Wednesday, July 30, 2008

An open letter to Omar Abdullah

An open letter to Omar Abdullah from T. Jayaraman, Mumbai.

Dear Mr. Omar Abdullah,

Now that the sound of the cheers and the applause following your speech in the Lok Sabha on the occasion of the trust vote a few days ago must have stopped ringing in your ears, I would like to draw your attention to some questions regarding our practice of secularism and the conduct of our foreign policy.

Your staunch defense of the nuclear deal ``as an Indian and a Muslim'' has undoubtedly endeared you to our pro-nuclear deal media. It is undoubtedly correct that we must all conceive of our foreign policy as ``Indians'' and not as part of any particular religious or other identity that we may have. However, when the conduct of the nation's foreign policy itself bears the clear stamp of the weakening commitment to secularism in important sections of our political class, bureaucracy and civil society then it becomes unclear to many ordinary citizens, such as myself, whether your stirring speech was indeed appropriate for the occasion.

However, as you most manfully confessed in Parliament, even at the height of the Gujarat riots the subtlety of the link between these riots and the politics of the leading party of the then ruling coalition seems to have escaped your watchful commitment to secularism. So this other connection between our weakening commitment to secularism and our foreign policy must undoubtedly be even more surprising to you and deserves to be explained briefly.

You will undoubtedly recall that the BJP-led NDA alliance began its rule in 1998 with the Pokhran nuclear tests. The tests were promptly followed by considerable sabre-rattling vis-a-vis Pakistan exemplified by Shri Advani's comment that Pakistan should now be conscious of the changed geo-political realities of the situation. In that remarkable statement of May 18, 1998, Shri Advani linked the tests to the Kashmir issue and claimed that the ``decisive step to become a nuclear weapons state has brought about a qualitatively new stage in Indo-Pak relations, particularly in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem.'' Regrettably Pakistan refused to take the hint and continued on to its own nuclear tests shortly thereafter. The slippery slope on to which Indo-Pak relations were thrust by these tests culminated in the Kargil conflict of 1999, showing how hollow was Shri Vajpayee's claim that nuclear weapons were ``weapons of peace.'' Nuclear threats continued to be exchanged with Pakistan during and after the Kargil conflict through the years of NDA rule. You will undoubtedly appreciate that these threats also boded little good for Kashmir as a prospective theater of nuclear war.

Simultaneously after the tests the VHP/RSS combine took to the streets hailing the tests as the arrival of a new and resurgent India, taking as a cue Shri Vajpayee's claim that the ``tests had given ...India shakti.'' The VHP toured the country with handfuls of the dirt from the soil of Pokhran to celebrate
the tests. The RSS mouthpiece Organiser hailed the tests in a special May 17, 1998 issue with a collection of hawkish and virulently anti-China and anti-Pakistan articles that the bomb had to be made to ``tame Pakistan'' and teach China a lesson.

That these remarks were not simply those of an extremist fringe was made clear by Prime Minister Vajpayee's letter to Bill Clinton, then President of the United States, claiming that the tests were necessary to deal with a ``deteriorating security environment'' due to an ``overt nuclear weapons state on our borders''. Further the letter speaks of the ``atmosphere of distrust'' with this state that ``persists mainly due to an unresolved border problem''. And further linking Pakistan to this obvious reference to
China, the letter adds, ``that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state.''

If this ill-timed letter were not alone enough evidence, the long record of negotiations between Shri Jaswant Singh and the U. S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott made it clear that the tests were less about India's nuclear independence and more, much more, about aligning at the earliest with the world's foremost superpower.

I am sure you would agree that this was not the common variety of anti-Pakistan or anti-China sentiment with which we are all familiar but had a special character to it from the fact that it was promoted by the BJP.

We may also remind ourselves that these moves in foreign policy went hand-in-hand with a virulent communal agenda in domestic politics. The tirade against conversion was directly responsible for the tragic death of Staines and his sons in Orissa, the high-point of a series of attacks on Christian communities and their places of worship. The communal agenda was thrust everywhere from our children's textbooks to the world of art and letters. Gujarat was merely the high-point of a broad communal campaign.

The other dramatic turn in India's foreign policy was a new opening to Israel, setting aside the long-standing ties between our country and the people of Palestine and West Asia. Israel today is the arch-exemplar of a fundamentalist state in its unremitting pursuit of its Zionist aims. Shri Brajesh Mishra, one of the key figures of the BJP's foreign policy, was feted by Jewish/Zionist groups in the United States as the architect of this new policy. This turn undoubtedly also pleased the political establishment in the United States no end, since secular, non-aligned India's opposition to Zionism had long been a thorn in the side of their foreign policy.

