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Cooperation Ministry or cocooning cooperatives?

At a time when the nation increasingly looks up for intercultural dialogues to create new pluralistic discourses of political economy, the Ministry of Cooperation represents the likelihood of monolithic free trade catechisms, proliferating multinational investments, and spreading communication networks which altogether threaten to dismantle the local economy.

Amita Singh

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Union Home Minister Amit Shah
Union Home Minister Amit Shah.

In 2005 when our research team from the Governance Knowledge Centre of the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU was evaluating DARPG (Department of Administrative Reforms & Public Grievances) selected best governance practices, Modi’s market cooperatives of Gujarat turned out to be a strong initiative to protect his state against an ongoing worldwide recession. However, more than a decade later his replication of his Gujarat experiment by creating a new Ministry of Cooperation(MoC) comes as a surprise. It seems to be a borrowed past sans current realities. Is it a namesake for a pre-existing arrangement, a design for pre-election statecraft, or a nomenclature faux pas? To be given in the hands of a minister who is already so overloaded with performance pressure demands of an intensively centralized Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) where none of its tasks falling in place— for instance, disaster (Pandemic, forest fire, floods, glacial lake outburst) management, increasing criminal impunity, women safety; and internal security is even more astounding. Notwithstanding the Centre’s assurance that it will help realize the vision of ‘Sahkar se Samriddhi’ it remains an impossible marriage between an episteme and a corporeal.

The Home Ministry has no commonality or shared domain with the grassroot village cooperatives and as seen, the cooperatives shrink at the sight of Home Ministry officials near them. Now, this sight would become unavoidable considering the same office entertaining all uncommon concerns. While the first represents centralization, regimentation, and retribution having an edifice built over stringent laws such as Indian Penal Code (IPC)1860, Indian Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) 1898, Epidemic Disease Act (EDA)1897, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA)1967, National Security Act (NSA) 1980, Disaster Management Act (DMA) 2005, etc, the other is a world of freedom, innovation, communication, culture, negotiation, and mutual hand-holding. As a microcosmic crucible of noisy bazaar economics, grassroot communities discover, learn and undertake microcredit transactions in local produce (vegetables to sugarcanes) and indigenous handcraft (weavers to wool spinning) to sustain themselves against a dominant but predatory model of national economics. I had come across one such cooperative in the Niwari village of Bundelkhand in MP. During the 2006-7 global credit banking recession most tribal people had lost their jobs in construction, road building and transportation, etc but this ‘haat’(local tribal mandi) where the poor tribal communities came together with their usufruct (whatever they procured from forest such as firewood, big leaves, fruits, nuts, buds, medicinal herbs, plates made of teak leaves, ropes and many more) at a common place every morning and did a good business which even included their hiring for decorating and singing at marriages. A gripping sensation of fear and desuetude has swept through those multifarious cooperatives and the most insecure are women and labour cooperatives of Kerala , UP, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. These cooperatives have been grassroot energy tanks that contributed to improving per-capita income for the marginalized across the country. How could these two entirely different domains of conformity and creativity be expected to work together?

Through a new ministry, the Home Minister is allocated an additional charge of regulating grassroot cooperatives or local economy per se. It is indispensable to understand that ‘cooperatives’ represent a basic unit of a market or a grassroot economy whereas, the fact that economy is embedded in economics makes these units culturally and historically entangled. Economics performs and shapes economy or it can be said that a genealogy of a market concept (progress of ideas) such as a mandi, bazaar, community-based organizations or an Ema market as in Manipur is interdependent upon an anthropological history of market structures (how society shapes it’s market organizations) such as hierarchy of controls for specific products. Such embeddedness as Karl Polanyi suggests in The Great Transformation is both possible and filled with lessons. To ignore these lessons due to the ‘tunnel vision’ which bureaucracy exhibits in achieving small ideological victories for the government could prove as costly for the nation as the failed Perestroika of the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev. Peculiar anthropology of local markets is a congregation of those century-old local and indigenous communities which are neither understood by central commands nor entertained by emerging global forces. Those district magistrates not exposed to the critical global discourses may just surrender as agents of the Home Ministry rather than suffer a double burden of their ignorance and accountability to the MHA.

One can also sense some incredulity in setting up this new MoC when the Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare (DAC&FW) has always existed as one of the three constituent Departments of the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare. Prior to it in earlier years there was a Department of Cooperation in the Ministry of Agriculture which was more focused with a targeted approach towards cooperatives’ movement. So far this Department was headed by an Agriculture & Farmers Welfare Minister and assisted by three Ministers of State. With a prolonged and unrelenting farmers movement and the Agriculture Minister’s inability to resolve it the Agriculture Minister has little legitimacy left to face agricultural cooperatives which are now much agitated and hostile towards a government they now see as an agent of big companies. The delinking of the ‘task of cooperation’ from that of agriculture and farmers’ welfare only creates another silo within which it would be impossible to proceed without the agriculture ministry. So, the agriculture minister would become an inconspicuous information provider to the Home Minister who in turn would apply his experience of the Gujarat Model to MoC.

