that is catching the fancy of upstarts who are ready to take on the outsourcing model, which has been the mainstay of the large IT services companies. The promoter of one such start-up, based in Australia, told Frontline that the idea was to use a team of robots to process the work instead of a team of offshore (or the more expensive onsite) agents as it is currently done. The problem is that the existing incumbents, who are heavily invested in the current model, may not want to cannibalise their own business by venturing into the robotic space. Although many of the top Indian IT services companies such as TCS, Infosys and Wipro claim that they are investing and expanding their business through the implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI), it is unlikely that they would expand their footprint to such an extent that it tramples their existing lines of business. This is in line with Tim Wu’s postulate (author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires and the man who coined the term “net neutrality”) that incumbent industrial giants tend to block the entry of more open systems that emerge from technological innovation. The simple point is that if robotics and AI are going to play the highly disruptive role that outsourcing of services have played in the last three decades, it is not going to happen because of the presence of the big companies in the business.

Although the robotics model has not yet taken off, indications are that it would completely undercut the existing mainstream model that is based on cost-plus pricing; in effect, outsourcers offer to provide a service for a fee that is tied to the cost of labour and materials. By taking labour out of the equation once again, as outsourcing once did to certain classes of workers in the U.S.—robotics promises another round of cost-cutting that could leave the incumbents gutted. Since the global financial crisis of 2009, revenues and profits of the IT services majors have been growing at an anaemic pace, at least in comparison with the decade prior to that when they grew at an average annual rate of more than 20 per cent.

The opposition to the move to curtail the entry of skilled professionals has also galvanised a major part of the technology sector in the U.S. As many as 97 tech companies, among them stalwarts such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Intel, have joined hands to issue a legal challenge to Trump’s executive order banning the entry of nationals from seven countries. However, their opposition appears to rest on their fear that restraints on immigrants or any class of workers from around the world inhibits their means of recruiting the best possible talent at the least possible cost. For instance, Uber too is on the list of companies that is challenging Trump’s executive order, even as it battles taxi drivers—whether using Uber’s own service or rival traditional taxi operators—across the world, including in India.

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, in an email to employees, referred to Trump’s executive order as “not a policy we support”. Although it indicates a first step in the resistance to Trump’s draconian stand on immigrants, it is clearly not enough. Their refusal to oppose the ban because it amounts to racism and is a frontal assault on the long tradition of immigrants’ contribution to social, economic and cultural progress in the U.S. raises the suspicion that their opposition too is founded on self-interest. The opposition appears to rest on the premise that it would be “bad for business” rather than on respect for universal values.

United States

Running amok

world-affairs

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump had promised to be a true friend of Israel and scrap the nuclear deal with Iran. He had also said the greatest mistake that the United States made in Iraq was to allow the government in Baghdad to retain control over the country’s oil. Trump was constantly railing against China over issues ranging from trade to the South China Sea. Now he is even threatening to oppose China’s “One China” policy. However, it was his stance on immigration, particularly his pledge to stop Muslims from entering the U.S. and the promise to build a “great wall” along the long border with Mexico, that galvanised his voter base and, at the same time, turned world public opinion against him.

Many Americans as well as world leaders were under the misguided impression that Trump’s campaign rhetoric was just a populist electoral tactic. But within weeks of taking over, he has proved otherwise. The decision to implement a ban on Muslims from certain countries is only one illustration. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia, whose citizens have been subjected to the ban, have long been in the crosshairs of U.S. administrations. Some of these countries have already been subjected to American attacks or invasion. It was the Barack Obama administration that first introduced stricter vetting procedures before giving visas to citizens from these countries. In 2011, it stopped processing visa applications from Iraq for six months. Military allies of the U.S., such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, have been exempted from the ban. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the U.S., are most responsible for the current carnage in the region and the consequent refugee problem.

The killings and the refugee crisis started escalating after the American occupation of Iraq in 2003. Subsequent interventions in Libya and Syria have made the humanitarian situation only graver. It is also well known that support from Saudi Arabia and its wealthy Gulf allies initially sustained and nurtured the militant groups that later morphed into terrorist outfits such as the Daesh (Islamic State) and Al Nusra. Most of those involved in the 9/11 terror attacks on America were from Saudi Arabia. The others were from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. The Trump administration cited the 9/11 attacks to justify the ban. Interestingly, there have been no protests from countries exempted from the ban, such as Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Just days after taking over, Trump issued a scathing indictment of the United Nations, vowing to cut funding to key agencies engaged in humanitarian work. His ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, also issued threats in her maiden speech. She said that the U.N. would have to change the way it did business and issued a warning to members to follow U.S. diktats. “Our goal with the administration is to show value at the U.N. and the way we will show value is to show our strength, show our voice, have the backs of our allies and make sure our allies have our backs as well,” she said.

Trump did not waste much time in publicly reiterating that he wanted to implement many of his controversial election pledges, including shifting of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, though he has yet to give a timetable for this. The Palestinian Authority, along with all the different political factions, have warned that such a move would mean the definite end to the peace process and the two-state solution to end the conflict. Within a fortnight of taking over, the Trump administration raised military tensions with Tehran after Iran conducted a short-range ballistic missile test in the last week of January. Iran has been conducting such tests periodically since the signing of the nuclear deal.

After Iran made significant concessions on the nuclear front, its only form of credible self-defence against foreign military aggression is missile technology. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s National Security Adviser, dramatically announced that the Trump administration was “officially putting Iran on notice” with immediate effect for its missile test and for Tehran’s alleged military support to the Houthi forces fighting Saudi Arabian aggression in Yemen. A Houthi attack on a Saudi naval ship was falsely attributed to Iran by the Trump administration. Before taking up the high-profile job, Flynn had said that he considered Iran “more dangerous than the Daesh”.

Flynn had also described Islam as a “cancer” that “has to be excised”. The Trump administration, borrowing from Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, has chosen to portray “radical Islam” as an existential threat. But in the Trump world view, even groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Houthis in Yemen, along with countries such as Iran that are helping the U.S. fight the Daesh in Iraq, are all part of a radical Islamist grouping. Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s closest advisers and a member of the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), has said that the “Judeo Christian West” was facing an onslaught from “Islamic fascism”.

Under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which ended the international sanctions on Iran, Tehran is not prohibited from testing ballistic missiles. The Obama administration had tried to include a ban on ballistic missile testing in the resolution, but this was opposed not only by Russia and China but also by America’s European allies involved in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. But this did not stop the Trump administration from imposing additional unilateral sanctions on Iran targeting firms and individuals allegedly involved in the country’s missile programme and the banking sector. Flynn said that Iran “continues to threaten the U.S. and its allies in the region”. However, James Mattis and the new Secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson, have said that the nuclear deal with Iran was good from the U.S.’s point of view.

The Iranian leadership was already chafing at the U.S. after Trump included Iran in the list of seven countries whose citizens were barred from entering the U.S. The country’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Qassemi, said it was regrettable that “instead of thanking the Iranian nation for their continued fight against terrorism, [the new administration] keeps repeating unfounded claims and adopts unwise policies that are effectively helping terrorist groups”. Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian Foreign Minister and close adviser of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Iran would continue with its tests of ballistic missiles and characterised Trump’s remarks on Iran as “hollow rants”.

Khamenei himself reacted strongly in the second week of February and dismissed the Trump administration’s threats. In his first public speech since Trump took over, Iran’s Supreme Leader said Iran was thankful to the new President “for showing the real face of America”. Trump, he said, had confirmed “what we have been saying for the last 30 years about the political, economic, moral and social corruption in the U.S.”.

President Hassan Rouhani described Trump as “a political novice”, while Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran “was unmoved by threats” and that his country would “never initiate a war” but at the same time “would rely on our own means of defence”. Iran has no long-range missiles, unlike Israel. In the last week of January, Iran’s central bank announced that it would no longer be using the American dollar “as its currency of choice” in financial and foreign exchange activities.

The Trump administration has also started talking about establishing “safe zones” inside Syria, an idea the previous administration had briefly flirted with. The so-called safe zones idea came in for considerable criticism as soon as it was mooted. If implemented, it would mean the establishment of a “no-fly zone” over Syrian airspace and the possible deployment of American troops on the ground. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford told the U.S. Congress last September that if the U.S. wanted to control Syrian airspace it would have to go to war not only with the Syrian government but also with Russia.

Now the ground realities in Syria have undergone more dramatic changes after the liberation of Aleppo. Russia, along with Turkey and Iran, is trying to broker a peace deal for Syria. The peace talks hosted by the three countries in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, in late January were described as a success, with many Syrian rebel groups participating. Under international law, establishing “safe zones” without the authorisation of the host country or the U.N. Security Council is illegal. Many of the top positions in the Trump administration are filled with avowed supporters of Israel. Instituting regime change in Damascus and splitting Syria and the region into small statelets has been a top priority of the Jewish state and its influential neo-conservative supporters in the U.S. Thankfully, the idea of “safe zones”, which was first proposed by Turkey when the Syrian conflict began, is now not getting any backing from America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies.

The Trump administration’s first publicised attack against high-value Al Qaeda targets turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Trump personally authorised a raid on an alleged Al Qaeda safe house in a remote village in central Yemen.

The raid resulted in the death of scores of civilians, including the eight-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was also an Al Qaeda ideologue. The Yemeni authorities put the number of dead at 57. Most of those killed were women and children. The operation also led to the death of a U.S. Marine. Qasim al Raymi, who was the intended target and described as the third most dangerous terrorist in the world, was nowhere in the scene. Al Raymi, who leads the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), later issued a taped message in which he said that “the new fool in the White House received a painful slap across his face”. U.S. military officials have said that the Trump administration ordered the operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate back-up preparations.

Obama had refused to give the green light to the Pentagon to conduct commando raids in Yemen and had left the decision to his successor. The Saudi-backed government in Yemen announced in the second week of February that it would no longer give permission to American special forces to conduct raids on its territory, after grisly pictures of killed and wounded children who died were widely published in the region. Yemen’s Foreign Minister Abdulmalik al-Mekhlafi said the U.S. raid amounted to “extrajudicial killings”.

However, the White House spokesperson has continued to claim that the raid was “highly successful”. The raid in Yemen, in retrospect, will be seen as an inauspicious beginning for the Trump presidency in West Asia.

Indian cooperation

In South Asia, the strongest ally of the U.S. at the moment is the current Indian government. Trump had said during his election campaign that he loved India and “Hindus” in particular. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to Indian officials, had a detailed telephonic conversation in the last week of January. India’s primary concern is the H-1B visa issue. In his campaign, Trump had promised to drastically cut the issuance of H-1B visas, which are crucial for the Indian tech industry; India is the largest beneficiary of the visa programme. Trump apparently assured Modi that he would take into consideration India’s apprehensions about the proposed move.

The White House, in a statement, said that Trump considered India “a true friend” and that the need to further enhance “economic and defence cooperation” between the two countries was among the issues the two leaders discussed. On the issue of the dangers posed by “Islamic terrorism”, the two leaders are ideologically on the same page. Modi was the fifth world leader Trump called after he checked into the White House. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin and many leaders from European Union states had to wait for a few days for a formal call from Trump.

The Indian government is already cooperating with the U.S. in America’s military pivot to the East. It has supported the American position on the South China Sea issue. India and Japan are the only two countries in Asia that have not signed on to China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative. Both India and the U.S. are not happy with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the growing Chinese influence in South Asia. But India will have a serious problem if U.S.-Iran relations deteriorate further. India has invested heavily in the Chabahar port in Iran and has renewed its economic ties with Tehran after international sanctions were lifted after the signing of the nuclear deal.

Trump also had a cordial telephonic talk with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Trump told Sharif that he was not averse to playing the role of a “mediator or arbitrator” in the dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Although Trump made some disparaging comments about Pakistan during his campaign, the American political and security establishment will need that country’s cooperation as long as U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. There is a consensus in the international community that a durable peace in Afghanistan is only possible with the cooperation of Pakistan.

The Trump administration’s focus will be to get jobs and manufacturing back to America. This policy will not be compatible with Modi’s “Make in India” mantra. The Trump administration will continue with the policy of exerting pressure on the issue of pharmaceutical patents. Defence co-production, envisaged during the Obama administration, could also be a casualty. India was designated as “a major defence partner” of the U.S. by the Obama administration. Lockheed Martin had offered to manufacture F-16 fighters in India. The U.S. now sells more than $15 billion worth in armaments to India annually.

The Indian government will have to tread carefully during the Trump presidency as the risk of a worldwide conflagration increases.

The Trump administration, within a short period, has already lit small fires in the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea and eastern Europe. It has declared Muslims worldwide a potential threat and alienated the Chinese by threatening to revive the “two China” policy and go to war over the South China Sea dispute. America’s relations with Russia are unlikely to improve despite the apparent bonhomie between Trump and Putin. Trump is now back-pedalling and has reiterated his support for NATO and its eastward expansion.

U.S. & Europe

Transatlantic tensions

world-affairs

On a cold January evening, just days after United States President Donald Trump instituted his travel ban on nationals of seven mainly Muslim nations and temporarily suspended the nation’s refugee programme, some 2,000 people gathered in the northern English city of Newcastle to protest. “Newcastle stands with millions of refugees,” said one of the organisers over a megaphone as a huge crowd gathered in the city centre with placards such as “No Ban, No Wall”, “No to Trump, No to War” and “The vast majority of people in the U.K. completely reject these policies and the values they represent.” The size of the protest, highlighting the depth of feeling across the United Kingdom, surprised many, including its organisers. A huge protest attracted tens of thousands in central London that evening, while marches took place in other U.K. cities, too.

“People are very concerned about the way the world is heading and have joined the movement against racism to start to make their voice heard,” said Daniel Kebede, the co-chair of Newcastle Unite, an anti-racism, anti-campaign group responsible for organising the protest. Further protests are planned later in February, to coincide with a parliamentary debate on Trump’s state visit on February 20. A parliamentary petition against Trump’s planned state visit to the U.K. later this year well surpassed the number of signatures required to trigger a parliamentary debate: over 1.8 million people had signed it by early February. “There is a huge detachment about this between [Theresa] May and the general public,” said Kebede. (A separate petition supporting the state visit has attracted just over 30,000 signatures.)

Even before the announcement that Trump had been invited to the U.K. on a state visit, a particularly high-profile type of invitation that would involve meeting Queen Elizabeth and is not accorded to all visiting leaders, the strong protest movement against him had begun in the U.K. Nearly 100,000 people are thought to have joined the London leg of the worldwide Women’s March on January 21, making it the largest outside the U.S. The size of the protest, which is larger than any that had taken place against Brexit, left many pro-European campaigners wondering what it was that spurred this level of interest, with pro-European Union social media groups debating the issue. There is certainly an overlap in opposition to Trump and being anti-Brexit.

A recent study by The Economist newspaper of those who had signed the parliamentary petition and voting tendencies in last June’s referendum found that “places that didn’t like Brexit don’t like Trump”, with the highest number of signatories in Remain households. “We are standing up to war, we are standing up to racism: these are things that people can easily unite on—and it doesn’t matter how they voted in the E.U. referendum. Things are becoming so perverse that people now feel they need to do something,” said Kebede.

The public opposition to Trump has entered the formal political world too: Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders have called on the invitation for the state visit to be rescinded until the travel ban is revoked. On the Monday after the ban was introduced, MPs held an emergency debate and unanimously passed a motion condemning the ban and the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, describing it as “discriminatory, divisive, and counterproductive”. On February 6, the Conservative speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, astonished many with his clear criticism of the “racism and sexism” of the Trump administration and his opposition to Trump addressing parliamentarians in Westminster Palace. Parliament’s stance has contrasted with that of Theresa May, who, though condemning the ban, has insisted that the U.S. remains Britain’s “most important ally” and has defended Trump as the “democratically elected head of state for our most important ally”.

Still, criticism has kept up and has linked in with the debate on Brexit: while Britain’s partnership with U.S. Presidents is nothing new (Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair and George W. Bush are among the prominent and recent ones), it appears that Theresa May seems willing to go to far greater lengths to quickly woo Trump as the U.K. seeks to forge free trade agreements outside the E.U. Senior figures have pointed out that no President before Trump has been accorded the honour of a state visit so soon into his presidency before his politics became clear.

“I understand the need for a trade deal with the United States, but we cannot on the basis of our eagerness to get a trade deal shrink from speaking truths to the most powerful man in the world,” said former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband during the emergency parliamentary debate.

Trump and anti-E.U. sentiments

The U.S. presidency has not done particular favours for Theresa May’s partnership with continental Europe either despite her protestations that she is in favour of a united Europe. Even before being elected, Trump was a big supporter of movements to split with the E.U., frequently describing himself as “Mr Brexit” and sharing a platform with the U.K. Independence Party’s Nigel Farage during his electoral campaign. His anti-E.U. sentiments have shown no signs of waning since November. During Theresa May’s visit to Washington, D.C., he described the E.U. as a “consortium”, and he has taken a swipe at constituent nations, particularly Germany. Recently, Peter Navarro, who heads the U.S. National Trade Council, told Financial Times that Germany was gaining an unfair advantage from a “grossly undervalued” euro that exploited both the U.S. and other E.U. states.

Breitbart News, the controversial website of which Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, is chair, had expressed its intention to set up German and French versions in January, although neither had been launched at the time of writing.

E.U. institutions had initially been cautious in their response to the new U.S. administration, issuing cautious welcomes to the new U.S. President. “We should consolidate the bridges we have been building across the Atlantic. Europeans trust that America will continue to invest in its partnership with friends and allies, to help make our citizens and other people of the world more secure and more prosperous,” wrote Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, in a letter to Trump shortly after he was elected. The council invited Trump to attend an E.U.-U.S. summit. Leaders of individual member states were equally measured in their initial response, with only German Chancellor Angela Merkel making her welcome contingent on shared values.

The attitude has changed swiftly as Trump’s antipathy to the E.U. shows little sign of easing; Guy Verhofstadt, the E.U. parliament’s chief negotiator on Brexit, told a recent meeting at Chatham House that the U.S. presidency was one of the three forces undermining the E.U. along with radicalised Islam, others being the Russian government and the Far Right in Europe.

“Every European that I met [on a recent visit to the U.S.] had only one conclusion: the E.U. has far fewer friends than ever in the United States,” he said, adding that Bannon had begun preparing the ground in Paris and Berlin to support referendums on leaving the E.U. And while no official meeting has yet taken place between the French National Front’s presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and Trump, she was seen at Trump Towers in January. In November, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a relative of Marine Le Pen, and also a member of the National Front, tweeted that she accepted an invitation from Bannon to work together. Trump’s nominee for U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. is Ted Malloch, a businessman who had drawn parallels between the E.U. and the Soviet Union, a move that has provoked great anger in Europe.

In late January, in a letter to 27 member states (excluding the U.K.), Tusk warned that the new U.S. administration called into question “the last 70 years of American foreign policy”.

Bridge between U.S. and Europe

Theresa May has attempted to position herself as a sort of negotiator or bridge between the U.S. and Europe. She has rested her hopes in particular on commitments she received from Trump during her visit to the U.S. on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Trump’s pre-election comments, which questioned his commitment to the alliance, threatened to upend a fundamental part of the E.U.’s post-Second World War security regime. Her hopes of gaining a bargaining chip with E.U. leaders on this count shows little sign of succeeding so far: during a press conference following an E.U. conference in Malta in early February, Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker were lukewarm while talking about the potential role that Theresa May could take as an intermediary.

Europe’s concerns with Trump’s foreign policy go well beyond NATO and the unity of the E.U.; in a paper for the German Marshall Fund published shortly before Trump took office, senior fellow Hans Kundnani wrote that Trump’s positive stance on Russia—and against sanctions—threatened to wreck the “fragile” European consensus on those sanctions, noting that while nations such as Germany were firm on the need for them, others such as Greece and Italy had expressed scepticism.

Upcoming elections across Europe could pose a further challenge to European unity across those fronts: predictions that Marine Le Pen would be knocked out in the second round of the French presidential election look less certain with the Republican Party’s Francois Fillon’s involvement in a controversy regarding payments to his wife. Her campaign commitments, launched in early February, bore a striking similarity to those of Trump, many relating to immigration controls and protectionist import duties—and, of course, a referendum on France’s E.U. membership.

At the same time, Trump’s opposition may offer opportunities to E.U. leaders to heal fractured relationships. At the recent Malta conference, Juncker spoke of the urgency of the need to establish unity across the group, while others such as Verhofstadt have spoken of the need to strengthen Europe’s own defences, beyond the U.S. “defence umbrella”. Writing for the political website, Politico, two directors at the European Council of Foreign Relations, Mark Leonard and Vessela Therneva, argue that the U.S. and its “ally” in the Kremlin could “provide the push Europe needs to finally resolve its biggest crises”, as the threat of populism is faced in three major elections, in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Interview: Thomas Isaac

Towards decentralisation

the-nation

EVER since a Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala launched a “People’s Campaign” in August 1996 with “democratic decentralisation” as its main objective, the evolution and results of the programme have been observed keenly as it was seen as a trial of an idea venerated in the Constitution and a lesson for States eager to promote local self-government.

Today, there is no other State in India where the virtues of democratic decentralisation are so evident as in Kerala, especially as a result of the People’s Campaign of 1996 for the implementation of the State’s Ninth Five Year Plan.

As Frontline had reported earlier in detail (issues dated August 15, 2003, and December 31, 2004), the campaign encountered a lot of difficulties and the programme was soon engulfed by political storms. Once the LDF government went out of office, it lost steam. Yet, 20 years later, many of its noteworthy achievements remain intact even though people were increasingly sidelined, and governance by the people, the key idea of democratic decentralisation, went out of fashion. By many estimates, today, only about 20 per cent of the local bodies in Kerala continue to perform well by utilising the enormous resources, power and staff that have continued to be at their disposal.

The new LDF government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has just launched another “People’s Campaign”, for the implementation of the State’s 13th Five Year Plan, with the objective of creating a new Kerala and has formed several State-level missions (to address the development needs of the State in areas such as education, health, drinking water and sanitation, conservation of water resources, and total housing). One of the first announcements made by the government after coming to power in May 2016 was that Kerala would continue with the five-year planning process and retain the State Planning Board even though the Central government had decided to do away with Five Year Plans and the Planning Commission.

In this interview to Frontline, State Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, an economist and scholar who has played a key role in the democratic decentralisation experiments in the State, reviews Kerala’s achievements in decentralised governance and the hurdles in the way of sustaining them. He also puts the second “People’s Campaign” of the State government in perspective and explains its importance to the creation of a new Kerala and a new democratic culture in India. Excerpts from the interview:

The decentralisation experiments in Kerala have generated a lot of interest within and outside India. The People’s Campaign launched in 1996 by the LDF government was a landmark event. The State has once again initiated a “People’s Campaign” to implement its 13th Five Year Plan with the declared objective of creating a “new Kerala”. Is it going to be a different type of campaign or experiment altogether?

