In 1998, when George Fernandes, then Defence Minister, affirmed that “China is India’s enemy number one”, he was politely asked by his own government to keep his thoughts to himself; the last thing that the Vajpayee government wanted was to get “bad relations” with the powerful northern neighbour. The policy then was to “engage” China.
Twenty years of the engagement policy have not paid any dividends. However, since the beginning of the confrontation in eastern Ladakh and the spread of the Chinese virus all over the planet, the ‘official’ mindset has started to change, including in India. Experts and thinkers now believe that one should study China; it is happening late in the day, but as the saying goes ‘better late than never’.
Addressing the 13th All India Conference of China Studies, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar recently admitted: “There is no question that we need to invest more deeply in the study of China. It’s salience in the global order is self-evident; and recent decades if anything have only heightened that prominence. That it is a proximate neighbour of India only makes stronger studies an even more compelling case.”
The minister added; “it is naturally to our advantage that there is solid expertise on China in India.”
Let us hope that it translates into ‘solid’, not hazy academic studies, like the ones of the past.
In the meantime, the Indian Army, always more down-to-earth than the mandarins of South Block (though the Army HQ is also located in South Block), is working on a ‘Tibetology’ programme for its officers. According to The Times of India, the top brass is studying “a proposal for its officers to study Tibetan history, culture and language on ‘both sides’ of the Line of Actual Control and the international boundary as part of the measures being discussed to counter the propaganda and spread of influence by China.”
This is a most welcome move, though it should have taken place several decades ago. It appears that it was initiated during the Army Commanders’ Conference last October; it will now be taken by the Army Training Command (ARTRAC) in Simla. An Army official told The Times of India: “Army officers are generally well-versed with Pakistan. But similar expertise in China and the Chinese psyche is lacking. Officers who really understand China are very few in number. Tibetology fares even worse. These deficiencies need to be plugged.”
While working on this subject for a new website, I realised how much effort the British invested in Himalayan and Tibetan studies. One can find hundreds, if not thousands of research papers, exploration reports, maps, notes, books, etc. on the geography, history, anthropology, culture, religions as well as strategic studies of the mountainous northern frontiers of India; this includes the remarkable studies of the borders by botanists Frank Kingdon-Ward and naturalists Frank Ludlow who drew maps for their government.
The arrival of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on the plateau in 1950-51 and the ‘ratification’ of the Communist presence in Tibet in April 1954 (through the infamous Panchsheel agreement) put a stop to all these researches (academic or otherwise); it was/is an unnoticed tragedy.
In March 1959, the Dalai Lama took refuge in India and he was told by the Prime Minister: “No politics on Indian soil!” No question of studying Tibet anymore.
In 1962, the ‘silk roads’ across the Himalayan passes were closed, not reopened till today (except for three minor land ports in Nathu-la, Shipki-la and Lipulekh-la). As a result, no serious studies were undertaken, or even encouraged; the leitmotiv being: “We should engage China, not upset Beijing”. Hopefully something will change now with ARTRAC’s initiative.
However, there are several difficulties. The first one is that there is a dearth of scholarship on the subject due to the ‘black-out’ put in place by India’s diplomacy. Nobody has been encouraged to study Tibet and the Himalaya, other than on the question of refugees’ rehabilitation or human rights.
After being involved in the issue for decades, I feel that the new scheme should be called “Himalayan and Tibetan Studies”; there are many reasons for this. One is that for millennia, the Himalaya has been a bridge between the Indic and Tibetan civilisations with the great physical barrier witnessing constant contacts between two cultures which shared an aspiration for deeper values in life. Is not the blue-throated Shiva still living on Mount Kailash?
Contacts between the Tibetan plateau and the subcontinent existed in an ancient past. Unfortunately, scientific interdisciplinary studies are mainly being conducted in China, which has its own ideological bias. Very little is done on the Indian side, with many government restrictions due to the proximity of the border; will it be now encouraged?
There are many others reasons for linking the Himalayan and Tibetan studies: Whether historical, anthropological, spiritual and perhaps more importantly today, strategic.
The most serious problem is the taboo around the ‘T’ world (‘T’ for Tibet). For decades the word could not be pronounced by well-thinking politicians and babus; it has translated into the complete confiscation of the history which remains locked up in the vaults of South Block.
Shockingly, the records of the relations between India and Tibet have disappeared; all the historical records kept in Gangtok between 1889 and 1975 in the Office of the Political Officer for Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan cannot be traced.
