BBC News – Why do Indians vote for ‘criminal’ politicians?

Soutik Biswas – India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 16 January 2017. Why do India’s political parties field candidates with criminal charges? Why do the voters favour them despite their tainted past?

Political scientist Milan Vaishnav has been studying links between crime and democracy in India for many years now. His upcoming book When Crime Pays offers some intriguing insights into what is a disturbing feature of India’s electoral democracy.

The good news is that the general election is a thriving, gargantuan exercise: 554 million voters queued up at more than 900,000 stations to cast their ballots in the last edition in 2014. The fortunes of 8,250 candidates representing 464 political parties were at stake.

The bad news is that a third (34%) of 543 MPs who were elected faced criminal charges, up from 30% in 2009 and 24% in 2004.

Fiercely competitive

Some of the charges were of minor nature or politically motivated. But more than 20% of the new MPs faced serious charges such as attempted murder, assaulting public officials, and theft.

Now, India’s general elections are not exactly a cakewalk.

Over time, they have become fiercely competitive: 464 parties were in the fray in 2014, up from 55 in the first election in 1952.

The average margin of victory was 9.7% in 2009, the thinnest since the first election. At 15%, the average margin of victory was fatter in the landslide 2014 polls, but even this was vastly lower than, say, the average margin of victory in the 2012 US Congressional elections (32%) and the 2010 general election in Britain (18%).

Almost all parties in India, led by the ruling BJP and the main opposition Congress, field tainted candidates. Why do they do so? For one, says Dr Vaishnav, “a key factor motivating parties to select candidates with serious criminal records comes down to cold, hard cash”.

The rising cost of elections and a shadowy election financing system where parties and candidates under-report collections and expenses means that parties prefer “self-financing candidates who do not represent a drain on the finite party coffers but instead contribute ‘rents’ to the party”. Many of these candidates have criminal records.

There are three million political positions in India’s three-tier democracy; each election requires considerable resources.

Many parties are like personal fiefs run by dominant personalities and dynasts, and lacking inner-party democracy – conditions, which help “opportunistic candidates with deep pockets”.

Good proxy

“Wealthy, self financing candidates are not only attractive to parties but they are also likely to be more electorally competitive. Contesting elections is an expensive proposition in most parts of the world, a candidate’s wealth is a good proxy for his or her electoral vitality,” says Dr Vaishnav, who is senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Political parties also nominate candidates with criminal backgrounds to stand for election because, simply put, they win.

During his research, Dr Vaishnav studied all candidates who stood in the last three general elections. He separated them into candidates with clean records and candidates with criminal records, and found that the latter had an 18% chance of winning their next election whereas the “clean” candidates had only a 6% chance.

He did a similar calculation for candidates contesting state elections between 2003 and 2009, and found a “large winning advantage for candidates who have cases pending against them”.

Politics also offers a lucrative career, a 2013 study showed that the average wealth of sitting legislators increased 222% during just one term in office. The officially declared average wealth of re-contesting candidates, including losers and winners, was $264,000 (£216,110) in 2004 and $618,000 in 2013, an increase of 134%.

‘Biggest criminal

Now why do Indians vote for criminal candidates? Is it because many of the voters are illiterate, ignorant, or simply, ill-informed?

Dr Vaishnav doesn’t believe so.

Candidates with criminal records don’t mask their reputation. Earlier this month, a candidate belonging to the ruling party in northern Uttar Pradesh state reportedly boasted to a party worker that he was the “biggest criminal”. Increasing information through media and rising awareness hasn’t led to a shrinking of tainted candidates.

Dr Vaishnav believes reasonably well-informed voters support criminal candidates in constituencies where social divisions driven by caste and/or religion are sharp and the government is failing to carry out its functions, delivering services, dispensing justice, or providing security, in an impartial manner.

“There is space here for a criminal candidate to present himself as a Robin Hood-like figure,” says Dr Vaishnav.

Clearly, crime and politics will remain inextricably intertwined as long as India doesn’t make its election financing system transparent, parties become more democratic and the state begins to deliver ample services and justice.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suggested state funding of polls to help clean up campaign financing. Earlier this month, he said people had the right to know where the BJP got its funds from. Some 14% of the candidates his BJP party fielded in the last elections had faced serious charges. (More than 10% of the candidates recruited by the Congress faced charges). But no party is walking the talk yet.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-38607255

BBC News – Delhi election: Is the verdict a vote against Narendra Modi?

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 11 February 2020. Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has swept back to power for a third term in a row in India’s capital Delhi. But it would be misleading to read this verdict as a vote against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Here’s why.

Rather than being seen as a vote against the BJP, Mr Kejriwal’s comfortable win owes more to the triumph of welfarism and effective governance, revamping state-run schools and health clinics, and providing cheap water and electricity.

The BJP has been out of power in Delhi for more than two decades, and it was up against a party which had delivered on its promises. In the early days of the campaign, it tried to puncture Mr Kejriwal’s claims of good governance without success.

Mr Modi’s party then embarked on a coarse and polarising campaign around a controversial new citizenship law, the stripping of Kashmir’s autonomy and building a grand new Hindu temple.

Party leaders freely indulged in hate speech and were censured by poll authorities: a junior minister actually egged on a campaign meeting to shout slogans about “gunning down traitors”, a not-so veiled reference to political rivals.

Mr Modi’s party possibly felt this would work. At the very least, the take-no-prisoners campaign would prevent a debacle in Delhi, like in 2015, when the BJP won just three seats. After all, a similar hardline campaign had helped the BJP sweep all seven Delhi seats in last year’s general election, and pick up more than half of the popular vote.

But that didn’t work this time.

So, was the verdict a rejection of the BJP’s polarising politics? The answer is perhaps more nuanced. There’s ample evidence to show that fervent supporters of Mr Modi and his policies can vote for a different party in their state if they feel that party has improved their lives.

