Sunday, November 8, 2015

Key Takeaways from Bihar's Elections 2015

In Alliance We Won _ Nitish Hugging Laloo (Courtesy: The Hindu)
The verdict is out, and the combine of Laloo Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) and the All India Congress Committee of Rahul Gandhi hanging by the coattails of the other two has swept across Bihar. There are several interesting observations that need to be made in order to understand the trend that was with their alliance against a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led coalition in what was perceived to be a tight race. It is very interesting to note that democracy, equality and liberty are nebulous terms, and their vagueness can be seen in the oddity of the alliances and the outcome of the results. As Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn points out in his book Liberty or Equality, the premise of what constitutes the sense of freedom and the freedom to choose are not necessarily concomitant, and the ideas are certainly at variance as exhibited in the result. That democracy can be imperfect is evident in the fact that RJD is the single largest party in the Bihar legislative assembly, despite all its annals soaked in blood, violence and criminality of the past. A clean slate is what they presumed to start with, but signs emerging within hours from the ground are showing that the old festers may have just opened up if they are any indicators. Nevertheless, the people have chosen. Following key takeaways are however important from this election.

1. The election shows the BJP's inability to increase its voteshare from beyond pre-2014 elections. One must strongly observe how the vote for the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 was not about BJP or its allies; rather it was about putting Narendra Modi in 7 Race Course Road. A comparison from the 2010 position would show that numerically no one moved anywhere. This election eventually became about the others adding up to total more than one side. In states where all key players seem to be hovering around a particular vote share number, the inability to strike harder will hit the BJP. Uttar Pradesh in 2017 will also be an uphill task, even if Mayawati and Mulayam Singh do not ally as was the case in Bihar.

2. Nitish Kumar despite the win of the alliance stands a diminished man. The real victor of this state assembly is Laloo Prasad Yadav. As I had observed earlier, Nitish Kumar's stature is much reduced despite the results, as he compromised on his own principles. However, the dichotomy of how the same people who voted for him voting earlier for the BJP led alliance will certainly not be lost on either Nitish or Laloo. Something similar happened in Delhi earlier this year, and if there were Lok Sabha elections tomorrow we might see the same again, as evidenced in this NDTV coverage of the elections.

3. Since Laloo Prasad is the real winner of Bihar. He will extract his pound of flesh, and would certainly not have forgotten how Nitish Kumar backstabbed him in 1993. The oddity of the combine that has won is clearly not lost on anyone. I would give this government just upto 2019 at best, when a PM-ship carrot shall be dangled before Nitish Kumar to unseat him and place one of Prasad's sons instead. The palace coup is just around the corner for Nitish, and he shall be caught unawares much like King Lear.

4. The BJP needs to perform economically. Period. Getting involved in unnecessary discourse politics when the people are impatient for reforms and its impacts is just not what the doctor has ordered. When Arun Shourie had criticized them with the analogy Congress scaled+cow=BJP, the party was quick to brush them off as the angst of a frustrated man. The fact remains that he had rightly stated that the government needs to unleash reforms and not be subject to state elections, especially when much of what is needed to set India right DO NOT need any Parliamentary action whatsoever. Undertaking reforms only after a defeat is no different than throwing a punch in a bar fight after you got pummelled, and people are certainly frustrated with the party's clumsy, slow, stalling efforts to reform. Reform CANNOT be a marathon in a country that aspires for bullet trains.

5. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are directly responsible for the defeat. Engaging in a street fight each time does not make sense. Paucity of campaigners is not an excuse for indulging in crass exchanges and negative campaigning. The inability to distinguish their product from what Nitish Kumar was selling (to use marketing language)  proved very costly. Packages are a joke, and influence nobody whatsoever. Instead, efforts to explain how private investment and jobs shall be brought into Bihar could have perhaps created an alternate vision for an aspirational Bihar voter. Pitting that against a state-led development agenda belonging to a socialist mindset could have made a difference. That is what won them in other states.

6. Congress party at best managed to hang by the coattails of Laloo Prasad's victory. Despite the sharp rise in seats, the party managed to still be only the fourth largest in the state. That says much about the Congress' inability to use a wave in its favor as it says about Rahul Gandhi's weird strategy. Parachuting in and out certainly did nothing to take up beyond the 21 seat mark, which was around 22 prior to 2005.