A few months after the merger of the Himalayan state with the Union of India, four lakhs of files, pertaining to the period between 1890 and 1975, were dispatched to Delhi. In early 1976, six truck-loads arrived in Delhi under CRPF escort. Since then, nobody wants to know where these Sikkim Papers are or if this archival treasure still exists; for some, it may represent something which should be eradicated from the collective psyche, though it would have an immense historical value today to show that India and Tibet had a different relation than the one being portrayed by China.
The Political Officer (PO) was the Government of India’s eye over the entire Himalayan region. From the seasonal Indian Trade Agency (ITA) in Gartok in Western Tibet, to the ITA in Gyantse and Yatung, the Indian Mission (and later Consulate General) in Lhasa, all correspondence passed through Gangtok.
Though South Block probably has copies of some of the Sikkim Papers, the entire set is not traceable. It is a tragedy for researchers and it would undoubtedly help strengthen India’s case in the present circumstance; it should be the basis of any serious ‘Tibetology’ studies.
The question is: Can the mindsets change and the ‘T’ word stop being taboo? Let us hope for the best.
The writer is a French-born author, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.
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DON’T LET PAK-CHINA ANNEX AFGHANISTAN WITH TALIBAN HELP
Things in Afghanistan may not exactly be going according to Pakistan’s plan. Coming to power was supposed to be a cakewalk for the Taliban, with province after province tamely surrendering to them, and with the Afghan military either fleeing to neighbouring countries, or joining the ranks of the Taliban. And that was how it was happening. The devious plan, hatched by Rawalpindi GHQ has always been to talk peace in some foreign locale with the so-called stake-holding countries, while the Taliban on the ground make substantial gains for Afghanistan to be delivered to Pakistan’s military bosses on a platter. It was—in fact, still is—supposed to be a case of Pakistani annexation of Afghanistan by proxy. And with the United States allowing itself to be led up the garden path by Pakistan, and cutting and running from Afghanistan, it was only a matter of time before the Taliban flag would be flying in Kabul.
It is obvious that Pakistan sold this smooth annexation plan to “iron brother” China, one of the reasons why the Chinese communists gave an audience to the Taliban delegation last week in Tianjin. The Chinese are hoping not only to give the Taliban legitimacy, but also pave the way for the recognition of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan 2.0 in future—Taliban’s first Emirate lasted from 1996 to 2001. If China’s “emperor” recognises a Taliban government, it will not be long before his vassal states follow suit. In this perhaps Rawalpindi did not factor in the Afghan fightback—although belatedly and not very substantial, but a fightback nonetheless. As well as the popular demonstrations against the Taliban, as we saw on Tuesday night when large parts of Kabul were out on the streets, shouting anti-Taliban slogans after a car bomb blast targeted the Afghan defence minister’s residence.
There is no doubt that the Taliban control over 70% of Afghanistan, and that the majority of the provincial capitals are under threat of collapsing, but as defence experts say, the Taliban’s gains have been primarily in the rural areas and their advance has slowed down once they have tried to take major cities, which are better equipped to defend themselves. However, others see it as the Taliban strategy of controlling vast swathes of rural territory before squeezing the urban conglomerates from all sides. Among the several cities under threat, two provincial capitals facing serious Taliban assault are Herat in Herat province near Afghanistan’s border with Iran, and Lashkargah in Helmand province in south-central Afghanistan. According to Afghan media reports, fighting at Lashkargah has been continuing for over five days and the Taliban have captured nine of the city’s 10 districts and are now trying to capture the governor’s mansion and the police headquarters. The Afghan government says that its defence forces have inflicted heavy casualties on the Taliban in Helmand province, a claim denied by the latter. But whether this will be enough for Lashkargah from falling to the Taliban is not known. If the city falls, it may give the Taliban a psychological boost, as they will come to control a major provincial capital. To prevent such an eventuality, the US has started conducting airstrikes on the Taliban ever since last week, specifically in Lashkargah, Herat and Kandahar among other areas. The Afghan government says that this has inflicted heavy casualties on the Taliban. As for Herat, reports are coming of the city residents including a “warlord”, Amir Ismail Khan picking up arms and joining hands with the government forces to repel the Taliban. Major demonstrations have been taking place against the Taliban even in Herat city. Also, some limited airstrikes have been carried out even by the minuscule Afghan air force in places like Ghazni in southeastern Afghanistan—nearer to Pakistan—inflicting casualties on the Taliban.
Amid this, a lot will depend on how long the national capital, Kabul, stays with the current government. Kabul is of immense symbolic value and without Kabul the Taliban cannot have a government in Afghanistan. Some say it could be a matter of weeks before Kabul falls, while many are betting on Kabul holding on for a year or even two. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has advised the Afghan government to concentrate on stopping the Taliban advancement, instead of trying to regain lost territory. In other words, to ensure that the provincial capitals do not fall to the Taliban. But the situation is fluid and how long the government forces can defend the urban areas without western support, is a matter of speculation.