The focus of the 1996 campaign, with its slogan “Power to the People”, was on the formulation of the Ninth Five Year Plan (and creation of awareness about the devolution of powers, funds and functionaries to the local bodies), the mobilisation of people for it and the informal education (of all stakeholders) about the planning process. What was lacking was [a focus also on] implementation [of development projects]. We are now going to focus on implementation. We have chosen certain specific areas such as improvement of quality of school education, primary health care, total housing, sanitation, organic cultivation, and conservation of water resources. Around these themes we have also established State-level missions, which will support local governments. Missions would mean there would be closer monitoring and it would also imply that there is greater integration of State departmental programmes with that of local governments. So there would be targets and achievements that can be monitored in this new phase. But ultimately the objective would be to create a new enthusiasm and furore so that you move to a higher level of quality of governance.

The achievements of the previous democratic decentralisation campaign have been tremendous. But there were factors that hampered it, and drawbacks and deficiencies too.

The essential task of the previous planning process was that we make a big break with the past—a big bang, so to say—which would create a lot of enthusiasm and social mobilisation which would allow us to change certain styles of functioning that were prevalent. The styles of functioning in governance cannot be changed through government orders. You need the creativity of a movement. So the first phase of the People’s Campaign sought a big bang, a big break with the past by devolving 35 per cent of the Plan funds down to the panchayat bodies, ensuring functional autonomy for local governments, clearly laying down transparent ways of decision-making, and ensuring unparalleled popular participation and transparency.

But the major problem was that the movement was put to an end before these achievements could be institutionalised [see “Derailing decentralisation”, Frontline, December 31, 2004]. So much so even today we do not have statutes that fully reflect the changes that have come about. And in many respects there has been a slide back. Nevertheless, the major achievements have persisted—like no government would ever like to touch or tamper with devolution. Take Karnataka, for example. The Janata government made several changes and nothing remains of them now. But in Kerala nobody would dare do that.

Two, the planning process which allowed the space for participation, inclusiveness, objective thinking, transparency, that have by and large survived the last two decades so that if a panchayat wants to perform well, they have the democratic space to do it. There are about 200-odd panchayats in Kerala that are performing wonderfully and of which anybody can be proud. Our expectation was that once you have these kinds of stellar performances by some panchayats, it would also prompt others to emulate them. But that did not fully take place. It is now a kind of a stalemate where you have about 200 panchayats that perform very well, and even then they waver sometimes. So the new phase of popular mobilisation may throw up yet another crop of panchayats and maybe we will be able to move to a critical mass which will make a big change.

Definitely, the second phase would address many of the pitfalls of the past, with regard to, for example, lack of popular participation in the grama sabhas. Now that we have Kudumbashree [women-oriented community-based organisations for poverty alleviation], it would be very well utilised to ensure greater consistency in participation. Two, bringing in transparency in social audit so that corruption and other ills are curtailed; and three, implementation of projects, which was defective even in the first phase. So now with a little bit of prompting and monitoring by the missions, the mission mode will give an added thrust to implementation. That is what is expected.

ROLE OF MISSIONS

Is not there a concern that such State-level missions will lead to centralisation rather than decentralisation? What exactly will be the role of these missions?

There has been such a suspicion that the missions would create a hurdle to decentralisation. But sufficient care has been taken. There is no mission machinery that runs parallel [to local bodies]. The missions would be setting up State-level targets, say, providing certain major plans that would offer a fillip to local-level interventions. An instance is the issue of quality of school education. It cannot be ensured through State-level interventions; it can only be achieved through local-level participation. Such participation is the answer to privatisation in Kerala. But such a programme also requires major investment, say, for the digitalisation of all school classrooms in Kerala. It costs something like Rs.1,000 crore a year. But it is not just placing computers in the classroom. There has to be a local plan, even an institutional plan, of how teachers would train themselves to utilise this facility; the kind of software that is to be used; the security arrangements in classrooms; how this can be used as a peg to hang a whole lot of academic reforms—because having computers in every classroom is a big break in schools.

This is now made possible because there is popular enthusiasm for it. So really we look forward to multilevel planning being integrated. Earlier, during the first campaign, we all believed there should be a total break [with the State machinery], that there should be no connection with State departments… because at that time a major fight and struggle was going on against departmentalism. Departments wanted to regain their territory and there was major antagonism. Therefore we did not even send the projects of the local governments to the departments. We had a volunteer technical core which was examining and passing these projects. We did not even allow activity overlap between departments and local bodies. Because even in the guise of integration, it would have meant the departments would start ruling the local governments. Now that is past. Twenty years have passed; the local government’s money is their own and they have complete freedom to decide what they want to do.

So do you mean departmentalism, or the problem of the bureaucracy wanting to control it all, is no longer there?

Not to the extent as it was in the past. Departments have accepted that this is a matter of fact. Local-level implementation is by local governments for these missions. So whatever the Education Department is planning will have to be integrated with local planning. Similarly, health care: at the State level some Rs.3,000 crore to Rs.4,000 crore is going to be invested in five years’ time to provide the best tertiary care for people. We do not have to go to these superspeciality private places. All public hospitals will have every facility you can think of. It is a huge investment that is going to come. But if (its benefits) are to be sustained, then morbidity should be brought down. Today people do not die because they (have access) to hospitals, but they are sick (and if the prevalence of diseases in Kerala society continues to be high), then this “free” (subsidised) tertiary care sector cannot be sustained. Therefore, complementary to the investment that is taking place at the State level, you have this people’s health monitoring system at the Public Health Centres [PHCs], which is part of urban planning: and the Health Mission would help them. Palliative and protective measures will also be taken care of entirely by the Plan. But investment in infrastructure and the technical norms for I.T.-enabled health facilities, etc., will be taken care of by the mission.

So these fears of local governments being swallowed by missions are unfounded. They forget that 20 years have passed and that paradigm has changed. You cannot stick on to that paradigm; you have to move forward.

PARTICIPATION IN GRAMA SABHAS

The participation of people in grama sabhas has waned. People seem to have lost interest in them. In most places attendance is fudged, or somehow managed. Would it then be correct to say that despite the institutional and statutory arrangements, real decentralised planning or decision-making by people never became a reality in Kerala?

The problem with grama sabhas in Kerala is that educated people do not come there. That means the quality of deliberations in grama sabhas is very low. How to overcome this is a very ticklish problem. Now, in addition to the issue of quality of deliberations, participation of people in grama sabhas too has come down. Even during the early stages, we were thinking about how to address this problem. We thought the Kudumbashree neighbourhood groups could discuss the agenda in advance and come prepared after their own deliberations—so that the quality of discussions would not suffer much and give space for even the middle class to come in. The solution to improve quality, we thought, was to have pre-grama sabha discussions at various levels. Well, it has not developed that way very much. Particularly, there has been a setback in the last five years in the direction in which it was evolving. Now we have to overcome that.

Was it not the crux of the decentralisation experiment that people from all sections of society come together at grama sabhas and discuss and decide the priority of local development? Now that it has not succeeded, do you think this is as far as any State can go as far as decentralisation is concerned? Is there a way forward?

There is another design mode. See, people have different capabilities. So grama sabhas alone cannot be the medium of participation. You need to have other things—and that is there in the design of People’s Planning—you have got technical committees, working groups, beneficiary committees. A plethora of organisations have mushroomed and each of them provides space for people with different capabilities. Of course, grama sabhas are the basic units in the constitutional framework, but you can go beyond the constitutional provision, which is only an enabling provision. So this is what is important: it is not just grama sabhas, we need a whole lot of platforms for participation of different categories of people.

The first People’s Plan campaign was marred by a huge political controversy over the presence of the core of voluntary resource persons in each local body. Are such committees still meant to operate in the new Plan campaign too? Are the concerns surrounding them still there?

The committees as such are a thing of the past. But why were the committees there in the first place? You had a situation of a new Plan campaign, when for the first time all the local governments in Kerala together were generating some 200,000-odd development projects, and somebody had to read them. Suppose that you gave these projects for review by the State government departments, then that would have been the end of it all.

So we had a committee of experts formed at each local level to look into the technical and financial details of these projects and see if they are in accordance with the guidelines and make recommendations to the district planning committees, which would go through their recommendations and had the ultimate right to decide. That was the idea. The voluntary experts did not have any right to make decisions, but only to make recommendations. But it became a political controversy as they were portrayed as institutions above the local governments, which they were not. The controversy was politically motivated to create a kind of confusion—because there were many people who were uneasy with the local governments and so they picked up this straw.

It was a very bad experience, because so many thousands of experts were willing to volunteer and work for the success of the decentralisation campaign, but you were denying them that right and driving them all away. Now, we will have a panel of accredited resource persons, technical people who meet certain qualifications and from among whom the local governments can choose. But they will not be the agents who give technical sanction to the projects; that will be the job of government engineers and other personnel and they will take responsibility for it.

You were talking about the need for different sections of people with different capabilities being involved through various platforms in decision-making at the local level and not just grama sabhas. But in such a scheme of things, ultimately whose will is meant to prevail, who is supposed to make the decisions, because the ideal of decentralisation is supposedly the empowerment of the ordinary people?

This is the controversial part. Grama sabha in Kerala is not the final decision-maker. Even in the Constitution it is not so. Grama sabha is a forum for people to express their opinion and priorities. And it is followed by a due process of consultation at a higher level so that it becomes difficult for a local government, that is, the elected representatives, to brush them aside, or ignore the wishes of the people.

So, you are trying to create such a process to give the ultimate decision to the elected people—because in Kerala, grama sabhas are held in every ward of a local body. So which grama sabha’s decision should be made binding on the local bodies? This is unlike the situation in States where there are hamlets and all members of a hamlet can vote at the grama sabha. In Kerala, that is not practical. So we have tried to design a due process of consultation at various levels based on the grama sabha recommendations. The elected representatives can then decide on the priority of projects, but they will have to state the reason for it in the Plan document. The Plan document is to be a document which states the rationale for the final selection. So nobody can arbitrarily take such decisions. That was how we had visualised it and that will continue in the same manner.

You mentioned that there were at least 200-odd panchayats in Kerala that were doing very well. Have you found out what makes them tick while others lag behind? After each local body election every five years, is it the same 200-odd panchayats that have continued to do well?

I would say in every panchayat in Kerala, at the local level, there is this democratic space. But what this democratic space is used for will depend primarily on the nature of the elected representatives, the presence of live citizens’ groups or volunteers who are willing to intervene and fight for it, and the sensitiveness of the bureaucracy. All these factors have to come together. But elected representatives can decide that MLAs and MPs are their role models, that they are an exalted group which, once elected, does not have to interact with the people. But you are trying to design a different system at the local level here. It means that such attitudes will have to change, that elected representatives have to seek the help of people and the experts, give them space and acknowledge their capabilities.

One problem with this is when five years pass, unless there is such a big tradition that has been established, that whole model can collapse. That is why many panchayats that did fantastic work do not survive today, primarily because of the changes in the elected representatives. So, that is one big “if”. Secondly, will the citizens’ groups and volunteers decide to intervene and fight? And will they have the tenacity to go on fighting? Some people may give up easily. Then there is the bureaucracy. So there are a lot of “ifs” in the success of decentralisation. But you have raised an important point, continuity of a local administration or elected representative—that is not guaranteed.

Many successful representatives have failed to get re-elected.

In the first People’s Campaign, there was a dearth of people who wanted to contest, particularly, women, who often had to be forced to contest. Now that has changed. Everybody recognises that you are a local power; so much power is there at the local level, and work, there is huge workload too. Yet it is true very good representatives do not get representation again. It is true particularly in the case of women [in a State where 50 per cent of the seats are reserved for them on the basis of a system of rotation of seats]. Seats reserved for women change every five years; while men easily go and contest from another ward, women merely get dropped.

SECOND PEOPLE'S CAMPAIGN

Kerala has decided to launch the second people’s campaign for the 13th Plan at a time when the Central government has decided to do away with Five Year Plans altogether.

I do not think the Centre still knows what it wants to do. For instance, they called for the convening of (special) grama sabhas [by district administrations across India to find out top development priorities of every grama panchayat in order to formulate a “united vision of development” for the country]. I do not think the guys who ordered it have ever participated in a grama sabha. It needs so much preparation, particularly if you want to discuss something specific, certain modalities of discussion have to be laid down, publicity given, and so on. It cannot be done in a hurry.

Moreover, even if they convene the grama sabhas, how are they going to prioritise what the people in all the grama sabhas have to say? So apparently it is a farce. You ignore the local government and then you want to go beyond them to the grama sabhas—it is a denial of decentralisation, a mockery of the principles of decentralisation. It is a very sad state of affairs because the Planning Commission, which was initially lukewarm to the idea, was finally moving towards democratic decentralisation. A lot of serious thought was going on at the national level but the BJP government has totally liquidated it….

So I do not think there is any hope in what NITI Aayog is doing and they are mostly insensitive to local-level planning.

But how will it all impact Kerala, a State which wants to continue with the Five Year Plan exercise? Will such a State face difficulties because of it?

Earlier, we would get support from the Centre for the Plan as such. Now the BJP government has scuttled it. We do not know what or how much we are going to get. Earlier, allocation from the Centre was based on rational discussions with the Planning Commission. Now it will depend on the fancies of the Union Finance Minister. It has given such arbitrariness to the decision-making process of the Centre. I agree that there are a lot of countries where there is no distinction between Plan and non-Plan [government expenditure]. But we had perfected a system which I think was fairly good. The only rational criticism against the planning process I have heard is that because of the focus on the Plan, the non-Plan component was neglected. But if you take the allocation, Plan size relative to the Budget has not been going up; if at all, it has been coming down. There was no danger of the Plan squeezing out non-Plan expenditure. What we had was a rational, federal way of debating our priorities, looking at the backward-forward linkages and deciding socially optimal use of the resources. Now the whole power is vested with, not NITI Aayog, but the Union Finance Minister. So Kerala will persist with the old way. We have the freedom to do that.

What problems do you expect because of this decision to go against the national trend?

Nothing; only that, we do not look forward for support to our schemes from the Centre. It shouldn’t matter. Whatever autonomy we have, we will exercise it.

Do you mean that Kerala can find its own resources?

Not very much. But within our given resources, we will use our autonomy through a consultative, regenerative process to reach decisions as to what good projects should be started. See, suppose there is no Plan, then me, the Finance Minister, decides what to do with the money, what are the schemes, and so on. No. We will continue with the Plan process. We have a very powerful mechanism, the State Planning Board, and there are well-laid-out procedures…. Unfortunately, even States where the Congress is ruling are not enthusiastic about it. As far as I know, Kerala is the only State that has decided to stick with planning.

In 1996, when the LDF government launched the People’s Campaign, it had generated a lot of excitement and interest within the State. But 20 years later, even after its inauguration on January 21, the second phase of the People’s Campaign seems to have got only a subdued response. Even the opposition parties seem to have largely ignored it.

It is true that there is a lower degree of popular enthusiasm. When we first launched it, it roused people’s imagination and it was such an audacious statement to make that we are going to give 35 per cent of the Plan funds to local governments without any strings attached. So it roused the people. Now there is not that kind of enthusiasm. But it will come. I tell you the kind of enthusiasm that is generated by the digitalisation programme in public schools (pilot projects have been taken up in my constituency) is amazing. So is the public response to what we have started doing in the health sector, to re-energise public hospitals. The first campaign marked a big break with the past, but now there is not that kind of a big movement. But it will slowly pick up.

United States

Chinese checkers

ATUL ANEJA in Beijing world-affairs

Unwilling to be swayed by the rhetoric, mostly negative, in the mainstream media regarding Donald Trump, the Chinese have begun to make a clinical assessment of the possible fallout of the policy outlines emerging on the watch of the 45th President of the United States.

The purpose of this holistic exercise is to determine, with as much precision as possible, the pressures that the Trump presidency is likely to impose on the fundamentals that define China’s economic rise. These include the continuity of access to the U.S. market, which has played a major role in China’s export-led growth in the decades following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Similarly, there are concerns regarding a possible change in rules that would make it more difficult for China to acquire economic assets in the U.S. These acquisitions are arguably necessary for Beijing to leapfrog into an advanced industrial economy status, thus escaping what has been called the “middle income trap”.

Although Trump has shown no signs of pursuing an ideology-driven agenda, such as the so-called promotion of democracy pursued by his predecessors, the Chinese are vigilant towards any moves the U.S. might make that would challenge China’s one-party political system or its self-perception of national territorial sovereignty.

The Chinese have already made it demonstrably clear that they completely reject Trump’s questioning of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan under the “One China” principle. Similarly, the Chinese are expected to reaffirm, without any doubt, that Beijing’s authority over Tibet and Xinjiang, the perceived fault lines supposedly prone to secessionist appeal, is cast in stone. Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, and the North Korean issue, could also become points of friction between the two countries.

The Chinese have begun to view Trump through the prism of their own historical experience. Thus, comparisons with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the iconic leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), have become pervasive in state and social media. Chinese think tanks are also engaged in drawing comparisons between Trump and the PRC’s foremost leaders. This was most visibly highlighted in an article in Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with the flagship People’s Daily, run by the Communist Party of China.

“Every man sees this world according to his own experience. And Chinese people’s political experience is largely based on his or her interpretation of Mao and Deng’s legacies,” the daily quoted Jin Canrong, associate dean of the Department of International Studies at the Renmin University of China, as saying.

He added: “Trump’s dissatisfaction toward bureaucrats and interest groups and his direct call [on Twitter] for the public to rebel against the establishment does remind Chinese people of Mao. But his focus on economic development, his lack of interest in ideology, and his drawing back from global input bear some similarities to Deng.”

Some of Mao’s supporters, as seen in an article in Canghaishibei, a WeChat microblog account, praised Trump’s inaugural speech as “no less than the Declaration of Independence”. The article, as quoted by Global Times, lauded Trump’s address as an illustration of “class struggle” at its core. On the contrary, Mao’s critics in China slammed the speech, deeming it an evocation of the disastrous Cultural Revolution that lasted for a decade and ended in 1976. On Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, Trump was photoshopped into Cultural Revolution-themed posters. The American President was shown dressed in a Mao-style suit, standing against a background of proletarian workers, peasants and soldiers waving the red flag. Instead of the Little Red Book, the posters showed Trump holding the book he had authored: The Art of the Deal.

But many others perceive Trump in the image of Deng. “If we look at Trump without pre-established impressions, we can see that a theme of Trump’s beliefs is to focus on [the country’s] own affairs.… From this perspective, Trump is truly a student of Deng Xiaoping,” reads a paper released by the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies under the Renmin University of China in November.

It called on people to rise above discussions of populism or other questions defined by the West. Instead, it stressed the necessity of analysing Trump from an original new perspective. “Both Trump and Deng are at a historic crossroads where they want to bring about major changes in domestic and foreign affairs for their countries,” the article read.

In dealing with the Trump presidency, the Chinese seem to be quickly grasping the new rules of economic engagement with the U.S. Consequently, unlike the previous period of reforms, the Chinese appear to impart greater focus on pushing investments in the U.S. in order to support Trump’s agenda of creating more jobs at home. The focus on outward investments by Chinese companies, a theme advocated with considerable vigour by Chinese President Xi Jinping, was most evident in the meeting of Trump with Jack Ma, the head of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Following their talks in New York, Ma announced that the Alibaba group would create one million jobs in the U.S. over the next five years. Trump described his interaction with Ma as “a great meeting”. “He loves this country and he also loves China,” Trump said. “Jack and I are going to do some great things.” He called Ma “a great entrepreneur, one of the best in the world”.

In Beijing, the meeting in New York raised expectations that Trump could indeed be a guest at China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit slated for May. “Though this visit [by Ma] was at the outset a business visit, it will no doubt help improve China-U.S. relations. We are, in fact, looking forward to welcoming Trump’s participation at the international cooperation summit on the Belt and Road this May,” Wang Yiwei, a professor at Renmin University, told Frontline.

In December, Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that the Belt and Road summit and a meeting of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries would top Beijing’s diplomatic calendar in 2017. “The international cooperation summit forum on the Belt and Road initiative… will be a strategic measure to boost the world economy,” he said at a symposium on December 3.

The BRI is China’s mega-connectivity project, with the ancient Silk Road, which connected Asia with Europe, as the touchstone. Through this project, China visualises the industrialisation of the whole of Eurasia and Africa through infrastructure development, including cyber connectivity, energy pipelines, expressways, railways, airports and ports.

As Trump toys with protectionism, and possibly isolationism, at least on a selective basis, and questioning if not demolishing some of the pillars of globalisation, the Chinese appear to have emerged as the leading champions of globalisation. However, Beijing’s version of globalisation with Chinese characteristics has the BRI as the vanguard. This was evident during Xi’s keynote address at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos.

In his address, Xi stressed that over 100 countries and international organisations had given a warm response and support to the BRI, which was initiated three years ago. He highlighted the fact that Chinese companies had invested over $50 billion and launched a number of major projects in the countries along the routes, spurring the economic development of these countries and creating many local jobs. Xi also said that the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in May would discuss ways to boost cooperation, build cooperation platforms and share cooperation outcomes. “The forum will also explore ways to address problems facing global and regional economies, create fresh energy for pursuing interconnected development and make the Belt and Road initiative deliver greater benefits to people of countries involved.”

Simultaneously, with Trump terminating the free trade agreement of 12 countries of the Asia-Pacific, minus China, under the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), China has stepped in to fill the breach by reinforcing its call for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

“The TPP, in any case, was an unrealistic initiative as it excluded China. After all, China is the biggest trading partner with 128 countries and has unique comparative advantages,” Prof. Wang of Renmin University said. Instead of the TPP, Wang backed the RCEP, which has the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the core of the proposed free trade agreement. Besides, India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are also part of the proposed arrangement. “The RCEP is an inclusive proposal. The U.S., if it wants, can also join as partner in the future,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying had said after Trump dismantled the TPP that Beijing would back further negotiations relating to the RCEP, which had already made substantial progress and should be completed at an early date. She also advocated the formation of the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), especially because leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) had already agreed on the vision and a plan to implement this initiative. The urgency to formalise the RCEP is also being shared by other countries in the Asia-Pacific.

Reuters quoted New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English as saying that the U.S. was ceding influence to China and the region’s focus could switch to alternative trade deals. “We’ve got this RCEP agreement with South-East Asia, which up until now has been on a bit of a slow burn, but we might find the political will for that to pick up if TPP isn’t going to proceed,” he said. The report also pointed out that former U.S. President Barack Obama had framed the TPP without China in an effort to write Asia’s trade rules and establish U.S. economic leadership in the region as part of his “pivot to Asia”.

In Beijing, Hua Chunying, when asked whether China could play a bigger role or even assume leadership, stressed that the word “duty” was more accurate than “leadership” to describe the situation. While actively seeking new global opportunities as the U.S. turns inwards, the Chinese have made it clear that any calls from the U.S. that question the “One China” policy in Taiwan are off limits and non-negotiable. China went ballistic when Trump took a congratulatory call from Tsai-Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan, and later sought to turn the “One China” policy into a bargaining chip for concessions from China. To this, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang asserted that the “One China” policy was the political foundation of bilateral ties and was “non-negotiable”. “It must be pointed out that there is but one China in the world, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China,” Lu said in a statement. “We urge the relevant party in the U.S. to realise the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue and abide by commitments made by previous U.S. governments to the ‘One China’ policy and the principles of the three joint communiques,” he added.

