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Pranab’s Mission Nagpur: Striking a blow for democracy

Was Mukherjee wrong in going to Nagpur, in breach of the beliefs and values he is known to have held dear all through his half-a-century-long political career?

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The images from Nagpur were, in the words of a Congressman, hard to digest. Here was Pranab Mukherjee, a dyed-in-the-wool secularist, who had spent a lifetime in the Congress party, then became the President of India with the responsibility of upholding its Constitution, sharing the platform with, and enjoying the hospitality of, a person — and the organisation he heads, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — espousing values and ideals that are the very antithesis of all he stood and strove for his entire life.

“You were part of the government that banned the RSS in 1975 and again in 1992. Don’t you think you should tell us what was evil about RSS then that it has become virtuous now?” asked a middle-level Congress leader of Mukherjee after his controversy-tinged visit to the headquarters of the Hindu-first outfit that is the ideological mentor of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Many in the Congress party, including his own daughter, questioned the wisdom of the former head of state and elder statesman accepting an invitation from the organisation that has been a bete noire to the left-liberal-secular establishment. Not just the committed, but even concerned citizens, have been voicing their anguish at the creeping climate of hate and prejudice in the country and blamed the ideology of the RSS and its affiliated Sangh Parivar outfits for the systemic attacks on minorities and suppression of the voice of socially oppressed groups. Many have voiced fears that if such venom was allowed to spread, it might end up tearing up the multireligious, multiethnic and multicultural social fabric of India that makes the country so unique.

“Today we are confronted with a politics of hate that has swept large parts of our country….. Muslims live in fear of the shape of the next round of attacks, even as the rights of Dalits and Adivasis enshrined in the Constitution are being questioned,” read the flier distributed at the #NotInMyName protests across the country in April after the brutal violations of young girls, allegedly by elements with affiliations to Hindu nationalist groups.

In this atmosphere of growing polarisation stepped in the 83-year-old Mukherjee, bearding the lion in his own den as it were, ignoring appeals by some old cabinet and party colleagues. In a speech that was followed nationally on live television, Mukherjee said that the “soul of India resides in pluralism and tolerance” and “secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us”. He reminded the RSS rank and file who preached a Hindu supremacist ideology and whose founder considered Muslims and Christians as “invaders” that “the multiplicity of culture, faith and language is what makes India special” and “any attempt at defining our nationhood in terms of dogmas and identities of religion, region, hatred and intolerance will only lead to dilution of national identity”.

Was Mukherjee wrong in going to Nagpur, in breach of the beliefs and values he is known to have held dear all through his half-a-century-long political career? A peek into his thinking was available in his address in which he expressed anguish over how “manifestations of rage” were tearing apart the national fabric. He said a “dialogue is necessary not only to balance the competing interests but also to reconcile them… only through a dialogue can we develop the understanding to solve complex problems without an unhealthy strife within our polity”.

Dialogue and accommodation are the cornerstones of democratic functioning and their absence have often sounded the death knell of democracy. In the celebrated book “How Democracies Die”, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt talk about how “extreme partisan division” in American democracy today — following the norm-breaking tenure of President Donald Trump — was being fuelled not just by policy differences between the Republicans and Democrats “but by deeper sources of resentment, including racial and religious differences” and was eroding the “guardrails of democracy”.

India today stands similarly at a crossroads, unprecedented perhaps in its 71-year history. As the national discourse becomes heated by the day, with a permissive social media often fanning the division and hatred between the two extreme partisan ideologies, the growing slugfest and the low level of the debate is leading to a gradual disillusionment with democracy among ordinary citizens, particularly the youth, who yearn for change and progress.

With the country headed towards what could be one of the bitterest elections in recent history, not only between sworn political rivals but between ideologies that are fundamentally at odds with each other in their national outlook and their very definition of who is an Indian, the partisan polemics over every issue and policy of national concern is eroding India’s fundamental unity. If India, an exemplar of democracy, were to fragment on religious or caste lines, analysts say it could have a devastating effect on the region and the rest of the world.