Congratulations to the victors. It is your day today.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sri Lanka: The New Country - A Fine Example of Good Reportage

In March earlier this year I had gone to Colombo in Sri Lanka for work. Coincidentally, it followed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's successful visit to the country that had elected a new President, Maithripala Sirisena a few weeks earlier. While I drove around in taxis and visited offices, courteous Sri Lankans, of Sinhalese and Malay descent, kept talking to me in pidgin English about how they find our new PM fascinating, and how Indians generally are seen as good friendly neighbors but for the destructive Sri Lankan Tamil politics practiced by Tamil Nadu politicians. I was witness to a post-engagement lunch in the restaurant where I ate of a Tamil couple, being served with prompt attention by the mostly Sinhala staff. Much of it then made me wonder whether much of the reportage as I saw for Sri Lanka and its problems in the post-LTTE phase deserved attention.

In this context, I decided to pick up a book written by Padma Rao Sundarji, an old Indian hand of South Asian journalism (mostly for the German language media) curiously titled Sri Lanka: A Country Revisited, which confirmed many things that I had on my mind. It also made me partially re-orient my position on specific events of the past, thanks to excellent, objective reportage.

As I follow events in Sri Lanka (for work purposes) I also get to learn about the country's ever-evolving political and social fabric, and much of what I read in the book clearly corroborated the trends that I had been observing personally as a zeitgeist, starting from the time of my visit. While the political economy of Sri Lanka continues to hurt the potential of the country in bad ways, the social dynamics have changed towards the demand for political rehabilitation from Sri Lankan Tamils. Sirisena's election saw nearly the entire cross section of Sri Lanka's politics come together on a platform - Sinhala chauvinists, Tamil separatists, Buddhist fundamentalists and even Muslim groups. This clearly showed the yearning for two things - moving on in the country with a final settlement of disparities and distrust; and also tackling cronyism and corruption within the existing government so that economic growth benefits everyone. Ms Sundarji's talks with a cross-section of society shows the common aspirations that unite into a voice of change across ethnicities and religious groupings. Sri Lanka is seen as a country of two monoliths by lazy journalists and fashionista intellectualists across the world, and even in India (a theory I personally have since junked), and the author does well to highlight these differences through her anecdotes. Justice Vigneswaran's election as Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council is a watershed in Sri Lankan politics, and the sections dealing with that are a prime example of objective reporting. Contrast that with the foolish rhetoric our media undertook with 2014 general elections, and you seethe infantile, facetious, half-hearted and often sloppywork of our so-called eminent journalists. While the book does not explore all the ethnic groupings of Sri Lanka and their understandings due to strict adherence to the theme, it does capture the contradictions that Sri Lanka, much like India, possesses within itself. For instance, her talk with Tamil speaking Muslims of Batticaloa or her chat with Jaffna's Tamil Buddhist Society head are a fascinating insight as to just how complex the country is.

Padma Rao Sunfarji discusses in depth the atrocities committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and meets surrendered senior leaders, many of whom were coopted into the government. While many people had problems with this strategy of Rajapakse, these people's voices were also given a chance to ponder and talk about what really went on within the LTTE. Most people now want a solution within the homeland, and the current government would be wise if it can pay attention to what these voices are saying, which seem to mirror much of the ordinary people on the ground say during her repeated visits to the island nation. Another great section of her book is the story on the rehabilitation of former LTTE cadre by the Sri Lankan Army. Like any South Asian army, the standing force in many areas have to deal with a lot of civilian engagement, and Ms Sundarji's reportage captures that wonderfully. Particularly memorable is the repeated emphasis of people on how difficult the former cadre find to integrate into society, subject as they are to discrimination in the time of peace. Many of the contested claims shoddily thrown around in international media also are debunked with statistics in various rounds of meetings by the Army personnel of importance, and even civilian voices are given their fair share to rail against the armed forces, which is not the case with war weary people. The politically aware Tamil people saw development which was denied to them for long under Mahinda Rajapakse, though cronyism also prevailed. The book also highlights in some depth the problem foreign interlocutors posed during the three decade civil war. Without losing objectivity, Ms Sundarji managed to bring to light just how destructive the LTTE, aid workers and the interlocutors proved to be hindrances to peace and development, and overstated the strength of the LTTE to the world, giving an incorrect picture all the time.

I strongly recommend this book to contemporary history afficionados and those interested in understanding current developments in Sri Lanka. Like the author, I also hope that the country, now seeing rapid development and also economic pains, sees lasting peace. The threats still linger; however, ground realities have changed drastically, something the Tamil diaspora across the world also needs to accept. It is a great weekend read thanks to its crisp writing. Please do give this book a chance amidst other 'objective, unbiased' reportage on Sri Lanka floating around these days.

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