Going beyond diplomacy, China reinforced the depth of its commitment to the “One China” policy by making it plain that nothing was off the table, including nuclear weapons, in the defence of the fundamentals of its territorial sovereignty. An op-ed in Global Times cited media reports from Hong Kong and Taiwan that showed pictures of China’s Dongfeng-41 ballistic missile. The references to the DF-41 missile were not accidental. The Dongfeng-41 is a nuclear solid-fuel road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile. According to Chinese estimates, it has a range of 14,000 kilometres. With that reach it can target any part of the world with its devastating payload of 10-12 nuclear warheads. The pictures were apparently taken in Heilongjiang province in north-eastern China. The daily quoted military analysts as saying that this was perhaps the second Dongfeng-41 strategic missile brigade and that it should be deployed in north-eastern China. The write-up cited “reports” as saying that “the Chinese military intentionally revealed” the Dongfeng-41 and connected it with Trump’s inauguration.

There were two other missile launches, speculative or real, with an unambiguous message for Team Trump. On January 31, The Washington Free Beacon, an American news website, reported that in January China had tested a new version of the DF-5C intercontinental ballistic missile which was capable of carrying 10 manoeuvrable warheads. In a somewhat ambiguous response to the article, China’s Defence Ministry said that it was “normal for China to carry out scheduled scientific research and tests within Chinese territory and the tests don’t target any specific country or object”. But in a specific message to the U.S. and its allies, chiefly Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, the Defence Ministry, during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in January, posted a video on its website that showed deployment of the 1,000-km range DF-16 missiles deep inside a forest during military exercises. The weapon can strike Okinawa, home to several U.S. bases, the Japanese home islands, as well as Taiwan and the Philippines. It extends China’s firepower over what is called the “first-island chain”—the sea space that Beijing intends to control.

Towards the end of December, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its carrier strike group sailed towards the West Pacific through the Miyako Strait between Okinawa-hont and Miyako-jima, the Japanese Defence Ministry said in a report released on December 25. The Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun claimed that this was the first time that a Chinese aircraft carrier had sailed to the West Pacific and said that its purpose was to “break through the first island chain comprised of Japan, Taiwan and other islands”. China’s naval assertion, which dovetailed into the display of its nuclear deterrent on land, was also seen as a counter to Trump’s tough stance against Beijing on Taiwan and the South China Sea issue.

Some analysts said that Liaoning’s voyage was also meant to fulfil some of the long-term plans of the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) or PLAN. For instance, by sailing into the West Pacific, the Chinese carrier strike group aimed to familiarise itself with the maritime environment and hydrological, meteorological and other conditions in these waters. Besides, PLAN sought to improve its long-distance operability, overall training and combat capability by undertaking the voyage.

China’s naval manoeuvre followed Trump’s accusation of China building a “fortress” in the South China Sea. However, there are early signs that tensions with the U.S. in the South China Sea may be easing. China claims most of the South China Sea within the parameters of what it calls is the nine-dash line. But its claims are contested by most of the littoral states, including Vietnam and the Philippines, notwithstanding the rapid improvement of ties between Beijing and Manila following the election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines. Duterte is set to visit Beijing for a second time during the BRI conference in May.

Backtracking from some of the tough talk on the South China Sea, the new U.S. Defence Secretary, James Mattis, struck a conciliatory note. At a press conference in Tokyo in early February, Mattis stressed that open diplomacy was the best path forward to resolve the issue. China quickly welcomed his observation, with Lu Kang lauding recourse to diplomacy as “worthy of affirmation”. “We hope that countries outside of the region can respect the joint interests and wishes of countries in the region” Lu said. Even as China, fixated on its goals of realising the “Chinese dream”, adapts to the Trump presidency, it has not lost sight of avoiding a cold war with the U.S. in the coming years.

With the help of Russia, its key ally, China has latched on to the long-term objective of a globally defining partnership among Russia, China and the U.S. In late January, it signalled its willingness for a trilateral partnership with Russia and the U.S. following Moscow’s advocacy that the three countries should jointly develop their relations. On Twitter, photoshopped pictures emerged of Xi, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin replacing Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin in the famous picture of the Yalta conference taken towards the end of the Second World War.

To a question regarding Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks in Russia’s lower house of parliament, where he proposed a trilateral partnership, Hua Chunying said that China had taken note of Lavrov’s “positive comments. She explained: “China, Russia and the U.S. are all major countries with worldwide influence and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. For world peace, stability and development, we share a great responsibility. We aim to build a generally stable and positive major country relationship; with Russia, we [wish to] deepen our comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation and we also work to promote the major country relations with the U.S. So, we are willing to work together with Russia and the U.S. to address the problems and challenges facing the world today.”

During his address, Lavrov had said: “We would like to see Russia, the U.S. and China develop relations together. This triangle should not be closed and directed to projects that will alert other states.” He also said that the development of Russia’s relations with any country of the world “will not challenge Russian-Chinese strategic partnership”, Russia’s Tass news agency reported. Lavrov’s statement acquires importance in the wake of a debate in China on whether Beijing would be marginalised in the wake of closer ties between Moscow and Washington.

Anticipating a substantial, if not fractious, dialogue with Washington, Beijing appears to be prepared with a basket of options that it can exercise in tune with the mixed signals likely to emerge from the White House in the months to come.

China’s leaders seem ready to face the headwinds that are likely to emerge from the U.S., and wherever possible, turning them into opportunities to promote its rise as a new-age great power.

Demonetisation

Digital illusions

the-nation

MORE than two months after demonetising an overwhelming proportion of the currency in circulation, the Narendra Modi government now appears to have settled on its key objective for setting out on the unprecedented economic adventure. After shifting the goalposts several times—initially it was a means of combating terrorism and fake currency, later it was a war on black money and still later it was to forcibly march the country towards a “cashless” future, which was then modified to a more reasonable “less cash” society—the government now ostensibly has the road map to undertake the hazardous journey to an age when cash will no longer be king.

There is no better and time-tested means for a government bent on carrying out its whims than to appoint a committee headed by a former bureaucrat to give it the report that would justify what it has already decided to do. In August 2016, months before demonetisation, it constituted the Committee on Digital Payments, chaired by Ratan P. Watal, Principal Adviser, NITI Aayog, and former Secretary, Ministry of Finance. The committee dutifully submitted its report in double quick time on December 9, which was approved by the Finance Ministry on December 27.

The haste with which the committee has gone about its business is evident throughout the report. The committee’s slant is also evident in its approach, especially the reverence with which it welcomes the demonetisation move, even though it was commissioned before November 8, and its recourse to suspect data from private industry and multinational companies even when better quality data were available from official sources such as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The report’s lack of rigour, especially in tackling the substantive issues pertaining to monetary policy, was also hindered by the fact that not a single economist of worth, not even a specialist in monetary economics, was present in the committee.

Reckless rush

However, to blame the committee alone would be futile. The government, by pursuing an ambitious and reckless push towards “less cash” before setting out a regulatory framework governing digital payments, in effect, placed the cart before the horse.

The report reveals not just the haste with which the Watal Committee has pursued its mission with evangelical zeal but its utter lack of respect for conceptual issues. Nowhere is this more evident than in its recommendation that the regulatory responsibilities for governing the digital payments system be distanced from the RBI. This not only is out of tune with global practices, but it reveals the committee’s sheer inability to understand the fact that although payments account for just a small fraction of what a banking system does, they impinge on modern banking and monetary policy in crucial ways.

In a modern economy, currency creation by the central bank through fiat money is not the only means by which money is created. Deposits with banks, for instance, which provide the base for credit creation, are a means by which banks “create” money. From this perspective, a mobile wallet service provider also acts like a bank; even the users’ monies are held only for a brief period until transactions happen.

Thus, it appears fit and proper that such services are also governed by the central bank. However, the Watal Committee has recommended that they be supervised by an entity that has a measure of independence from the RBI. This suggestion is dangerous because such entities can potentially pose a systemic risk, which is a key responsibility of a central bank. There is also the risk of regulatory capture of the suggested body, the Payments Regulatory Board (PRB), if sections of the payments industry exercise their newly acquired clout.

The committee’s enthusiastic acceptance of the “go cashless” mantra is also evident in the data it has sourced. A good example of how it cherry-picked data is its use of a highly dubious (or at the very least, utterly misplaced) dataset to make the point that India is far too dependent on cash. It points to data sourced from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other sources to claim that India’s cash-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio is 12.04 per cent, much higher than countries such as Brazil, Mexico and South Africa.

However, this much-abused dataset, quoted widely by advocates of demonetisation, is an inaccurate measure because it only captures the extent of physical currency in circulation and ignores short-term deposits, which are defined as “broad money”. Logically, these deposits must be included because they are virtually on call by depositors and are, therefore, liquid. Secondly, the fact that such deposits have been increasing as a proportion of the currency in circulation, aided by the spread of banking in India, makes them particularly relevant in the Indian context. The committee, in its bid to justify sending the nation on a cashless path, proceeds to evaluate the “high” costs that cash imposes on the Indian economy. It quotes from McKinsey and Visa, both of which may have a vested interest in India’s mission to go cashless, to drive home the point that going digital would result in huge savings. It quotes McKinsey to claim that “transitioning to an electronic platform for government payments itself could save approximately Rs.100,000 crore annually, with the cost of the transition being estimated at Rs.60,000-70,000 crore” and a Visa report that claims a total investment of Rs.60,000 crore over five years towards creating a digital payments ecosystem could reduce the country’s cost of cash from 1.7 per cent of the GDP to 1.3 per cent.

Even while pushing the benefits of going cashless, the committee does admit that the transition to digital payments “cannot be agnostic to the actual costs incurred by the end customers, the reasons for preferring cash, and the factors inhibiting the uptake of existent channels of digital payments”.

A large part of the Indian economy is its “black” counterpart, estimated at about 60 per cent of the legitimate part of India’s national income. Since a significant portion of the currency in circulation caters to the demand from the shadow economy, apart from the huge segment that is engaged in legitimate but informal economic activity, these estimates miss a significant chunk of the economy and its need for cash. Conceptually, to that extent, they significantly overstate the extent of cash relative to real GDP, including the portion missing from official data.

The naive assumption that digitalised financial transactions are scale-neutral and costless, painless and efficient lies at the heart of the Watal Committee’s report. This has obvious implications for India’s large informal economy, which the Modi government is pushing, under pain of death, towards formality through digital channels. For instance, basic data on the usage of debit cards show how skewed the demand for cards is in India. In August 2016, cash withdrawals at ATMs accounted for 92.28 per cent of the value of all debit card transactions in the country. Thus, less than 8 per cent of the total value was made at point-of-sale (PoS) terminals.

This statistic is a clear indication of a divide that mirrors the income and consumption divide in Indian society. When banks issue cards (debit, credit or any other), card payment system companies such as Mastercard and Visa provide an interface with the customer for which the issuer pays a fee, which is, in any case, recovered from customers. According to a recent study by Visa, the penetration of PoS terminals has slowed down significantly since 2012, when the RBI set limits on what the card companies could charge as merchant discount rate (MDR), the amount charged from sellers. This reveals that card companies may have been slowing down penetration in order to bargain for a bigger slice of the transaction fee. Although the rates apply not just to card-based purchases but to cash withdrawals too (and have been waived or lowered in the wake of demonetisation on a purely temporary basis), there is no guarantee that they will not increase once the situation returns to normal. This is aggravated by the fact that the government may have little or no control, or the will, to prevent banks and card issuers from charging higher rates later. This has been demonstrated in the past with, for example, ATM-based withdrawals, for which customers have to pay a fee after a minimum number of transactions.

The flat fee (as a percentage) is regressive, especially because it punishes smaller sellers. It is in this sense that finance, digital or otherwise, is never scale-neutral. The fact that the immediate victims of demonetisation are small-scale producers and retailers implies that the balance has been tilted against them and in favour of larger producers and retailers after November 8. By skewing the field against small and tiny enterprises, demonetisation has been the vehicle for a massive and unprecedented transfer of incomes and wealth from the poor to the rich.

There is also a fundamental asymmetry in the use of technology in the financial services industry. ATMs, which have been around for decades, were originally touted as a technology that increases efficiency in the use of cash; you only need to withdraw as much as you need, so there is no motive to hoard cash. But that was not the motive for introducing ATMs; the real reason was that they enabled banks to reduce their workforce to cut costs. As ATMs became more ubiquitous, banks started moving from cost cutting to profit-seeking by levying a fee for every transaction above a minimum threshold. In effect, the gains from technology are boosting the profitability of banks while the wider systemic benefits made possible by the same technology have been sacrificed, as the imposition of fees above a minimum threshold actually drives people to hoard cash.

A study by Visa in October 2016, titled Accelerating The Growth of Digital Payments in India: A Five-Year Outlook, reveals that a one percentage point reduction in cash in circulation as percentage of GDP would require digital transactions of personal consumption expenditure to multiply ninefold. In other words, Visa suggested that digital transactions as a percentage of personal consumption expenditure would need to increase from 4 per cent to 36 per cent if the cash-GDP ratio has to reduce from 11 per cent to 10 per cent.

Security concerns

Apart from these weighty economic issues, which are central to the move towards digital financial transactions, there are other critically important issues that the committee has either ignored or swept under the carpet. The question of privacy and security was a central issue at a recent conference on digital payments organised by HasGeek, a platform for software developers, in Bengaluru. Several experts, including some from the payments industry, pointed out the serious security and privacy issues that are being ignored in the rush to go digital. For example, an expert on data security warned that the mindless rush to mobile-based transactions was especially scary because most Android phones are vulnerable because they leak data. In fact, he noted that it may be safer for Android mobile users to perform digital transactions using desktop browsers.

But what is more scary is the manner in which Aadhaar is being touted by the committee as the magic wand by which the digital era can be ushered in quickly. It recommends that mobile number-based and Aadhaar-based “fully interoperable payments” be prioritised within 60 days and that the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) be responsible for ensuring this.

There has been significant resistance to the idea of an Aadhaar-enabled service for digital transactions, primarily because of security and privacy concerns. Entities such as the Centre for Internet and Society have warned against linking Aadhaar to the financial inclusion project because it violates the Supreme Court stricture against making Aadhaar mandatory. Kiran Jonnalagadda of HasGeek pointed out that the Aadhaar system offered only “single factor authorisation”. He said in a recent tweet that Aadhaar involved only a permanent login ID without “a changeable password”, which, from a systemic point of view, made it open to abuse.

Longstanding critics of the Aadhaar project have pointed out the launch of such a countrywide programme at a time when a regulatory regime is not even in place, and when India does not have privacy protection laws, is dangerously misplaced. They have pointed to the fact that unlike in the case of a debit or credit card, which can be replaced when its integrity has been compromised, the theft of biometric characteristics of a user implies that they are compromised forever. This is not science fiction but a very real possibility as has been demonstrated across the world.

There are also serious worries that the high failure rate of biometric verification would hurt the poor, supposedly the main target group of the Aadhaar project; the large-scale denial of services such as access to the public distribution system has already been documented across the country. Extending a failed system to real-time financial transactions, thus, appears to be dangerously misplaced. The fundamental issue is this: can a digital mode of payment effectively provide the same level of trust between the transacting parties that is central to a cash-based transaction? The answer to that depends critically on whether the digital mode provides the same level of convenience, cost, predictability and certainty.

The Watal Committee has produced a report that the political masters sought. Its lack of appreciation of the economic issues underpinning financial transactions and of the wider economic processes in the Indian economy are obvious. Effectively, it has delivered what the Modi government asked for—an impossible road map to a cashless nirvana for a people already suffering the effects of demonetisation.

Editorial

Stubborn blindness

economy

THE Union Budget is only one of several instruments of economic policy available to the government. It must necessarily take into account not just the national context and the prevailing distribution of economic and political power among the various social classes in the country, but also the international context, more than ever before, given that the sum of India’s exports and imports amounts to a substantial share of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). This year’s Budget, which was presented a few months after the shock and awe of demonetisation, had to contend with that move as well. Notwithstanding these constraints and taking into account the fact that the media hype over the Budget is possibly a bit over the top, the Union Budget is nonetheless very important as the total expenditure of the Union government accounts for between one-eighths and one-sevenths of the country’s GDP.

The Union Budget for 2017-18 was presented in Parliament on the first day of February instead of the last day of that month, as had been the practice for many years. The other distinctive feature this year was that the Railway Budget was subsumed within the Union Budget and not presented separately. Both these features have some negative implications. The database for the Budget is weakened somewhat by its advancement. The subsuming of the Railway Budget within the Union Budget weakens the special attention that the Railways, with its truly all-India character, deserves. Some read this subsuming as a prelude to the privatisation of the Railways.

Be these as they may, Arun Jaitley’s fourth Budget as Union Finance Minister is wilfully blind to the serious negative economic impact of the demonetisation exercise imposed on the country by the Central government.

In a Budget speech that was true to form in terms of being long on rhetoric and short on substance, Jaitley hailed demonetisation as a momentous initiative and claimed that it would produce great benefits in the long run. The Minister presented little evidence to back his claim. His attempt to underplay the damage caused by demonetisation contrasts with the somewhat more sober, even if still wishful, assessment of the Economic Survey prepared by his Ministry.

The fact of the matter is that the demonetisation measure inflicted on an economy that was already showing some evidence of decline in momentum has caused considerable economic harm already, not to mention the tragic and entirely avoidable loss of more than a hundred lives. Estimates by various sources, including the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) and the All India Manufacturers’ Organisation (AIMO) and several independent economists, suggest substantial monetary loss and a decline of between 1 and 2 percentage points in the rate of economic growth.

Economists of widely different persuasions have shown a rare unanimity in highlighting the serious negative impact of the measure on aggregate demand in the economy. Given the damage caused by demonetisation and the consequent decline in aggregate demand, there was a general expectation that the Union Budget would provide a substantial stimulus to the economy to counteract the deflationary impact of demonetisation. However, an examination of the tax and expenditure proposals, which constitute the core of any budget, shows a failure to recognise the need for a substantial stimulus to the economy.

The Budget Estimate (B.E.) of total expenditure for 2017-18 is Rs.21.47 lakh crore as against a Revised Estimate (R.E.) for 2016-17 of Rs.20.14 lakh crore. This works out to a less-than-7 per cent increase in nominal terms. Taking inflation into account and viewed against a GDP growth estimated at 6.5-6.75 per cent, this is no stimulus at all. The total budgeted expenditure of the Union government for 2017-18 is 12.7 per cent of the GDP as against 13.4 per cent in 2016-17, a reduction in relative terms.

There is a great deal of rhetoric in the Budget speech on “large” increases in allocations for agriculture and farmers’ welfare, rural development, education and health. There is also the claim of significantly enlarged spending on infrastructure. The Budget speech suggests a thrust towards agriculture and allied activities and rural development. But the allocation for these two sectors taken together rises from Rs.167,768 crore in R.E. 2016-17 to Rs.187,223 crore in B.E. 2017-18, an increase of 11.5 per cent in nominal terms, implying only a modest increase in real terms. The allocation for education and health was Rs.114,806 crore in R.E. 2016-17. It has risen to Rs.130,215 crore in B.E. 2017-18, again a rather modest increase given the country’s overall low spending on these key sectors. The total expenditure on infrastructure as a share of Budget outlay is also marginally lower in B.E. 2017-18 compared with R.E. 2016-17.

An especially important negative impact of demonetisation has been on employment in the informal sector. There was widespread expectation that the Budget would address this issue by substantially increasing allocation for the rural employment guarantee scheme and possibly initiating a similar urban employment guarantee scheme. However, the allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in B.E. 2017-18, at Rs.48,000 crore, is barely more than the R.E. 2016-17 figure of Rs.47,499 crore. Given the increase in wages for MGNREGS work, there will be a decline in the number of days of employment per household registered in the scheme. A larger point also needs to be made. As data from the Labour Bureau surveys remind us, job creation has nosedived over the past year, and this was a key issue for the Budget to take into account. However, it has made no serious effort in that direction.

Turning to receipts, the tax proposals in the Budget are estimated to result in a loss of Rs.20,000 crore in direct tax revenues. This continues the trend under the present government of persistent tax giveaways in respect of direct taxes even while the rhetoric is about widening the tax base and increasing the share of direct taxes. What is happening is that the indirect tax burden, a large share of which is borne by ordinary working people, is rising steadily. For instance, the revised excise duty collection in 2015-16 was Rs.2.88 lakh crore as against a B.E. of Rs.2.29 lakh crore. In 2016-17, the excise duty collection was Rs.3.87 lakh crore as against a B.E. of Rs.3.19 lakh crore.

Over the last three years, we have seen the abolition of wealth tax in a country characterised by obscene wealth inequality. We have also seen repeated overtures to tax evaders even while the rhetoric around demonetisation was on wiping out black money. These steps do not enhance the credibility of the government’s morality plays. In respect of corporate income taxes, there is reasonable ground for eliminating numerous exemptions. The clamour for lower tax rates on corporate profits is to be assessed against the reality of effective tax rates of hardly 25 per cent on profits accruing to large corporate entities. The several lakh crores in revenue foregone on account of concessions to robust corporate and individual entities does not speak of equity in budget-making.

The economic philosophy underlying the Budget is one which sees the state as, at best, a necessary evil, and believes that the sole path to rapid growth and social well-being is through incentivising corporate investment. It also places exclusive emphasis on so-called fiscal prudence, which is interpreted to mean minimising fiscal deficits essentially through expenditure reduction. The self-serving argument that a lowering of tax rates will lead to an improvement in compliance is not sustained by evidence from across the world. The reason is simple enough: if the marginal costs of tax evasion are perceived to be lower than the benefits from such evasion, compliance need not improve at all.

New Age gurudom

Sashi_Kumar

THE growing dominance of religiosity in the public sphere engineered by New Age gurus and godmen (and women) is a new reality suddenly upon us and which poses a challenge to the secular assumptions of the Constitution. It has been happening over the years and subtly altering our social and cultural context and awareness. We might not have noticed, for instance, that the engagement columns of newspapers had been undergoing a change in terms of the type of events of the day they brought to public notice; that they were no longer mainly about talks or performances or discussions or events which were composite and cosmopolitan in nature, but about religious discourses, or vigils, or proto-religious functions in the garb of entertainment or culture. In recent times, this creeping religious takeover of the public sphere has been compounded by the overlapping shadow public sphere of the mass media in which it is these pop gurus, other than film stars, who dominate and freely air their views on everything under the sun.

They are the very opposite of the self-abnegating spiritual seeker, the cloistered sanyasin. They are intrusively in your face, bearing down upon you from huge hoardings and a rash of street wall posters, from TV screens, from newspapers and magazines, almost as if vying with film stars and politicians, who normally have a run of these media, for public attention. They are, each of them, big brands publicised and promoted by their respective market- and technology-savvy bands of followers. They command the allegiance of big businesses and run their religious establishments like transnational corporations. It is one hell of a spiritual sell.