A pre-election survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), a respected Delhi-based think tank, also found that roughly 70% of the city respondents support Mr Modi’s controversial citizenship law and oppose the protests against the law.

One of the protests, by women in Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in Delhi, was especially targeted by the BJP’s campaign, which sought to show the protesters as “traitors”.

Before the general elections in 2019, when the BJP trounced Mr Kejriwal’s party in Delhi, a large number of supporters who voted for Mr Modi said they preferred Mr Kejriwal as the chief minister and might vote for the AAP in the Delhi polls.

“In Delhi, people have approved of the work done by Mr Kejriwal’s government. It has nothing to do with the citizenship law or the countrywide protests against it or policies of the BJP,” political scientist Sanjay Kumar of the CSDS told me. “This is really not indicative of a national mood against Mr Modi and the BJP.”

Also, research by political scientists Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta shows that when it comes to Delhi, the BJP has always gained impressively in general elections, 46% of the popular vote in 2014 and 56% of the vote in 2019.

But it then slid back to its “core base”, some 32% of the vote, in state elections. The fact that the once-dominant Congress party has been eclipsed might also have helped Mr Kejriwal’s party grow.

Put simply, what is happening in India today is that voters are making a distinction between state and federal elections. Barely six months after sweeping the general elections in the eastern state of Jharkhand last year, the BJP lost the state elections, with its vote share dropping by more than 17%.

The party faced a similar predicament in Haryana and Maharashtra states, where it failed to repeat its performance in the general election, cobbling together a government in Haryana, but failing to form one in Maharashtra.

Clearly, even discerning supporters of the BJP, according to political scientist Suhas Palshikar, are “willing to switch to state parties during state elections”.

Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj Abhiyan, calls it “ticket splitting”, a sign, he says, of “voters’ sophistication”. State battles, he adds, are “not [a] substitute for taking on the Modi regime at the level of national politics”.

It’s also becoming increasingly clear that Mr Modi’s BJP and its belligerent politics can be countered in India’s states. But in order to do so, popular local governments need a credible leader who seeks votes on governance, and not by countering BJP’s Hindu nationalist plank.

In other words, opposition parties have begun to fear, some of the fear is possibly imagined, that fighting the BJP on its pro-Hindu agenda could invite a backlash from the majority community.

In Delhi, Mr Kejriwal astutely stood his ground on his record in government and refused to engage with the BJP’s ideological campaign. He even refrained from attacking Mr Modi personally.

Will the Delhi election have a larger impact and hurt the BJP’s prospects?

There is no clear evidence yet. Many believe the BJP’s “single-track” muscular nationalist campaign is creating a climate of anxiety, insecurity and exhaustion at a time when India is actually a secure nation.

They say this brand of stridently nationalist politics draws attention away from the serious economic slowdown in the country. But what’s clear is that Mr Modi remains India’s most popular leader and his base is still largely intact.

What Mr Kejriwal’s victory does is offer a breather to a largely divided and demoralised opposition and it proves that good governance wins votes.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-51455566

BBC News – Why protesting Indians are chanting the Constitution

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

India, 14 January 2020. For more than a month now, men and women, young and old, have gathered in large numbers on streets and university campuses across India to protest against a new citizenship law which they believe is discriminatory.

There, they have been invoking the Constitution and chanting its solemn preamble, which promises justice, equality and fraternity and embodies the basic features of the nation’s founding document.

The mass readings have revealed a deeper public engagement with the Constitution than commonly thought. So far most believed the Constitution hadn’t travelled much in the public imagination beyond dreary classroom lessons.

India’s Constitution, which took four years to write, is the world’s longest founding document. The text governs more than a billion people who practise almost every mainstream religion.

The voluminous document contains more than 450 Articles and 12 Schedules and is painstakingly detailed. It is also, according to legal scholar Upendra Baxi, an “unparalleled exercise in verbosity”, with the text scaling some “extraordinarily ludic heights”.

Article 367, for example, makes it clear that a foreign state “means a State other than India”. The text has been amended more than 100 times since 1950.

Born in the aftermath of a bloody partition and independence, and written amid differences over the “religious and national vision” of what India should be, the Constitution is a remarkable document.

In trying to forge a national identity, the draft was debated fiercely and the document wrestled with questions relating to moulding a national identity in one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries. Critics say the Constitution was largely based on western ideas and written by western-educated elites.

The preamble itself, according to scholars, was a compromise between a range of groups and interests and borrowed from colonial laws.

Seventy years later, the Constitution appears to be igniting the minds of ordinary Indians in a way not seen and heard of in the recent past.

But many scholars believe the document has always had a deep engagement with Indians. As Rohit De, an assistant professor of history at Yale University, explains in his extraordinary book, A People’s Constitution, the document mattered to its citizens, and “constitutional engagement included large number of ordinary Indians, often from minorities or disprivileged groups”.

Dr De writes about how thousands of ordinary Indians from all walks of life have invoked the Constitution in the courts ever since Mohammed Yasin, a young Muslim vegetable seller in north India, petitioned the Supreme Court in 1950, saying his rights to trade and an occupation, guaranteed by the document, had been violated by the authorities who had granted a single merchant a monopoly over the local vegetable trade.

But the ongoing engagement is much wider.

“There are two aspects that make the current engagement remarkable: first, its widespread extent, cutting across a range of demographics. In the 50s, particular groups argued that the Constitution protects them, but today diverse demographics make the case for the Constitution protecting everyone. The second, of course, is the profound focus on the preamble as opposed to specific rights,” Dr De told me.

The unprecedented reading of the preamble, he says, evokes the pro-Independence civil disobedience protests, when Indians marched, sang songs and recited a pledge of independence challenging British rule. “The protestors argued that power need not be given, but was taken by the people themselves,” he says.

Many believe that citizens have taken to the Constitution partly because the Narendra Modi-led ruling Hindu nationalist BJP government has painted almost all opposition to its policies as “anti-national”.