The ‘Cooperative Societies’ is a state subject under entry 32 state list of Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Even the cooperatives functioning from more than one state are covered under a separate Act of Multistate Cooperative Societies Act of 2002 under the Central Government. The Indian Constitution through its 97th Amendment in 2011 had added to the IX Schedule, Part IXB (Art.243ZH to 243 ZT) which provides for incorporation, regulation, and winding up of cooperative Societies based on the principles of voluntary formation, democratic member control, member economic participation, and autonomous functioning. The incorporated articles empowered the State Governments to obtain periodic reports of activities and accounts of Co-operatives Societies. These societies represent a sustainable example of microcredit transactions and grassroot level demand fulfilment. The Amendment had ensured accountability of Cooperatives to the State Governments which has now been allocated to a Central Minister who is also the Home Minister.These Cooperatives have played a phenomenal role in the making and unmaking of governments at least in Maharashtra with Sharad Pawar and Congress continuing to remain undisputed political masters of the state’s grassroot economy. Both rural and urban cooperatives are holders of wealth, resources, and social capital which politicians encash during election time. So the new Ministry is also seen as a design to topple federal structure while at the same time a masterstroke to disrupt the power platform of farmers before the elections in coming years.

It seems that the government only focuses on elections whether its institutional preparedness, resources generation, or seeking public trust which are now wholesomely directed to ensuring an election victory. This aggrandizing trend is explained by the famous Virginia school economist Gordon Tullock through an appropriate mathematical formula in economics which brought out a politician as a person who made his living by winning elections and to expect altruism and benign faith-building from him is a desire of a moth for the star. It is not of much interest to them whether tunnel vision bureaucrats roar of embellished ethics or indulge in covert corruption to achieve petty minor ideological victories for keeping them in good humour. As an end result, governance is mortified as election machinery.

There is a nomenclature problem as well with the title of the Ministry. As long as it was clubbed with agriculture and farmers the word ‘cooperation’ notified an activity which rendered grassroot cooperation much needed to market their products, but once segregated ‘Cooperation’ would carry a much wider meaning cutting across almost every ministry. Since the MoC is for cooperatives alone, it could have been titled as a Ministry of Cooperatives as a better reflection of its focus of work and stakeholder imperative. In some haste, much thought has not been given to it and the title is carried forward as a ‘cut & paste’ word popped out of tunnel vision. The world is increasingly transdisciplinary and unless bureaucracy and political masters break out from their silos they remain narrow and lopsided. Cooperation demands mutuality of learning and a form of symbiosis in approach to collaboration. There is a need for tolerance, faith, and building of trust. The famous story of the 1980s from the Sologne region of France as studied by Marie-France Garcia brings out a process in which local community-based calculative agencies emerge to transform a table strawberry market into a sustainable market. The factor of trust helped to keep everyone together in market transactions. Amul story is also built on mutuality of trust and commitment of local communities. What would be a threshold of interference by a Central government is yet to be established and for that reason remains arbitrary.

At a time when our nation increasingly looks up for intercultural dialogues to create new pluralistic discourses of political economy, the Ministry of Cooperation represents the likelihood of monolithic free trade catechisms, proliferating multinational investments, and spreading communication networks which altogether threaten to dismantle the local economy. Demonetization had initiated a shedding of unorganised sector and now acreation of MoC appears like a Promethean lust to be godlike in implanting grandiosely global formulae to hasten premature wilting of humble grassroot initiatives called Cooperatives.

The author is president, NDRG, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

PM MODI’S PENCHANT FOR SELF-ADVERTISING IS UNPARALLELED

Priya Sahgal

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All politicians like to promote themselves; it’s part of the branding and some would say a necessity of public life, for what is the use of doing good if the public that votes for you doesn’t get to know about it. I recall an old adage about advertising: Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark! So, take it as foreplay that will be consummated on voting day.

However, too much of even a good thing has its perils, especially when the delivery does not match the advertisement. The BJP knows this all too well for this is what happened during its “India Shining” campaign of 2004. While life in the metros glittered, the same was not true of the villages that felt cheated and left out; and people went and voted for the Congress which claimed that “Congress ka haath, Aam Aadmi ke Saath”. Today again we are seeing a certain narrative unfold around the promised “Acche Din”. That the promise has fallen short is not for me to claim, our economic statistics and unemployment figures tell their own tale. But, statistics and figures fall flat when faced with the PM’s overpowering rhetoric— his government had not only managed a comeback in 2019 but also dared to dream about 2024.

