Thursday, 28 November 2013

Protests in Thailand: Bangkok does not fancy this sibling bonding

It is a yesterday again on the streets of Thailand’s capital city Bangkok. Anti-government protests have rocked the city for a few weeks now and on Monday the protestors — by most estimates more than a lakh — laid siege to the finance ministry calling for the ouster of the government. Bangkok had witnessed protests against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and in 2008, the latter which led to the shutdown of the Suvarnabhumi International Airport. The immediate provocation for the protests was an attempt by the government to pass an amnesty bill on November 11, which was aimed at whitewashing the charges of corruption against Thaksin, who is the brother of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The senior leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Suthep Thaugsuban, says the protestors will not settle for anything less than the “Thaksin regime being wiped out”. While the anti-Thaksin voices are predominantly urban, the ruling Pheu Thai Party enjoys support in the populous rural areas of Thailand. The Pheu Thai Party, founded by Thaksin, had a resounding victory in the 2011 general elections. Also to be remembered is the massive protests in 2010 by the ‘red shirts’ demanding Thaksin’s return. However, the ‘no-confidence’ motion Yingluck is facing in parliament is crucial and it needs to be seen how it will impact the situation in the country.
The developments in Thailand are important also because of the impact it can have in the region and this is something India should keenly observe. Since 2001, India and Thailand have been exploring ways of increasing economic ties and a framework agreement for establishing free trade between the two countries was signed in 2003. That a Free Trade Agreement featured in the talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, when Singh was in Bangkok in May, stresses the importance of the ties. Already, under the Indo-Thai Early Harvest Scheme (EHS), almost 82 items of trade are exempted from duty. The Thai PM invited India to invest in its deep-sea ports and special economic zones in Myanmar. This is a part of Yingluck’s ‘Look West’ policy and while Bangkok is building ties with New Delhi, it is also sending a clear message to Beijing. With two-way trade between the nations at almost $9 billion in 2012-13, India has a stake in political stability in Thailand. As for now it should wait and watch the events rather than jumping into hasty conclusion.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Uttar Pradesh: Mulayam’s Hindi is Akhilesh’s English

'Son, the Hindi for ... SIM card is...' 
Recycling is an environment-friendly process and old things, as much as possible, should be recycled. However, it’s another thing to recycle old ideas, especially the redundant ones. Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s call to ban the use of English language in Parliament should be seen in this light. Mr Yadav was speaking at a function at Etawah in Uttar Pradesh where he said that many leaders had a ‘double standard’ when it came to Hindi, as they asked for votes in Hindi but spoke in English in Parliament. His suggestion to use one’s mother tongue in Parliament is a flawed one and does not act in the favour of his idea to promote Hindi. The mother tongue of more than half of the members of the Lok Sabha is not Hindi and if one were to take heed of the SP leader’s suggestion, there would be more than 20 different languages spoken on the floor of the House. The resultant scene can only be described as pandemonium.
To look at English as a vestige of our colonial past is wrong, as today the language belongs to all its users, both native and non-native speakers. In a multi-lingual country like India, where dialects of the same language change every 100 kilometres, English is the lingua franca and linguam primarium. English is a thread that connects various states and cultures. Many states in India have suffered because of an aversion towards English — the case of West Bengal is an example. India’s IT/ITES revolution owes its success a great deal to the language. Many of the political leaders who talk about the need to shun English make it a point to send their children to English-medium schools and to universities in the US, the UK or Australia.
This fall back on the attitude towards the usage of English by the Samajwadi Party leader shows the party’s paucity of ideas in this election season. Uttar Pradesh, where the party runs the government, has recently been in the news for the wrong reasons like the communal tension in Muzaffarnagar, which saw many people die and scores of people living in relief camps months after the riots. The healthcare scenario, with a high infant mortality rate, is not very impressive and there is a lot of scope for improvement. Rather than focusing on these and other pressing issues, Mulayam Singh’s statement has shown that the hope placed on a young Akhilesh Yadav as the chief minister of the most populous state in the country was misplaced. The young chief minister of UP, who himself holds a degree from the University of Sydney, Australia, must work towards dispelling the impression that his government and party are resorting to retrograde ways to reach out to the people and instead take all the steps towards putting the state on the development path. Shunning English is not a step in the right direction.