It is a tiered and hierarchised order of spiritual hard sell and god-mongering out there. The common run of saffron cult gurus who manage to buy time and exposure on one or the other of the numerous TV channels in the religious category keep their credulous flock loyal or captive by further mythologising mythology (if that is possible) and instilling fear, hope and fatalism through therapeutic chants and charms. The ones at the top are deceptively different. They may even scoff at these lowly vendors of Hindu dharma. Theirs is the higher realm where the principles of Vedanta and yoga meet and create new vibrations, fresh insights, inner peace and fulfilment. That, at least, is what is on offer. Organised or ritualistic religion is set aside, or so it is made out, to achieve a distinctly different spiritual transformation. But scratch the surface, or dig a little deeper, and it is much the same syndrome of generating psychological dependence, of tapping into the mass neurosis that the tension of modern-day living throws up.

The Vedanta-Yoga mix was not always a spurious alchemy. When Patanjali Yoga was combined with Advaita Vendanta sometime in the medieval period it marked a shift from Adi Sankara’s Advaita tradition. Sankara significantly was dismissive of yoga because he did not consider yogis truth seekers; for him knowledge alone could remove ignorance, not suppression of thought as demanded in a yogic state of mind. It was Swami Vivekananda who laced Advaita with yoga to propound his famous “universal religion” at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, making for what Travis Webster from the Centre for Traditional Vedanta in North Carolina, United States, calls “psychologisation of Hinduism” in a recent essay, “Secularisation and Cosmopolitan Gurus”, published in Asian Ethnology. Since then yoga has been a legit supplement in religious practice to trigger a supra consciousness.

“Liberation therapeutics”

The New Age corporate gurus seem to mix and match yoga and Vedanta in different combinations and degrees to arrive at their respective trademark spiritual concoctions. They set up their own signature brands of “liberation therapeutics”. Along the way they pretend to, rather than actually do, sidestep normative ritualistic religion. A spiritual nationalism and a propagative fervour lurk beneath their surface beatitude. They liberally draw on and cite mythology, treating it almost as if it is recent experienced history, to illustrate and underwrite their homegrown modern theophilosophy. It is as anachronistic as it is dilettantist.

A recent book, a bestseller, by one such cult figure, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, titled Inner Engineering: The Yogi’s Guide to Joy is a bundle of such contradictions, but then is no worse of for it, going by its market success, because it also conveniently takes recourse to an esoteric (frustrating, actually) theory of the irrelevance or illogic of logic itself. The book, like the first impressions one has of Sadhguru himself going by what seem to be his more rational and enlightened views on issues of public interest, begins on a sound note. Do not, Sadhguru tells us, take him at his word. Question, doubt, interrogate, he exhorts us. He ridicules blind faith and formulaic religion and proceeds to, with promise of systematic exploration and investigation, turn our awareness inward. There is even a simple resplendent Vedantic-cum-yogic charm about the sadhana exercises prescribed to guide us on this promised path.

But then, some distance into this joyride, he undoes all of this by asking us to suspend or get rid of reason and logic, by rubbishing science and scientific method. Towards the end, he is the opposite of the author and guru we started out with. He is wading into mythology, citing his near magical powers to consecrate places and objects, celebrating proliferation of temples and urging us to take a leap of faith, or trust, with him into an unknown where logic and reason and science are unknown. By then it has indeed become difficult and risky to take him at his word.

The context and category in which we find the book perhaps provides a clue to its “ New York Times Bestseller” status. It figures 10th in a listing on The New York Times in early October 2016. The nine titles preceding it are also about personality engineering in one form or the other. First in the list is a book called Designing your life, and the introductory blurb says it is about your not needing “to know your passion to design a life you love”. The second, titled Uninvited, “examines the roots of rejection and its ability to poison relationships, including ones relationship with God”. The third, The Five Love Languages, is “a guide to communicating love in a way that a spouse will understand”; the fourth, The Seasoned Life, is about recipes from a basketball star’s wife; the fifth, You are a Badass provides “tips for the doubtful and self-effacing on roaring ahead through life.”; the sixth, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is “a guide to decluttering by discarding your expendable objects… and taking charge of your space”; the seventh, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, tells us “how to stop trying to be ‘positive’ all the time and, instead, become better at handling adversity”; the eighth, The Whole30, is “a 30-day guide to better health and weight loss”; and the ninth, Pussy, “offers tools and practices for women to reclaim their power”. So there—its place is in the pantheon of quick-fix “how to” titles which are of course what sell fastest and are, for the most part, pop psychological props for their vast mentally or emotionally listless and restive readership.

What the jet-set gurus, with their misleading cosmopolitan veneer and pretence of rarefied thinking, actually achieve is to push religion into regressive identity politics, into a means of mass mobilisation for political purposes, so much so that we are left worrying about the future of secularism enshrined in the Constitution by the 42nd Amendment Act. In an age of privatisation across the board, the one key aspect of life that should be private and personal, namely one’s religion, is dragged into and paraded in the public sphere, vitiating it. It becomes a subliminal, or sometimes not so subtle, majoritarian assertiveness, a process of “othering”, which creates a state of disquiet in society. Religion is no stranger to politics in India. As a way of life it has always enmeshed into the common man’s political consciousness.

Gandhiji understood and harnessed this with remarkable astuteness. His religious-metaphoric invocation of “Ram rajya” did not feed into identity politics. Indeed that was the problem the lunatic fringe, who physically eliminated him, had with him. He would not allow his religious metaphor to be hijacked. As he said of those who tried to: “ Lethe hai naam Ram ka. Karthe hai kaam Raavan ka” (They take the name of Ram and do the work of Raavan).

Cricket Administration

The game wins

the-nation

THE Supreme Court, in a ruling on January 30, set a benchmark for cricket administration in India. It put the 89-year-old, cash-rich Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) under a four-member Committee of Administrators (CoA) headed by former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India Vinod Rai. The other members of the team are the finance expert Vikram Limaye, the historian Ramachandra Guha and the cricketer Diana Edulji. The team will run the organisation until the Lodha Committee’s recommendations are implemented and fresh elections are held.

What started as an investigation into a spot-fixing and betting scandal in the 2013 Indian Premier League (IPL) spiralled into a full-fledged probe into the BCCI’s affairs. Even as BCCI bosses resisted it, the probe gained force and ultimately ended in an embarrassing situation for the cricket body.

The three-member Lodha Committee comprising former Chief Justice of India Rajendra Mal Lodha and Supreme Court judges Ashok Bhan and R.V. Ravindran was formed in January 2015 and entrusted with the job of suggesting reforms in cricket administration. The idea was to cleanse the BCCI as charges of corruption and financial misdeeds had cropped up. The panel found itself saddled with an onerous task.

Cricket’s popularity in India, sadly, had not created an error-free administration module. “There never was any doubt that the BCCI was far better than the other sports bodies in India, but it failed to keep pace with the times in terms of transparency,” said former BCCI president I.S. Bindra.

Bindra was part of a team that set high standards in cricket administration when India conducted the 1987 World Cup under the stewardship of the then BCCI president, S. Sriraman. The veteran cricket administrator was pained to see the disintegration of the BCCI because of “one man’s obsession”. He was referring to former BCCI president N. Srinivasan, whose obstinacy in clinging on to the post even as demands for his stepping down gained momentum, brought about an upheaval in Indian cricket. The BCCI was built brick by brick by cricket-loving politicians such as N.K.P. Salve, Madhavrao Scindia, S.K. Wankhede, Sharad Pawar and administrators such as Sriraman, M.A. Chidambaram and M. Chinnaswamy. The duo of Bindra and Jagmohan Dalmiya worked hard to make the BCCI a financially self-reliant sports body, the only one in India.

A model once

The structure of cricket administration became a model for others to follow. The game’s itinerary was never interrupted and the process of identifying and grooming talent was supported by a team of veteran cricketers. The BCCI grew into one of the richest sports bodies in the world following the launch of the IPL. However, this also brought a lot of trouble to the cricket body as corruption crept in and damaged the reputation of the game.

When Aditya Verma, an unknown cricket lover from Bihar, came knocking at the doors of the judiciary to challenge the mighty Srinivasan, little did he realise that the fight would culminate in a path-breaking judgment. Verma was appalled at the manner in which the game was run. He especially took exception to players from his State being denied an opportunity to participate in tournaments conducted by the BCCI. The bifurcation of Bihar took cricket away to Jharkhand, and his campaign to seek recognition for the Cricket Association of Bihar (CAB) started a battle which he ultimately won when Srinivasan was removed as BCCI president. It also led to the formation of the Lodha Committee.

Verma fought relentlessly to expose a system that had come to be known as a cosy club. The impression that the BCCI was an opaque body was confirmed once the Lodha panel started work on its assignment to suggest reforms to the cricket body. It was flooded with complaints about the functioning of most of the State associations, where cricket administration had become a family affair.

“What stopped the BCCI from accepting the Lodha panel’s recommendations?” asked Bindra. Many believe it was sheer arrogance. The BCCI was warned by the Supreme Court to reform itself. Former Chief Justice T.S. Thakur observed: “BCCI thinks it is a law unto itself. We know how to get our orders implemented. BCCI thinks it is the lord. You better fall in line or we will make you fall in line.” The BCCI blundered in not responding positively to the Chief Justice’s observations.

What hurt the BCCI most was its rigid attitude towards the judiciary. “It was an unwise move,” said Bindra on the BCCI’s continued defiance of the judiciary. A veteran cricket official admitted that the BCCI had lost face in the spot-fixing scandals that plagued the IPL. “The BCCI ought to have understood the situation, and accepting the Lodha reforms would have been a positive step. I had suggested that the top brass of the BCCI try and meet the Lodha panel and explain some of the issues that could hamper the smooth functioning of the cricket body. But my efforts did not get the approval of those in power,” the official said.

The BCCI had its task cut out once the Lodha panel’s recommendations were accepted in toto by the Supreme Court. Former India all-rounder and Member of Parliament Kirti Azad wrote in a column: “For years, the BCCI had positioned itself as a spoilt brat, with the full support of rootless and irresponsible politicians backed by scheming lawyers, and they had long started believing that they were above the law of the country. Certain lawyer-politicians were egging them on to take on the highest court of the land, but thankfully, their bravado has been cryptically—and tragically for them—cut short.”

Azad was one of the most vocal voices demanding change in the cricket administration. He highlighted the example of the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA), which had to be handed over to Justice (retd) Mukul Mudgal so that it could be administered properly. “The DDCA is the most corrupt sports body in the country,” Azad has maintained. Associations like the DDCA dented the image of the BCCI and it was just a matter of time before the parent cricket body suffered a huge loss of reputation. When the Supreme Court removed Anurag Thakur and Ajay Shirke from their posts as president and secretary respectively, the message was loud and clear: Transparency and accountability were the key to good cricket governance.

Not that Srinivasan and Anurag Thakur were incapable of good administration. Both can claim credit for some positive steps taken for the welfare of cricketers and also for having introduced a stream of measures that helped improve the game. But both fell victim to ill-advised moves, especially Anurag Thakur, who was arguably the most cricketer-friendly administrator in recent times. It was unfortunate that all his good work was nullified in one stroke since he continued to defy the judiciary.

Bishan Singh Bedi, former India captain, said on the day of the judgment: “This is a very important decision for Indian cricket and for all sportspersons. This is not a happy moment as we should not have been in this situation in the first place. A few people had made cricket their own property. The decision was much needed and we are indebted to the Supreme Court for taking the bold step. Cleaning up [the BCCI] will be possible now.”

Hard lessons

For all its efficiency in building a cash-rich sports body, the BCCI has learnt some hard lessons at the hands of the judiciary. As Bedi pointed out: “Reforms in Indian cricket administration should have been put in place 50 years ago. The Supreme Court did not jump in on its own but it brought about some sanity and honesty in cricket administration. Therefore, the Justice Lodha panel was important.”

The reforms bode well for Indian cricket. The BCCI, always averse to criticism, was forced to fall in line as the CoA took charge. In a body where politicians of different parties coexist comfortably, cricketers had little say until the Lodha panel came to push their case. Such is the impact of the Supreme Court ruling that more and more players are now looking at the possibility of joining the administration. They have found the voice and strength to expose self-promoting officials in various associations where they had little role to play otherwise. “But for the Hon. Supreme Court, we would have continued to languish and suffer silently at the hands of the officials,” said a former international cricketer who is leading a revolt in his State against the existing set of administrators.

The BCCI challenged the Supreme Court ruling but its review petition was dismissed. The message was clear. Reforms were unstoppable and the BCCI had no choice but to fall in line. As the cricket world watched, the BCCI was taken over by the CoA. The fight that Aditya Verma had begun by challenging Srinivasan had reached an end. Victory for the game in the shape of the Lodha Committee reforms is the way forward.

Cover Story

Reluctant rebel

cover-story

A little after 8:30 p.m. on February 7, when Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam emerged out of “Thenpennai”, his official residence located off Greenways Road in Chennai and hopped into his official vehicle, no one had any idea where he was headed. His head of security had already left, after he was told that there was nothing else to do for the day. He had told his staff that he might head to Poes Garden, the residence of the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, if V.K. Sasikala, its current occupant, asked to see him.

Panneerselvam, taking a leaf out of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M. Karunanidhi’s book, misled his security staff about where he was headed. This strategy of not revealing the destination or giving misleading information about it was central to Karunanidhi’s practical approach to handling everyday politics. Surprise has its uses, he once told this correspondent, after a short-lived fast at the Anna Samadhi on the Marina in early 2009; it attracts eyeballs, throws opponents off guard—even if only for a few hours—and has the potential to significantly alter outcomes.

Even as the cavalcade reached Greenways Road, Panneerselvam asked the driver to proceed to “Beach Road” (Kamarajar Salai). No alarms went off. The top brass of the State police and the intelligence wings of multiple agencies, who are informed about the minute-to-minute details of the Chief Minister’s movements, did not think anything was amiss. After all, Fort St. George, the seat of power and the location of the Secretariat, was at one end of the stately Kamarajar Salai. Also, the police were not in the habit of according the same respect—which bordered on reverence and was reserved for Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi, and, to a lesser extent, even M.K. Stalin, when he was Deputy Chief Minister from 2006 to 2011—to OPS, as Panneerselvam is popularly known. OPS, for them, was a political lightweight.

The police were caught napping. As the Chief Minister’s convoy approached the Ezhilagam T-junction at 8:50 p.m., where Walajah Road joins Kamarajar Salai, Panneerselvam, who, like most politicians in Tamil Nadu occupies the seat next to the driver, asked him to move to the opposite side of the lane. A few feet from the junction, towards the sea, is Jayalalithaa’s make-shift memorial. As the confused driver slowed the vehicle to a crawl, Panneerselvam opened the door and alighted from the car. At 8:55 p.m., he started walking towards the memorial. He stood with folded hands for a moment, head bowed in silence. A few minutes later, he sat down cross-legged. He closed his eyes, head bowed in reverence, and folded his hands in prayer. A few late visitors to the memorial did not even realise that Panneerselvam was seated inside.

Prime-time show

In India, 9 p.m. is prime time on television, when families gather around the TV to see tear-jerker soaps with their food plates in hand. For the politically inclined and the socially conscious, there are a range of often interesting and sometimes noisy debates to choose from. Panneerselvam was on prime time television exactly at the time when households switched on their favourite shows. The first visuals of Panneerselvam at the memorial came from a respected Tamil news channel which happened to have its TV crew close by. The official All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) channel, Jaya TV, arrived a little later and was allowed to film him inside the memorial. The channel did not air the visuals.

The suspense continued for exactly 40 minutes as people across the State watched in rapt attention not knowing what to make of the spectacle. Debaters on TV channels went silent trying to figure out what was happening even as a few Delhi-based journalists, on the basis of inputs from a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician, tweeted that Panneerselvam was going to break rank with the AIADMK. One of Tamil Nadu’s most popular soap opera producers, the actor Radhika, in an informal conversation with this correspondent, said that the TRPs of their mega serials have been affected since the day Panneerselvam decided to sit in penance at the memorial.

It was as if Panneerselvam was seeking direction from Jayalalithaa on the current political situation and what he should do: in fact, he did mention that he was at the memorial to clarify the many confusions that had taken hold of him. There’s also a moral angle to Panneerselvam’s conflict: Frontline had reported (“New Leaders, Old Problems”, February 3) that Panneerselvam was on the horns of a dilemma—on how to handle the fast-paced developments in the party.

Post Jayalalithaa’s death, a lone man’s humble prayer at the memorial presented the most powerful image yet in Tamil Nadu politics. Barring two aides, there was no one from the party or his household with him for a large part of the 40-minutes that he spent at the memorial. Even as Tamil Nadu watched him sit with folded hands and closed eyes, it was clear that Panneerselvam’s stock with the people was going up. Many in the crowd at the Marina began raising slogans hailing Panneerselvam, declaring him as the true follower of Jayalalithaa and the inheritor of her legacy.

Around 9:35 p.m., Panneerselvam wiped the tears in his eyes with his bare hands, rubbed his eyes, and stood up with folded hands. He knelt and touched the ground with his forehead, and then walked around the memorial once. He then emerged from the makeshift shamiana that stands over the memorial, turned back and headed towards his car, escorted by his now-enhanced security, even as the media screamed his name out, seeking a reaction. Panneerselvam turned in the direction of the waiting media, took a few steps towards them, allowed a full seven to eight minutes for the media to settle down, and announced that he was breaking rank with Sasikala. “I have come to Amma’s memorial to reveal some truths,” declared Panneerselvam, before launching a dignified yet firm attack on Sasikala. He said that former Minister and party presidium chairman E. Madhusudhanan’s name had been proposed for the position of general secretary initially and that he was unaware of the move to depose him as Chief Minister.

From zero to hero

From Zero Panneerselvam (political opponents in the State derisively called him that; in fact, it was the DMK’s working president Stalin’s favourite phrase during the May 2016 Legislative Assembly elections and earlier) he had become Hero Panneerselvam. The transformation from zero to hero took under an hour on that nippy Tuesday night.

Some of Panneerselvam’s contentions can be easily verified. It was clear that he was being kept out of the inner circle in Poes Garden, a fact that Frontline had recorded in the past. But even the events of February 5, the day Sasikala was elected the party’s general secretary, indicate that Panneerselvam was not officially informed of the event.

On February 5, Panneerselvam left his residence at around 9 a.m. to visit the Ennore coastline, where a massive oil spill, a result of a collision between two ships on January 20, was threatening to pollute much of the Chennai coast and endangering livelihoods. He was accosted by a news TV crew there and was asked about the AIADMK MLAs’ meeting. Panneerselvam just smiled at them and walked away. Later that afternoon, he proposed Sasikala’s name for the post of Chief Minister, couriered his resignation to the Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao, and thanked the people for their cooperation.

Three actions of Panneerselvam did not sit well with the larger, staged narrative of Sasikala being the unanimous choice of the AIADMK. One, Panneerselvam had begun the day by conducting his official duties, which included the visit to the Ennore coast. Two, in his resignation note to the Governor, he used the phrase “due to my personal reasons” before saying that he was tendering his resignation. Three, he wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, thanking him for the support he had extended during his two-month tenure as Chief Minister.

If the first action was a deliberate attempt to make it look as if he was unaware of the fact that Sasikala was being elected legislature party leader, the second one dropped the hint that all was not well with his resignation. Panneerselvam’s act of thanking the Prime Minister was clearly out of line: it was not as if the Prime Minister had sanctioned the funds that the State sought after Cyclone Vardah of December 13, 2016, or for the unprecedented drought conditions across Tamil Nadu.

One of the first important persons to move from Sasikala’s camp to Panneerselvam’s was V. Maithreyan, the three-time MP who was a member of the BJP before joining the AIADMK in 2000. He reached the official residence of OPS the same night, on February 7, and pledged his support. “Being an Amma loyalist, to continue Amma’s legacy, OPS remains the people’s only choice,” Maithreyan told Frontline. “That is why I support him,” he added. Namakkal MP, P.R. Sundaram, joined the OPS camp soon after. The 65-year-old agriculturist and two-time MLA said that the one consideration in his mind was his people: “The people of my constituency and my district told me very clearly that I have to be with the Chief Minister and strengthen his hands. Amma [Jayalalithaa] chose him as Chief Minister. I have to be with him at this time.” He said it was clear that the people of Tamil Nadu were behind OPS.

A few MLAs, too, have moved over to OPS’ side, but the Sasikala camp, clearly, has the majority required in the Legislative Assembly at this point. More than a dozen MPs have pledged their support for OPS, and the OPS camp claims that it is only a matter of time before others join OPS.

Given the fact that Sasikala has kept her MLAs in captivity at a resort, this process might take a while. But this not new in Tamil Nadu. Many in the OPS camp point to two such instances in the past: When the AIADMK founder M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) broke away from the DMK in 1972, he barely had anyone with him. But history is witness to the fact that he and his party did not lose an election ever, from the first one he fought until his death in 1987. The second is the case of the shortest-lived Chief Minister in Tamil Nadu’s history, V.N. Janaki.

After MGR’s death, his wife, V.N. Janaki, was chosen to succeed him—and this case, in a limited sense, mirrors the situation prevailing now—and she had the entire party with her. Her opponent in the party, Jayalalithaa, was humiliated in every possible way and driven out of the party. Just a few years later, Jayalalithaa not only took the party away from Janaki, but also led the AIADMK to victory with a massive mandate in 1991.

OPS growing in strength

Almost keeping in line with that script, a steady trickle of supporters is flowing into the OPS camp. On February 9, it was the turn of a former Minister and the presidium chairman Madhusudhanan. The designation might sound bombastic, but in Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, it hardly amounted to anything. But in the post-Jayalalithaa scenario, the post of presidium chairman, acting as a kind of a moral beacon for the party, becomes an important one. Political observers do not miss the irony of Madhusudhanan occupying the post: he is not someone known for his oratorical skills or path-breaking speeches. It was just his street-smart ways that differentiated him in the narrow, dirty alleys of north Chennai, where he cut out his political space. Thus, while the Sasikala camp has the numbers, two of the three ranking leaders of the party, the treasurer, OPS, and the presidium chairman, are aligned against her. Sure enough, one of the things that Madhusudhanan did was to write to the Election Commission of India asking it not to recognise the election of Sasikala as the legislature party leader, said a source in the OPS camp.

This is one of the many wars that is raging, like a subtext, within the AIADMK. OPS is clearly winning the perception war. Not a single person from among the people that this correspondent spoke to—ranging from white collar employees to daily wage labourers—accepted that it was fine for anyone to don the mantle of Chief Minister. “It is a kind of special, higher responsibility. Only certain chosen people should occupy it,” a cab driver explained to me. Sasikala was not that special someone, he added.

OPS’ hands have been strengthened in this perception war by a few professionals, who have unhesitatingly moved to his camp without fear of the outcome in the current drama. One such professional is “Aspire” Swaminathan, who unofficially spearheaded the AIADMK’s social media campaign to great effect during the May 2016 elections. He was among the early supporters of OPS. Swaminathan proved his mettle almost immediately. In response to an “I support OPS” campaign, which listed a phone number for supporters to give a missed call, the OPS camp was flooded with calls. “The #isupportOPS missed call campaign has received overwhelming response, with over 1.2 lakh calls in just three hours,” said Swaminathan. “Of this, about 3 per cent of the calls are from outside India and about 6.5 per cent from outside Tamil Nadu,” he told Frontline.