Yet, of late, I am seeing a certain disquiet with the PM’s penchant for hoardings and staking ownership for every (positive) move the country makes. Take his picture on the vaccination posters for example. By now, thanks to the power of social media we have all heard about the Indian at Frankfurt airport who was quizzed because his vaccination certificate had the PM’s picture instead of his. The number of hoardings thanking the PM for free vaccinations that have sprung all over the countryside is hard to miss. Unfortunately, most of them can be found at our petrol pumps at a time when the petrol cost is skyrocketing for this has been the backdrop of many selfies by hapless automobile, scooter, and bike owners who say a sarcastic “Dhanyavaad Modi” for the rising costs.

Recently the Sports Ministry came up with a website where one could cheer for our Olympic contingent. It was called cheer4india.narendramodi.in and quite naturally it is the PM’s face and message that dominates. However, it was only after our hockey teams (both women and even the men) performed well at the Olympics that a lesser-known fact was unearthed. It was not the PM so much as another political figure to whom the credit goes for supporting Indian hockey. It is Naveen Patnaik who has taken it upon himself to make Odisha the sponsor for Indian hockey for five years since 2018. He has also hosted the World Cup Men’s Hockey tournament in 2014 and has built a host of stadia and other infrastructure. The world’s largest hockey stadium is coming up in Rourkela in time to host the World Cup Hockey tournament in 2023. If there is any name on the Indian jersey it is that of Odisha, not the CM, and certainly not his picture. Sometimes the delivery speaks for itself.

Hence, while all politicians excel in self-advertisement— we have the Congress to thank for showing the way— it would be a wise move to tap into the public sentiment as well. And not try and change the public mood to suit a certain narrative. So far the latter strategy has worked, but of late it has also begun to backfire, just a bit.

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Opinion

2022 UP elections: Saga of India’s political destiny

Nationally, it is the electoral outcome in Uttar Pradesh that will be crucial. In 2014, had UP not elected 71 BJP MPs, it would have been a ‘hung Parliament’ and PM Modi’s political trajectory may have been quite different. If the party cedes ground in 2022, it will lose steam for 2024.

Arun Bhatnagar

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While India’s next tryst with political destiny is two and a half years away, the BJP does not seem to be leaving much to chance, so far as their electoral strategy, backed by almost limitless resources, is concerned.

The ministerial revamp was meant to signal a fresh start and insulate the government from Covid criticism, the endless suffering because of an appalling lack of medical infrastructure, floating bodies in the Ganges, and denial of dignity, even in death. However, it has been projected as a radical step towards toning up governance and addressing the hardships of Dalits and the poorest sections of the people.

It wasn’t such a momentous exercise, after all, the media hype notwithstanding. The spotlight was taken away from the tragic demise in prison of Father Stan Swamy and the passing of an all-time icon, Dilip Kumar (Mohammed Yusuf Khan), both in Mumbai.

In the government, none of the Big Four were affected. To many a neutral analyst, the performance of the Finance, External Affairs, Home and Defence ministries appeared wanting. The portfolios of the best-rated member of the cabinet, Nitin Gadkari, did not attract upward movement. He is more a blue-eyed boy of the RSS than anyone else’s.

To the best of one’s information, a 45-year old John Barla (elected to the Lok Sabha from Alipurduars) is the only Christian in the Council of Ministers; he was once a tea garden worker and belongs to Jalpaiguri, West Bengal.

A Kerala Christian – K.J. Alphons – took early retirement from the IAS and was a Union Minister of State (2017-19) in Modi’s first term. The estimated Christian population of the country is 2.8 crore.

The lone Muslim in the government holds charge of the Ministry of Minority Affairs.

As a consequence of the reshuffle, the average age of the Union Council of Ministers stands at 58 years, compared to 61 years of the previous Council formed after the 2019 Lok Sabha mandate. Fourteen ministers, including six cabinet ministers, are below 50.

If the Cabinet changes fail to deliver in substantial measure, another round of the same could be attempted, say around 2023. The new Health Minister (born 1972), a Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat, can be axed, should things not go well with the pandemic.

One of the stars amongst the young inductees— Ashwini Vaishnaw— hails from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, and was originally an Odisha IAS who was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the BJP, with the backing of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Armed with an MTech from IIT, Kanpur, and an MBA from Wharton, he is expected to demonstrate multi-dimensional skills, sorely needed, in the Modi administration. He is not an ex-bureaucrat on the pattern of other ministers with origins in the IFS or the IAS who come from the ranks of those superannuated from lucrative government assignments.

Significantly, Vaishnaw set up two automotive components manufacturing units in Gujarat. He later joined the BJP and amply fulfils, alongside several others, the critical criterion of undiluted and unquestioning loyalty to the PM.