And then there is the human factor. A lot has changed in the 20 years that the Taliban have been out of power in Afghanistan, so even if they are able to form government in Kabul, they may find it difficult to control the Afghan people, who detest them and are unwilling to follow their medieval diktat after two decades of freedom and openness. In this regard, the spontaneous anti-Taliban demonstrations in cities such as Kabul and Herat should serve as a message to the Taliban and their Pakistani masters.
Meanwhile, a significant statement came this week from the 15-member UNSC, which India is currently presiding over, that “they do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate”. With the possibility of this finding a reflection in the majority of P-5 members’—barring China and perhaps Russia—stand on the Taliban, Pakistan and China will realise to their peril that their Taliban government in Kabul will have zero legitimacy.
A Pakistan-China-run Taliban government will spell disaster for Afghanistan and the region. Hence, it’s the duty of those who have been guiding Afghanistan’s fate for the last two decades to ensure that a Taliban government cannot grab power in Kabul through violence.
Opposition has become an ‘opportunistic’ position
The Opposition in India has for long used the judiciary to slow down the development process. This ploy has, however, been busted by the judiciary in recent times wherein cases of frivolous nature have not only been summarily dismissed but also the proponents have been heavily fined for their misadventures.
Opposition, after all, is a position. More aptly, it is an ‘opportunistic’ position. Those who take that position for the want of power or to desperately stay in the currency of democracy, lower that position to an abysmal level of indignity. And they use that position on the most frivolous of causes as they don’t have anything to lose, having lost everything— including the sense of justice and the distinction between right and wrong.
In that irresponsible position, everything becomes a target. Even high priority developmental initiatives, laws that could begin social transformation, economic measures of epoch-making significance and monuments of public utility, which can stand into the future and shine the history of the nation, will all be a prime target. And the most lucrative perk of such an Opposition is that they can belittle a leader who stands unreachably tall in their political arena. Congress and its cohorts are now in such an “opportunistic” position.
One of the prime examples of this opposition behaviour is the attempt made to derail the Central Vista Project (CVP) by dubbing it as a sheer wastage of public money at a time when India was reeling under the impact of the pandemic. It was said that the healthcare budget is being subverted and that the project will have grave environmental consequences. All this was being done just to delay the project, like in the case of all development projects or pro-people policies in India particularly in the last 7 years under the government led by PM Narendra Modi. Opposition, at times, gives people an idea that the nation can only pursue one programme at a time and if another initiative is taken up, it is at the cost of others. CVP was projected, thus, against the pandemic, irresponsibly. However, the Delhi High Court and very recently, the Supreme Court, rejected all such petitions and review petitions seeking to stay the CVP.
The CVP, besides constructing the new Parliament building, also aims at integrating the Central Secretariat and bringing together over 75,000 employees for better synergy and seamless execution of work. However, the project is conveniently being touted as a “grand expenditure” for the personal glory of Prime Minister. The Congress, however, remains silent on its own aggressive lobbying for a new Parliament building in 2012. The then Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and the then Minister of Environment and Forest, Jairam Ramesh, in 2012, had expressed an urgent need for a new Parliament building saying the existing one was simply “outdated”.
The Opposition in India has for long used the judiciary to slow down development. This ploy has, however, been busted by the judiciary in recent times wherein cases of frivolous nature have not only been summarily dismissed but the proponents have been heavily fined for their misadventures.
In May this year, Delhi HC dismissed the petition seeking stay on CVP, describing it as a “motivated petition” and imposed a penalty of Rs 1 lakh on the petitioners. A petition by actor Juhi Chawla against the rollout of 5G technology in India was trashed the Delhi HC in June this year. The court termed her plea as “scandalous, frivolous and a publicity stunt” and imposed a hefty fine of Rs 20 lakh for “abusing the process of law”.
Here it is pertinent to recall an SC order dated 11.05.2011, in a case involving Medha Patkar-led Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) wherein the court’s scathing remarks against NBA left this anti-development lobby and their modus operandi completely exposed. “The Court has been entertaining this petition under the bona fide belief that NBA was espousing the grievance of inarticulate and illiterate poor farmers, with all sincerity and thus, would not make any misleading statement. However, our belief stands fully belied. NBA has not acted with a sense of responsibility and so far succeeded in securing favourable orders by misleading the Court,” it said while cautioning other courts to be “extra careful” while hearing cases of NBA.
