Monday, April 24, 2006

Asia's other Maoist threat (April 24, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta
JASHPURNAGAR, INDIA--For two hot summer months, observant police in this tiny, remote town in the north of the country spotted a trickle of young boys from neighboring states disappearing into the surrounding forest. In almost every case, they reemerged a few months later, clutching a wad of banknotes, amounting to a fortune in local terms.
These youngsters--police estimate at least 250 passed through the area last May and June--were the latest recruits to a Maoist rebel movement that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently branded the biggest threat to India’s internal security. “There can be no political compromise with terror,” he told an April 14 meeting convened to discuss the crisis, after a string of audacious attacks by the insurgents in several states.
But the prime minister’s rhetoric is undercut by his government’s actions. Namely, Mr. Singh and his Congress Party have a track record of trying to cut covert deals with the Maoists. The sops allowed the rebels time to rearm and regroup, contributing to the recent upsurge in violence.
The sheer numbers give cause to worry. According to the Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Studies, 247 people--including 83 insurgents--have died in Maoist-inspired violence in the first quarter of this year. That includes a March 13 hijacking of a train in the northern state of Jharkhand and a March 24 jail break, when Maoists freed one of their top leaders from jail in the state of Orissa. That followed yet another audacious jail break last November, when 500 armed Maoists stormed a prison in the state of Bihar, freeing top rebel leaders and murdering political opponents incarcerated there.
Left-wing extremism is nothing new in South Asia. The Indian state of West Bengal endured a Maoist insurgency from 1967 to 1972. Sri Lanka experienced similar insurrections in 1971 and 1988. In all these cases, the governments declared war and used counter-insurgency strategies that included arresting all rebel leaders and actively recruiting agents to turn in their former comrades.
But in India, the threat has been approached with a softer touch--and is now bordering on a severe uprising. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs estimates that there are now nearly 9,300 hard-core Maoist cadres, well-armed and trained in how to use explosives, active in 165 districts in 14 of the country’s states. To put this into perspective, that spans an area where 17% of India’s population lives. The Maoists, once romantically portrayed by their sympathizers as well-intentioned Robin Hoods, motivated by local poverty and oppressive landlords, are finally being recognized as a serious threat to the Indian state. With neighboring Nepal gripped by an insurgency that has seen Maoists rebels create “liberated zones” of parallel administrations covering last swathes of the mountainous kingdom, the fear is that their Indian counterparts are seeking to follow suit. That could, in the worst case scenario, create a “red corridor” running from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean.
Hence the belated alarm bells in New Delhi. But Mr. Singh’s administration is paying a price for its own short-sightedness. When the Congress Party-led government came to power in May 2004, it tried to enlist the Maoists for political purposes, rather than tackle the insurgency head-on. The government cynically calculated that Maoists the held the balance of power in nearly 10% of parliamentary constituencies--not because they enjoy popular support, but because they are powerful enough to intimidate the voters in those areas.
Naively, policy makers believed they could use the Maoists to undermine the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which controls five of the seven states in which the insurgents are strongest. The Home Minister in New Delhi repeatedly turned down requests from BJP-controlled states for firm military action against the rebels. For instance, a request from the BJP-controlled state of Chhatisgarh for airborne operations against the insurgents was rejected on the ground that the Maoists were “our boys” who deserved to be sweet-talked, rather than outgunned. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress regional government even negotiated a 10-month ceasefire with the Maoists.
Not surprisingly, the Maoists took advantage of these mixed signals and dithering in New Delhi to regroup and rearm. In September 2004, they united their various splinter groups under the umbrella body of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). In Andhra Pradesh alone, they raised an estimated 500-600 million rupees ($11-13 million) during the 10-month ceasefire, from June 2004 to April 2005. The local police estimated the Maoists recruited 300-500 additional guerrillas during this period. Official complicity in allowing the rebels to regroup was graphically demonstrated in February 2005, when the regional government ordered Andhra Pradesh police to call off an anti-insurgency operation, allowing a top Maoist leader called Ramakrishna to escape. When the militants finished refinancing their cause, they simply declared the ceasefire over, blaming alleged police killings of their supporters.
It’s good that the Singh administration finally seems to have woken up to the threat. The first priority should be to give India’s states the tools they have long been demanding to tackle the insurgency. That means funds to modernize their police forces, buy helicopters to send rapid deployment forces into otherwise inaccessible areas, and the resources to establish elaborate intelligence networks.
Even more importantly, Mr. Singh needs to build on his recent remarks to a special meeting of chief ministers from all Indian states. In that meeting, he vowed to “wipe out” the Maoist threat, calling for more effective policing as part of an aggressive new strategy to tackle the violence.
Encouragingly, some states have already taken a tough stance. In West Bengal, the state’s Communist-led government advocates using the same, warlike counter insurgency tactics that worked in the 1980s. (At a recent election rally, the Communist chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeva Bhattacharya, warned the Maoists that the state police would “finish them off.”) The BJP has shown it is not soft on terrorists either, with a controversial program of resettling villagers in guarded camps in the remote Bastar region, so depriving local Maoists of sustenance and support.
Nepal’s experience demonstrates that any half-hearted and inept handling of the Maoist threat can prove counter-productive. In India, the stakes are even higher. Quietly but systematically, the Maoists are targeting India’s claim to be the latest global economic success story. Domestic industries, particularly the mining sector, are already being hard hit by the taxes the Maoists impose in the areas they control. Although only one foreign investor has been targeted so far--the destruction of a Coca Cola bottling plant in Andhra Pradesh in 2001--the Maoist leadership has been ominously warning multinationals to stay away.
“Give us five years,” one Maoist leader recently predicted, “We will make sure you spend sleepless nights.”
Mr. Dasgupta is a Delhi-based columnist and former managing editor of India Today.