And that is perhaps why Mukherjee felt he had to step in to bridge the deepening chasm in the national discourse and plead for dialogue. Whether the canny former politician did it with any eye on the next elections — in politics, as Franklin Roosevelt said, nothing happens by accident — may not be known immediately, but to denounce his visit as self-serving and a betrayal is to lose sight of the fundamental tenets of democracy which the world has come to value in India.

“Messy as it may be, India’s political system may be credited with great achievements,” The Economist said in one of its recent columns referring to a Pew Global survey which found Indians to be less enthusiastic about democracy and more drawn towards having a strong leader or military rule than citizens of any other democracy surveyed. “It has helped hold a huge and almost impossibly diverse country together. It has kept the army out of power. And it has upheld civic freedoms that, for all their fragility, remain the envy of many of India’s neighbours.”

(The author is a veteran mediaperson. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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A view through an infrastructure investor’s prism

Active policies to address the three issues revolving around the value, scarcity and contract enforcement that investors utilise to determine both investments and the required rate of return can help make policies useful.

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investment returns

Perspectives on infrastructure assets vary widely: While investors focus on investment returns, policymakers analyse both financial and socio-economic benefits. It would be worthwhile for policymakers to view things through an investor’s investment prism because an understanding of the critical factors that shape investment decisions will help frame better policies to expedite Indian infrastructure creation.

The “raw value” of an infrastructure project is what a potential investor evaluates first. For example, in a renewable energy wind project, the wind potential of a site is what an investor evaluates. For a transportation project, the investor evaluates the potential passenger traffic. This so-called “raw value” is a huge determinant of the financial viability of a project.

Segregating infrastructure sectors and projects by such “raw value” can help government and industry alike to work towards directing infrastructure capital more optimally. Additionally, such analysis helps in framing policies for those sectors that deliver very substantial social and economic value but are not financially viable on their own.

A robust framework that helps determine “raw value” can aid all the stakeholders, especially the government, to work with investors and multilateral trade agencies to find financing solutions for such socially and economically relevant projects. Eventually, India needs to create an information repository of sorts that provides the global investor base information and access by asset type and investment potential.

Once the “raw value” of a project is determined, an investor tries to gauge what is called its “scarcity value”. Take, for instance, transportation projects. If the transportation potential of connecting City “A” with City “B” is attractive, then is building an airport to connect the two cities the most optimal infrastructure asset? That is, in spite of the traffic potential, is an airport a “scarce” enough asset to deliver attractive returns?

The investor will gauge whether the airport is likely to face competition from a competing train network or a highway. Being cognizant of the long-dated nature of infrastructure assets is important. Hence investors will have to gauge the “scarcity value” of the asset to determine the attractiveness of the asset over the long investment horizon and, therefore, eventually decide on their willingness to invest in the asset.

It is essential for the government to find a balance between allowing investors to make returns commensurate with the risk taken and allowing the public to have access to a well-priced and high-quality infrastructure asset. The twin objectives of consistency and transparency in policy are crucial in this regard.

The government’s ability to formulate and communicate the strategy effectively regarding not just sectors but individual assets is vital. To indeed expedite infrastructure creation, granular policy across industries will be needed, more so for much-needed greenfield infrastructure projects.

Apart from “raw value” and “scarcity value”, an investor considers a third factor: The quality of the underlying contracts signed for the asset. Investors look for high-quality counter-parties with whom to sign contracts. More importantly, the government’s ability to deliver a robust legal system for contract-enforcement, as also a more efficient system for conflict-resolution, will attract more significant investments.

Lowering the risk perception for Indian infrastructure assets is essential not merely to attract more investments but also to attract investments at lower financing costs. Reducing the cost of capital is going to be a significant driver of infrastructure projects through their improved financial viability.

Another area that merits attention is the possibility of the government working even more closely with Export Credit Agencies of various countries to offer foreign exchange hedges, while “importing infrastructure investments”. Solutions that not only reduce the legal risk in investments but also partially eliminate the foreign exchange risk can help boost investments significantly.

Active policies to address the three issues revolving around the value, scarcity and contract enforcement that investors utilise to determine both investments and the required rate of return can help make policies useful.

Policy frameworks can potentially be refined using these three key factors that shape investment decisions. Most importantly, one does not need to improve concurrently on all three fronts for all infrastructure sectors; incremental improvement on one element can provide a significant fillip to infrastructure investments.