While the courts’ ire against such frivolous petitions is a welcome move; it would further be in the larger national interest if it also orders recovery of the cost overrun of projects from such “motivated” petitioners. This would be one major deterrent to the anti-development lobby before eyeing any project of national importance.
The hullabaloo over CVP and how it is being protested is not new. It bears the footprints and traits of the same anti-development lobby active in the country for the last several decades with the singular motive of depriving India of any major development project and painting our own country in a bad light.
Take the example of the Statue of Unity, the world’s tallest statue, which faced stiff opposition ever since it was conceived. A vicious campaign was launched against the Sabarmati Riverfront Project, too, terming it “disastrous” for the people of Ahmedabad. The magnitude of protest was many times bigger in the case of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) where even the international anti-development lobby lent hands to scuttle the project that was to ensure water security in Western India. Several years rolled by, depriving thirsty communities of water. The project was anyway completed at an abominably high cost after getting the go-ahead from the SC, but they succeeded in delaying the project inordinately.
It is a grim reality that India could not boast of even one monument of national or international repute that was built post-independence. But when the government started making efforts in constructing large dams, nuclear and hydro power houses, river-linking, new parliament building, bridges, expressways, metro, monumental statues, etc. – this anti-development lobby worked overtime to derail the projects to keep India under the category of under-developed nations.
Imagine what would have been the scene if there was no Rashtrapati Bhavan, no Parliament building, no Red Fort, no India Gate, or no Rajpath made by the earlier rulers. The President of the World’s largest democracy would have been living in some decrepit accommodation and the national flag on 15th August would have been hoisted by the PM atop some insignificant structure.
The foundation of our Supreme Court building was laid in 1954. Thankfully there was no such “opportunistic” opposition during that period. Had it also faced similar motivated protests, imagine where our honourable judges would have been sitting today.
These propaganda wars were, however, dealt with by a firm conviction of a politically decisive government in Gujarat under the leadership of Narendra Modi who also brings with him a high reputation of constructing futuristic infrastructural monuments of distinction in record time. In just 17 days after becoming the PM in 2014, PM Modi gave the final go-ahead to complete the SSP which was lingering despite SC order in the year 2000. Thereon, the project progressed at an unprecedented pace and was finally commissioned in 2017. SSP has brought about a sea change in the lives of crores of people living in the western states.
Sabarmati Riverfront is the new identity of Gujarat and India. It is a model of how a river flowing through an urban space needs to be treated and used. The Statue of Unity was completed in a record time of just 3 years and today this engineering marvel attracts more visitors from around the world than the Statue of Liberty in the US.
In just 5 years, i.e. 2014 to 2019, River Ganga in PM Modi’s Parliamentary constituency Varanasi became cleaner than ever before. He paved way for 3 new Sewage Treatment Plants, rural sanitation, and bioremediation in a record time, to make Varanasi the first Indian city with zero discharge of sewage in River Ganga.
Mahatma Mandir in Gandhinagar, one of the finest Convention Halls in the world where over 5000 people can attend a conference, was constructed in just 11 months. Overhaul of the drainage system in Ahmedabad post-2007 is yet another example where even a 10-inch rain in a few hours does not cause water stagnation unlike the cases in metros like Delhi and Mumbai where even a few minutes of downpour cripples the normal life.
No doubt, PM Modi emerges as the most far-sighted and result-oriented performer of our times. And when he has taken up the infrastructural overhaul of India’s power corridor in the form of CVP, people must support the project wholeheartedly as it is for their larger benefit.
Eliminating parking woes in the Central Secretariat, lesser traffic woes owing to VVIP movements and a safer Parliament building for MPs would do more good to the public than spending thousands of crores of rupees on maintenance and upkeep of the old buildings.
As the world’s largest democracy and one of the most dynamic societies, we need to progress multilaterally and multi-sectorally, without one programme being exclusive of the other. We need to address joy and misery alike in tandem and cannot be cowed down by the pressures of the unilateral opposition, whose aim is not the development of the country but the unseating of its popular leader.
The writer is Chairman, Khadi & Village Industries Commission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.
The Central Vista Project, besides constructing the new Parliament building, also aims at integrating the Central Secretariat and bringing together 75,000 employees for better synergy and seamless execution of work. However, the project is conveniently being touted as a “grand expenditure” for the personal glory of Prime Minister.
PM MODI’S PENCHANT FOR SELF-ADVERTISING IS UNPARALLELED
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.
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.
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.
THE FARMER-IMPASSE CONTINUES, EVEN AS DELHI SUFFERS
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.
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.
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.
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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