(Published in Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2006)

Friday, April 21, 2006

Byword for disruption (April 21, 2006)

History is just not on the Communists' side

By Swapan Dasgupta

This is the strangest Assembly election ever experienced in West Bengal. The Election Commission guidelines have drained this festival of democracy of colour and the usual carnival atmosphere. The evocative graffiti which used to be the most cost-effective medium of political communications have disappeared—outlawed by the application of a little-known law dating back to the time the Congress was last in control of Writer’s Buildings. Gone are the buntings, the huge cut-outs of competing symbols and even posters are scarce. If it wasn’t for the modest processions through the back streets, the odd padayatra by candidates and the occasional public meetings, you wouldn’t have guessed that West Bengal is in the throes of an election. The cacophony of street politics has been replaced by relatively sober duels in the print and electronic media. At the same time, voter turnout is unimpaired.

Maybe the restrictions were overdue. For the past 100 years the stereotype of the fractious, argumentative and over-politicised Bengali has been etched into the national consciousness. Whereas Bengalis debunked Rudyard Kipling’s banderlog caricature as colonialist disdain of enlightenment, the rest of India often equated loquaciousness with dementia. From the “revolutionary terrorism” during the Raj and Naxalite adventurism in the 1970s to the unending spate of bandhs since 1966, Bengal has become a byword for disruption. The Communist movement must hog most of the credit for protesting too much but, to be fair, the Congress and its offshoots haven’t lagged behind entirely. Being dysfunctional has become the Bengali consensus.

The state has paid an unacceptably high price for passing off perversity as common sense. A hundred years ago, Calcutta was the most happening place in India. It was the second city of the largest empire since Roman times. It was the hub of education, cosmopolitan culture, trade and a fledgling industry. It was the citadel of gracious living—a phenomenon by no means confined to the white man. Above all, it was the epitome of modern India.

In just a century Kolkata has not only lost its pre-eminence within India, it has been relegated to the status of a provincial backwater. In just three generations, a truncated Bengal has squandered away its profound historical advantages and lost out to Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Today, it lags behind resurgent India in everything except crowds in cricket matches, lost mandays and voter turnout. West Bengal is a state that has been crippled by the politics it professes.

When the history of West Bengal’s decline in the 20th century is written, it is certain to place the Communist movement in the dock. Communism in Bengal has always been more than just a formidable election-winning machinery; it is a mindset centred on self-destruction, envy and a reckless disregard of all the laws of economics. Behind the veneer of bhadralok civility, Bengal’s middle-class Communist leadership has snuffed life out of a people’s creative enterprise.

It has happened not because Communists are inherently evil. Many of the Left leaders are deeply compassionate individuals with a genuine commitment to improve the lives of the poor. They also have high ethical standards—a reason why the index of corruption in West Bengal has not reached the dizzying heights of, say, Delhi and southern India.

The root of the problem is the Communist obsession with control. Starting from the personal lives of their cadres, the CPI(M) aspired to control everything—the distribution of land, cropping patterns, the selection of teachers, and the appointments, transfers and postings of government employees. Even areas which traditionally came under the purview of civil society, like the composition of voluntary associations, and, occasionally, business decisions were sought to be brought under the umbrella of party control.