“By using the constitution, the protestors can continue to assert their patriotism, use national symbols and songs and challenge the discourse of ‘anti-nationalism’ with constitutional patriotism,” Dr De says.

Also, many believe, people are invoking the Constitution to express their displeasure with the “failure of the courts” – especially the Supreme Court – in not being transparent and its “weakening record” on civil liberties.

They say the top court, which has built a reputation for itself as a defender of constitutionalism against the executive, seems to have become muted when facing a government with a huge parliamentary majority like the BJP.

“It is this absence of the court as the defender for civil liberty and constitutional processes, that is forcing ordinary citizens to step in and champion the Constitution.” says Dr De.

Last month, 40 lawyers gathered in the lawns of the Supreme Court in Delhi and read out the preamble. And the Communist government in the southern state of Kerala announced that it would make the reading of the preamble compulsory during the morning assembly in schools.

“All this is very important and powerful. It aims to engage and articulate what India as a nation means,” says Madhav Khosla, legal scholar and author of India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy. “I don’t think there is any precedence.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-51088907

BBC News – Does JNU campus attack mean India is failing its young?

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 06 January 2020. Its list of alumni includes a Nobel-Prize winning economist, former prime ministers of Libya and Nepal, and many leading politicians, diplomats, artists and academics. It is also an internationally renowned centre for teaching and research, and is among one of India’s top ranked universities.

Yet the storied reputation of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) didn’t deter a mob of masked men armed with sticks, stones and iron rods running berserk on its sprawling campus on Sunday evening.

They attacked students and teachers and destroyed property even as the police refused to intervene for more than an hour. Outside the campus gates, another mob shouted nationalist slogans and targeted journalists and ambulances. Nearly 40 people were hurt in the violence.

Left and right-wing students groups have blamed each other for the violence. Most eyewitnesses told reporters that the mob was mainly made up of men belonging to the ABVP, the right-wing students group linked to India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and a clutch of outsiders.

Ostensibly, Sunday’s violence appears to have been stoked by a dispute over a hostel fee hike, which has roiled the campus for the last few months.

University authorities have blamed the attack on a “group of students” who were opposing an ongoing admission process to register new students, it is widely believed that the statement referred to leftist students who have been protesting against the fee hike.

But there are deepening fears that the BJP wants to muzzle dissent on the campus, which has traditionally been a hotbed of left-wing politics. Ever since Mr Modi’s party stormed to power riding a crest of Hindu nationalism, JNU has been a constant target.

Students have been charged with sedition for making speeches, and the university has been vilified by the party and partisan news networks as “anti-national”. Its students have been called “urban” Maoists.

Sunday’s campus attack tells you a few things about India.

For one, it points to a breakdown of law and order in the capital, the responsibility of which lies with India’s powerful interior minister Amit Shah. If mobs can enter one of India’s best universities and the police fails to protect students and teachers, then who exactly is safe, many are asking.

Also, critics say BJP’s brand of politics is leading to expected, and disturbing, consequences.

Since they have been in office, Mr Modi and Mr Shah have relentlessly belittled and demonised political opponents and critics, calling them anti-national and and urban Maoists.

“By calling all protests as anti-national, an atmosphere of legtimisation of lawless violence has been developed,” says political scientist Suhas Palshikar. There’s been, he adds, a “systematic manufacturing of atmosphere of suspicion and hatred”.

The result is that there is dwindling tolerance for dissenting views. The incident, according to Roshan Kishore, a senior journalist and JNU alumnus himself, proves that “we are living in an age where ideological differences in places of learning will be crushed by brute force, and the state at best will remain a bystander”.

The university has an amazing diversity of students, cutting across class, caste, gender and religion. The campus is a “revolution of sorts” where the rich and poor, the influential and the obscure, the city-bred and students from villages meet, study and live, says Rakesh Batabyal, author of JNU: The Making Of A University.

“What happened on Sunday night is something the campus has never seen,” adds Atul Sood, a faculty member.

However, JNU is no stranger to violent conflict. In the 1980s teachers and students clashed over plans to change the admission policy. Newspaper headlines spoke about the “anarchy” on the campus. Students attacked homes of teachers. Police, according to many accounts, thrashed students.

A number of students were arrested and nearly 40 of them expelled from the campus. Force, writes Mr Batabyal, became a “new signifier for politics in the campus”.

Things are different this time. The government’s response to the violence has been frosty: it has refused to engage with protesting students. The JNU incident is the third time since December that protesting students have been targeted in campuses, students of two leading universities in Delhi and the northern city of Aligarh have recently borne the brunt of police brutality.

“The constant demonisation of students by the government continues to increase their vulnerability to such attacks and awards impunity to the attackers. It is imperative that the government listens to its citizens,” says Avinash Kumar of Amnesty International India.

What is more worrying, is that India’s opposition has failed to pick up the cudgels on behalf of the students. “A society which condones violence against its universities is only condoning the destruction of its future,” says Mr Kishore. India is clearly failing its young.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-51005444

BBC News – How Britain’s opium trade impoverished Indians

Soutik Biswas India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 5 September 2019. In Amitav Ghosh’s acclaimed novel, Sea of Poppies, a village woman from an opium-producing region in India has a vivid encounter with a poppy seed.

“She looked at the seed as if she has never seen one before, and suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life; it was this miniscule orb, at once beautiful and all devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful.”

At the time when the novel is set, poppy was harvested by some 1.3 million peasant households in northern India. The cash crop occupied between a quarter and half of a peasant’s holding. By the end of the 19th Century poppy farming had an impact on the lives of some 10 million people in what is now the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

A few thousand workers, in two opium factories located on the Ganges river, dried and mixed the milky fluid from the seed, made it into cakes and packed the opium balls in wooden chests.

The trade was run by the East India Company, the powerful multinational corporation established for trading with a royal charter that granted it a monopoly over business with Asia. This state-run trade was achieved largely through two wars, which forced China to open its doors to British Indian opium.