This, coupled with the ‘political messaging’ (in terms of regional, caste, and sub-caste configurations, a new social calculus) for the 2024 polls – via the intervening State elections – comes close to summing up the story of the cabinet reshuffle which marked a final exit of the Vajpayee team that had a high level of Brahmin and upper castes representation.

It is the electoral outcome in Uttar Pradesh that will be crucial. In 2014, had U.P. not elected 71 BJP MPs, it would have been a ‘hung Parliament’ and Modi’s political trajectory may have been quite different. If the party cedes ground in 2022, it will lose steam for 2024. With seven new entrants from the state, the number of ministers from the UP has gone up to 15, that is, one-fifth of the total strength.

The fate of the Rae Bareli and Amethi parliamentary constituencies (in the Avadh region), erstwhile bastions of the Gandhi-Nehru family, should be particularly interesting to observe in 2024.

More vital will be the contest in Varanasi which has long been a BJP stronghold; the seat was last won by the Congress in 2004 when Rajesh Kumar Mishra secured victory.

The holy city (also called Banaras) is cosmopolitan and has a population of Bengalis. The zamindars of Bengal had been constructing ‘kothis’ and occupying lands along the Ganges; a bigger influx of Bengalis began in 1948 after the Partition. Varanasi resembled a ‘mini-Bengal’ where the Pujo celebrations had a pronounced Calcutta touch. The Bengali style Durga Puja was started by a landlord, Babu Anandmay Mitra.

The narrow lanes of Bengali Tola are crowded with buildings whose architecture is reminiscent of twentieth-century Bengal. Most of the properties are now owned by north Indians but the engraved names of the original occupants remain on the houses. The first Bengalis settled in 1757 (the year of the Battle of Plassey) and Rani Bhabani built temples around which the Tola was formed. The Bengali population was mainly of the Brahmin caste that worked as priests or taught in Sanskrit schools.

As of now, developments — encouraging or otherwise — in the struggle with Covid-19 and an evolving situation in Afghanistan constitute issues over which the government of the day can exercise but limited control, not to mention the tensions with China and Pakistan. In the domestic sphere, not much appears to be improving in respect of an unprecedented unemployment crisis, food inflation, and spiraling fuel prices.

Global factors are at play. As the reality of the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan takes hold, the future may largely depend on the Kabul-Taliban dynamics and Pakistan’s role. The Taliban have advanced to the cities and could enforce a return to the brutal theocracy they imposed during their previous stint in power.

The portents may yet turn ominous for India, despite the reassuring words of the External Affairs Minister.

A respite from public health concerns could afford a chance to commence a journey on the path of economic recovery. The ongoing farmer protests have definite political overtones and are aimed at consolidating the opposition against the BJP in the poll-bound states of Punjab, U.P., and Uttarakhand in 2022.

The Grand Old Party (GOP), as the Congress is often termed, can aspire to play a pivotal part in the emergence of an Opposition Front led by politicians of stature. In this context, even as the names of Mamata Banerjee (66) and Sharad Pawar (80) come to mind, it is pertinent to mention that the Congress’ interim president enjoys credibility that can bring parties and individuals together, with assistance coming in from the likes of M.K. Stalin (68) and Arvind Kejriwal (53).

For this to happen, the GOP will need to appreciably augment its existing Lok Sabha numbers and come close enough, if not reach, a three-digit figure. It may also have to give up on ideas of leading an opposition alliance.

As for the BJP, they might conceivably face a ‘single largest party’ scenario, despite the appeal of a Hindutva agenda (Ayodhya and, possibly, Mathura and Kashi) and the hard work of the RSS cadres. What may spell real trouble would be a fall to around 160 seats, the level attained by Vajpayee’s BJP in 1996. The Party was able to form a short-lived government (13 days) at that time. In such a contingency, howsoever unlikely, even unimaginable, the Amit Shah-Nadda duo will have to do better than the late Sushma Swaraj and Pramod Mahajan. The silence of the lower middle classes can be deceptive.

This writer suggested, in an article appearing in The Week in June 2019, that Congress should consider getting Mamata on board to challenge the BJP. Earlier, in his book India: Shedding the Past, Embracing the Future, 1906-2017 it was stated that ‘…… Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee share a cordial personal equation. Politics makes strange bedfellows; what may be virtually impossible to envision at present can emerge as a practical possibility…..’.

A massive win in West Bengal has since put Mamata in the front row on the national stage. During the electioneering in the state, she approached Sonia Gandhi for help in places like Malda where the Congress has a presence, and said that she shares the Congress DNA. Bridges could still be built between Congress and the TMC.

Be that as it may, the election battles ahead are likely to be joined, sooner rather than later. A longer story could be cut short — one way or the other — if Mamata Banerjee becomes a candidate for the Lok Sabha from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh in 2024.

The writer was formerly in the IAS. The views expressed are personal.