In its 29-year rule, the Left Front boasts of having empowered those who were previously on the margins of society. At one level this may be true but a strange corollary of this empowerment of the “toiling masses” is its emotional subordination to the party. Thus, when the party makes it a prestige issue to ensure 85 to 90 per cent polling in districts such as West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia—areas where the CPI(M) majority is weighed rather than counted—the faithful fall in line and do their bit for the Local Committee. If empowerment, however, also involves the freedom of individual choice and the right to be contrarian, the CPI(M) will have none of it. The element of control may be loose in urban and suburban West Bengal but in the villages, communities have become frighteningly regimented and dependant on the party for both survival and growth. The space for individual initiative has shrunk.

This is not a situation which can endure indefinitely, and certainly not with the spread of literacy and market economics. On the surface, the CPI(M) strongholds appear completely impregnable. According to the opinion and exit polls, the Left Front is set to replicate its earlier victories on May 11—and that too without falling back on emotional motivation. Despite the stringent measures the EC has taken to prevent electoral malpractices, the opposition parties are just not in a position to take advantage of the wholesome environment. Going by the opposition’s own estimates, Left Front candidates will have a walkover in nearly 184 of the state’s 294 Assembly constituencies. In three decades, the Left Front has crafted a system of one-party dominance.

Yet, ironically, it is this spectacular exercise of intrusive politics that carries the seeds of popular liberation. To many, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is like a breath of fresh air. In the course of five years, he has begun the process of dismantling Jyoti Basu’s crippling legacy. Almost every single tenet of CPI(M) orthodoxy, from the espousal of militant trade unionism to the disavowal of English, has been turned on its head. Bhattacharya talks the language of Manmohan Singh in economics and shares Narendra Modi’s impatience with lax national security. He almost seems like a scientist in a flat-earth society.

That the Chief Minister has transcended the CPI(M) orthodoxy is undeniable. The question is: why has the CPI(M) given him the license for heresy? The answer may lie in the party’s own recognition that it is impossible to keep West Bengal as a protected enclave much longer. The winds of change sweeping across India are whipping up fierce expectations, particularly a desire to catch up with the developed world. The CPI(M) may be only too aware that it can neither put a lid on dreams of a better life nor micro-manage communities with disposable incomes. In short, unless the party changes its tune and adapts to a market environment, it risks eventual obsolescence. Ironically, this is also a problem that the RSS faces.

Bhattacharya has anticipated the process and not left it to the opposition to exploit a creeping anti-incumbency. In good Communist tradition, he has assumed the mantle of the reformer and painted Mamata Banerjee as a hysterical populist who has internalised the very cussedness the CPI(M) leadership is anxious to discard. What makes this election unique is that we are seeing the CPI(M) for the first time hesitantly admitting that it has been 29 years of miscalculations and wasted opportunities.

Some three decades after China embraced the market and Communists in Western Europe discovered Euro-communism, Bhattacharya is trying to make the CPI(M) come to terms with the charms of liberal capitalism. If he succeeds, it will be good for Bengal. For the CPI(M), however, the future is less rosy. History is not just on its side.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, April 21, 2006)

Friday, April 07, 2006

The politics of sacrifice (April 7, 2006)

Why Sonia Gandhi can get away from her grandstanding

By Swapan Dasgupta

The office-of-profit controversy which originated in a family spat involving the Gandhis and the Bachchans took an unexpected turn with Sonia Gandhi resigning from both the Lok Sabha and the National Advisory Council. To the more impressionable, this act of “sacrifice” was politically astute and would ultimately prove beneficial to both Sonia and the Congress. To the cynical, Sonia’s resignation was a desperate attempt to turn adversity into advantage. It will, they say, at best be a seven-day wonder.

Since the arguments on both sides of the sacrificial divide have been played ad nauseam in the media, it would be needlessly self-indulgent to replay them in this column. In any case, as Mao Zedong is reported to have said about the French Revolution, it is still too early to assess the impact of the Congress President’s well-scripted melodrama. We must await the judgment of history to unfold in due course.

The soap opera surrounding the real meaning of the abstruse Article 102 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution has, however, quite unwittingly, thrown up a quirky philosophical issue. Can the political institutions and culture of independent India be assessed on its own terms? Alternatively, isn’t it more relevant to view the political conventions of contemporary India in terms of a seamless continuity from the Raj?

The questions arise because the origins of this hoary disqualification clause don’t lie in the Constituent Assembly proceedings. Indeed, the founding fathers hardly spent any time deliberating this bar to parliamentary membership. They merely grafted—and, quite rightly—a tradition that had evolved over the centuries in Britain to the Indian statutes. In doing so, the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar tacitly accepted the terms of British constitutional history in India.