Going by the support on social media, and anecdotal evidence from interviews and personal chats, it is clear that the people of the State are with OPS overwhelmingly. But the people’s representatives, the MLAs and the MPs, apart from the party hierarchy itself, are with Sasikala.

OPS did three things that fundamentally altered the narrative in his favour. Apart from announcing that Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence, Veda Nilayam, would be converted into a memorial, he announced the setting up of a commission of inquiry to probe the circumstances of Jayalalithaa’s death. OPS later clarified that he did not have any doubts over the death, but will be setting up an inquiry commission so that any doubts in people’s minds would be cleared. He also directed the police to probe the charge that the MLAs were being held against their will at a resort. There is some controversy over how the Police Commissioner of Chennai responded to his directive, but OPS let the issue pass.

There are many who ask uncomfortable questions about Panneerselvam. Since he also holds the Home portfolio, many wonder why he did not initiate police action against those alleged to be holding the MLAs hostage in the resort in Koovathur. Panneerselvam was also found to be lax in taking action against AIADMK goondas who attacked journalists near the resort where the party MLAs are holed up

The more pertinent question that Manu Sundaram, the DMK spokesperson, raises in a Facebook post is this: “Why did you [Panneerselvam] not take any initiative to convert Veda Nilayam into Jayalalithaa Memorial before you resigned as Chief Minister on February 5, 2017?”

One more question in the minds of many, including Mani Sundaram, is this: “If you [Panneerselvam] were coerced/threatened to submit your resignation, why have you not filed an FIR or initiated police inquiry for the very serious charges you have made?”

The rebel

Even Panneerselvam’s critics agree that it takes a lot for someone like him to rebel and strike out on his own. He has been the quintessential party man, and he has a lot to lose if his gamble fails. In fact, at a function held about a decade ago, Jayalalithaa, speaking about the greed of today’s youth to get to positions of power as soon as they join the party, pointed to Panneerselvam’s slow ascent in the party. When an example is needed to showcase how an AIADMK man grows, it is always this person whose career is recalled.

She pointed out that OPS, who ran a tea shop in Periyakulam town, joined the AIADMK in 1977 as a member. In 1980, he was made Periyakulam town’s kazhaga organising member ( melamaippu piradhinidhi) of the 18th ward. In 1984, he rose to become the secretary of the 18th ward. Later that year, he was also inducted into a feeder organisation, the MGR Forum, as deputy secretary, Periyakulam. The next major leap for him came in 1993, when he was appointed town secretary of the AIADMK in Periyakulam.

In the 1996 local body elections, he was elected Periyakulam Municipal Chairman. The first time OPS got a district-level post was in 1997—20 years after he joined the party—as Theni district MGR Forum secretary. In 1998, he was chosen for a second time as town secretary, Periyakulam. The all-important post of party district secretary, Theni district—AIADMK is an exceptionally strong party in the district—was given to him in 2000. Just a year later, in the 2001 elections to the Legislative Assembly, he was given fielded in Periyakulam, and he won the seat comfortably.

He was made Chief Minister in 2001, but that was not a natural progression; it was a sign of the faith that Jayalalithaa placed in him. (Jayalalithaa became the first Chief Minister to be convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act when special judge V. Radhakrishnan convicted and sentenced her on February 2, 2000, to one year’s rigorous imprisonment for legalising the illegal construction of five additional floors by Hotel Pleasant Stay, Kodaikanal.) After Jayalalithaa got back in the saddle, he initially held the Revenue portfolio. He was given the lucrative Public Works Department portfolio a little later, an indication of his meteoric rise after his election as MLA.

In 2004, OPS was given the task of making the AIADMK “Jayalalithaa-compliant” and was made secretary (elections) of the party. He was elevated to the post of treasurer in 2007, a post that has now come in handy as he battles Sasikala. He has sent an alert to the banks which operate the AIADMK account not to honour transactions of the AIADMK since he has not approved any.

In 2006, when the AIADMK lost power, he managed to win the same Periyakulam seat. Having seen the extent of his loyalty, Jayalalithaa gave him the difficult responsibility of being the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, a make-or-break post as far as the AIADMK was concerned. Jayalalithaa was barely attending Assembly sessions, and OPS had the responsibility to create just enough noise to make sure that the government looked incompetent, inefficient and corrupt. This involved walking a very thin line: if he overdid this act, he would be thrown out of the House, or, worse, suspended for a period of time. A suspension would equal suicide because that would give another, equally honest, straightforward and, more importantly, loyal, MLA the opportunity to take a shot at the government. OPS negotiated this turf carefully. If he took the path of least resistance, he would have been seen as being too friendly with the DMK. This was a strict no-go zone for the AIADMK.

The AIADMK and the DMK have not been mere opposition parties; they have thrived on mutual hatred for each other. Members of the AIADMK, according to a few who have had first-hand interaction with Jayalalithaa, are encouraged to treat DMK men as enemies. Even attending social functions of one another is not viewed kindly. A conversation illustrating the extent to which the leader of the party went to ensure compliance was narrated by a senior person who joined the party a few years ago. The conversation went like this: “Personally, I have no problems with you remaining a friend of [a DMK leader]. But you should remember that the party cadre will not accept it. They won’t like it if you maintain that relationship with DMK people,” Jayalalithaa is said to have told the leader.

OPS rises

OPS’ rise was not a foregone conclusion though. He was nowhere on the radar of the elite or the media of Tamil Nadu when he was catapulted to the limelight as Chief Minister in 2001. When Jayalalithaa had to step down from the post for the first time in late 2001, there was much speculation about who would occupy the post. Many names did the rounds, from party senior K.A. Sengottaiyan to Nainar Nagendran, a first-time Minister. But Jayalalithaa chose a person who nobody had heard of, and whom the media had barely heard of. The first time that many heard the name O. Panneerselvam, a tea shop owner and a former Municipal Chairman from Periyakulam, a nondescript town in the Thevar heartland in southern Tamil Nadu, was after Jayalalithaa’s announcement.

Panneerselvam, who kept the Chief Minister’s seat warm, literally, from September 21, 2001, to March 1, 2002, never once stepped out of line. He signed files as directed by Jayalalithaa, did not occupy the Chief Minister’s chamber, stayed in his own ministerial chamber, and actively discouraged his family and friends from putting up posters hailing his elevation as Chief Minister. It did not go unnoticed in Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, where the only quality that worked was loyalty.

Panneerselvam’s loyalty was rewarded again: after a court in Bengaluru held Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and a few others guilty of amassing assets disproportionate to their known sources of income and sentenced them to prison, Panneerselvam was again the choice for Chief Minister. This time, he held the chair from September 29, 2014, to May 23, 2015. Panneerselvam’s ability to remain out of the media spotlight, keep away from controversies of any kind, keep his family in check, prove his loyalty even when this is not asked of him, and, above all, his ability to convey to the leadership that he was loyal stood him in good stead.

When Jayalalithaa’s death was announced on the night of December 5, 2016, he was the natural choice to succeed her because he was the one who was chosen by Jayalalithaa herself on two different occasions. After Jayalalithaa was admitted to hospital, he was again chosen to handle her portfolios. The party did not look beyond him and he, along with a new Ministry, assumed charge just past midnight on December 6.

OPS was immediately tested. Cyclone Vardah was his first challenge. OPS went around the city soon after the cyclone hit the coast on December 13. His Ministers fanned out to the suburbs and it looked as if Jayalalithaa’s absence was not felt at all. The machinery worked like clockwork. Then came the issue of farmers’ suicides in the delta region, the January jallikattu agitation and the drought. Though the government was found wanting on some counts, it did remarkably well to recover ground and, in the final analysis, conducted itself well in the face of extreme challenges.

The immediate future

While OPS has been maintaining that he will be victorious in the long run, much work needs to be done. Refuting the claim that the BJP government is backing him is one thing. The Sasikala camp has been attacking him, saying that he has a connection with the DMK—the only point that will sell with AIADMK cadre. So far, OPS has dismissed this as nonsense and has made it clear that he will have nothing to do with the DMK.

Perceptions among the masses have a fickle life cycle. OPS’ main task now will be to make sure that the perception that he is the chosen leader stays with the people of Tamil Nadu. That is no easy task, especially if there are conciliatory noises from the BJP and the DMK. In the long run, it is this perception that will make or mar him.

As the current episode unfolds, it is clear that OPS is not without friends. Sasikala, who initially charged Panneerselvam of sleeping with the enemy, the DMK, changed tack on February 12 and ascribed the OPS revolt to the support of a particular “force”. In her anxiety to keep a window open for the BJP, she refused to name the BJP as this force.

Sasikala’s charge cannot be dismissed as nothing. The entire “show”, starting from February 7 night until now, has run very well because it seems to have been well choreographed. Capturing the people’s attention via a prime-time drama, the effort to meet all presspersons one-on-one—which lasted almost the whole night—and the events then on, indicate that there is a plan. This is not a lone man acting out his frustration.

This is where the role of the acting Governor comes in. Sasikala was elected on February 5, at around 2:45 p.m. The AIADMK sent the Governor fax messages, Sasikala claims, to his Udhagamandalam and Mumbai residences. From that time until 9:40 p.m. on February 7, there was no instability either in the AIADMK or in Tamil Nadu. It was after a full two and a half days that the trouble began. Even then, there was no word from the acting Governor.

It was not as if some huge prior commitments had held the Governor back. He was in Delhi for a meeting with the Union Home Minister, apparently attended a wedding, and attended a meeting with some Nobel laureates in Mumbai during this period. There was no political instability in Mumbai or any other emergency in the State of Maharashtra, which is under his charge too. Still, the Governor chose to come to Chennai only on February 9, two days after the media began asking why the acting Governor had still not come to Chennai.

Having swiftly met both the warring contenders, he made it clear that he was in no mood to call the leader of the majority, Sasikala, to form the government. He later denied an allegation that he had sent a report to the Centre in which he had stated that he had declined to swear in Sasikala because the judgment in the disproportionate assets case against her was expected shortly.

As the State slips into political chaos, the Governor sits tight-lipped. In the final analysis, the crisis in the AIADMK points to one issue: the manner in which Jayalalithaa emaciated the party and eliminated its second-line leadership is now coming back to haunt the party. It is pay back time. Many expected that the party would disintegrate with her passing away. That is now becoming a reality with the acrimonious and bare-all fight.

It is also a fact that the party that stands to gain most from this crisis is the DMK. The main opposition party is waiting with bated breath outside Fort St. George, looking in to see if the occupant is likely to vacate. But, more importantly, the political vacuum created by the AIADMK’s implosion will lead to gains for many political parties.

But in the current context, with the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) in tatters, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) being on the margins, and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) not seen as a force to reckon with in Tamil Nadu politics, the BJP is placed well to cash in on the situation. It is a party waiting, with the required organisational structure in Tamil Nadu, for the final push.

Documentary

Reconnecting with Laurie Baker

IT is never easy to write, paint or make a film about somebody you are emotionally attached to. It becomes even more difficult if you have blood ties with that person. Vineet Radhakrishnan, grandson of the illustrious architect Laurie Baker, decided to do the unthinkable—encapsulate the life and works of Baker in a film, Uncommon Sense: The Life and Architecture of Laurie Baker.

It could not have been more apt that Radhakrishnan chose New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre (IHC), one of the most aesthetically pleasing buildings, to screen the film. The IHC, J.A. Stein’s masterpiece, is lauded for its open space, ventilation, and its dignified appearance. And to think it all started with the prototype of a rock painting from Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh!

One could say the same about Baker’s architecture. He was a pioneer in using local construction material, indeed, even honouring local building traditions. No raw material was too low or too high for him. Mud, clay, exposed bricks and trellis became his hallmark as Baker set about defying stereotypes. It did not come easy; Baker first had to unlearn what he had learnt in Britain, then come to terms with the fact that even a youngster in rural India knew more about the local ways of construction. How he immersed himself into the soul of India makes for a gripping story. He spent a number of years in the Himalaya, virtually lived the life of a nomad for a long time before finally making Kerala his home. It is in the State that some of his buildings have stood the test of time. Interestingly, it was the news of the imminent demolition of some of these works to build skyscrapers that inspired Radhakrishnan to leave everything aside and film Uncommon Sense.

The film had a special one-time pre-release screening for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which celebrates 100 years of Laurie Baker (1917-2017).

Excerpts from an interview with Radhakrishnan:

How personal has been the exploration of Laurie Baker and his works in your film?

To me he was always just Granddad. I hardly realised he was busy because he never took himself very seriously around the family. His self-deprecating sense of humour and unassuming laid-back attitude at home made it easy for the family to forget what he meant to the outside world. The strong and often emotional responses of the people I interviewed even after all these decades let me see him from a distance, through their eyes, and helped me understand “Laurie Baker” the public figure. Almost every building also has a story of overcoming odds—there is either a financial constraint, or insufficient land, poor terrain, lack of water, etc. So understanding each client’s story was like finding a jigsaw piece to understanding Laurie Baker the architect. The four years of travelling through India was a treasure hunt of sorts since my grandfather didn’t document most of his work.

For a man who lived in many parts of the country, besides China, how did Pithoragarh [Uttarakhand] and later Thiruvananthapuram [Kerala] shape his experience, his works?

In his writing he says that when he went to the Himalaya he felt completely helpless and it seemed as if everyone in the village, including the children, knew more about building than him. There was no cement and concrete and glass available in the remote mountains. All the materials were alien to him. Living in the Himalaya forced him to think beyond his English textbooks and learning and experiment and learn from local craftsmen about local materials such as slate, stone, pine, deodar and about traditional techniques. It made him realise that there was a lot which was good and worth using in traditional Indian building practices. He also started to see how many of the local materials and the techniques devised over thousands of years suited the local climate and used very little energy to manufacture compared with modern steel, cement and glass. He experimented and refined these ideas during his time in the Himalaya. When he came to Kerala, there was finally an opportunity to implement and demonstrate all that he had learnt. The materials, the climate, the customs, all of course were different, but the principles were universal.

Laurie Baker emphasised using local building material, even local tradition, in his works. How were his works then able to stand out in comparison with other local structures?

For him, it was more a question of reimagining Indian architecture than creating something brand new, in my opinion. He believed strongly in maintaining a continuity with the past—whether traditions, customs, or architectural techniques. He used to talk about buildings having “good manners”—which meant that they should merge with the natural environment, not stick out. That didn’t mean he was a regressionist. On the contrary, he combined what he found was good and worthwhile from our past with new building materials and technology. Whether it is the traditional wooden jaali that became the innovative curving floor to ceiling brick lattice jaalis in the Centre for Development Studies, or the witch-hat openings in roofs for air circulation in the Gawarikar house or reimagining the traditional “naalukettu” courtyard Kerala house in the Abu Abraham House, the goal was to merge new and old in the best way possible. It was also about using local materials in new ways—bamboo instead of steel rods for reinforcement for a concrete slab or using coconut husk or crushed Mangalore tiles as filler in filler slabs to make roofs lighter, better insulated and cheaper.

Breaking stereotypes

He was not one to go by stereotypes. Yet, he worked in a country where people find certain comfort in predictable surroundings. How difficult was it to change people’s mindsets to accept his design, his works?

One client I interviewed said she never thought she would want a Baker house since she always heard of him as someone who built for poor people. There was and still are strong social stigmas and set conventions to indicate one’s place in the social pecking order—if people don’t have money they build with mud, if they have a little more they use brick and if they have a lot of money they build concrete, steel and glass houses. In these circumstances it becomes difficult to convince people to use mud, for instance, even though the houses can be very strong, beautiful, cool during summer and environment-friendly. To combat this he deliberately used to build for any highly regarded members of society. For instance, he built affordable green houses for the Director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Research Centre; the Centre for Development Studies; and for IAS officers. This meant everyone, from drivers and peons to senior employees, in these institutions also found it suitable to follow suit. Of course, they would never have built these types of houses if these influential people had not. So he recognised these social factors and tried to find practical ways to work around them.

It was often said that every building of Baker had a unique story, a unique design to convey.

I think the special thing with him was that every client was special—he used the same approach and principles whether it was a poor client or an affluent one. When people say he built 1,500 buildings, the important thing to remember is that not just individual houses and buildings but even the mass social housing schemes he built for fishermen and tribal people, for instance, were uniquely tailored to the needs of each family. Also, the huge constraints most clients brought with them —less money or land than needed; a rocky, sloping terrain; and peculiar needs, all these necessitated a high degree of creativity and lateral thinking to squeeze out the most utility and usable space without making the design ugly and depressing. Each building, in many ways, also reflected the personality of the client. A fun-loving client tended to have a playful design for his house, an artist had a more creative and adventurous design, and so on. Therefore, in many ways the most inconspicuous and humble buildings, rather than the more photographed and visually arresting buildings, of his hide the most radical and innovative designs and creativity.

At a personal level, there were seeming oddities in his life. British and Gandhian, he was also an activist in the fight against leprosy. Do you think posterity has been able to appreciate his worth beyond the world of architecture?

I feel Laurie Baker at his core was someone who wanted to help people. It just so happened that the skill set and natural aptitude he had was to design and build. Architectural fame, recognition and even artistic expression did not mean anything to him if it did not help someone. So within that framework, his decisions in terms of the work he accepted and, more importantly, the often lucrative and prestigious work he turned down, and his decision to “waste” a large part of his early years in the Himalaya with my grandmother to provide medical help and schools to the hill people rather than build up an architectural practice in a major city become more understandable. The life that he and my grandmother, who was one of India’s first woman doctors and a remarkable person in her own right, led was not to impress others or to be recognised, so I don’t think it would have mattered to him.

A lot of contemporary Indian architecture seem removed from the climate, indeed, even the socio-economic conditions of the country. How would Baker have designed the modern urban space in India today?

At the heart of what he believed in was the importance of humaneness when it comes to design. A house is not just a square box to contain one’s belongings. He used to say that a building has the power to elevate one’s spirit or to crush one’s soul. Unlike art, which can be shut in a museum, public buildings become a part of our collective existence. Also pride in our indigenous materials, traditions and building practices was very important to him. He also felt that urban growth needed to include marginalised populations such as slum dwellers for whom he developed numerous designs to improve their quality of life. His design ideas were holistic and extended even to waste disposal and roads. So I feel he would envisage an urban landscape that is socially inclusive, community-based and with a tangible link to our own traditional buildings and even living styles, using materials which are less energy-intensive and which disrupt nature minimally and merge with the environment around it. Even in the 1980s he was talking about walkable green cities and concepts such as “walk to work”. So he was ahead of his times and I have no doubt he would have no problems designing for today’s urban landscape.

Baker was fond of exposed bricks. And in many cases jaalis for ventilation. It was a unique mix of the modern with the medieval. Is this technique not something that has stood the test of time?

His use of exposed brick in Kerala was just the result of the place and the time when he was building. At that time Kerala had abundant paddy fields. The mud and clay to make bricks mainly comes from the paddy fields between rice crops. This mud and clay could then be fired on site to make burnt bricks. This was much better than cement, steel and glass, which consume tremendous amounts of energy and resources to make. If you live in a laterite area, then you do not import bricks. If your area is rocky, make plentiful use of random rubble walls. Where there are no rocks, but clay is available, then make and use bricks. As time passed bricks, too, became relatively environmentally unfriendly and he wanted to move to mud. However, at the time people barely accepted exposed brick. Mud, though a traditional material, was seen as something poor people used. So I don’t think he was wedded to any material. Today if he were there, I am sure he would have used mud, which has become more socially acceptable, or something else altogether. The goal was always to reduce our resource footprint and minimise damage to nature.

Jaalis make sense because they are cheaper than windows and were very suitable to the climate in places like Kerala, where the goal is to keep out the glare from the sun, yet let in the breeze. They can easily be built into corridors to provide natural lighting during the day and also are more secure than a window. They also offer unique aesthetic possibilities, both visually and in their ability to manipulate light.

Is it true that the news of imminent demolition of some houses he built prompted you to make the film?

I had wanted to make a film on my grandfather for almost a decade, but it always tended to get put on the back burner for some reason or the other. Then just after I had finished my MBA in 2012, I heard about two clients of his (also dear friends) who had recently passed away. I also got to know of a few houses that were being demolished to make way for large apartment complexes. The original owners had passed away a while back. Their children, although they had very fond memories of the houses, lived abroad and they had no way to take care of the houses. That’s when I realised that if I went back to a corporate job, I would get comfortable with a monthly pay again, and weeks and years would pass and the people and their stories about their houses and the buildings themselves would not be there when I did decide to make a film! So I gave up the well-paying “fancy” job in London I had secured and dived in.

Public Health

‘Removing drug price control will be devastating’

Lyla Bavadam the-nation

S. Srinivasan is a managing trustee of Low Cost Standard Therapeutics (LOCOST), a Vadodara-based charitable trust that has been manufacturing low-cost, quality generics for more than 32 years. Vehemently opposed to the removal of drug price control measures, he unconditionally believes that the move will “have a devastating impact on the lives of the people of India”.

Opposing the style of functioning of Amitabh Kant, CEO of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, Srinivasan and others said in a November 30, 2016, affidavit to the Chief Justice of India that Kant had said in an interview that “the business of government should be conducted in a corporate style”. The affidavit added: “A style that is bent on bypassing Parliament, and patients and consumers, and this Hon’ble Court. That the said officer, CEO of the government’s think tank, NITI Aayog, is also out of tune with the conditions of the ordinary people of this country is evident from another reported speech where he has equated the progress of the country with the expansion of luxury goods market in the country.”

He spoke to Frontline on the government’s lack of concern for health care. Excerpts:

Why is drug price control important in India? Industry says competition is good and that it automatically regulates prices, so there is no need for government intervention.

Price control is important because the same drug is available at a range of prices from Re.1 to Rs.10 and Rs.40 in some cases. And under many brands. Many of these are of comparable quality and efficacy. How does a poor patient decide this? He cannot, because he does not have the knowledge or information or the time to consult other sources when he has to decide in a crisis. So he accepts what the doctor prescribes.

Doctors normally prescribe higher-priced drugs in the belief, held genuinely or owing to persuasion from pharmaceutical companies, that costlier brands are better even if a cheaper brand is available from the same company. This is called asymmetry of information in economics.

Whenever there is asymmetry of information there is a market failure and the perfect market (the market-knows-all idea) does not work. Markets are anyway poor arbiters of distributive justice. When there is market failure, when markets are distorted by pharma companies bribing or having the upper hand, competition does not work the way it is supposed to work in perfect markets. Whenever there is a market failure, governments have to intervene and, in democracies, intervene in favour of the patients.

I want to add that one of the consequences and reasons for overpricing of drugs is corruption of doctors and the pharma-medical profession nexus. The other reason for corruption is the privatisation of medical education. Doctors want to recover their “investment” if they have paid crores to get a [medical] seat. Currently, at the height of the chart is Rs.25 crore for an MD Radiology seat, closely followed by MD Orthopaedics. There is no money (or heart) in cardiology.

Those in favour of streamlining drug price control say they are aiming for ease of doing business. Why are you opposing what they call “modernising” of the price control authority?