The brand-new new foreign policy that began to emerge in the years of BJP-rule would be inexplicable if we did not recall the writings of the late Guru Golwalkar . In a 1965 essay titled ``Welcome bigger war'' in his book, ``Bunch of Thoughts'' the Guru characterised China as ``the one common menace to entire humanity'' and looked forward to a superpower and global alliance, including India, the United States (and even the then Soviet Union) to destroy it. For Golwalkar the building of a nuclear bomb was an essential requirement for the conduct of India's foreign and defence policy. This campaign for the nuclear bomb and a corresponding shift in India's foreign policy has long been an ardent desire of the RSS/Jan Sangh combine, articulated at every turn and subsequently carried over to the policy of the newly-formed BJP. If the new foreign policy attracted many non-communal elements too in our nation's corridors of power, I would humbly submit that it points not to the secular nature of the new policy but the extent to which our establishment was willing to sacrifice secularism for this new pursuit of aligning with the United States to become its gendarme in South Asia.

The Islamophobic campaign launched by President George W. Bush after 9/11 clearly came as a welcome relief to the NDA government that had made little headway in its negotiations with Bill Clinton. Bush's call for a `` War on Terror,'' that has repeatedly and indiscriminately targeted the innocent (predominantly of the Islamic faith) and killed far more innocents than the few terrorists it has managed to seize or kill, fell on receptive ears in our country's leadership. The violence of Gujarat drew little condemnation from the United States that has been quick to condemn any perceived violation of the democratic rights of the poor millions of the Third World (including that of the followers of Islam in Kosovo).

It is this foreign and nuclear policy that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's regime inherited. But despite its protestations of secularism, this regime has consistently refused to recognize the anti-secular roots of its inheritance and has maintained a continuity of policy with the former regime. Dr. Manmohan Singh said it all with his cry `` I have completed what you had begun'' as he greeted Shri Vajpayee at the briefing given to the former Prime Minister on the 123 agreement last year.

I would respectfully submit to you that this connection has not been lost on the Muslim masses in our country. They are not so naïve as to think that the deal per se is anti-Muslim. Nor are they naive enough not to know that solving the problems food, health and livelihood are the key to ending the poverty of all, Muslim or non-Muslim. But the large numbers of Muslims who turned out for the protest rallies on the occasion of the Bush visit in 2006, demonstrated unmistakably that they percieved the anti-secular roots of the UPA's foreign policy when it came to India's relations with the United States and the nuclear deal.

In the event, your renewed commitment to secularism may perhaps be of some value. You could begin by campaigning against the judgement of the Gujarat court that has refused to return the young boy to his parents, who were separated from him at the height of one of worst incidents in the infamous Gujarat riots. Many would be thankful if you would use your new-found influence with the UPA government to persuade them to greater action on the recommendations of the Srikrishna Commission so that they may prosecute at least some of your erstwhile NDA colleagues with the same enthusiasm that has been shown on the Mumbai blasts case. It would be of value if you and your party were to firmly take a stance against the demand for the trifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir on religious lines that has emerged once more in the wake of the Amarnath land agitation.

In the meanwhile, the drama of the nuclear deal will continue to play itself out. I am also sure you will have the opportunity to see the claims of nuclear power providing electricity every rural household tested against reality just as the claims regarding power supply for Maharashtra from the Dabhol power project were tested within a very short time.

I would be grateful if you would see it fit to forward this letter to Shri Sachin Pilot, Shri Manavendra Singh, Shri Jyotiraditya Scindia and others, all young leaders with a strong political lineage, which as our media has made clear is the indispensable proof of competence, indeed excellence, in the political arena. They too in similar fashion might have misunderstood the millions who protested against George Bush two years ago and still harbour the same sentiments. Who knows, all of you together might even confess, a few years hence, that you made a grave mistake today, just as you personally had made one in the years of NDA rule.

Monday, July 28, 2008

More on Kalawati...A first-hand report

My friend Kiran Moghe from AIDWA has sent me this note that she prepared after a personal visit to Kalawati's household. She had visited Kalawati about 2 years ago with Kalindi Deshpande, another activist-leader of AIDWA: Ram

Kalawati Parshuram Bandorkar

The Bandorkar family is originally from Chandrapur district. They permanently migrated and settled in the Jalka village of Yeotmal over a decade ago in search of work. Parshuram Bandorkar had taken 9 acres on lease in this village for Rs. 1000 per acre. Parshuram cultivated the land together with wife Kalawati. She has 7 daughters and 2 sons; youngest of the sons is 7 years old. Two elder daughters are married.

When we met Kalawati in her village, she shared the sequence of events after the death of her husband. Parshuram had died two months ago by consuming pesticide. The factors leading to this drastic step were related to crop failure. He was expecting 15 quintals of cotton yield, but actually got only four quintals. Kalawati knew her husband was under pressure and constantly worried about repaying loans. She often used to tell him not to worry, as most loans were taken from her relatives. She comforted him by saying that they will pay back over a period. However, in the end it did not help.