Till the late-1970s the acknowledgment of this heritage was quite explicit with the Union Public Service Commission offering an optional paper on British Constitutional History for its competitive examinations. It was only after India was bitten by the radical, post-colonial bug that the myth of political exceptionalism was internalised—leading to profound distortions in public life. Some of the ignorance witnessed during the media deliberations of a proposed amendment to the law—the demand, for example, by some puerile Leftists that the purview of “profit” be extended to private enterprise and the professions—stems from the trendy disdain for anything predating 1947.

Yet, it is impossible to assess the fuss over what constitutes an office of profit without reference to the long tussle between Crown and Parliament in Britain. Going by Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice, the desire to keep Crown-appointed public servants out of Parliament arose prior to the English Civil War as part of the “continuous effort to gain recognition for the Privileges of the House.” It was also linked to the ability of MPs to be physically present in the House of Commons for a reasonable duration and led to the disqualification of judges and Church of England clergy. After the Restoration, the terms of battle changed to preventing the King from subverting the independence of Parliament with selective disbursement of sinecures and pensions. Since the government of the day was appointed by Royal Prerogative, it was in the interests of the Crown and the Government to secure parliamentary support through both persuasion and inducement.

Although the Succession to the Crown Act, 1705, created the statutory parameters for upholding the independence of Parliament from the executive, the problem persisted till the reign of George IV. Even as late as 1770, Edmund Burke could invoke the fear of a Court-inspired conspiracy to undermine parliamentary democracy: “The power of the Crown, almost dead and rotten as Prerogative, has grown up anew, with much more strength, and far less odium, under the name of Influence.”

The laws governing disqualification for holding any office of profit both “under” and “from” the Crown had to undergo further modifications after 1740. As “mob” pressure, the development of the party system and the principle of popular government progressively whittled down the Royal Prerogative, it became impossible to maintain a rigid separation between the executive and the legislature. Whereas the House of Commons had earlier been virtually united in its opposition to the unchecked role of the Crown, the Treasury benches increasingly came to be drawn from the Commons itself. This naturally meant that certain offices of profit from the Crown had to be exempt from the disqualification laws.

In 1957, all the different laws on the subject were brought together and simplified in the House of Commons Disqualification Act. The Act specified by name all those offices whose holders were not entitled to sit in the Commons. The Act, however, empowered Parliament to declare, if necessary, that a particular disqualification be disregarded.

Since all Indian legislation on the subject is drawn from Westminster, it is important to understand that the office-of-profit disqualification was aimed primarily at preventing the subversion of legislators by the executive. Since it is the job of Parliament to scrutinise the executive, all those non-ministers who are beholden to the state for exceptional perks and privileges—these could include lavish conveyance facilities, secretarial staff and first class travel arrangements—can be said to have been compromised. Although the party system and the ubiquitous three-line whip rule out complete independence of mind, the office-of-profit disqualification is aimed at preventing indiscriminate distribution of lollipops to MPs at government expense.

It hardly bears reiteration that this is precisely what an over-generous regime of exemptions would do. The parliamentarians of the 18th century were particularly agitated by “secret” pensions paid by the Crown to select colleagues. In an India where there is a ceiling on the number of MPs who can be appointed ministers, membership of the so-called development boards and autonomous corporations—some even carry “Cabinet status” for determining the size of privileges—is precisely the type of backdoor corrupt practice that Article 102 (1) (a) sought to prevent.

Finally, by restricting the offices of profit a MP can hold, the law sought to uphold the principle of accountability to Parliament. A Ministership is an office of profit under the state but it is exempt from the disqualification clause because the holder of the office is ultimately answerable to Parliament. The National Advisory Council had a seminal role in the UPA Government’s policies and priorities. It was funded totally by the government through the Prime Minister’s Office and its chairperson enjoyed the service conditions of a Cabinet minister.

The Government erred in not including the NAC from the exempted list. Yet, it was more than a technical oversight. In allowing Sonia to formally influence the Government and at the same time not being answerable to Parliament for that advice, the Cabinet was guilty of bypassing and undermining Parliament itself. There would have been nothing irregular in Sonia being the head of the Government-funded NAC if she had been sworn in as a minister and performed her role as a member of the executive, with full accountability to Parliament. Instead, she wanted the best of both world—the privileges that come with being a member of the Cabinet and the pretence that she had let her “inner voice” dictate her sacrifice of the highest political office.

Sonia’s was just the type of duplicity and unwholesome politics that conservatives like Burke and reformers like John Wilkes fought against. These champions of democracy could mount a credible attack on the attempts to corrupt Parliament because no one could point an accusing finger at them. Sonia can get away with her grandstanding because the Government, the loyal opposition and the real opposition want to blend feigned morality with special perks and extraordinary privileges.

(Published in The Telegraph, April 7, 2006)