DPCO 2013 [Drug Price Control Order of 2013] affects only about 2 per cent (maximum of Rs.12,000 crore) of the total domestic market of more than Rs.1 lakh crore. Out of this, less than 50 per cent of the “affected” market (only Rs.6,000 crore) had to actually reduce prices to the ceiling price fixed by the DPCO. About 88 per cent of the market is out of price control.

During the period that DPCO 2013 has been in operation, domestic sales of medicines have increased, from Rs.70,000 crore in 2013 to more than Rs.100,000 crore as of date. Exports are another Rs.100,000 crore. How is ease of [doing] business affected?

If at all the DPCO is to be modernised, it has to be in favour of the patient, as the ceiling price fixation based on simple average pricing is flawed; the most sensible method is the cost plus method. The pharma industry needs to make profits but not profiteer at the expense of the patient.

What is the rationale behind the discussion to disband the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA), at a meeting that the NITI Aayog participated in? How does this augur for patients and the industry and who stands to gain from this? Besides, if the NPPA is going to be recast in another role, does not control remain in some form?

No rationale but the whim of Amitabh Kant of NITI Aayog and his like. The government and bureaucrats are split along free market fundamentalists, who think the pharma industry should be free of even minimal regulatory mechanisms and should not be questioned, and the older liberal/socialist types who think constitutional rights to life/health should be implemented by the state and that the state should provide free health care services and quality education for all, not to mention roti, kapda aur makaan and toilets and clean water.

The other Secretaries, of Health, the Department of Pharmaceuticals [DoP] and the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, went along with Amitabh Kant. They want the NPPA to be diluted and to retain some form of tokenistic price control on what they think are important drugs. After our [LOCOST’s] legal notice to Amitabh Kant and the three Secretaries, they, in an answer to Parliament, denied that they are going to whittle down the NPPA and/or price control.

Is some serious revamping also required in the chain of command? The NPPA comes under the DoP, which comes under the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers and not under the Ministry of Health. What is the update on the pharmaceutical Ministry?

You are right. Price control and the NPPA should be under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare [MOHFW]. This is a long-standing demand of ours that no one has paid heed to.

The DoP’s control of the pharma industry is seen as a cash cow by politicians and some corrupt bureaucrats. So who would want to disturb this cosy arrangement?

Not that bureaucrats and Ministers in the MOHFW will be immune to this, but may be a little less, and they will not think in terms of industry per se but somewhere along the reality of medical crises (diabetes, asthma, HIV, cardiovascular diseases, communicable diseases and diarrhoeal diseases apart from malnutrition, etc) which will stare them in the face and then they may think of pharma policies as if people also mattered.

The DOP/NPPA structures will not be disturbed until the Uttar Pradesh elections.

There seem to be some contradictory moves by the government. Drug pricing is being decontrolled but medical devices are being brought under price control.

Regarding the medical devices, because of advocacy by some of us, cardiac stents have got focus. Such overpricing seems heartless, even for free market bureaucrats and politicians. I hope it is the beginning of looking into medical devices overpricing.

What happens to the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM) if the NPPA goes?

NLEM will stay. It has no legal use but can be used as a starting point for price control. We have a critique of the NLEM in our petition of November 30, 2016, in which we said that after the NPPA has been dismantled, price control will be delinked from the list of 370 plus essential drugs of the NLEM 2015. That is, price control will be confined to what the government thinks fit. The move to throw out price control measures will have a devastating impact on the lives of the people of India.

How would you describe the government’s attitude to health care? Is the government tilting towards pharma corporations when it is making policy decisions?

They are not bothered, in general. There is no vision of what constitutes health care access. They conflate insurance with access. Even if I am insured, where are the doctors and medical facilities in much of rural India? Yes, there is a government tilt towards pharma companies.

Are there any good examples within India of drug pricing?

Public procurement prices of the Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation and the Rajasthan Medical Services Corporation are exemplary, almost.

Is not the government stepping down from its responsibility in health care and access to medicines by closing down its pharma public sector undertakings and not encouraging new research facilities?

Yes, yes and yes. They are encouraging new research facilities, but it is not with public health in mind, and not directly on pharmaceuticals.

‘Let us keep the brotherhood alive’

Kunal Shankar social-justice

FORTY-EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Jan Mohammad Saifi is the younger brother of Mohammad Akhlaq, who was falsely accused of storing beef in his refrigerator and lynched by a mob in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in September 2015. He was at the University of Hyderabad at the first anniversary of Rohith Vemula’s suicide on January 17 to show solidarity with Rohith Vemula’s brother and mother. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

What is the message that you wish to convey through your presence here at Rohith Vemula’s first death anniversary?

Look, our case is different from Rohith Vemula’s. But I am against the kind of injustice meted out to all of us. Everyone knows what is happening in India today. All I am saying is that humanism should be our objective. I am against breaking down this brotherhood of communities which has lasted generations. There are some forces that want to end this sense of brotherhood. These are people who are caste conscious and practise untouchability. I am here to salute this gathering. I witnessed here, for the first time, the real power of youth. This power should continue to take shape. I just want to say that I have been fighting a lone battle for my brother against several people. Being here has been a source of strength for me.

Why did you choose this gathering in particular? Several political parties have solicited your presence for various demonstrations following your brother’s death, but you refused. Why now?

I could have participated in many similar gatherings, but that would have become political. My intention is not to have a career in politics. My intention is to focus once again on the brotherhood between the peoples of our country.

Akhlaq cannot be brought to life, but it feels good when people show solidarity. And that’s why I am here. I want to show my solidarity with people who have been a source of support for me and my family. I need our society to stand shoulder to shoulder with me. I cannot fight this battle forever, but I will fight it as long as I have the strength.

Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party keep asking India’s Muslims to go to Pakistan. How wrong they are to think that we want that! And let us say we actually leave, who do they then have to fight against in order to come to power? The BJP requires Muslims even to come to power. It requires this division between Muslims and Hindus to remain in power.

Essay

Three phases of Indian renaissance

K. N. PANIKKAR the-nation

IN the historiography of modern India, the renaissance is generally marked as the pre-political phase of the anti-colonial struggle, a period when Indians were mainly engaged in social and cultural preparation for participation in the more “progressive” and “radical”, political programme. The social and religious movements, popularly termed as the renaissance, which preceded the political struggles, are considered a necessary precursor to the coming of nationalism. Hence, nationalism is conceptualised as a natural outcome of the renaissance.

This teleological view of history has been dominant till recently. A departure from this view, quite critical for renaissance studies, had to wait until a strict periodisation of historical time came to be questioned. Not only broad overarching labels like ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary periods, but also thematic periodisation like the colonial, reformist or nationalist periods came under scrutiny. The challenge to this neat compartmentalisation came from different sources. To begin with, from Marxist scholars who traced the social origins of the national movement, from Dalit scholars who came out with alternative histories based on caste, and subaltern historians whose focus was on domination and subordination. This not only marked a change in the universe of analysis, but also a reconceptualisation of categories and the re-examination of analytical categories such as caste, class, community, and so on. In the realm of the history of ideas, the intellectual history, if you like, the most important departure has been the contextualisation of ideas.

Modernity and Renaissance

The relationship between modernity and the renaissance has given rise to a variety of questions. Whether the renaissance succeeded in resolving the social contradictions that existed in society is one important question. Why the renaissance did not become trans-sectional and why it remained religion-caste oriented is another. Is it that the renaissance was the expression of nothing more than an aggregation of upper-caste social and religious interests? Is it a fair assessment that the renaissance did not succeed in transgressing the limits set by the Brahmanic ideologies? Is it accidental that the university syllabuses did not contain courses on the history of Dalits and the marginalised? Why did the historical literature on the evolution of modern India treat the renaissance as an overarching phenomenon striding across the Indian society in the 19th and 20th centuries, without much sensitivity to the fortunes of the marginalised? An inquiry into the relationship between renaissance and modernity may provide answers to some of these questions.

The origin of modernity in India is often attributed to the intellectual and cultural efflorescence associated with the renaissance. The renaissance marked a period of transition in values, transformation in social sensibilities and rebirth in cultural creativity. The outcome of these processes was the elaboration, representation and interpretation of humanism and the emergence of a new man with cultural and intellectual attributes different from his past. These ideas inspired an upsurge of creative energy, leading to the works of masters in painting, sculpture, literature, music, and so on. The new aesthetic that emerged was integral to the structural transformation of social organisation and relations of production. It was the intellectual component of the rise of capitalism, which came to be christened as modern, to distinguish the present from the past—the new from the old.

With the growth of capitalism, the modern assumed different hues. Therefore, what we mean by “modern” became a matter of debate. A seminal question is whether the modernity in the former Asian and African countries is qualitatively similar to the modernity capitalism had brought about in Europe, as it is generally viewed as a phenomenon that came from the West through the instrumentality of colonial rule. A dominant opinion, initially generated by colonial rulers who prided themselves on their civilising mission, was that India was being led to the modern stage by the colonial administration, guided by the principles of liberalism. As such, the changes that were ushered in during the colonial domination—in administrative organisation, transport and communication, commercialisation of agriculture, and so on—are described as modernisation. Such changes were part of “colonial modernity” in the sense that they were undertaken in the service of colonial interest. They were essentially colonial projects and not modernising projects. It is understandable that the official readings left out the “colonial” part, implying thereby that the changes in economy, society and culture were part of progress towards modernity. The new Indian middle class, nurtured by the liberal English education, internalised this myth and gave credence to it through the example of its own “modern” life. In the event, what is considered modern today came to be identified with the type of progress achieved by the West, of which colonial modernity was in fact a caricature.

The belief in the benevolent nature of colonial modernity was not limited to the middle class alone. It filtered into all strata of society. Even a section of the Dalit leadership believed that it was the British who gave them a ray of hope to overcome the oppressive caste system. Not without reason, though. After all, the British administrative interventions gave them a break from the age-old oppressive caste system. At least some of them were enabled to breathe fresh air by the intervention of the colonial state. Such a perspective was the result of the iniquity of the caste system, which perpetrated, in the name of religion, cruelty and exploitation beyond human tolerance.

The infrastructural development that the British undertook to deepen the system of exploitation or to ensure their control over the people gave credence to the belief about the dawn of a new era. The railways, the system of communication and secular educational facilities were prime examples. But colonial rule was not an instrument of modernisation but an instrument of exploitation, which impoverished the natural resources of the colony, undermined its traditional industries and unsettled its cultural life. It also impacted adversely on the cultural, social and political life. When compared to this vast destruction, the benefits of colonial modernity were marginal.

The beginning of modernity was heralded not by the arrival of the West in India, but by the onset of the social and religious reforms, which is popularly called the renaissance, following the European experience. But reform is not renaissance, which, in fact, is the expression of a much larger social and intellectual awakening. Its beginning is traced to the efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bengal to ameliorate the conditions of the life of women and to reform religious practices. In north India, it took root in the activities of Dayananda Saraswati and in Maharashtra in the Prarthana Samaj founded by M.G. Ranade and in Andhra Pradesh the movement initiated by Viresalingam. A defining feature of all these movements was that they were all upper caste–class phenomena and catered to meet the social and spiritual demands of the newly emerging middle class.



A different trajectory

The story was slightly different in south India, particularly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In both these areas, the renaissance was a slow starter, possibly because the emergence of a middle class was relatively late in these regions. In the 19th century, the area which constituted present-day Kerala—namely, Travancore, Cochin and Malabar—was an educationally and socially backward region. So was Tamil Nadu. What distinguished the Tamil Nadu-Kerala experience was its lower-caste orientation. Most of the reform movements in this region emerged from the lower castes, unlike the north Indian renaissance, which was mainly an upper-caste preserve. The reform initiated by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Bengal was an upper-caste–upper-class movement. Those who followed him belonged to the same group. Debendranath Tagore and Keshub Chandra Sen in Bengal, Ranade in Maharashtra, Dayananda Saraswati in Punjab, Viresalingam in Andhra Pradesh, and so on.

In contrast, the renaissance in Kerala was led by lower-caste reformers such as Narayana Guru and Ayyankali. So was it in Tamil Nadu, where the progress of the lower castes was championed by ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy and Iyothee Thass. The initiatives of these leaders were not reform movements in the conventional sense. The social activities they undertook may be termed reformist, but the ideas they propagated were radical in nature. For instance, their emphasis was not on caste reform but on the abolition of the caste system. Their role in society was more in the nature of spreading the ideas which contributed to the making of a modern society. Their emphasis was on cleanliness, education, industry and such other material issues. They were ideologues of social change who envisioned a casteless and classless society. Although they did not propound any social theory, efforts were made to conceptualise the organisation of a society on egalitarian lines. Vishnubuva Brahmachari’s Vedokta Dharma Prakasha and Bankim Chandra Chatterji’s essay “Samyo” are good examples.

The common feature that they all shared was the urge to transform the existing social and cultural conditions, ranging from irrational religious practices and rituals to the oppressive state of women’s lives. The widespread belief in idolatry, which was ranked by many as the main source of superstitions, received prime attention. The Brahmo Samaj abolished idolatry, so did the Arya Samaj and the Prarthana Samaj. Narayana Guru was more innovative in his approach. He had the foresight to realise that “surgical operations” were counterproductive in social matters. Therefore, he tried to undermine the appeal of idolatry in slow stages. To begin with, he questioned the divine character attributed to the idol by taking an ordinary stone to consecrate Siva. Consequently, he used a mirror in place of the idol and finally he abolished the idol altogether. This attempt to use the medium of the idol to negate idol worship has been misinterpreted as an endorsement of idol worship and as an example of upper-caste hegemony. Narayana Guru was in line with the 19th century Indian tradition of anti-idolatry. The irony, however, was that after his death his followers turned him into an idol.

The deplorable condition of women also agitated the reforming mind of the 19th century. Starting with Ram Mohan Roy, who championed the abolition of Sati, almost all reformers advocated the urgent need to free women from the shackles of moribund custom. This was not an expression of empathy for the type of lives they were forced to lead. The reform had a very limited but crucial purpose: the amelioration of the condition and dignity of women.

These early efforts to reform the socio-religious conditions formed the first phase of the Indian renaissance. A defining feature of this phase was its focus on reform as the sole means of regeneration. The destiny of society, it was argued, depended on how fast Indians got rid of obscurantic practices and superstitious beliefs. At the same time, renaissance distanced itself from politics. It was believed that once society was rid of irrational practices, all other dimensions of national life would be automatically solved. In their view, solving the internal social weakness was the immediate need and once it was achieved, it would not take a long time for the political problem to be solved. Although the awareness of an alien rule lurked in the minds of many and found occasional expression, albeit indirectly, a sensitivity about its deleterious consequences was lacking. Only a very few tried to address the issue of the relationship between colonialism and social liberation. And those who did, couched their criticism in liberal terms. The colonial ideology of guided modernity appears to have had a profound influence on the Indian intelligentsia at that time and it led them to rationalise the colonial domination as a divine dispensation.

Nationalism and Renaissance

Through a liberal critique of the colonial rule during the 19th century, the Indian intelligentsia was able to overcome this delusion, which led to the emergence of nationalism. At the same time, they also realised the importance of combining political and cultural activities. This connection led to the internalisation, although on a limited scale, of renaissance ideas by nationalism. The connection, however, was so tenuous that the “political” gained an upper hand and the “social” was relegated to the background. The rise and decline of the Indian Social Conference is a good example. The social conference, in the beginning, met at the same venue as the Indian National Congress, thereby recognising the symbiotic relationship between the political and the cultural. This practice was abandoned when the anti-colonial political movement became powerful. This separation had symbolic meaning, indicative of the priorities the national movement had set for itself.

The rise of the middle class led to a disjunction between the social and the political movements, which had long-term implications. When the national movement gained strength through political struggles like non-cooperation and civil disobedience, the social consciousness was still entrenched in caste and communal feelings. Was it a result of the inability to evolve a symbiotic relationship between the political and the cultural? Gandhiji addressed this question by his advocacy of Gram Swaraj and constructive programmes. This was the high point of the second phase of the renaissance, when nationalism tried to incorporate the renaissance values. However, the potential of this relationship was not realised in practice. Therefore, nationalism left behind a backward social consciousness, however progressive the thinking of the leadership was.

The central inspiration of the renaissance was humanism. By bringing man to the centre stage, humanism spurred the creative energy in all spheres of social existence—architecture, music, painting and philosophical thought. But the expression of humanism in different epochs differed in emphasis. During the ancient period it found expression in empathy with those denied freedom and subjected to slavery and those who had no access to justice, but in the medieval times humanist sympathy lay with those who were victims of feudal oppression. In modern times, the focus of humanism is focussed on the defence of the rights of the underprivileged and the marginalised. The different phases of renaissance carried in their baggage the changing forms of humanism.

The three phases

The first phase of the renaissance in India was embodied in the socio-religious movements, which was mainly, though not exclusively, initiated by the burgeoning middle class, which was schooled in British liberalism. But the intellectuals who spearheaded the movement were not Anglophile Indians. A defining feature of the movement was an inquiry into the past and an assessment of the strength of tradition to overcome contemporary problems. Recall Ram Mohan Roy’s use of Hindu scriptures in his debate with his opponents on Sati, or Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s widow remarriage campaign, or Narayana Guru’s advocacy of universalism. They were all groping for a way out in an “era of darkness”. That they struck at the obvious—social obscurantism, religious superstition and irrational rituals—was the natural outcome. Thus, the first phase of the Indian renaissance was predominantly engaged with social and cultural matters, a consequence of which was the relative neglect of the political. In fact, the political did not figure seriously in their thoughts.

In contrast, the second stage was characterised by an attempt to bring together anti-colonial politics and the social quest for modernity. The anti-colonial movement did not follow the renaissance, as is generally assumed; the latter elided into the former, in the sense that the national movement allowed the values of the first phase of the renaissance to form their ideological postures and enter areas where they were conspicuous by their absence. But the national movement took the precaution to keep the struggle on social issues outside its political agenda and to control it through measured interventions. Gandhiji’s role in the Vaikom Satyagraha, for instance, was that of a mediator and not a participant, even if his sympathy was with the satyagrahis.

The third phase of the renaissance, which begins with the end of colonial rule, was a result of the confluence of Marxism and the renaissance values. In fact, the renaissance values are inherent in Marxism and were part of the agenda of the communist movement, which functioned with the notion of cultural and social equality, among caste and gender. This was not a break with the past. The ideas of equality, gender justice and secularism were integral to the first and second phases of the renaissance as well. But with different humanist orientations. The aim of the Left was not so much to “reform”, but to transform the existing cultural and social practices. In doing so, it sought to create a new meaning for the renaissance. Although several leaders of the Left movement realised the importance of culture in popular struggles, they did not succeed in creatively bringing them together. The third phase of the renaissance, as represented by radical cultural activism, therefore, did not really take off, despite a very encouraging beginning in the 1930s. The deleterious effects of this failure have plagued the Left renaissance to the extent that cultural activism has almost become irrelevant in the cultural life of the nation. This is surprising as a substantial section of the creative intelligentsia are broadly left in their intellectual orientation. Many cultural activists and writers have started wondering whether a “Left Renaissance” is possible at all.

A process with changing attributes

The renaissance was not an event, it was a process and its attributes underwent changes whenever major shifts took place in society and the economy. As similar relations cannot be reproduced for a second time, it is also not possible that the values of the first renaissance could be recaptured in the changed conditions generated by capitalism and neoliberalism. Not because those values have lost their relevance, but the social context has changed and, accordingly, their content has to be refurbished. Instead of attempting to recapture the values of the first renaissance, which occurred in a colonial-feudal era, the Left has to reinvent the renaissance from the viewpoint of the oppressed, the exploited and the marginalised. Socialist humanism not only aims at an egalitarian socio-political order, it also envisions cultural and intellectual freedom. The violence and intolerance rampant in society today is not so much the failure of the first phase of the renaissance as the inability to transform its values in accordance with the demands of the present. The material world is changing, but the cultural-ideational climate remains stagnant, if not deteriorating. The way to stem the increasingly declining values in society is to rethink the relationship between culture and politics in a manner in which culture is spurred by politics and politics is refined by culture.

It is time to think about a fourth phase of the Indian renaissance.

K.N. Panikkar is former Professor of Modern History, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

United States

Chinese checkers

ATUL ANEJA in Beijing world-affairs

Unwilling to be swayed by the rhetoric, mostly negative, in the mainstream media regarding Donald Trump, the Chinese have begun to make a clinical assessment of the possible fallout of the policy outlines emerging on the watch of the 45th President of the United States.

The purpose of this holistic exercise is to determine, with as much precision as possible, the pressures that the Trump presidency is likely to impose on the fundamentals that define China’s economic rise. These include the continuity of access to the U.S. market, which has played a major role in China’s export-led growth in the decades following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Similarly, there are concerns regarding a possible change in rules that would make it more difficult for China to acquire economic assets in the U.S. These acquisitions are arguably necessary for Beijing to leapfrog into an advanced industrial economy status, thus escaping what has been called the “middle income trap”.

Although Trump has shown no signs of pursuing an ideology-driven agenda, such as the so-called promotion of democracy pursued by his predecessors, the Chinese are vigilant towards any moves the U.S. might make that would challenge China’s one-party political system or its self-perception of national territorial sovereignty.

The Chinese have already made it demonstrably clear that they completely reject Trump’s questioning of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan under the “One China” principle. Similarly, the Chinese are expected to reaffirm, without any doubt, that Beijing’s authority over Tibet and Xinjiang, the perceived fault lines supposedly prone to secessionist appeal, is cast in stone. Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, and the North Korean issue, could also become points of friction between the two countries.

The Chinese have begun to view Trump through the prism of their own historical experience. Thus, comparisons with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the iconic leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), have become pervasive in state and social media. Chinese think tanks are also engaged in drawing comparisons between Trump and the PRC’s foremost leaders. This was most visibly highlighted in an article in Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with the flagship People’s Daily, run by the Communist Party of China.

“Every man sees this world according to his own experience. And Chinese people’s political experience is largely based on his or her interpretation of Mao and Deng’s legacies,” the daily quoted Jin Canrong, associate dean of the Department of International Studies at the Renmin University of China, as saying.

He added: “Trump’s dissatisfaction toward bureaucrats and interest groups and his direct call [on Twitter] for the public to rebel against the establishment does remind Chinese people of Mao. But his focus on economic development, his lack of interest in ideology, and his drawing back from global input bear some similarities to Deng.”

Some of Mao’s supporters, as seen in an article in Canghaishibei, a WeChat microblog account, praised Trump’s inaugural speech as “no less than the Declaration of Independence”. The article, as quoted by Global Times, lauded Trump’s address as an illustration of “class struggle” at its core. On the contrary, Mao’s critics in China slammed the speech, deeming it an evocation of the disastrous Cultural Revolution that lasted for a decade and ended in 1976. On Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, Trump was photoshopped into Cultural Revolution-themed posters. The American President was shown dressed in a Mao-style suit, standing against a background of proletarian workers, peasants and soldiers waving the red flag. Instead of the Little Red Book, the posters showed Trump holding the book he had authored: The Art of the Deal.