Historian William Dalrymple, author of The Anarchy, a new book on the East India Company, says it “ferried opium to China, fighting the opium wars in order to seize an offshore base at Hong Kong and safeguard its profitable monopoly in narcotics”.

Some historians have argued that the opium business bolstered India’s rural economy and kept the farmers happy. That was not the case, as new research by Rolf Bauer, a professor of economic and social history at the University of Vienna, has found. For years Dr Bauer trawled through archival documents looking at the costs of producing opium and paying money to farmers.

He also examined an exhaustive history of the trade, the 1895 Report of the Royal Commission of Opium, which ran into seven volumes and 2,500 pages.

It contained 28,000 questions and hundreds of witness reports on the use and consumption of opium in India, and studied how the colonial government regulated its production and consumption.

The result of the research is published in Dr Bauer’s new study of the trade, The Peasant Production of Opium in Nineteenth-Century India. His conclusion: the opium business was hugely exploitative and ended up impoverishing Indian peasants. “Poppy was cultivated against a substantial loss. These peasants would have been much better without it,” Dr Bauer told me.

This is how the East Indian Company ran the trade. Some 2,500 clerks working in 100 offices of a powerful colonial institution called the Opium Agency monitored poppy farmers, enforced contracts and quality with police-like authority. Indians workers were given commissions on every seer, a traditional unit of mass and volume used in large parts of Asia, of opium delivered on their beat.

In the thriving, state-run global trade, exports increased from 4,000 chests per year at the beginning of the 19th Century to more than 60,000 chests by the 1880s. Opium, says Dr Bauer, was for the large part of the 19th Century, the second-most important source of revenue for the colonial state. It was only outmatched by land taxes. (India remains the world’s biggest producer of legal opium for the global pharmaceutical market.)

“The government’s opium industry was one of the largest enterprises on the subcontinent, producing a few thousand tons of the drug every year a similar output to Afghanistan’s notorious opium industry today, which supplies the global market for heroin,” Dr Bauer says. More importantly, the crop, he adds, had a “lasting negative impact on the lives of millions”.

Interest-free advance payments were offered to poppy farmers who could not access easy credit. By itself, this was not a bad thing for those producing for the global market. What made it bad for them, according to Dr Bauer, was what they paid for rent, manure, irrigation and hired workers was higher than the income from the sale of raw opium.

In other words, the price peasants received for their opium did not even cover the cost of growing it. And they were soon trapped in a “web of contractual obligations from which it was difficult to escape”.

Stiff production targets fixed by the Opium Agency also meant farmers, the typical poppy cultivator was a small peasant, could not decide whether or not to produce opium. They were “forced to submit part of their land and labour to the colonial government’s export strategy”.

Local landowners forced their landless tenants to grow poppy; and peasants were also kidnapped, arrested and threatened with destruction of crops, criminal prosecution and jail if they refused to grow the crop. “It was a highly coercive system,” Dr Bauer says.

By 1915 the opium trade with China, the biggest market, had ended. However, the British Indian monopoly on opium continued until India won independence in 1947. What confounds Dr Bauer is “how a few thousand opium clerks controlled millions of peasants, forcing them to produce a crop that actually harms them”.

It’s a good question

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-49404024

BBC News – Kashmir move spells trouble for other Indian states

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always fashioned himself as an advocate of federalism – someone who believes in giving the country’s states more independence.

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 18 August 2019. But last week’s revocation of special status to Jammu and Kashmir, as the Indian state was known – and the move to split it into two union territories while imposing an unprecedented lockdown there is being seen by many as a major weakening of India’s federal structure.

The new union territories (Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh) will be ruled directly from Delhi. Union territories have far less autonomy from the federal government than states. Sumantra Bose, a professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics, calls them “glorified municipalities of Delhi”.

By revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, ostensibly to put it on the same footing as the rest of India, Mr Modi’s government, in the words of one commentator, has “upset India’s delicate federal balance”.

In many ways, Article 370, as the constitutional article guaranteeing special status is known, was more symbolic, as presidential decrees over the years had already eroded much of the autonomy it guaranteed. What was more important, many say, was the spirit of the status: it signalled that the Indian constitution was malleable enough to make space for people who felt alienated or estranged from the mainstream.

India’s federalism has in fact, been hard-earned and hard-fought.

Unlike more economically advanced and culturally homogeneous countries with a federal system of government like the US and Canada, consensus over power sharing in a culturally and religiously diverse, poorer country like India has not been easy to forge. Thankfully the Indian constitution has provided a clear division of powers between the elected federal government and the state legislatures.

“The constitution strives to strike a delicate balance between the unitary and federal systems,” says Yamini Aiyar, chief executive of Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research.

However, there have always been doubts about what some commentators call the “authenticity of Indian federalism”.

State governors, usually political appointees of the the ruling federal government, have helped clamp direct rule in states where there has been a “failure of constitutional machinery”. (An adverse report by the governor on the affairs of the state can become the basis of president’s rule, or direct rule from Delhi, and authorise the dismissal of a state government.) Such direct rule has been declared in Indian states 88 times between 1951 and 1997.

Many believe the revocation of special status from Indian-administered Kashmir, without consulting the local people and political leaders and implemented when the state was under direct rule, is another taint on India’s federal record.

“The single biggest significance of this move is that we are moving towards a unitary state, and abrogation of democratic principles. This is weakening federalism in India.

People are so busy celebrating the move that they don’t seem to get the big picture,” Navnita Chadha Behera, a former visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution and the author of Demystifying Kashmir, told me.

“What is more worrying is this can happen to any other state. The federal government can dissolve a state government, ride roughshod over the consultative process, split the state and downgrade its status.

Also worrying is the near-complete collapse of resistance to the move with most of the civil society, media and regional parties remaining silent or protesting very feebly.”