For this year, Parshuram had taken a private loan against Kalawati's ornaments. What he did before ending his life was to get them released. He brought back her Mangalsutra and earrings from the money lender and purchased a new pair of Jodvi for her from the payment he got by vending the cotton crop. One day, Kalawati had gone to meet her daughter and Parshuram was alone at home, when he consumed pesticide.

Most loans were from her relatives, such as son-in-law, brother and sister. Kalawati admits repayment of Rs. 35,000 last year. Parshuram had given their pair of bullocks to their son-in-law towards repaying his loan of 15,000.

After Parshuram's suicide, the BDO sanctioned an immediate relief of Rs. 10,000; however, it proved of no help. A local shop keeper (PDS), who also helped her by giving grain on credit, helped her to get the amount. In turn, he requested her to give him that amount for some days. Obliged with his support, Kalawati could not refuse. Unfortunately, the person died in an accident before he could pay it back. No one in the village knows about this personal transaction and Kalawati hopes to get back her dues from the respective family.

The local MLA and the BDO visited her family after Parshuram’s death. However, no concrete help seems to be reaching the aggrieved family.

It was a slack season when we met Kalawati in February. The agricultural wage work situation was bad. She was doing cotton picking for meager Rs. 10 a day. In other seasons, the wages went up to Rs. 25. It was very difficult to raise a family of 7 dependents on such meager wages. She has decided to cultivate the farm this year at any cost. The input cost is 30,000 and the lease amount is 9,000. Kalawati has no credit access to fall back up on to meet these costs. She said, local people do not help financially. She expects the villager leaders to help her get back ten thousand from the concerned family.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Two instruments by name Kalawati and Sasikala

One of the most discussed speeches in the debate on the trust motion in the Loksabha was Rahul Gandhi’s. Arguing that “energy security is directly related to poverty”, Rahul Gandhi pitched in for the deal in the name of two widows from suicide-stricken Vidarbha – Kalawati and Sasikala. According to him, the lesson from his Vidarbha rural ride was that Kalawati and Sasikala were poor because they were energy-insecure; their children could not study and become doctors, engineers or collectors as there was no electricity in the evenings. Coming from a man, known for his wholesome support for the deal and portrayed as India’s future Prime Minister, the speech was celebrated in most of India’s dailies. “Empower Kalawati with N-deal”, said the CNN-IBN. “The millions of Kalawatis in rural India must become part of a new politics of social-economic emancipation”, wrote the Economic Times.

In a sense, Rahul Gandhi’s speech was a classic cover-up operation that should have left his tour guides aghast. The current power crisis of Maharashtra – with regions outside the power-guzzling Mumbai subjected to a massive power cut – is a very direct outcome of the shady and disastrous Enron deal of the 1990s. It was the State’s Congress government that initiated talks with Enron and signed the MoU in 1992 and the PPA in 1993. It was the Narasimha Rao government at the centre in 1994 that signed the counter-guarantees with Enron. The MoU, PPA and the counter-guarantee were sold to India’s people in the name of “energy security” for Maharashtra. Much the same enchanting dreams that we were asked to see during the debate on the nuclear deal were told to us in the early-1990s also, when Left parties and progressive activists were opposing the Enron deal. The Shiv Sena-BJP combine that came to power in 1995 was equally guilty of getting “politically educated” and moving towards supporting the deal in the name of “renegotiations”. The Enron deal came crashing in the late-1990s, upsetting energy plans for the State – a shock from which Maharashtra still reels.

Kalawati’s lights were switched off primarily due to the Congress’s shady Enron deal. If only Rahul Gandhi’s advisors had given him a few lessons in history, he would not have committed that gaffe.

There is more. Rahul Gandhi’s comments did not just cover-up for the Enron fiasco. It was also a poor effort to sidestep the central role of the Congress party (as well as the Sena-BJP combine) in triggering the series of farmers’ suicides in rural Maharashtra. The agrarian distress in Maharashtra is largely a result of the crisis in its cotton economy. This crisis has many causes that have been repeatedly discussed. First, the crash in cotton prices adversely affected the economics of cotton cultivation, primarily because the government began to gradually weaken the ‘Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme’ from the late-1990s. Till the late-1990s, cotton was purchased from farmers by the Maharashtra State Cotton Growers Marketing Federation at an assured price, and then sold in the open market. The Congress’ remarkably ineffective Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh went a step ahead in 2005 by withdrawing the promised ‘advance bonus’ of Rs 500 per quintal of cotton; this was one of the final nails in the cotton coffin. The withdrawal of the procurement scheme rendered cotton farmers, including Parashuram Bandurkar (the late husband of Kalawati), totally susceptible to volatilities in international and national prices.