(Taponeel Mukherjee heads Development Tracks, an infrastructure advisory firm. Views expressed are personal. He can contacted at [email protected] or @Taponeel on Twitter)

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India kept its interests ‘safe’ at SCO Summit

If they look at the Northeast in the future from the BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) rubric, that is a different matter.

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SCO SUMMIT

New Delhi, June 12 (IANS) In keeping out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and signing an agreement on sharing of hydrological data on the Brahmaputra river and another on exporting rice following a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, India kept its interests safe in this year’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit, experts said.

India has not extended support to President Xi’s flagship initiative as a key project under it, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Modi reiterated India’s position that international connectivity projects should respect other countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Stating that connectivity with neighbours and within the SCO area is a priority for India, Modi, during his intervention at the Summit in Qingdao, China, on Sunday said: “We welcome new connectivity projects that are inclusive, sustainable and transparent, and respect countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The SCO is a Eurasian inter-governmental organisation, the creation of which was announced in 2001 in Shanghai by Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It was preceded by the Shanghai Five mechanism. India and Pakistan were granted full membership of the bloc in June last year. In the final Qingdao Declaration issued after the Summit, India’s name is conspicuously missing in the part about the BRI.

According to Anil Wadhwa, Senior Fellow in the Vivekananda International Foundation think tank and former Secretary (East) in the External Affairs Ministry, the meeting between Modi and Xi was a forward movement from the informal meeting between the two leaders in Wuhan in April with decisions being taken to set up a special representatives-level meeting mechanism and to boost cultural relations between India and China.

As for India not extending support to the BRI, Wadhwa told IANS that nobody expected India to endorse Xi’s pet initiative.

“I don’t think it will affect India diplomatically as there is an understanding between both sides (India and China),” he said.

“If they look at the Northeast in the future from the BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) rubric, that is a different matter.”

However, Wadhwa sounded sceptical about the two agreements signed between India and China – a memorandum of understanding on the Chinese side providing hydrological data on the Brahmaputra river in flood season from May 15 to October 15 every year and an amendment to a 2006 protocol for exporting rice from India to China to include the export of non-Basmati varieties of rice from India.

“With China already having built three dams on their side of the Brahmaputra, I don’t know how useful the data will be,” he said.

As for exporting non-Basmati varieties of rice, he said that such a market does not currently exist in China and this has to be created.

However, Sujit Dutta, a domain expert on China who is also Professor in the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Jamia Milia Islamia here, was positive about the two agreements.

“India kept its interests safe. While the agreement on sharing Brahmaputra will benefit India, the one on rice exports will help our farmers,” Dutta said.

As for the BRI, he said that India has always made it clear that it would not support the Chinese initiative.

“How can India support something that threatens its sovereignty with the CPEC going through PoK?” he said.

Modi said in Qingdao that India’s commitment to connectivity is visible nevertheless in the International North-South Transport Corridor, the development of the Chabahar Port in Iran, to which India, Iran and Afghanistan are signatories, and participation in specific projects like the Ashgabat Agreement, a multimodal transport agreement between India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Oman, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Another reason for India not taking part in the BRI, Dutta said, is that Chinese loans for projects under this have high interest rates and terms and conditions are not transparent.

Giving Hambantota port in Sri Lanka as an example, he said that the port has been given to a Chinese company on a 99-year lease and Colombo will find it difficult to repay the loan.

He said that same is the case with Gwadar port in Pakistan and Islamabad might well come under Chinese influence after finding it difficult to repay loans.

“We (India) can’t become vulnerable to Chinese pressure and take loans which we can’t repay,” Dutta said.

According to C. Uday Bhaskar, strategic analyst and Director of the Society for Policy Studies think tank, the key takeaway from the SCO Summit “is the manner in which India conveyed to its SCO peers that it can remain resolute when it comes to core national interests, for example, sovereignty”.

“But it will also engage with the others in a principles, yet pragmatic manner,” Bhaskar said.

He said that the Indian stand on the BRI will be watched very closely not just by China, but all the other nations who have signed up.