Yamini Aiyar believes “federalism, which the framers of India’s constitution saw as necessary to India’s democracy, today has far fewer takers than it did in 1947. This is dangerous for India’s democracy”.

Supporters of the move say that strife-ridden Kashmir is a “special case”, and a consultative process in an insurgency-hit and militarised region next door to India’s nuclear-armed rival, Pakistan, would have led nowhere.

Also Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has for years consistently demanded the revocation of Article 370, calling it an example of “appeasement” in India’s only Muslim-majority state.

However, India has a history of reconciling separatist aspirations. Where else, many say, could an insurgent leader who fought a guerrilla war for independence for a quarter of a century go on to become an elected state chief minister? But this is exactly what happened when the rebel leader Laldenga signed an accord with the Indian government in the north-eastern state of Mizoram in 1986.

Power sharing and inclusivity have only bolstered democracy in India and made the country more resilient.

India’s Supreme Court, in the past, has clearly said that the “fact that under the scheme of constitution greater power is conferred upon the centre vis-a-vis the state does not mean that states are mere appendages of the centre.”

“Within the sphere allotted to them, states are supreme. The centre cannot tamper with their powers,” the court added.

It has also been unequivocal about the status of federalism as a basic constitutional structure.

It will be interesting to see how India’s Supreme Court deals with the legal challenges against the move on Kashmir. “This will be a test case for the top court’s independence,” says Dr Behera.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-49329370

BBC News – How Narendra Modi has reinvented Indian politics

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 24 May 2019. Narendra Modi has scored a resounding victory in the Indian general election, securing a second five-year term. The BBC’s Soutik Biswas looks at the main takeaways.

1. The second landside is all about Narendra Modi

India’s polarising prime minister made this an election all about himself.

He should have faced some anti-incumbency. Joblessness has risen to a record high, farm incomes have plummeted and industrial production has slumped. Many Indians were hit hard by the currency ban (also known as demonetisation), which was designed to flush out undeclared wealth, and there were complaints about what critics said was a poorly-designed and complicated uniform sales tax.

The results prove that people are not yet blaming Mr Modi for this.

On the stump, the prime minister repeatedly told people that he needed more than five years to undo more than “60 years of mismanagement”. Voters agreed to give him more time.

Many Indians seem to believe that Mr Modi is a kind of messiah who will solve all their problems. A survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), a Delhi-based think tank, a third of BJP voters said they would have supported another party if Mr Modi was not the prime ministerial candidate.

“This tells you how much this vote was for Mr Modi, more than the BJP. This election was all about Mr Modi’s leadership above all else,” Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told me.

In a sense, Mr Modi’s second successive landslide win echoes Ronald Reagan’s abiding popularity as US president in the 1980s, when he somehow escaped blame for his country’s economic woes. Reagan was called the Great Communicator and for being a “teflon” president whose mistakes never stuck to him. Mr Modi enjoys a similar reputation.

Many say Mr Modi has made India’s elections more presidential. But strong prime ministers have often overshadowed their parties – Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Indira Gandhi are some obvious examples.

“There is no question that Mr Modi is the most popular politician in India since Indira Gandhi. He is peerless when it comes to the national stage at the present,” says Dr Vaishnav.

The 2014 win was partly a vote in anger against the corruption-tainted Congress party. Thursday’s win is an affirmation for Mr Modi. He has become the first leader since 1971 to secure a single party majority twice in a row. “This is a victory for Modi and his vision of a new India,” says Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor of history at Ashoka University.

2. A cocktail of development and nationalism worked

A combination of nationalist rhetoric, subtle religious polarisation and a slew of welfare programmes helped Mr Modi to coast to a second successive win.

In a bitter and divisive campaign, Mr Modi effortlessly fused nationalism and development. He created binaries: the nationalists (his supporters) versus the anti-nationals (his political rivals and critics); the watchman (Modi himself, protecting the country on “land, air, and outer space”) versus the entitled and the corrupt (an obvious dig at the main opposition Congress party).

Aligned to this, deftly, was the promise of development. Mr Modi’s targeted welfare schemes for the poor, homes, toilets, credit, cooking gas, have used technology for speedy delivery. However, the quality of these services and how much they have helped ameliorate deprivation is debatable.

Mr Modi also mined national security and foreign policy as vote-getters in a manner never seen in a general election in recent history.

After a suicide attack, claimed by Pakistan-based militants, which killed more than 40 Indian paramilitaries in disputed Kashmir and the retaliatory air strike against Pakistan in the run-up to the election, Mr Modi successfully convinced the masses that the country would be secure if he remained in power.

People having no obvious interest in foreign policy, farmers, traders, labourers, told us during our campaign travels that India had won the respect of the outside world under Mr Modi.

“It is all right if there’s little development, but Modi is keeping the nation secure and keeping India’s head high,” a voter in the eastern city of Kolkata told me.

3. Modi’s win signals a major shift in politics

Mr Modi’s persona has become larger than his cadre-based party, and a symbol of hope and aspiration for many.

Under Mr Modi and his powerful aide Amit Shah, the BJP has developed into a ruthless party machine. “The geographical expansion of the BJP is a very significant development,” says Mahesh Rangarajan.

Traditionally, the BJP has found its strongest support in India’s populous Hindi-speaking states in the north. (Of the 282 seats the party won in 2014, 193 came from these states.) The exceptions are Gujarat, Mr Modi’s home state and a BJP bastion, and Maharashtra, where the BJP has governed in alliance with a local party.

But since Mr Modi became PM, the BJP has formed governments in key north-eastern states like Assam and Tripura, which are primarily Assamese and Bengali-speaking.

And in this election, the BJP, where it contested more seats than the Congress, has emerged as a force to reckon with in non-Hindi speaking states like Orissa and West Bengal in the east.

The party’s modest presence in southern India still doesn’t make it a truly pan-Indian party like the Congress of yore, but the BJP is moving towards it.

Twenty years ago when it was in power under Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP seemed content being the first among equals, the largest party in a group of parties which tried to run a stable government.