Iran nuclear deal: It's an opportunity the world shouldn't miss

For decades Iran has been the bad boy for the West. The antics of its leaders in public coupled with its nuclear ambitions have not earned it many friends. But since June, when Hassan Rouhani was elected president, there have been changes in this outlook. The earlier round of talks, to put a tab on Iran’s nuclear programme, held in Geneva, between the West and Iran missed an agreement after France scuttled the deal at the last minute. While differences continue among the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, France, China, the United Kingdom, and Germany) and Iran, leaders like US President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron have made the right moves: Mr Obama has stuck his neck out to stress the need for talks and the easing of sanctions, while Mr Cameron called up Mr Rouhani (a first in a decade by a UK PM) to ‘address concerns on both sides on the nuclear issue’. Given this, it is not in the best interests of anyone to further impose sanctions on Tehran. The loosening of sanctions would mean that Tehran has more flexibility with its trade on gold and oil, which is good news for New Delhi.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy and commerce minister and leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party, said a few days ago that Iran was six weeks away from enriching weapons-grade uranium. The fear of nuclear proliferation is not without merit but what about nations that have nuclear weapons acquired under the table, like Pakistan or North Korea? Douglas MacKinnon, a former White House and Pentagon official, has rightly asked, in a Fox News op-ed: “Are we endangering our own safety and that of Israel by over-exaggerating the nuclear threat posed by Iran while drastically under-estimating the growing threat posed by Pakistan?” There is a need for international pressure and scrutiny on Islamabad for its clandestine nuclear dealings. This is the clear and present danger — more than the likelihood of Iran’s plans.
The talks with Iran are perhaps one of the greatest tests for Obama. A deal could also bring greater peace to the region and change the course of world politics.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Colombo CHOGM: The shadow is bigger than the object

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which concluded in Colombo on Sunday, is a good example of a ‘meeting for the sake of meeting’. Mainly a conglomeration of countries that were at some point in history ruled by the British, the Commonwealth has little in common today. The glue that holds the Commonwealth together is the commitment of member nations towards democracy, human rights and rule of law. With many nations criticising Sri Lanka, which hosted the CHOGM, for its human rights abuses and war crimes, the relevance and need for the Commonwealth is being put to question. A usual criticism of the Commonwealth is that it often refuses to take a strong stand against erring nations and this timid approach has eroded its credibility.
That only 27 heads of government attend the Colombo CHOGM shows how the 53-member Commonwealth is battling a split right in the middle. Among the prominent leaders who gave the Meet a miss were Queen Elizabeth II (for the first time in over four decades), Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mauritius Prime Minister Navin Chandra Ramgoolam. While Mr Haprer’s decision came early in October, Mr Singh’s decision was a last minute one, making it clear to world nations that it was a decision based more on politics than on principle.
The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has said that the Colombo summit has strengthened the organisation and that there was a "reaffirmation of the spirit and willingness of wanting to stay together as a unique collection of nations". The events that unfolded tell another story. Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to the Jaffna region and his statement that if progress was not seen before March, he would urge the UN Human Rights Commission for a “full, credible and independent international inquiry” in no uncertain words brought the focus on the Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s human rights record. The objection of Australia and Canada to back a 'Capital Green Fund' for smaller states and struggling African nations to tackle climate change can been seen as a failure of the Colombo CHOGM. The statement released after the Meet stating that the countries agreed to address issues like poverty reduction, trade and youth affairs, among others, pales given enormity and potential the group reflects on paper. Irrespective of the fate of the 2015 CHOGM in Malta, one thing is clear: the Commonwealth today is more a relic of the past than of any significance today.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Opinion Polls: Congress should not sulk, BJP cannot gloat

The Election Commission of India’s (ECI) suggestion to put a lid on pre-poll surveys has found support from unexpected quarters with the Congress endorsing the commission’s views. Stating that they are not ‘scientific’ and are not conducted in a ‘transparent manner’ the grand old party has written to the ECI, which had asked various political parties to submit their views on banning such polls. The Congress’ dislike for opinion polls is understandable. After all, in most of the polls that have been released, the party is forecast to take a beating in the upcoming state elections. In Delhi, a state-union territory the Congress has been in power for three consecutive terms, an opinion poll shows the party trailing behind. The results are not encouraging in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh either. 
Psephology is a science that analysis political results. Depending on region, society and various other factors psephologists more often than not are able to reflect the sentiments of the electorate before voting day. Many democracies around the world also have opinion polls. Nathaniel Read ‘Nate’ Silver, the famous American sabermetricist (Sabermetrics is the analysis of baseball statistics) and psephologist, has been successfully forecasting the career of major baseball players and forecasted correctly 49 of the 50 state winners in the 2008 presidential elections. Such popular was Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog the New York Times licensed its publication in 2010. In 2012, Silver forecasted the winner in all the 50 states. Opinion polls and pre-poll surveys help in gauging the public mood. While there might be room for doubting the neutrality and objectivity of an opinion poll, it should be remembered that these surveys are not oracular prophesies. Nor are they edicts carved on stone and remain unchanged. Depending on various factors they can change proving these surveys wrong. At present exit polls are banned and there is a ban on opinion polls 48 hours before the day of election.
The Congress will do well to remember Sophocles in Antigone: "No one loves the messenger who brings bad news". Rather than taking objection to opinion polls, the Congress should look at it as a harbinger and realise that there is still time for course correction before the general elections in 2014.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Free the babus from the shackles of politicians