The fate of the Rae Bareli and Amethi parliamentary constituencies (in the Avadh region), erstwhile bastions of the Gandhi-Nehru family, should be particularly interesting to observe in 2024. More vital will be the contest in Varanasi which has long been a BJP stronghold; the seat was last won by the Congress in 2004 when Rajesh Kumar Mishra secured victory.

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Opinion

THE FARMER-IMPASSE CONTINUES, EVEN AS DELHI SUFFERS

Joyeeta Basu

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Almost nine months after farmers protesting the three farm laws passed by Parliament gathered on Delhi’s borders, they are still stationed there. Even though they are not hitting the headlines with the regularity as they were earlier in the year, does not mean that they are not blockading several roads, making the lives of local residents and commuters miserable. Talks between the government and the farmers broke down post the Republic Day violence perpetrated by some farmer groups, during which the Red Fort was vandalized and a religious flag was hoisted at this national monument. Even otherwise, the farmers had taken a maximalist position about the farm laws. That the laws were viewed by most experts and stakeholders to be reform oriented and worth giving a try, did not make any difference to the protesters. In fact, except for with the farmers of Punjab and a handful of farmers from Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, the agitation did not find any resonance in a country which still has nearly 50% of its workforce employed in the agricultural sector.

The government was ready to make several concessions, including putting the laws on hold for up to 18 months. But the farmers were adamant, thus raising questions about the political nature of the “movement”, where the intention was to ensure that Government of India came across as weak and unable to bring in any reforms. It was a clear case of the farmers being misled by vested interests, who used disinformation to make the farmers fearful of the amended laws. Considering the whole premise of the movement is to bring the government to its knees, and with individuals such as Rakesh Tikait actively campaigning in Assembly elections in his capacity as a “farmer leader”, the fig leaf of the movement being apolitical has been destroyed. And the minute any movement gains a political colour, the obvious question is about the political benefits that some seen and unseen forces are hoping to derive from it.

With Uttar Pradesh and Punjab Assembly elections coming up early next year, it is increasingly appearing that the so-called agitation will continue well into 2022, or at least until the elections are concluded. The idea is to keep the issue alive until the elections in the hope of influencing voters, apart from gaining political legitimacy for these “farmer leaders”. Hence, these unscrupulous leaders are taking advantage of the gullible farmers by painting dire pictures of loss of land and livelihood to corporates because of the farm laws. The counter-narrative is yet to take hold of public mind, at least in Punjab. So the lives of Delhi-NCR residents are expected to stay thrown out of gear for another six-seven months minimum, which should raise some serious questions about the government’s inaction on this.

Why is the mighty Indian state bent upon appearing a soft state, where groups of individuals can hold the national capital to ransom for months, break every possible law, and get away scot-free? The whole idea of having an internal security apparatus is to pre-empt such disruptions. Why are such agitations not being broken up inside the first few days of the protesters blocking roads? It was the same in the Shaheen Bagh protests, which started in 2019 December and was allowed to fester for three months. But for the restrictions imposed because of Covid, it would have continued perhaps for a much longer time. The farmers’ agitation did not even bother about Covid restrictions and continued through the deadly second wave, thus spreading the infection to the hinterland. And now the worry is that some other agitation will start around October-November-December, when the weather is conducive to organizing outdoor sit-ins and it will continue for weeks, if not months. Such disruptions in Delhi not only ensure national and international media spotlight, but are also a good way of showing the Central government as weak and vacillating. As for the farmers, it is hoped that they will realise that they are being misled by their leaders. Holding the national capital to ransom is no solution to their grievances.

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Opinion

Blinken’s India visit sent a strong message to China

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first-ever visit to India underlined the US commitment to stay engaged in the Indo-Pacific region. During the visit, Blinken held discussions with civil society representatives, including the delegate representing the Tibetan government-in-exile, and the move was a calculated step to send a message to China.

Surendra Kumar

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Amidst media reports of the capture of a large swath of territory in Afghanistan by the Taliban, it was speculated that Kabul would be at the top of the agenda of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to India. It is because the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the growing foothold of the Taliban have a direct bearing on India’s security.

External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken address the joint statement, in New Delhi on Wednesday. (ANI)

Well, Afghanistan was on the agenda. But on his first visit as the Secretary of State, Blinken reviewed the entire India-US relationship with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, held discussions with Ajit Doval, and called on PM Modi. Besides covering bilateral relations including defence, security, trade, business, investment, energy, education, Science and technology, Blinken and Jaishankar, also exchanged views on Covid-19, Indo-Pacific, Quad, climate change, terrorism, cybercrime, snooping, etc. Their comments during the joint press conference suggested that their talks were frank and candid; there was convergence on several issues but their perceptions differed on some issues as well.