Secondly, cheap imports of cotton have flooded the Indian market after the activation of the WTO agreement signed by the Congress (again, without the approval of India’s Parliament). Import duties on cotton were significantly lowered in 1997, resulting in a surge of imports and a fall in prices. Incidentally, 1997 was the year when the first reported suicide by a farmer took place in Vidarbha. The central government eliminated quantitative import restrictions for cotton, and reduced import tariffs from 35 percent in 2001-02 to 5 percent in 2002-03. Farmers like Parashuram Bandurkar faced growing competition from subsidized cotton grown in the West. Both the NDA and UPA governments at the centre have consistently refused to raise import tariffs for cotton and protect farmers from cheaper imports.

Thirdly, both the Congress and BJP governments at the centre and the State have presided over a period of breakdown of institutional support structures in rural areas from 1991 onwards. Input costs have exhibited a sharp rise after a reduction in subsidies. The rise in the input costs is reflected in the rising bills for electricity, fertilisers, energy (diesel) and transportation. Given the declining public investment in agricultural extension, farmers have lost access to the public extension that is supposed to give reliable information on how to deal with pests and declining productivity of land. In its place, the farmers are dependent on agents of seed, fertiliser and pesticide companies – a dependence that has attained disastrous dimensions in the suicide-stricken regions like Vidarbha.

To top it all, the Vidarbha Relief Package – conceived and implemented by Congress governments at the centre and the State – has been shown by the Maharashtra’s CAG report for 2006-07 to be a major failure.

The Indo-US nuclear deal is not an agreement with foreign policy implications alone. The strategic embrace with the US has important economic dimensions; a series of agreements have been signed between the two countries in fields like energy, agriculture, trade, investment and open sky policies. For instance, the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture (KIA) is a step towards the privatization of agricultural research in India. It has been noted that this agreement would weaken public sector research and promote private sector research on commercialized crops at the expense of food crops – an agenda identified by multinational corporations. The Board set up for the implementation of the KIA includes representatives of Wal-Mart and Monsanto. It was ironic that Rahul Gandhi chose to invoke the Vidarbha suicides to sponsor a policy shift that is likely to exacerbate the agrarian crisis in rural India.

In his speech, Rahul Gandhi seemed unperturbed by the damage the Congress-initiated economic reform had inflicted on Indian agriculture. In trivializing the discussion on poverty and farmers’ suicides, thereby trying to portray energy insecurity as the cause of poverty, he was doing a neat whitewash job of Congress’ bleak record in this sphere. Indeed, to this end, Kalawati and Sasikala were good instruments.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Celebrations have begun...

It is celebration time for crony capitalism in India...

The Indian Express was remarkably frank in its July 9th editorial. It said, "With the Left losing its stranglehold on the UPA government, big new spaces have opened up in economic policy." It further says,

"Many things that were taboo can now be back on the agenda. The last major achievement in Indian financial sector reforms was in 2001, when rolling settlement was pushed onto the equity spot market. The Percy Mistry and Raghuram Rajan reports have carefully thought through financial sector reforms, India's engagement with globalisation and the macroeconomic policy framework. Roughly speaking, the UPA can now push through roughly three-quarters of the recommendations of the two reports"

"The best strategy that they cannow adopt is similar to what was done by the NDA with the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBM). "

"In elementary education, the task now is of shifting public expenditures towards vouchers, so as to give parents the ability to exert influence on schools. In higher education, the government must start exiting the field...In other areas of health, the key task is that of shifting to a format where providers (private or public) compete on a level playing field, and only get paid when a customer walks in."


The Economic Times was more specific with a sweet little 16-point programme for Manmohan:

Economic reforms: The unfinished agenda

8 Jul, 2008, 1446 hrs IST, IANS

NEW DELHI: Following are some of the key components of economic reforms, which the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was unable to push ahead, primarily because of opposition from Left parties:

1. Divestment of government equity in public sector undertakings

2. Privatisation of state-run companies

3. Liberal labour policies for corporate sector

4. Foreign equity in multi-brand retailing

5. Higher equity for foreign companies in single-brand retailing

6. Higher foreign equity for foreign companies in insurance sector

7. Development of a vibrant corporate bond market

8. Easier norms for foreign banks to set up operations in India

9. Removal of 10 percent cap on voting rights for investors in non-state banks

10. Relaxation of land ceiling for foreign realty developers

11. Easier entry norms for credit rating companies

12. Higher foreign equity in asset reconstruction companies

13. Higher equity for foreign firms in state-run refining projects

14. Higher foreign equity in newspapers and current affairs periodicals

15. Permission for news and current affairs programming in FM radio

16. More liberal policies for foreign equity in commodity exchanges