Under Mr Modi, the BJP commands an overwhelming majority in parliament as the first party, and there are no equals.

He and Amit Shah have adopted an aggressive take-no-prisoners style of politics. The party is not a seasonal machine that comes alive during elections. It appears to be in permanent political campaign mode.

Political scientist Suhas Palshikar believes India could be moving towards a one-party dominant state like the Congress in the past.

He calls it the “second dominant party system”, with the BJP leading the pack, and the main opposition Congress remaining “weak and nominal” and the regional parties losing ground.

4. Nationalism and yearning for a strongman played a key role

Mr Modi’s strident nationalism as a main campaign plank seems to have overruled the more pressing economic problems facing voters.

Some analysts believe that under Mr Modi, India could be inching towards a more “ethnic democracy”, which requires the “mobilisation of the majority in order to preserve the ethnic nation”.

This would look more like Israel which sociologist Sammy Smooha characterised as a state that “endeavours to combine an ethnic identity (Jewish) and a parliamentary system drawing its inspiration from Western Europe”.

Will Hindu nationalism become the default mode of Indian politics and society?

It will not be easy, India thrives on diversity. Hinduism is a diverse faith. Social and linguistic differences hold India together. Democracy is an additional glue.

The BJP’s strand of strident Hindu nationalism, conflating Hinduism and patriotism, may not appeal to all Indians. “There’s no other place in the world where diversity is so spectral and a drive to homogenise so fraught,” says Professor Rangarajan.

Also India’s shift to the right is not unique to India, it’s happening with the new right in the Republican Party in the US, and the central ground of French and German politics has shifted rightwards.

India’s rightward shift is clearly part of a wider trend where the nature of nationalism is being redefined and cultural identity is being given renewed emphasis.

How valid are fears that India is sliding into a majoritarian state under Mr Modi?

He is not the first leader to be called a fascist and authoritarian by his critics; Mrs Gandhi was called both when she suspended civil liberties and imposed the Emergency in the mid-1970s. People voted her out after two years.

Mr Modi is a strongman, and people possibly love him for that.

A 2017 report by the CSDS showed that respondents who supported democracy in India had dropped from 70% to 63% between 2005 and 2017. A Pew report in 2017 found that 55% of respondents backed a “governing system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”.

But the yearning for a strongman is not unique to India. Look at Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

5. India’s Grand Old Party faces an existential crisis

The Congress has suffered a second successive drubbing but for now is likely to remain the second largest party nationally.

But it’s way behind the BJP and is facing a major crisis: the shrinking of its geographical space.

In Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, India’s most populous region, the party is virtually non-existent. The party is invisible in southern states like Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In the industrially developed west of India, the party last won a state election in Gujarat in 1990, and hasn’t been in power in Maharashtra since Mr Modi became PM.

Several questions are going to be asked after a second successive general election debacle. How can the party become more acceptable to more allies? How will the party be run? How does the party reduce its dependence on the Gandhi dynasty and open itself to younger leaders? (The Congress is still a party of second and third generation leaders in several states.) How does Congress build a grassroots network of workers to take on the BJP?

“The Congress will likely muddle along, as it has in the last several election cycles. It is not a party known for deep introspection. But there are enough two-party states in India where the Congress is at odds with the BJP to create a floor for the Congress,” says Milan Vaishnav.

Political scientist Yogendra Yadav, who’s also a politician these days, believes the Congress has outlived its utility and “must die”. But parties are capable of reinvention and renewal. Only the future will tell whether the Congress can rebuild itself from the ruins.

6. A mixed future for India’s regional parties

In the bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends more MPs to parliament than any other, the BJP is looking at a repeat of its stunning 2014 performance when it won 71 of 80 seats. It is one of India’s most socially divided and economically disadvantaged states.

This time, Mr Modi’s party was expected to face stiff competition from a formidable alliance of powerful regional parties, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, which was aptly named the “mahagatbandhan” or grand alliance.

Mr Modi’s charisma and chemistry appear to have triumphed over the hard-nosed “social arithmetic” forged by these two regional parties who have always counted on the faithful votes of a section of lower caste Indians and untouchables (formerly known as Dalits). That faith is now broken, and it also proves that caste arithmetic is not immutable.

India’s regional parties must now rethink their strategies and offer a more compelling economic and social vision. Otherwise, more and more of their own voters will abandon them.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48293048

BBC News – India election 2019: How sugar influences the world’s biggest vote

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a recent election meeting in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, he was compelled to make a promise relating to sugar, a diet staple.

Soutik Biswas – India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 08 May 2019. Farmers who grow cane in the politically crucial state ruled by Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were angry because sugar mills had not paid their dues in time. They held protests and blocked railway tracks. “I know there are cane dues. I will make sure every penny of yours will be paid,” Mr Modi told the audience.

India’s sugar mills are bleeding money and collectively owe billions of dollars to 50 million cane farmers, many of whom haven’t been paid for nearly a year.

Niti Ayog, a government think tank, says the arrears have reached “alarming” levels. More than 12 million tonnes of unsold sugar have piled up in factories. There is little incentive to export more as India’s sugar price is higher than the international price.

Sugar is serious business in India. Around 525 mills produced more than 30 million tonnes of sugar in the last crushing season, which lasted from October to April. This makes it the world’s largest producer, unseating Brazil. A large number of mills are run by cooperatives where farmers own shares proportional to the land they own and pledge their produce to the mill.

That’s not all. Some 50 million farmers, tightly concentrated geographically, are engaged in cane farming. Millions more work in the mills and farms and are engaged in transportation of cane.

As with much of India’s politics, cane growers appear to be a reliable “vote bank”. Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, which together produce 60% of the country’s sugar, send 128 MPs to the parliament.

The price of cane can swing votes in more than 150 of the 545 seats in the ongoing general election, according to one estimate. Sugar is possibly the “most politicised crop in the world”, says Shekhar Gaikwad, the sugar commissioner of Maharashtra.