Jaishankar’s initial remarks provided a context: “Our bilateral cooperation has vastly expanded in the last few years. Our interests are shared, our concerns are similar and our convergences are strong.” Probably, shared interests and similar concerns relate to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, and given India’s location and past experiences, the concerns are similar but not exactly the same.

And strong convergence is as well discernible with regards to Indo-Pacific, Quad, terrorism, cybercrime, growing menace of intelligence gathering, and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic

Jaishankar emphasized, “Peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific are as important for both of us as democratic stability in Afghanistan. Deepening the Quad as a qualitative platform is in our mutual interest and we must work together even more closely on key contemporary challenges like terrorism, climate change, pandemics, and resilient supply chains.”

Recollecting how India had helped the US 2020 and how the US provided “exceptional” help when India was battling the second wave of the pandemic, Blinken said, “We are determined to end this pandemic, and India and the US will work together to do it, including through the Quad vaccine partnership, which will bring safe and effective vaccines to others across the region. India and the US together will be leaders in bringing this pandemic to an end and setting up a stronger global health security system..”

The US has already extended Covid-19 related assistance of $200 million. Blinken announced additional assistance of $25 million. Total assistance from the US including from private sources and Indian Americans has crossed over $500 million.

Both Blinken and Jaishankar reiterated that the peace process in Afghanistan must ensure her sovereignty; it has to be Afghanistan led and Afghanistan owned government leading to the establishment of a democracy representing all ethnic groups, and the sovereign establishment will uphold human rights including the rights of women and will not allow the return of terrorist groups who carry out attacks inside Afghanistan and against its neighbors.

Blinken stressed that there was no military solution to the situation in Afghanistan, and both, the Government and the Taliban must come to table and strive to set up an inclusive and fully representative administration.

Blinken dampened the Taliban’s triumphal bravado by asserting that, “Afghanistan would be ‘pariah state’ if Taliban took control by force.” He also dismissed suggestions that with the exit of its soldiers, the US will wash its hands off Kabul. “Even as we withdraw our forces from Afghanistan,” he said, “We remain engaged in Afghanistan. We don’t only have a strong embassy there but we also have important programs that support the country economically through development and security assistance.”

Airstrikes by planes and unmanned drones from outside Afghanistan during the last week signal that the US intends to bolster the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and allow the Ghani government not to be run over by the Taliban, at least for now.

Blinken applauded India’s role in Afghanistan, and said, “India and US share a strong interest in peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan. As a credible partner in the region, India has and will continue to make a vital contribution to Afghanistan’s stability and development.”

Unfortunately, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran don’t share this perception. Russia has held the meeting of the TROIKA (Russia, China, and Pakistan) and a large Taliban delegation was received in China. While the US exits from Afghanistan, Imran Khan has the gall to pronounce that the US “messed it up in Afghanistan”.

Blinken clarified that Quad wasn’t a military alliance and its objective “was to advance cooperation on regional challenges while reinforcing international rules and values that we believe together underpin peace, prosperity, stability in the region.”

Jaishankar’s said, “China needs to get over the idea that others are doing something to target them.” China does indeed believe that Indo-Pacific and QUAD are essentially anti-China fronts. Russia supports China’s assessment here too.

Like Biden, Blinken sees US relations with China as marked by competition, rivalry, and cooperation; Climate Change can’t be addressed without China’s close cooperation.

Nevertheless, India sees China differently, given the long-pending border dispute, bloody clashes in Galwan valley last year, the impasse on the LAC, and the adverse trade balance.

America acknowledges Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the table and its continuing relevance for containing them and for peace and stability in Afghanistan. But we have misgivings about Pakistan’s role in a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul and also apprehend a spike in terrorist attacks against India.

Blinken thanked Jaishankar on Twitter for “collaborative discussion on many areas of cooperation, including efforts to support peace and stability in Afghanistan. India is one of our most valued partners, and the US welcomes India’s emergence as a leading global player.”

Blinken’s dialogue with Ajit Doval is believed to have covered Afghanistan, Indo-Pacific, bilateral defense and security, and economic technology. He also exchanged views on contemporary and futuristic issues related to regional and global security.

As anticipated, Blinken held a round table meeting with the representatives of the civil societies. His stress on democratic values, freedoms including freedoms of religion and expression, rule of law, human rights, and the role of civil societies, were couched in a polite, non-accusatory tone; he mentioned that both the US and India, the largest democracies, weren’t perfect and that they were work in progress. Expectedly, Jaishankar countered Blinken by saying that those who expect certain standards from others must first achieve those standards themselves.

In March 2018, the Indian government had advised the Tibetan Bureau to shift the function commemorating 60 years of Dalai Lama’s exile to Dharamshala. Following Galwan Valley clashes, there seems a shift; we are signaling to China that we can play the Tibetan card. On 6th June, PM Modi telephoned Dalai Lama to wish him on his birth anniversary; China wasn’t amused.