In what is a giant stride towards freeing the bureaucracy from the shackles of the political establishment, the Supreme Court on Thursday passed a judgment asking the Centre and state governments to ensure that civil servants have a fixed tenure. In order to look into this the court has suggested the setting up of an independent civil servants boards (CSB) within three months that would recommend to the government on matters relating to disciplinary actions, transfers and postings of civil servants. Acting on a two-year-old PIL filed by a group of retired bureaucrats, the apex court’s judgment requires that the Centre and states pass supporting legislation. The court was particularly critical of the political establishment in observing that civil servants had no stability in their tenure and were at times being transferred at the “whims and fancies of the executive head for political and other considerations and not in public interest”. The court has asked bureaucrats to put in writing the oral orders given by their superiors. The observation that a fixed tenure would “promote professionalism, efficiency and good governance” highlights the present plight bureaucrats face because of political interference.
Seen in the light of the recent events which highlighted the case of IAS officer Ashok Khemka, who was transferred while investigating the land deals in Haryana of Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, or the case of Durga Shakti Nagpal, who was suspended and later reinstated for taking on the sand mafia in Uttar Pradesh, an independent CSB will put a check on arbitrary transfers and suspensions. That Mr Khemka and Ms Nagpal are not one off cases adds more urgency for a politically independent body like the CSB. Others who faced the political heat are: C Umashankar, the IAS officer who took on the Marans in Tamil Nadu; Ashish Kumar, who took on the sand mafia in Tuticorin; Manoje Nath, for taking on corruption in Bihar; Sanjeev Bhat, EAS Sarma is a long list. While the BJP has welcomed the judgment, the UPA government has criticised it and understandably so. Many feel that the court order is unworkable and is seen as yet another instance where the judiciary and political establishment will be at loggerheads. The government’s claim that it has been working towards bringing more transparency through its draft ‘Civil Services Performance, Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010’ is a bit late in the day and cannot but be seen as a poor effort to counter the CSB.
The euphoria over the judgment will be short-lived if it goes the way earlier administrative reform suggestions have gone. The Centre’s push for a fixed tenure for civil servants in 2007 saw just four states agreeing to it—interestingly Haryana was one of the states. The second Administrative Reforms Commission 2012 also suggested the need for a fixed tenure for civil servants. Recommendations by the PC Hota Committee and the Fifth Pay Commission for civil service boards have not been taken up by the government. The 2006 directive of the apex court calling in for sweeping police reforms to make the force more professional and free from political interference is gathering dust.

NaMo, RaGa.....politicians give facts a miss

Political leaders shooting off their mouth is nothing new. Often in the heat of addressing an audience politicians add, twist or delete historical events to suite the occasion. The problem arises when the public and an attentive media highlight these ‘white lies’. When caught politicians either stand by the comment or use the bogey of being ‘misquoted’. While some of these gaffes are controversial and insensitive, like Congress leader Beni Prasad Verma saying that “I am happy with this inflation”, many are comical and some are replete with fudged facts. Comments that twist historical facts expose the grasp our leaders have over history.
Many of the statements made by Gujarat chief minister and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi seems to give facts a miss. Some of the examples are: statements saying that Alexander came up to the Ganges, that Chandragupta Maurya belonged to the Gupta dynasty, that China spends 20% of its GDP on education (Beijing devotes hardly 4%), that Gujarat under him empowered women while sex ratio has fell in the past decade and is below the national average. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi also got it wrong when he referred to the ‘large 70-foot ashes with dead bodies inside’ in Uttar Pradesh in the heat of the state election campaign.

It not just national leaders who are prone to the gaffe bug. Topping the international list would be former Alaska governor Sarah Palin remarks that "But obviously, we've got to stand with our North Korean allies" or "You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska." Former US president George W Bush was so prone to mistakes that his ‘Bushisms’ like "I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully" have etched their place in public memory.
Some gaffes make us laugh while some appal us. Either way it is in the best interests of leaders that they pay more attention to their speeches — because the callous attitude shown towards what one says does not inspire confidence and reflect their commitment towards what they are capable, or willing, of doing.