“Hopefully, the Wuhan spirit will prevail with respect to the BRI and make the issue less intractable when President Xi visits India in 2019,” Bhaskar stated.

(Aroonim Bhuyan can be contacted at [email protected])

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After Assam, NRC issue now simmers in Tripura as tribal parties agitate

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)-led Left Front, the Congress and the Trinamool Congress are also opposed to the Centre’s citizenship Bill.

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Agartala, June 12 : The burning issue of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is gradually spreading in Tripura as well, with tribal-based parties agitating to for an NRC updation exercise in the state with 1951 as the cut-off year.

Tripura’s three tribal-based parties — Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and National Conference of Tripura (NCT) — have started holding rallies and demonstrations to press their demand that the NRC be updated.

“We would again organise a five-hour sit-in demonstration on June 28 in Agartala to press for our demands. A similar demonstration would be held in New Delhi in September,” INPT President Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl told IANS.

He said: “If the other parties want to hold the agitation jointly, we are ready to do so. Earlier, in support of our demands, we have organised agitations, including a shutdown along with IPFT and NCT.”

The INPT, IPFT and NCT have also been demanding withdrawal of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which is currently under review by a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC).

These parties are also demanding introduction of an innerline permit to protect indigenous tribals, giving more power to the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), restoration of alienated tribal lands and inclusion of tribals’ Kokborok language in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution.

IPFT Vice President Ananta Debbarma said last month-end that they had organised big rallies in tribal areas, including at the TTAADC headquarters in Khumulwng, in support of the NRC and some other demands.

“We would soon hold a meeting of our party and decide our next course of action on NRC, Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 and other demands,” Debbarma told IANS.

The IPFT is the junior ally in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance government in Tripura, while the INPT is one of the oldest tribal parties in the state. It was formed in 2002 by merging three Tripura parties, including the Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS) and Tripura National Volunteers (TNV).

The TUJS was formed in 1967, while the erstwhile militant outfit TNV became a political party in 1988 following a tripartite agreement with the central and state governments.

The INPT, IPFT and the NCT in February last year formed the All Tripura Indigenous Regional Parties Forum (ATIRPF) and spearheaded various agitations across the state in support of their demands.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2016, seeks to enable Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, who have fled to India from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh without valid travel documents or those whose valid documents expired in recent years, to acquire Indian citizenship through the process of naturalisation.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)-led Left Front, the Congress and the Trinamool Congress are also opposed to the Centre’s citizenship Bill.

“The CPI-M is also opposed to the Bill and supports the Indira-Mujib pact which determined March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date to detect illegal infiltration into India from Bangladesh,” CPI-M’s Chief Whip in the Lok Sabha and senior tribal leader Jitendra Chaudhury told IANS.

“We have not yet discussed about the NRC in Tripura. However, people, particularly the minorities, are being harassed in Assam while conducting hearings on NRC,” said Chaudhury, who is also National Coordinator of the CPI-M-backed Adivasi Adhikar Rashtriya Manch and President of the Tripura Rajya Upajati Ganamukti Parishad — a frontal body of the CPI-M.

The second draft of the Supreme Court-monitored NRC in neighbouring Assam would be published on June 30, while the first NRC draft was made available to the people on December 31, after inclusion of names of 1.9 crore people of the total 3.29 crore applicants in the BJP-ruled state.

The NRC Assam, the register containing names of Indian citizens in the state, was prepared in 1951 as a non-statutory process by recording particulars of all the persons enumerated during the 1951 census.

The Assam agitation (1979-85) against the illegal foreigners led to the signing of Assam Accord on August 15, 1985, between the Centre, the state government, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), which stipulated March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for identification and deportation of illegal migrants from East Pakistan (Bangladesh).

Accordingly, the Citizenship Act, 1955, was amended by inserting Section 6A as a special provision for Assam.

In a tripartite meeting between the Centre, the state government and AASU, chaired by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in May 2005, it was agreed to update the NRC of 1951. The modalities were approved by the government of India in consultation with the government of Assam.

After the Supreme Court’s directive, the exercise of NRC updation in Assam commenced in December 2013, to be completed over a period of three years. The apex court is closely supervising the progress of NRC update and has given various directions from time to time.

(Sujit Chakraborty can be reached at [email protected])

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