And China wasn’t pleased that Blinken’s meeting with the civil society was also attended by the Director of the Tibetan Bureau in Delhi, Geshe Dorji Damdul. Blinken also separately met a Rep of the Dali Lama, Ngodup Dongchung, reflecting Biden’s support for the Tibetan cause.

The US has openly said that Dalai Lama’s successor should be selected by the Tibetan people.Blinken’s emphasis on the shared value of democracy provoked a sharp reaction from China. “One man and one vote and a multi-party system is not the sole form of democracy…it shouldn’t be used to smear other countries and stoke confrontation,” said the Chinese spokesman, Zhao Lijian.

Evidently, though physically absent, shadows of China loomed large on Blinken’s talks in Delhi.

The writer, a former Ambassador, writes on political and strategic affairs. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

BORDER DISPUTES BETWEEN STATES CANNOT BE LEFT UNRESOLVED

Pankaj Vohra

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The dispute between Assam and Mizoram needs immediate attention and the Centre must step in to ensure that the mini-civil war does not escalate any further. It is indeed most unfortunate that the police forces of the two states were involved in an armed confrontation that left several people dead.

The Mizoram authorities have registered an FIR against the Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma and an early resolution to this sensitive issue does not seem to be in sight. The genesis of this confrontation may lie in the colonial past of our country but it does not mean that differences cannot be ironed out amongst disputing parties. The Centre has to play a pro-active role in bringing the two sides together even though the meetings between the DGPs and the Chief Secretaries of the two states, have not made any headway. It is shocking that two States of India are involved in this kind of violent altercation. One could have understood if these clashes pertained to Indian forces on one hand and the soldiers of other countries on the other on our international borders. This inter-state squabble is unacceptable from all counts and demonstrates that the intelligence agencies were unable to anticipate this build-up and take remedial measures much before this armed confrontation took place. There have been disputes in the past between Punjab and Haryana over Chandigarh and sharing of waters but despite being emotive issues, the matter did not end up in a physical fight. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have often quarreled over the quantum of their share over the waters of the Cauvery river and Maharashtra has had a different viewpoint regarding the areas that fall within Karnataka and touch its borders. Andhra and Telangana have a different perceptions regarding some territories but never have any of these states resorted to the use of arms. The elected governments of the two states—Assam and Mizoram—need to behave more responsibly instead of making a public spectacle of their inability to sort out things amongst themselves. Indeed, regional pride often thwarts any attempt to drive sense in the heads of disputing parties but violence has no place in our country. There have been instances where Chauvinistic feelings were aroused in the past over re-organisation of states. When Punjab was sought to be divided in the mid-1960s into lingual lines, the members of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh listed their mother language as Hindi instead of Punjabi in multiple instances. The result was that when Haryana and Himachal were carved out of Punjab in 1966, several Punjabi-speaking areas found themselves to be parts of Himachal and Haryana instead of Punjab. This anomaly exists till today but all the three states progressed on their own steam and the misrepresentation of language at one stage, is a forgotten matter. The creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat from the Bombay State also led to bitterness and led to the birth of Shiv Sena in the early 1960s. Over time, a lot of things have come and gone. Similarly, Mizoram and Assam need to come to a solution acceptable to both sides as early as possible in the national interest. 

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India must revisit Tibet policy to stop Beijing bullying

Xi Jinping visited Central and Southern Tibet after a gap of ten years. His objective was to ‘implement the party’s strategy for governing Tibet in the new era and write a new chapter in long-term stability and high-quality development of the snow-covered plateau’.

Claude Arpi

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The last few weeks have been eventful as far as Tibet is concerned.

From June 21 to 23, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) visited Central and Southern Tibet after a gap of ten years. When the Chinese president landed in Nyingchi City (previously called Prefecture), near the Indian border of Arunachal Pradesh, it immediately rang bells in the security establishment in India.

The China Daily reported about his stage-managed arrival: “He [Xi] was warmly welcomed by local people and officials of various ethnic groups.” Xi inspected the ecological preservation in the basin of the Yarlung Tsangpo River and its tributary, the Nyang River.

For India, this was an important part of the visit because first, the Chinese President was accompanied by Gen Zhang Youxia, Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission (chaired by Xi), and second, due to the proximity of ‘Bayi’ (which means ‘8-1 or August 1’, a term reserved to the People’s Liberation Army which was founded on August 1). Bayi is the Headquarter of the forces facing India in Arunachal Pradesh. Though no details have filtered, Xi was probably briefed about the situation on the border (a meeting with the PLA top brass of the Western Theater Command and the Tibet Military District was later organized in Lhasa).