But many others perceive Trump in the image of Deng. “If we look at Trump without pre-established impressions, we can see that a theme of Trump’s beliefs is to focus on [the country’s] own affairs.… From this perspective, Trump is truly a student of Deng Xiaoping,” reads a paper released by the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies under the Renmin University of China in November.

It called on people to rise above discussions of populism or other questions defined by the West. Instead, it stressed the necessity of analysing Trump from an original new perspective. “Both Trump and Deng are at a historic crossroads where they want to bring about major changes in domestic and foreign affairs for their countries,” the article read.

In dealing with the Trump presidency, the Chinese seem to be quickly grasping the new rules of economic engagement with the U.S. Consequently, unlike the previous period of reforms, the Chinese appear to impart greater focus on pushing investments in the U.S. in order to support Trump’s agenda of creating more jobs at home. The focus on outward investments by Chinese companies, a theme advocated with considerable vigour by Chinese President Xi Jinping, was most evident in the meeting of Trump with Jack Ma, the head of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Following their talks in New York, Ma announced that the Alibaba group would create one million jobs in the U.S. over the next five years. Trump described his interaction with Ma as “a great meeting”. “He loves this country and he also loves China,” Trump said. “Jack and I are going to do some great things.” He called Ma “a great entrepreneur, one of the best in the world”.

In Beijing, the meeting in New York raised expectations that Trump could indeed be a guest at China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit slated for May. “Though this visit [by Ma] was at the outset a business visit, it will no doubt help improve China-U.S. relations. We are, in fact, looking forward to welcoming Trump’s participation at the international cooperation summit on the Belt and Road this May,” Wang Yiwei, a professor at Renmin University, told Frontline.

In December, Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that the Belt and Road summit and a meeting of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries would top Beijing’s diplomatic calendar in 2017. “The international cooperation summit forum on the Belt and Road initiative… will be a strategic measure to boost the world economy,” he said at a symposium on December 3.

The BRI is China’s mega-connectivity project, with the ancient Silk Road, which connected Asia with Europe, as the touchstone. Through this project, China visualises the industrialisation of the whole of Eurasia and Africa through infrastructure development, including cyber connectivity, energy pipelines, expressways, railways, airports and ports.

As Trump toys with protectionism, and possibly isolationism, at least on a selective basis, and questioning if not demolishing some of the pillars of globalisation, the Chinese appear to have emerged as the leading champions of globalisation. However, Beijing’s version of globalisation with Chinese characteristics has the BRI as the vanguard. This was evident during Xi’s keynote address at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos.

In his address, Xi stressed that over 100 countries and international organisations had given a warm response and support to the BRI, which was initiated three years ago. He highlighted the fact that Chinese companies had invested over $50 billion and launched a number of major projects in the countries along the routes, spurring the economic development of these countries and creating many local jobs. Xi also said that the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in May would discuss ways to boost cooperation, build cooperation platforms and share cooperation outcomes. “The forum will also explore ways to address problems facing global and regional economies, create fresh energy for pursuing interconnected development and make the Belt and Road initiative deliver greater benefits to people of countries involved.”

Simultaneously, with Trump terminating the free trade agreement of 12 countries of the Asia-Pacific, minus China, under the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), China has stepped in to fill the breach by reinforcing its call for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

“The TPP, in any case, was an unrealistic initiative as it excluded China. After all, China is the biggest trading partner with 128 countries and has unique comparative advantages,” Prof. Wang of Renmin University said. Instead of the TPP, Wang backed the RCEP, which has the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the core of the proposed free trade agreement. Besides, India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are also part of the proposed arrangement. “The RCEP is an inclusive proposal. The U.S., if it wants, can also join as partner in the future,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying had said after Trump dismantled the TPP that Beijing would back further negotiations relating to the RCEP, which had already made substantial progress and should be completed at an early date. She also advocated the formation of the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP), especially because leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) had already agreed on the vision and a plan to implement this initiative. The urgency to formalise the RCEP is also being shared by other countries in the Asia-Pacific.

Reuters quoted New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English as saying that the U.S. was ceding influence to China and the region’s focus could switch to alternative trade deals. “We’ve got this RCEP agreement with South-East Asia, which up until now has been on a bit of a slow burn, but we might find the political will for that to pick up if TPP isn’t going to proceed,” he said. The report also pointed out that former U.S. President Barack Obama had framed the TPP without China in an effort to write Asia’s trade rules and establish U.S. economic leadership in the region as part of his “pivot to Asia”.

In Beijing, Hua Chunying, when asked whether China could play a bigger role or even assume leadership, stressed that the word “duty” was more accurate than “leadership” to describe the situation. While actively seeking new global opportunities as the U.S. turns inwards, the Chinese have made it clear that any calls from the U.S. that question the “One China” policy in Taiwan are off limits and non-negotiable. China went ballistic when Trump took a congratulatory call from Tsai-Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan, and later sought to turn the “One China” policy into a bargaining chip for concessions from China. To this, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang asserted that the “One China” policy was the political foundation of bilateral ties and was “non-negotiable”. “It must be pointed out that there is but one China in the world, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China,” Lu said in a statement. “We urge the relevant party in the U.S. to realise the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue and abide by commitments made by previous U.S. governments to the ‘One China’ policy and the principles of the three joint communiques,” he added.

Going beyond diplomacy, China reinforced the depth of its commitment to the “One China” policy by making it plain that nothing was off the table, including nuclear weapons, in the defence of the fundamentals of its territorial sovereignty. An op-ed in Global Times cited media reports from Hong Kong and Taiwan that showed pictures of China’s Dongfeng-41 ballistic missile. The references to the DF-41 missile were not accidental. The Dongfeng-41 is a nuclear solid-fuel road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile. According to Chinese estimates, it has a range of 14,000 kilometres. With that reach it can target any part of the world with its devastating payload of 10-12 nuclear warheads. The pictures were apparently taken in Heilongjiang province in north-eastern China. The daily quoted military analysts as saying that this was perhaps the second Dongfeng-41 strategic missile brigade and that it should be deployed in north-eastern China. The write-up cited “reports” as saying that “the Chinese military intentionally revealed” the Dongfeng-41 and connected it with Trump’s inauguration.

There were two other missile launches, speculative or real, with an unambiguous message for Team Trump. On January 31, The Washington Free Beacon, an American news website, reported that in January China had tested a new version of the DF-5C intercontinental ballistic missile which was capable of carrying 10 manoeuvrable warheads. In a somewhat ambiguous response to the article, China’s Defence Ministry said that it was “normal for China to carry out scheduled scientific research and tests within Chinese territory and the tests don’t target any specific country or object”. But in a specific message to the U.S. and its allies, chiefly Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, the Defence Ministry, during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in January, posted a video on its website that showed deployment of the 1,000-km range DF-16 missiles deep inside a forest during military exercises. The weapon can strike Okinawa, home to several U.S. bases, the Japanese home islands, as well as Taiwan and the Philippines. It extends China’s firepower over what is called the “first-island chain”—the sea space that Beijing intends to control.

Towards the end of December, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its carrier strike group sailed towards the West Pacific through the Miyako Strait between Okinawa-hont and Miyako-jima, the Japanese Defence Ministry said in a report released on December 25. The Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun claimed that this was the first time that a Chinese aircraft carrier had sailed to the West Pacific and said that its purpose was to “break through the first island chain comprised of Japan, Taiwan and other islands”. China’s naval assertion, which dovetailed into the display of its nuclear deterrent on land, was also seen as a counter to Trump’s tough stance against Beijing on Taiwan and the South China Sea issue.

Some analysts said that Liaoning’s voyage was also meant to fulfil some of the long-term plans of the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) or PLAN. For instance, by sailing into the West Pacific, the Chinese carrier strike group aimed to familiarise itself with the maritime environment and hydrological, meteorological and other conditions in these waters. Besides, PLAN sought to improve its long-distance operability, overall training and combat capability by undertaking the voyage.

China’s naval manoeuvre followed Trump’s accusation of China building a “fortress” in the South China Sea. However, there are early signs that tensions with the U.S. in the South China Sea may be easing. China claims most of the South China Sea within the parameters of what it calls is the nine-dash line. But its claims are contested by most of the littoral states, including Vietnam and the Philippines, notwithstanding the rapid improvement of ties between Beijing and Manila following the election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines. Duterte is set to visit Beijing for a second time during the BRI conference in May.

Backtracking from some of the tough talk on the South China Sea, the new U.S. Defence Secretary, James Mattis, struck a conciliatory note. At a press conference in Tokyo in early February, Mattis stressed that open diplomacy was the best path forward to resolve the issue. China quickly welcomed his observation, with Lu Kang lauding recourse to diplomacy as “worthy of affirmation”. “We hope that countries outside of the region can respect the joint interests and wishes of countries in the region” Lu said. Even as China, fixated on its goals of realising the “Chinese dream”, adapts to the Trump presidency, it has not lost sight of avoiding a cold war with the U.S. in the coming years.

With the help of Russia, its key ally, China has latched on to the long-term objective of a globally defining partnership among Russia, China and the U.S. In late January, it signalled its willingness for a trilateral partnership with Russia and the U.S. following Moscow’s advocacy that the three countries should jointly develop their relations. On Twitter, photoshopped pictures emerged of Xi, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin replacing Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin in the famous picture of the Yalta conference taken towards the end of the Second World War.

To a question regarding Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks in Russia’s lower house of parliament, where he proposed a trilateral partnership, Hua Chunying said that China had taken note of Lavrov’s “positive comments. She explained: “China, Russia and the U.S. are all major countries with worldwide influence and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. For world peace, stability and development, we share a great responsibility. We aim to build a generally stable and positive major country relationship; with Russia, we [wish to] deepen our comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation and we also work to promote the major country relations with the U.S. So, we are willing to work together with Russia and the U.S. to address the problems and challenges facing the world today.”

During his address, Lavrov had said: “We would like to see Russia, the U.S. and China develop relations together. This triangle should not be closed and directed to projects that will alert other states.” He also said that the development of Russia’s relations with any country of the world “will not challenge Russian-Chinese strategic partnership”, Russia’s Tass news agency reported. Lavrov’s statement acquires importance in the wake of a debate in China on whether Beijing would be marginalised in the wake of closer ties between Moscow and Washington.

Anticipating a substantial, if not fractious, dialogue with Washington, Beijing appears to be prepared with a basket of options that it can exercise in tune with the mixed signals likely to emerge from the White House in the months to come.

China’s leaders seem ready to face the headwinds that are likely to emerge from the U.S., and wherever possible, turning them into opportunities to promote its rise as a new-age great power.

U.S.

Pre-fascism & the Muslim question

AIJAZ AHMAD world-affairs

President Donald Trump came to occupy the White House about two weeks ago. He has so far ruled by presidential decrees and a punctual predawn blitz on Twitter that is meant to insult and intimidate. It is already clear, though, that the core of his incoming administration is so far to the Right—an authoritarian, militarist, irrationalist, distinctly pathological Right —that a question may be plausibly posed: are we witnessing the emergence of a pre-fascist state in the most powerful country in the world—the very pulsating heart of empire? This is no longer a spurious question. Scholars of great acumen and sobriety, such as Richard Falk and Noam Chomsky, have raised this question quite explicitly.

We shall return to the question. It is best to start with what we know so far, concretely, about the emerging power centres and policy orientations in the new administration.

Pack of hounds

Almost the most remarkable thing about key members of his Cabinet, especially the highly prominent generals, is that it is impossible to say which of them is the most dangerous. Since almost the beginning of the presidential campaign, Trump has conducted himself in such a manner, with full media collusion, of course, that attention has been fixed entirely on him, his outrageous behaviour and utterances, his shifting policy positions, his chameleon-like political personae—anti-establishment friend of the poor and the working class; woman-hating racist and bigoted billionaire—that he was able to conceal his true cohorts and covert agenda almost entirely. He was clearly an untrustworthy demagogue. Beyond that, it was unclear what he would do when in power. The ones who were often paraded in the media as the likely key members of his Cabinet—Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, John Bolton et al—were all swiftly set aside as, post-election, he proceeded to pack his real Cabinet with billionaires and ideologically driven military generals. Even the neo-Nazi Steve Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs luminary who had emerged as the CEO of the Trump campaign, was not much in the limelight as the harbinger of a dangerous future until Trump appointed him as his Chief Strategist at the White House and then elevated him, egregiously, to the core committee of the National Security Council (NSC). Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law with a real estate empire of his own and with no qualification for the position, has also emerged as the President’s closest adviser and the other chief strategist in his administration with an office and a staff inside the White House. Shades of dynastic ambitions but also perhaps much worse!

In this sense, there has always been something enigmatic, with a smell of the secretive and the conspiratorial, in the way a loud-mouthed, egomaniacal political outsider emerged out of the shadows, strutting like the bulky caricature of a latter-day Fuhrer, and proceeded to mesmerise the media and shell-shock the elite of the very party that he came to represent as well as bend into submission. Only after capturing the presidency did he reveal the pack of hounds that had been leashed in the wings and was now to run his government, the most important of whom have had no real ties to the party establishments of the Democrats and the Republicans alike. Key Republican party leaders such as the House Speaker Paul Ryan, himself a presidential aspirant, have been left gasping for breath as they try to keep up with their own President who seems to treat them with supreme indifference. “We came to know of it only as it was being prepared for release,” Ryan said peevishly of the infamous presidential order restricting not only future Muslim immigration from seven countries but also denying the constitutional rights of Muslim immigrants from those countries residing lawfully in the U.S.

The generals who now occupy key positions in Cabinet—Lt Gen. Michael Flynn (National Security Adviser, or NSA), Marine General James Mattis (Secretary of Defence) and John F. Kelly, also Marine General (Head of Homeland Security)—have of course been at the highest level of the military establishment—two of them Marines, no less. However, they were eventually rejected by their more cool-headed bosses. Colin Powell, a military superstar and as hard-core a Republican as they come (National Security Adviser to Reagan; appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President George Bush Sr, Secretary of State for President George Bush Jr), once described Flynn as a “right-wing nutty” who was “abusive of staff” and given to “work against policy. Mattis, once the Chief of Central Command, was encouraged by the Obama administration to retire quietly because he was seen as too insubordinate and belligerent, especially too keen for confrontation with Iran. In addition to holding extremist right-wing views, these are disgruntled men out to rehabilitate themselves by furrowing fresh paths to glory. At the helm of state, such men are dangerous for constitutional democracy. Needless to add, the placing of retired generals in Cabinet posts governing the whole of the military establishment, including internal security, violates at least the spirit if not the letter of the U.S. Constitution, which requires that the armed forces be under the supervision of the civilian authority.

From the Democratic Party leadership, alas, not much more than hollow noises and tame little moves can be expected. The main fear of this leadership seems to be that it might be overtaken even within its own party by the somewhat social democratic forces that have been congregating so far around the figure of Bernie Sanders. Outside the traditional party structure, though, the breadth and depth of multiform resistance to extremist Trumpetry that already exists may well grow into a formidable enough force to keep these protofascists at bay. In any case, it is not unreasonable to think that during Trump’s reign the U.S. may often be hovering on the verge of a Declaration of Emergency. What happens if there is a serious economic downturn in a year or two? What happens if that downturn coincides with the eruption of a 9/11 kind of event? Nothing at all can be ruled out.

Islamophobia & racism

Two key themes seem to have been consistent throughout the presidential campaign and these early days of the new presidency: Islamophobia and a broad hatred of the non-white immigrant which parades in public discourse, for now, as the campaign to build a wall all along the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration, which is itself often identified with drug trafficking and terrorist infiltration. The two obsessions are often sought to be conjoined, in all sorts of overt and covert ways. For instance, as Ira Chernus points out on the website Tomdispatch.com: “[General] Flynn has claimed that ‘Mexican drug cartels’ actually post signals at the U.S.-Mexican border—in Arabic, no less—marking ‘lanes of entry’ for Islamic terrorists.” War on Drugs and War of Islamic Terror are thus woven into the issue of illegal immigration from Mexico and the building of the wall into a single global problem that besieges the long-suffering and now deeply endangered white America.

The Trumpist ideology seems to want to elevate what Bannon calls “jehadist Islamic fascism”—and often Islam as such, as we shall see—to the place that the idea of a “Jewish conspiracy” against the German nation had occupied in Nazi ideology. Trump’s designation of Mexicans as rapists and drug pushers, even “killers of our people”, serves a supplementary and analogous function of positing a threat from an enemy that is outside as well as inside (Mexican drug cartels as allies of the Islamic State, or I.S., both determined to penetrate and corrupt the interiors of the innocent and gullible white America). Trump is reported to have said in a telephone call with the Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, himself a mousy lackey of the U.S.: “I don’t need Mexicans. I don’t need Mexico. You are going to pay for the wall whether you want to or not.” According to an excerpt from the conversation that is available with the Associated Press, he also said: “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.” These brief excerpts are remarkable for the hubris of their egotistical “I”, Trump’s propensity to ignore (or his actual ignorance of) diplomatic protocol, his habit of addressing heads of weaker states as if they are his serf-like employees, his self-image as the lord of all he surveys. This is all deplorable, and the liberal media, such as The New York Times, have duly and primly taken exception to it. The main point, however, is that his main audience in all this is his core constituency within the U.S., the racist Far Right, that thrives on this kind of bullying masculinism.

What is central to this two-pronged offensive against Muslims and “Mexicans” is the creation of a widespread belief, a fictive belief of course, in the victimhood of white Americans—victimised by Muslims and “Mexicans” (that is, non-white immigrants) but also by globalisation (symbolised by China, which runs away with jobs otherwise belonging to white America); “multiculturalism”, which seeks to treat all racial groups equally (a covert form of racial miscegenation, really); Muslims (again) whose presence in America undermines the essentially Judeo-Christian character of (white) American society. Flynn, for instance, asserts that Islamic Sharia is already overtaking American law within the U.S. (Parenthetically, we might add that Flynn’s respect for facts is so tenuous that his subordinates in the armed forces used to joke about what they called “Flynn facts”.) This is not very different from the Nazi representation of the Germans as undermined by the Jewish minority from within and rapacious foreign powers from without; nor from the Hindutva claim that the Muslim rate of birth poses a demographic threat to Hindus in India; nor, for that matter, is this fiction of the victimhood of white America so very different from the claims by Israel, one of the world’s great military powers, that it faces an “existential threat” from what it calls Palestinian “terrorism” —not to speak of the fact that most of the Israeli population, some of the world’s most sophisticated and well educated, seems to believe in this fiction. In other words, the sheer fictional quality of these claims does not take away anything from the very real political and strategic effectiveness of such claims.

We do not have the space to deal with all aspects of the emerging order. So, we shall concentrate on just a few aspects, the central issue of Islamophobia in particular.

The Muslim Question

The emergence of the Muslim Question—Islamophobia, radical Islam, Islamofascism, just plain “Islam”, or whatever—as a key element in the making of popular hysteria in the time of Trump has a long, complex lineage. At some level, Islamophobia has been a punctual feature and a very distinct component of eurocentrism since the earliest phases of European expansion into Asia and Africa; Muslim lands were adjacent and were perceived as being particularly threatening. Since the Second World War, that world view has gone through various permutations. In one important register Islam was seen as a bulwark against communism throughout the period of the Cold War. After the Arab-Israel war of 1967, the emergence of Palestinian Resistance, and especially after the short-lived belligerence of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) on oil prices in 1973, the American media became obsessed with the Arab—the Bedouin, the Sheikh, the gun-totting terrorist—as an enemy of Western civilisation. As the U.S. assembled an Islamic jehad against the evil Afghan communists and their Soviet allies, Islam again gained immense favour, and the leaders of the Afghan “mujahideen” were declared, by Ronald Reagan in a White House ceremony, as “moral equivalents of our Founding Fathers” (perhaps a play could be staged with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar playing George Washington, Burhannudin Rabbani playing Thomas Jefferson, and so on).

When, later, Osama bin Laden and his men in Al Qaeda, until then on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) payroll, turned against their paymasters in opposition to the arrival of huge contingents of U.S. military personnel on Saudi soil at the very beginning of the First Gulf War in 1991, Islam again fell into terrible disrepute all over the Western world, the U.S. in particular. Then came the fateful September 11, 2001, and the onset of the “war on (Islamic) Terror” that, President Bush said, was going to be fought in dozens of countries and for possibly several decades (“war without end”). The spectre of Islam has been haunting the West ever since, becoming more and more spectral as days go by. And a very useful spectre, we might add. For it is in fear of this spectre that the figure of “the immigrant” can now be made to appear altogether menacing, with blood-curdling calls getting issued for ingathering of the (white) Western civilisation for exorcising this demon from the vast Scandinavian interiors of Denmark, through France and Austria and the like, right up to the California coast.

In short, the political uses of Islamophobia are by no means an invention of Trump and his cohorts. It is by now a staple of contemporary Western ideology, a trans-Atlantic tableau in which Angela Merkel can say exactly what Marine Le Pen might have (on the matter of the headscarf, for instance) and the French President Jacques Chirac, faced with a terror act, can aspire to act exactly (and ridiculously) like U.S. President Bush Jr. The distance between the Extreme Right and what Tariq Ali aptly calls the “Extreme Centre” is not as large as the latter claims. For Trump & Co, Islamophobia is an inheritance. An inheritance that is now to be cashed in and multiplied, with compounded profits. Trump now says what previous Presidents have thought, in various shades, from grey to purple, but the very act of saying inflames passions in altogether different ways.

President’s pronouncements

Let us begin briefly with the President’s own pronouncements, and then we shall look at Bannon, Flynn, and the rest in somewhat greater detail. Already during his presidential campaign, Trump had claimed that the “eradication” of jehadi terror—the I.S. in particular—would be the highest priority of his administration in his adventures abroad. He had even threatened to use “nukes” (as he jocularly calls them) in West Asia—though it was never clear who would be targeted, where and why, and what the fallout might be. (But then he has also threatened to use “nukes” in Europe as well, presumably against Russia even though he is widely alleged to be covertly supported by the wily Ruskies). He casually told the CNN: “I think Islam hates us.” When pressed to be more specific he ruminated: “It’s hard to define, it’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.”

Such breathtaking nonchalance would be ordinarily just very laughable, but this kind of casual vitriol becomes altogether frightening when it comes from a man who displays all the signs of the most vicious kinds of egomaniacal pathology in his personality but who has also been elected the President of the U.S., obviously with the power to make decisions that might determine the future of humankind (nuke this, nuke that). For an evangelical pastor in Nevada to say “Islam hates us” is bad enough because pronouncements of this kind then reverberate through all the circuits of evangelical-Zionist alliances and neo-Nazi groupings. But for the U.S. President to say so is a historic escalation with unpredictable consequences. For an irresponsibility of this level there can be only one of two explanations. Either he is so maniacally devoted to his self-image (what in American parlance would be called “Real Bad Dude”) that he is willing to make a bonfire of all other vanities in the pursuit of that self-projection. Or he cold-bloodedly knows what he is doing, the kind of passions he intends to inflame, the results he wishes to obtain, as part of a cabal that is only partially visible even to us, the veteran observers of the field of force that is American politics and the field of international politics in general. Another way of putting it is this: until he made the announcements, no one outside his own charmed and secretive circle had any clue as to who were going to be the principal figures in his Cabinet, especially as regards the national security apparatus. Likewise, it may well be that we are unable to decipher the method in the madness of his pronouncements and actions since becoming President because we do not sufficiently understand the alignments that are to benefit from what otherwise strike us as idiosyncrasies or even pure idiocies. Time will tell.