Indians are also voracious consumers of sugar. The bulk of the supply goes into making sweets, confectionary and fizzy drinks that are beginning to contribute to a rising obesity problem, like elsewhere in the world.

“The world’s sweet tooth continues to rely on cane sugar, much as it did four centuries ago,” says James Walvin, author of How Sugar Corrupted the World.

On the face of it, cane growers and owners of sugar mills should be happy.

The government sets cane and sugar prices, allocates production and export quotas, and hands out ample subsidies. State-run banks give crop loans to farmers and production loans to mills. When mills run out of cash, public funds are used to bail them out. “I earn around 7,000 rupees ($100; £76) from growing sugar every month.

It’s not a lot of money, but it’s an assured income,” says Sanjay Anna Kole, a fourth-generation, 10-acre cane farm owner in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district.

But protectionism may be yielding diminishing returns. Generous price support for the crop means the price at which mills buy cane has outstripped the price at which they sell sugar. Among large producers, Thailand, Brazil and Australia, India pays the highest cane price to farmers. It also spends more than Brazil, for example, in producing sugar.

The involvement of politicians may not be helping matters. Since the inception of the first mills in the 1950s, politicians have owned or gained control of them by winning mill co-operative elections. Almost half a dozen ministers in Maharashtra, India’s second-biggest cane growing state, own sugar mills.

A study on the links between politicians and sugar mills by Sandip Sukhtankar, associate professor of economics at University of Virginia, found that 101 of the 183 mills, for which data was available, in Maharashtra had chairmen who competed for state or national elections between 1993 and 2005.

He also found that cane prices paid by “politically controlled” mills fell during election years, and that this was not entirely due to loss of productivity.

These mills have also been blamed for holding on to arrears and releasing them before elections to win over voters; and political parties have been accused of using money from the mills to finance campaigns.

“One would think that perhaps political parties that don’t benefit from links to sugar might have incentives to reform the sector, but we have seen parties everywhere want a piece of the action,” says Dr Sukhtankar. “There are resources in the sugar industry to be extracted for political purposes.”

Whatever the case, India’s world-beating crop is mired in crisis. The farmers and the mills grumble that they aren’t getting a fair price for their crop and sugar respectively. “It looks like a sunset industry for me. There’s no future in cane until the government completely overhauls farm policies,” Suresh Mahadev Gatage, an organic cane-grower in Kolhapur, told me.

The unrest among the farmers is worrying. In January, several thousand angry cane farmers descended on Shekhar Gaikwad’s office in the city of Pune, demanding the mills pay their dues in time. The negotiations lasted 13 hours.

One of the farmers’ demands was to arrest a state minister, who was heading three mills in the state, and had defaulted on his cane dues. When negotiations ended way past midnight, authorities issued orders to seize sugar from the offending mills and sell it in retail.

In India’s lumbering bureaucracy, that took another eight hours because 500 copies of the orders had to be printed. “My office is pelted by stones every other day by irate farmers,” says Mr Gaikwad.

Meanwhile, what is completely forgotten is how much sugar has hurt India’s ecology. More than 60% of the water available for farming in India is consumed by rice and sugar, two crops that occupy 24% of the cultivable area. Experts say crop prices should begin to reflect the scarcity and economic value of water.

But before that, as Raju Shetti, MP and a prominent leader of sugarcane farmers, says, price controls should be eased and bulk corporate buyers like soft drink companies and pharmaceuticals should pay more for sugar.

“We need differential pricing for sugar. Cheap sugar should be only provided to people who can’t afford it. The rest should pay a higher price,” he told me.

“Otherwise, the industry will collapse, and farmers will die. Even politicians will not be able to save it.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48173677

BBC News – ‘Strongman’ image may not win votes for Narendra Modi

Good intentions are ubiquitous in politics, wrote American economist Bryan Caplan. What is scarce, however, are “accurate beliefs”. Elections are always a good occasion to test such beliefs.

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 22 April 2019. Is India’s Narendra Modi really a strongman leader in the mould of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin? Will he succeed in making the mammoth 2019 election a presidential referendum on his performance?

Are people really unhappy that Mr Modi did not carry out the kind of radical economic reforms that many thought he would? Is he a clear favourite to secure a second term in power, thanks to the lack of a charismatic rival? Is good economics bad politics in the world’s largest democracy? Does rising nationalism threaten democracy?

In his engaging new book, Democracy On The Road, Ruchir Sharma grapples with these questions and more. The global investor, author and New York Times columnist has made 27 election trips to India since 1998 during which, he says, he must have “driven a distance nearly equal to a lap around Earth”.

He’s been to more than half of India’s 29 states and to the 10 most populous and politically important states more than once. I caught up with him on his recent trip to India.

Opinion polls in India have sometimes shown a public desire for a strong leader, unshackled from the compulsions of parliamentary democracy. However, Mr Sharma says, the electoral realities of India actually “rebel” against strongman leaders.

“In the end, Indians root for the underdog,” he told me. “The democratic impulse is strong. If the leader becomes arrogant, he is pulled down by the people. Most importantly, it is difficult for one leader to dominate for long in this extraordinarily diverse country.”

So diverse that a leading multinational firm divides 29 Indian states into a further 14 sub-regions because “consumer tastes, habits and languages are far more fragmented in India”. The real strength of Indian democracy, says Mr Sharma, lies in its diversity.

He believes in spite of Mr Modi projecting himself as a strongman, India is “really no country for strongmen”.

“The 2019 election is being cast as a contest between Modi and the rest, a referendum on India’s appetite for strongman rule and commitment to democracy. More likely, the election will shape up as a series of state contests. The result will depend on whether the opposition parties can work together to unseat the BJP.”

There is ample evidence to support Mr Sharma’s claim. Regional parties now hold more than 160 seats, nearly a third of the seats, in parliament, up from 35 in the early phase after Independence.