The visit has to be seen in the context of the CPC’s 100th anniversary and the 70 anniversary of the so-called Liberation of Tibet (read ‘invasion’). The People’s Daily resumed the objectives of the visit: “to implement the party’s strategy for governing Tibet in the new era and write a new chapter in long-term stability and high-quality development of the snow-covered plateau.” This refers to the 7th Work Forum held in August 2020 which defined the development policies for Tibet for the five next years, particularly the sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Chinese President’s tour was hardly over, that another development took place in Delhi: on July 28 morning, US Secretary of State Blinken ‘briefly’ met the Dalai Lama’s representative Ngodup Dongchung during the former’s maiden trip to the Indian Capital.

Later photos of a meeting with members of the Indian ‘civil society’, attended by Geshe Dorjee Damdul, Director of Tibet House, the Dalai Lama’s cultural centre in Delhi were released. Confusion was created between the two meetings, because Dongchung was called ‘a’ representative of the Dalai Lama, while he is the ‘The’ Representative in Delhi. The US embassy should have certainly given the full name of the Representative, to avoid such ambiguity.

A couple of days earlier Wendy Sherman, the US Deputy Secretary of State had met State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in China.

A State Department communiqué said: “The Deputy Secretary and State Councilor Wang had a frank and open discussion about a range of issues… [She] raised our concerns about human rights, including Beijing’s anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong; the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang; abuses in Tibet; and the curtailing of media access and freedom of the press.”

All this is fine and welcome, but one question remains: has India a Tibet Policy?

It is India that has long and tense border with Tibet from Demchok in Ladakh to Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh; is it not high time for Delhi to have its own ‘Tibet’ Policy and start immediately engaging Dharamsala?

At first, Indian officials should meet the newly elected Sikyiong Penpa Tsering; it has not helped India to keep the relations with Dharamsala at a low key (or non-existent). Both India and the Tibetans need to seriously discuss several issues, whether of common interests or problems facing the Tibetan refugees in India.

The election of a new Sikyong Penpa Tsering as the head of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) is an ideal time to sit together.

Contentious issues, if any, should also be brought to the table (for example, why, nearly three months after the result of the elections, half the recently elected members of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies have still not yet taken the oath? Is there a Chinese angle behind this?). This should be frankly discussed (and not necessarily made public).

Several areas of Indian interests need to be discussed.

First, the recruitment of Tibetans in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Militia; it has been reported in the Indian media that China wanted to match India by raising a Special Force composed of Tibetans. It is doubtful if this can succeed as Beijing’s trust in the Tibetans remains extremely low, even 70 years after the so-called Liberation of Tibet (read ‘invasion), but Delhi should ascertain Dharamsala’s views; and the CTA should eventually issue a statement stating its views.

Exchanges should also take place about some aspects of the Tibet-Indian border, whether in the Eastern Sector (Arunachal Pradesh), Central Sector (Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh) or the eastern part of the Western Sector (Demchok area); what is Dharamsala’s historical take on these issues?

This is particularly important at a time when it has been reported that the Chinese have erected tents on the Indian side of the Charding Nala near Demchok in Ladakh. The Tibetans are certainly aware of their traditional border with India and can hopefully openly state their position.

Another area of interest (not to say worry) for India, is the demographic change on the Indian frontiers. Since 2017, the mushrooming of ‘model’ villages in Tibet, at the proximity of the Indian border, is disturbing; hundreds of ‘xiaogang’ (‘moderately well-off’) villages have come up in the last four years with a mixed population of Tibetans and Hans.

Further, the authorities in Tibet have started to entice the local Tibetan population to side with the Communist Party. A new formula can be found in every speech of the local satraps, the inhabitants of China’s borders (with India) should be “the protectors of the sacred homeland and the builders of happy homes.” Officially, this development is linked with ‘poverty alleviation’ and the ‘defence of the borders’.

There are other areas of common interests, for example how to communicate with the Tibetans inside Tibet? Once the Ladakh episode is over, Delhi should facilitate cultural contacts between Tibetans in India with those in Tibet and why not invite the latter for religious or cultural happenings in India.

Environmental issues are also of concern for India, particularly the mega hydropower plants to be developed by China on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra; what are Dharamsala’s views on this?

From India’s side, assurance should be given that Delhi will stand by the Dalai Lama’s choice for his succession.

Finally, a mechanism should be set-up for regular exchanges between Delhi and Dharamsala; centuries of close kinship between the Roof of the World and the Indic civilization cannot be erased just for political expediencies , or due to Beijing’s bullying tactics.

The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist, and China expert. Views expressed are writer’s personal.

A mechanism should be put in place for regular exchanges between Delhi and Dharamsala; centuries of close kinship between the Roof of the World and the Indic civilisation cannot be erased just for political expediencies , or due to Beijing’s bullying tactics.

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