Steve Bannon

More clues can perhaps be found if we attend to some key figures in his administration, starting, above all, with Bannon, previously CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign, then appointed Chief Strategist as Trump got ready to enter the White House, then swiftly elevated into the inner sanctum, the “Principal Committee”, of the NSC, precisely at the time when the Director of national intelligence and, more significantly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were demoted to a position that they attend only when called in. According to The New York Times: “He is now reportedly eclipsing the National Security Adviser, retired Lt Gen. Michael Flynn.” According to an intelligence official quoted in Foreign Policy, Bannon was calling the shots at the NSC even before his appointment to it. “He is running a cabal, almost like a shadow NSC,” the unnamed official is quoted as saying, with “no paper trail of what’s being discussed and agreed upon at meetings. . . ”

What does he have to say on the subject of Islam and Muslims? But, before we get to that: who is he anyway, and what was he before he openly took over the Trump campaign? Well, he was once a luminary of Goldman Sachs, the great engine of financial power but also a great power behind many a throne in the U.S. establishment. Then he was executive chairman of Breitbart News Network, which he described as “the platform for the alt-right”. The term “alt-right” is of course a euphemism for the Far Right, which is itself comprised of various tendencies under no unified command but overlapping orientations: the neo-Nazis, the evangelicals and the evangelical-Zionist alliance, the Ku Klux Klan, the white nationalists, the more extreme Tea Party elements, nutty Republicans, and so forth. But what else is Breitbart News Network which Bannon took over as chairman?

Wikipedia tells us that Andrew Breitbart, right-wing commentator and businessman, founded Breitbart News Network during a visit to Israel in the summer of 2007 as a website “that would be unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel”. It is headquartered in Los Angeles with bureaus in Texas, London and—significantly—Jerusalem. Aside from this umbilical and enduring connection with Israel, Breitbart News Network is also known to have connections with Far Right groups in Europe. In turn, the head of the German intelligence has recently warned that Far Right extremist groups in Germany are conspiring with their counterparts in the U.S. and with American crime gangs to plan attacks. Bannon used to edit, write and make films for Breitbart News Network. Andrew Breitbart, the founder, called Bannon the “Leni Reifenstahl of the Tea Party Movement”. Leni Reifenstahl was of course the legendary film-maker for Hitler, famous for her filming of the Nuremberg Rallies and the Berlin Olympics. That Bannon would have the talent of a Reifenstahl is doubtful. But that his admirers would want to compare him to a woman of genius who chose to serve the Nazi regime is significant. That is of course not surprising in view of the fact that Bannon has also been endorsed by David Duke, the former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, in glowing terms: “You have an individual… who’s basically creating the ideological aspects of where we’re going .…And ideology ultimately is the most important aspect of any government.” That the U.S. is currently in the grip of a President and his Chief Strategist who have both been endorsed by the Klan does boggle the mind somewhat. One might add that Bannon is a loud admirer of Narendra Modi even as he complains that there are far too many Asian CEOs in Silicon Valley.

About Bannon’s association with the Religious Right in the U.S., his Islamophobia and his obsession with the clash of civilisations, we can learn much from his talk at the Vatican in which he says that the West is engaged in “a war that is already global... an outright war against jehadist Islamic fascism”. In that particular oration, perhaps to please his hosts, he also ranted against “an immense secularisation of the West” that “converges” with “radical Islam”. This war against Islam (and presumably against Western secularisation) must be fought, he says, to save “the Judeo-Christian West... a church and a civilisation that really is the flower of mankind”.

General Flynn

These views converge remarkably with those of Flynn, NSA and head of the NSC, with whom Bannon is expected to collaborate closely but whom Bannon is likely to treat as a rival and a nuisance; how this relationship pans out we shall have to see. What matters for present purposes is that Flynn’s Islamophobia appears to be even more extreme. Like Bannon, he too believes that the U.S. (and by implication the Judeo-Christian West which seems to include Israel) is at war against Islam, but Flynn goes so far as to suggest that this might turn out to be “hundred-year war”. The enemy is comprised, in the first instance, of “Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, I.S. and countless other terrorist groups” while “Iran is the linchpin of the alliance, its centrepiece”. Elsewhere, he tweeted “Fear of Islam is RATIONAL.” His top assistant at the NSC, K.T. McFarland, similarly speaks of “radical Islam” as an “apocalyptic death cult...the most virulent and lethal in history” that must be destroyed before it destroys the West. Trump’s repeated promises that he is going to eradicate radical Islam from “the face of the earth”, and his constant sliding from “radical Islam” to “Islam” are all taken from these advisers.

The incoherence of it all is of course quite remarkable. Authors of such rants, generals as they have been, seem not to have noticed that West Asia is in fact in the grip of a Saudi-instigated Shia-Sunni conflict and that Iran has been fighting against Al Qaeda and the I.S.—in Iraq, Syria and more obliquely Lebanon. It cannot possibly be the linchpin of an alliance that is comprised of its enemies. Such peculiarly passionate but also peculiarly incoherent formulations are repeated ad nauseum by the core personalities in this administration, which is astonishing because these men are experienced, shrewd, worldly wise. They must know that it is all a lie. Why do they repeat such lies, so elaborately, so often? There can possibly be only two explanations.

Why so many lies?

First, the point seems to be not to pursue truth but to create a belief system, a pattern of mass indoctrination, through sheer repetition by people in authority. For over 15 years now, since 2001, the U.S. population has been fed a steady diet of fear. Not all believe in what they are told and it is difficult to estimate just how many do. It is clear, however, that fear psychosis is rampant enough and that Islamophobia is now a widespread, effective mass ideology. This helps sustain a permanent war economy, to give the state continued authority to wage war in West Asia and to impose all sorts of regimentation and surveillance at home, and to buttress a herd-like unity in the white population against enemies circulating in and out of the U.S. territory freely. As before, but very much more so, this functions in tandem with white supremacist nationalism as the ideological cement for a society facing unbearable and deepening socio-economic crises of various sorts. The ultimate message is this: we are in a world war that is likely to be a long haul (100 years?), and in order to win this battle for sheer survival we must be prepared for all sacrifices, not only in the form of economic austerities but perhaps even the suspension of normal democratic governance so that the Great Leader is free to pursue the war through all means necessary.

Second, however, there is also a simple fact: Israel is in reality the only state, in collusion with Saudi Arabia of course, that is so singularly focussed on portraying Iran as the arch enemy, the home of all terrorism, that must be confronted and destroyed at all costs. Getting credited for igniting Sunni extremism is of course a novel honour bestowed on Iran. But this focus on Iran has been there for a long time. The gang of neo-conservatives, so prominent in the Bush administration and so closely allied with the Far Right elements in the Israeli Likud, always said that the invasion of Iraq, Syria, Libya were mere stepping stones toward the conquest of Iran (The slogan: “Real Men go to Tehran”). It is significant that General Flynn’s book The Field of Fight: How We can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies is co-authored with Michael Ledeen, the neoconservative ideologue most devoted to taking the war into Tehran. Nor is it insignificant that Breitbart News Network began its career in Israel. These are mere clues. But the imprint of Israel seems to be all over this emerging centrality of Islamophobia in U.S. strategic thinking; so long as the U.S. is engaged in war against Islam, Israel shall be free to complete its project of fully colonising the whole historic land of Palestine.

We could cite and quote, to the same effect of Islamophobic excess, the incoming Secretary of Defence James Mattis, the new CIA Director Mike Pompeo and many others in the Administration. But the point we wished to make should be clear enough. And we have not even said much of the secretive but obviously overbearing power of Jared Kushner, the Orthodox Jewish son-in-law of the President who seems to be emerging as possibly the second most powerful figure in this dispensation and who is said to have had lucrative dealings with Israeli settlers in the colonies—generally called “settlements” —on the West Bank. There is much that is not clear, and may not be for some time.

International outcast?

Key issues regarding the Trump administration’s probable foreign policy—with respect to China, Russia, even the European Union—are so uncertain, so shrouded in mystery that we shall have to wait and see what comes. He has already offended heads of states in countries as different as Mexico and Australia. Theresa May, the improbable British Prime Minister, was foolish enough to have rushed off to visit Trump, on the barest of invitations and even after he had openly said, probably scandalising the diplomatic corps, that Britain should send Nigel Farage to Washington as its ambassador. By contrast, Angela Merkel, forever a pastor’s daughter who is nevertheless the German Chancellor, is reputed to have delivered a tight-lipped lecture to Trump on the Geneva Conventions. Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition in the British Parliament, said that Trump should not be allowed to enter the United Kingdom at all while John Bercow, the Speaker in the House of Commons, said that even if Trump came to visit he would not be allowed to address Parliament. In short, Trump may well be carving for himself a brilliant career as an international outcast.

In contrast to this confusion in the sphere of foreign policy, his domestic agenda is clear from his appointments and is truly alarming in its extremist right-wing orientation. In a number of key departments of government, from Education to Health to Environment and beyond, Trump has appointed people who have a long history of hostility to those departments. When undergraduate students in a California classroom were asked whether they thought that there would still be a federal department of education when they apply for graduate admission, there was general laughter. They understood the reference: the incoming Secretary of Education, a brutal lady of fashion from a multibillionaire family, simply does not believe in public education which, she believes, should be given over to the private sector, that is, cakes when there is not enough bread.

A unique feature of the Trump administration is that a considerable part of reality seems to have taken a vacation. The vacation cannot last long. The country must be governed and foreign relations need to be conducted. Meanwhile, an important question needs to be addressed: can the Trump administration actually stabilise a pre-fascist state that it is bent upon creating? In other words, can the fascist project succeed in the U.S., here and now?

No easy walkover

That is a serious, urgent question that needs cool-headed, nuanced treatment. We shall return in a separate essay to this question, and the question of “fascism in our time” more generally. For now, the answer has to be brief and tentative.

Until now, the U.S. has not appeared to be a country willing and ready to accept any variety of fascism, and the practical ineptitude of the Trump team does not help its cause. There is no overwhelming majority; he lost the popular election by three million votes and won the presidency owing only to the distortions of the electoral college system that eventually elects the President. Major elements in institutions of the state are aghast. A federal judge issued a stay order against his first major Presidential Order; an Appeals Court swiftly ruled to maintain the Stay Order. Meanwhile, a high official of the state had already refused to carry out that order; she had to be fired. There were not only massive and widespread protests inside the country but horrified denunciations all across Europe. Trump’s popularity in polls has already plummeted to the lowest that any incoming U.S. President has faced within the first two weeks of his tenure. Hitler was a proper ideologue, Mussolini was a former editor of Avanti, the journal of the Socialist Party (party of the Left before the Communist Party was founded); Trump is, by contrast, a buffoon. Hitler was supported by a cross section of the intelligentsia, headed for a while by such luminaries as Martin Heideggar and Carl Schmidt among others, giving him considerable legitimacy among the educated classes while Nazis were still fighting to stabilise their regime; Croce, the pre-eminent Italian intellectual, supported Mussolini and then remained neutral for quite a while as Mussolini stabilised the fascist regime. There is no analogue for this in contemporary U.S.

Nazis in Germany and fascists in Italy grew in the context of a redoubled crisis, caused first by defeat in the First World War and the imposition of unpayable reparations on Germany in particular, and then by the Great Depression. Today’s U.S. faces no such crisis: it is the most powerful economy in the world, militarily more powerful than the combined power of all countries in the rest of the world, with unemployment rates lower than anywhere else in advanced capitalism. Inequality is of course immense, creating great disaffection, but the bulk of the white population—over 70 per cent of the electorate—is thriving. The non-white population, already over a quarter of the total, will fight back hard while nationalism seeks to impose a fascist state at its expense. There may well be a small-scale civil war before there is stable fascism.

In Germany and Italy, parliamentary democracy had shallow roots, with very chequered histories. In the U.S., parliamentary democracy has been entrenched for two centuries and has gone deeper, with sturdier roots over the course of time. There has never been a significant challenge to constitutional democracy from either the Left or the Right.

Racism has been already incorporated into American liberalism as its unacknowledged underbelly. As for a shared ethos of exaggerated imperial nationalism, when President Obama said that he believed in American exceptionalism with every fibre in his body, or that the rest of the world needs a strong U.S. leadership, he was already well into that terrain of peculiarly American national chauvinism that Trump appeals to with his slogan of “Make America Great Again”.

In other words, the kind of people who are now at the helm of the U.S. state—Trump himself, backed by the Bannons and the Flynns and very much more—are undoubtedly men who will overreach and try to erect a pre-fascist state. But, as signs of revolt such as the recent Women’s March in Washington and elsewhere already showed, the storm of opposition will also be great. There shall be no easy walkover. Battle will be joined. After a long time, the Left, too, will have the chance to grow if it proves capable of picking up the challenge—within the belly of the beast, as it were.

Aijaz Ahmad is Chancellor’s Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, School of Humanities, University of California, Irvine.

Populist demagogues

books

THE menace is as ancient as the Greeks and the Romans—democracies’ proneness to self-destruction. The prime architect of this disaster is the demagogue who arouses the latent fears of the masses, paints dreams of greatness (“ache din”), and leads them as they respond to his treacherous calls to amass power for himself. He lays democracy low before it can check him.

Plutarch recalls in his magnificent work Fall of the Roman Republic that Cicero, who launched himself on a political career with the highest hopes, had his eagerness somewhat blunted by a reply that he received from an oracle. He had consulted the god at Delphi, asking how he could gain the greatest favour. The Pythian priestess told him that his guide to life should be “not popular opinion, but his own nature”.

In modern times, Walter Lippmann repeatedly commented on the pitfalls of the democratic process; the electorate’s vulnerability to populist calls; and “the strong” leader’s insidious appeal. “Governments are unable to cope with reality when elected assemblies and mass opinions become decisive in the state, when there are no statesmen to resist the inclination of the voters and there are only politicians to excite and to exploit them” ( The Public Philosophy, 1955, page 46). That is a fair description of the calling of the modern populist demagogue. Sadly, there is little scrutiny and analysis of the phenomenon in India. In the United States, some of its finest minds studied it, apparently to little avail.

Cass Mudde of the University of Georgia co-authored Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Since populism has spread to Europe, he referred to a “Populist International” in an article in The New York Times in January. Well before Donald Trump’s election as President of the U.S., Michael Kazin, Editor of Dissent, who teaches history at Georgetown University, wrote a brilliant article in Foreign Affairs (November-December 2016) entitled “Trump and American Populism”. The book under review is authored by Professor Jan-Werner Müller of Princeton University.

Indians would do well to study them carefully, for the vice holds the country in its grip and only a concerted intellectual effort can help in liberating us. As one reads these writers’ analyses, one is struck, again and again, by the similarities between the twin demagogues Donald Modi and Narendra Trump. In both the streak of vulgarity in speech is pronounced. The cry of “America First” and the rejection of immigration has its parallel in Modi’s yearning for ancient times which knew plastic surgery but lost it and its achievements. The credo of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), heir to V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva, holds that Hindus alone are the true nationals of the country. The rest need to be Hinduised, as the RSS’ chief, M.S. Golwalkar, expounded in his Bunch of Thoughts. In Modi’s time you have ghar wapsi (return to the fold). No wonder his supporters in the U.S. and India enthusiastically support Trump. A pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Sunday weekly protectively warned of “conspiracies” against Trump.

Populism is not a Western ailment; it is very much an Indian disease. Modi won only partly because of Hindutva. He won because he promised to perform and deliver on “development”. Read Michael Kazin and the affinities hit you in the eye. “Trump has tapped into a deep vein of distress and resentment among millions of white working- and middle-class Americans. Trump is hardly the first politician to bash elites and champion the interests of ordinary people.”

Both demagogues have a very private definition of who “the people” are. “For most of U.S. history, it meant only citizens of European heritage—‘real Americans’, whose ethnicity alone afforded them a claim to share in the country’s bounty. Typically, this breed of populist alleges that there is a nefarious alliance between evil forces on high and the unworthy, dark-skinned poor below —a cabal that imperils the interests and values of the patriotic (white) majority in the middle.” In India it is not colour but religion that is exploited to divide the people.

In April 2016, months before the election, Trump vowed in a major speech that ‘“America First’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration”. Kazin also states: “He has even led crowds in chants of the slogan, while feigning indifference towards its dark provenance.”

Kazin’s analysis proved prophetic. “Trump will struggle to win the White House. Despite the manifest weaknesses of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee—including a lack of public trust and an awkward speaking style—her opponent has earned a reputation for vicious harangues against minority groups and individuals rather than statesmanlike conduct or creative policies.… It would be foolish to ignore the anxieties and anger of those who have flocked to Trump with a passion they have shown for no other presidential candidate in decades. According to a recent study by the political scientist Justin Gest, 65 per cent of white Americans—about two-fifths of the population—would be open to voting for a party that stood for ‘stopping mass immigration, providing American jobs to American workers, preserving America’s Christian heritage, and stopping the threat of Islam’. These men and women believe that most politicians ignore or patronise them.”

Have you noticed one singularly ugly feature of Modi’s election campaign in Uttar Pradesh? He has written off the Muslim vote and concentrates on Hindu mobilisation. The abolition of the triple talaq figures in the election manifesto; the party knows that even Muslims opposed to that hideous practice will resent the BJP’s intervention in this matter.

Anti-pluralist

Jan-Werner Müller’s book deserves a wide readership in India. He points out repeatedly that the core of populism is exclusion; the populist is anti-pluralist. He and he alone represents the people. “Populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite; when ruling, they refuse to recognise the opposition as legitimate. The populist logic also implies that whoever does not support populist parties might not be a proper part of the people—always defined as righteous and morally pure. Put simply, populists do not claim ‘We are the 99 percent’. What they imply instead is ‘We are the 100 percent.’ …

“Populism tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens. The idea of the single, homogeneous, authentic people is a fantasy; as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas once put it, ‘the people’ can only appear in the plural. And it’s a dangerous fantasy, because populists do not just thrive on conflict and encourage polarisation; they also treat their political opponents as ‘enemies of the people’ and seek to exclude them altogether.”

Populism is a degraded form of democracy in which its institutions— elections and the rest—are used to undermine its values. The structure is stripped of its life. “That the end result is a form of politics that is blatantly anti-democratic should trouble us all—and demonstrate the need for nuanced political judgment to help us determine precisely where democracy ends and populist peril begins.”

Populism has, for over a century, flourished in many a State in the U.S. It flourished in Gujarat after the pogrom of 2002. Once in New Delhi, Modi lost no time in consigning to the wilderness those who had saved him in 2002.

“This is the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people. Think of Nigel Farage celebrating the Brexit vote by claiming that it had been a ‘victory for real people’ (thus making the 48 per cent of the British electorate who had opposed taking the U.K. out of the European Union somehow less than real—or, put more directly, questioning their status as proper members of the political community). Or consider a remark by Donald Trump that went virtually unnoticed, given the frequency with which the New York billionaire has made outrageous and deeply offensive statements. At a campaign rally in May, Trump announced that ‘the only important thing is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything’.”

The populist leader disdains accountability. In all the three months since demonetisation on November 8, not once has Modi cared to meet the specific criticisms in Parliament. He has, instead, accused critics of corruption.

The author reckons with India’s experience. “The leader does not have to ‘embody’ the people, as statements such as ‘India is India, and India is Indira’ might suggest. But a sense of direct connection and identification needs to be there. Populists always want to cut out the middleman, so to speak, and to rely as little as possible on complex party organisations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true of wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of ‘mediating’, which, as the very word indicates, is what they are actually supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.” The populist leader avoids press conferences. He rides above his party and his colleagues, indeed, above the institutions of democracy. His style of speech is coarse and abounds in calumny. “Some populists test the limits of how rude one can be in a debate.”

Why blame the populist when he acts on his proposals once he is in office? “The notion that populists in power are bound to fail one way or another is comforting. It’s also an illusion. For one thing, while populist parties do indeed protest against elites, this does not mean that populism in government will become contradictory. First of all, all failures of populists in government can still be blamed on elites acting behind the scenes, whether at home or abroad (here we see again the not-so-accidental connection between populism and conspiracy theories). Many populist victors continue to behave like victims; majorities act like mistreated minorities.…

“Populists in office continue to polarise and prepare the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. They seek to moralise political conflict as much as possible. There is never a dearth of enemies—and these are always nothing less than enemies of the people as a whole.”

The checks and balances of democratic constitutions are abandoned. Populists try to “colonise the state”, to own it. They seek next to perpetuate their rule. The civil service is suborned. Journalists are co-opted as “clients”. The unwilling are denounced but also persuaded. The judiciary fares no better. “New judges were appointed. Where a reshaping of the entire system proved difficult, as has been the case in Poland so far, paralysis of the judiciary proved an acceptable second best for the governing party. Media authorities were also immediately captured; the clear signal went out that journalists should not report in ways that violate the interests of the nation (which were of course equated with the interests of the governing party).… The end result is that political parties create a state to their own political liking and in their own political image.”

Such a strategy to consolidate or even perpetuate power is not the exclusive preserve of populists, of course. What is special about populists is that they can undertake such colonisation openly and with the support of their core lay claim to more representation of the people. Why, populists can ask indignantly, should the people not take possession of their state through their only rightful representatives? Since the state belongs to the people, their representative, the populist, is entitled to wield power unchecked, while keeping up the appearances of democratic rul e.

The people, so long deceived, wake up when it is too late. But there will always be some who will argue that corruption is okay because the populist is their own man doing good on their behalf. They do not understand that in the long run it will harm them.

Suppressing civil society

Why were people in India surprised when Modi’s axe fell on non-governmental organisations? “Populists in power tend to be harsh [to say the least] with non-governmental organisations that criticise them. Again, harassing or even suppressing civil society is not a practice exclusive to populists. But for them, opposition from within civil society creates a particular moral and symbolic problem: it potentially undermines their claim to exclusive moral representation of the people.”

There is an insidious effort to test the limits, but no total break. Yet in the process “cultural nationalism and authoritarian politics become inextricably linked”. And Hindutva, according to the RSS-BJP family, is synonymous with “cultural nationalism”. Call it what you will. “Populism is inherently hostile to the mechanisms and, ultimately, the values commonly associated with constitutionalism: constraints on the will of the majority, checks and balances, protections for minorities, and even fundamental rights. Populists are supposedly impatient with procedures; they are even said to be ‘against institutions as such’, preferring a direct, unmediated relationship between the personal leader and the people.” Modi prefers the rally, where he is applauded, to Parliament, where he is questioned.

We, in India, have learnt much by experience—Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship, the Janata Party’s rifts and her return. Our polity is hopelessly divided. So are large sections of the media. TV is a revolting spectacle. There is a dire need for a disinterested group of persons who belong to no faction but study the politics of the country impartially and present the results to the people. The Association for Democratic Reforms in Hyderabad is a shining example of such a group. Its integrity and commitment are equalled by the labours it devotes to study.

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Oct 9,2020