“This important new phenomenon has converted our general elections into a combination of state-level regional or sub-national elections,” says psephologist Prannoy Roy.

BJP’s historic win in 2014, many believe, was a “black swan”, a highly unlikely and unpredictable event. Mr Sharma says “BJP could win a third of the popular vote as it did during the Modi wave in 2014, yet lose its majority of seats in the parliament”.

One reason, according to Mr Sharma, is “incumbents don’t usually win, and challengers do”.

Winning parties in crowded state elections often need only a third of the vote to take a majority of seats. Prannoy Roy found that 70% of the governments in big and medium-sized states were thrown out by voters between 1977 and 2002.

The picture now, he believes, is more mixed: governments today have a “50:50” chance of being re-elected.

Indian political power is “hard won and fleeting”, candidates have to go through tests of community, family, inflation, welfare, development, corruption. Between 10-20% of the electorate are made up of some of the dominant communities. Most states are “hotbeds of anti-incumbency”.

Mr Sharma also doubts whether most Indians are really unhappy that Mr Modi did not turn out to be the reformer they may have hoped for.

“India’s political DNA,” he says, “is fundamentally socialist and statist”. “There is no real support for systematic free-market reform, either among voters or among the political elite, and no sign that what is generally considered good economics will ever become a consistent election-winning strategy.”

Reforms in India, usually, have been either by stealth or triggered by an economic crisis. Also, Mr Sharma believes that fears of rising nationalism and religious politics putting democracy in peril are unfounded.

They tend to “underestimate the check provided by sub national pride”. Returning to his favourite theme, he says India is too “heterogeneous to be dominated by populist nationalism”.

And, in the end, he believes the 2019 ballot will “offer a choice of two different political visions, one celebrating the reality of many Indias, the other aspiring to build one India”.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-47959604

BBC News – India election 2019: The mystery of 21 million ‘missing’ women voters

Indian women got the right to vote the year their country was born. It was, as a historian said, a “staggering achievement for a post-colonial nation”. But more than 70 years later, why are 21 million women in India apparently being denied the right to vote?

It is one of India’s many social riddles.

Soutik Biswas, India correspondent

New Delhi – India, 14 March 2019. Women have been enthusiastic voters in India: voter turnout among women will be higher in this year’s general election than that of men. Most women say they are voting independently, without consulting their spouses and families.

To make them secure, there are separate queues for women at polling stations and female police officers guarding them. Polling stations contain at least one female officer.

More than 660 women candidates contested the 2014 elections, up from 24 in the first election in 1951. And political parties now target women as a separate constituency, offering them cheap cooking gas, scholarships for studies and bicycles to go to college.

‘Major problem’

Yet, a truly astonishing number of women, equal to the population of Sri Lanka, appear to be “missing” from India’s voters lists.

In their upcoming book, The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections, poll experts Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala find that the available data on women points to this.

They looked at the number of women above the age of 18 in the census, extrapolated it, and compared it to the number of women in the latest list of voters. And they found a sizeable “shortfall”, 21 million to be exact, in the number of female voters.

Three states, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, accounted for more than half of the missing female voters. Southern states such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu fare better.

What does this mean?

More than 20 million missing women, analysts say, translates into 38,000 missing women voters on average in every constituency in India. In places like Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and a key bellwether state, the figure swells to 80,000 missing women in every seat.

Given that more than one in every five seats are won or lost by a margin of fewer than 38,000 votes, the missing women could swing the results in many seats. The absence of a large number of women also means that India’s electorate would be higher than the 900 million people who are eligible to vote in the summer elections.

If the sex ratio in a constituency is skewed against women and the average voter is male, the preferences of female voters are likely to be ignored.

“Women want to vote, but they are not allowed to vote. This is deeply worrying. It also raises a lot of questions. We know that there are some social reasons behind this problem. But we also know that by controlling turnouts you can control results. Is that one of the reasons? We really need to investigate further to get to the truth,” Prannoy Roy told me.

With a sex ratio that is skewed in favour of men, India has had a problem of missing women for a long time.

Last year, a government report found that 63 million women were “missing” from India’s population because the preference for sons led to sex-selective abortions and more care was given to boys. Separately, economists Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor estimated that more than 65 million women, some 20% of the female electorate, were missing.

This included women who were not registered to vote and women “who were not in the population because of gross neglect” (worsening sex ratio, which reflected the gross neglect). So elections, they said, were “revealing the preferences or the will of a population that is artificially skewed against women”.

It’s not that election authorities haven’t worked hard to get more women to vote.

The Election Commission adopts a rigorous statistical method, gender ratios, elector-population ratios and ages of voters, to make sure that eligible voters are not left out. There is doorstep verification of voters and a substantial number of officials involved in this exercise are women.

In villages, child welfare workers and women’s self-help groups are roped in. State-run TV and radio programmes motivate women to register. There are even polling stations dedicated exclusively to women.

So why are so many women still missing from the rolls? Is it because many women shift residence after marriage and fail to register anew? (Less than 3% of Indian women aged 30-34 are single.)

Is it because families still refuse to provide photographs of women to officials to publish in voters lists? Or does this exclusion have something to do with the “dark arts of voter suppression”?

“There is some social resistance, but it doesn’t explain such large scale exclusion,” says Dr Roy.

People who have helped organise elections in India say there is no reason to panic. Former election commissioner S Y Quraishi told me that the enrolment of women had gone up steadily over the years. “There is social resistance to enrolling women still,” he says.

“I have heard of parents not registering their daughter because they don’t want to reveal her age, because they feel it will end up hurting their prospects for marriage. We have also been sometimes indifferent in our outreach to rope in more women voters,” he said.

With the 2019 elections barely a month away, there’s no time to fix this problem. Dr Roy believes there’s only one way out, to let women vote even if they are not registered.

“Any woman who comes to a polling station and wants to cast her vote, and can prove she is 18 years old, must be allowed to vote,” he says.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-47521208