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Afghanistan War: The West's 'Fatal Mistakes'

After seven long years in which it seemed a sideshow to the bigger conflict in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has reached a critical point. The US must now choose how far it will become further embroiled in a messy conflict which affects its relations with Pakistan, India and the wider Middle East including Iran. At a moment when the world is convulsed by the worst economic disaster since 1929, Washington will have to decide if it really wants to invest time, money, military and political resources in beating back the ragged bands of Taliban who increasingly control southern Afghanistan.

At the end of last year, the White House was talking about repeating what was deemed to have been the success of the "surge" in Iraq. Some 30,000 extra US troops were sent to Iraq pursuing more aggressive tactics and the Sunni Arab insurgency seemed to wind down soon after. But the real turning point in Iraq was probably the defeat of the Sunni Arabs by the Shia. Nothing of this sort is likely to undermine the Taliban in Afghanistan just as their guerrilla attacks are inflicting more casualties than ever.

For a long time, the Afghan war seemed confined to one country. But in the past year there has been cross-infection between a whole series of crises, from the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir to the Islamic fundamentalist takeover of the Swat valley west of Islamabad. The political temperature has been rising and the seriousness of what was happening was only slowly appreciated in Washington.

President Bush pretended that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the rest of the world. His successor has to deal with a crisis in which India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, are confronting each other. The dilemmas of Iraq seem to diminish by comparison.

The crisis in Afghanistan has been a slow-motion disaster. This was not the case in Iraq where guerrilla warfare against the US occupation erupted within weeks of the American occupation. In 2001 the Taliban appeared to have been swiftly and decisively defeated in a campaign in which the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance advanced with the support of the US air force directed by small teams of American special forces on the ground. The Taliban vanished from their frontline positions and fled Kabul and Kandahar without a fight.

Prior to the conflict, critics of American intervention had warned that Afghanistan was a notorious graveyard for foreign armies. They recalled that it was in the Kabul Gorge just east of the capital that an army of British and Indian soldiers were slaughtered by Afghan tribesmen in 1842. North of Kabul in the Panjshir valley there is visible evidence of the fate of another foreign invader. Local farmers have incorporated the rusty carcasses of old Soviet tanks, destroyed in ambushes in the 1980s and too heavy to move, into the stone walls which enclose their fields.

These dire warnings seemed to have been almost embarrassingly wrong-footed as the Taliban's rule fell apart in 2001. The aim of closing down al-Qa'ida training camps was easily accomplished. In fact it was all too easy. The critics had not been wrong in saying that Afghanistan is a land full of nasty surprises though this only slowly became apparent. But the hubris generated by swift success in 2001 led the Americans and the British thoughtlessly to linger in Afghanistan without any coherent policy or military and political aims.

In the British case the very purpose of its forces being in Afghanistan changed by the year. At one time in 2006 they seemed to be there as reconstruction teams who were not expected to fire a shot. At other moments British soldiers were portrayed as frontline fighters in the war against Islamic fundamentalist terror. Fire-fights in the bleak villages of southern Afghanistan were directly linked to defending the streets of London.

There was a fecklessness about the whole venture on the American and British side. Not surprisingly other Nato allies wondered what exactly they were getting into in sending their troops to Afghanistan. Comparisons with Iraq can be misleading but intervention in both countries never had overwhelming or even majority political support at home. Casualties were not particularly heavy compared to many other wars, but Iraqi or Afghan guerrillas are able to inflict casualties which are politically unsustainable for the American or British governments.

It is astonishing that only now the US is finally producing a policy for Afghanistan which is in keeping with the real nature of the imbroglio into which Mr Bush plunged in 2001 and floundered for seven years afterwards. The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre was carried out by members of al-Qa'ida orchestrated from camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the Bush administration used the attacks to justify the neo-con agenda of war with Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein and vocal hostility towards Iran and Syria as members of the "axis of evil".

The main US ally in its war on terror was going to be Pakistan under General Pervez Musharraf, though it was an open secret that it was the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, which had fostered the Taliban and established it in power in Kabul. So long as it had the covert backing of the ISI, the Taliban was never going to be truly defeated. "A year after 9/11 it was clear to many Pakistanis," writes Ahmed Rashid in his book Descent Into Chaos, "that Musharraf's support of the US-led war in Afghanistan was not the promised strategic U-turn that would end the army's long-standing support for Islamic extremists but rather a short-term tactical move to appease the United States and off-set India's hegemony." The reality on the ground was that the Taliban was the foster-child of the ISI. General Musharraf was prepared to join in an unenergetic pursuit of Arab members of al-Qa'ida in Pakistan. But the main objectives of the Pakistani army's traditional policy were never abandoned. These were to resist India, support the Muslims of Kashmir, protect the Pakistani nuclear weapons and seek to establish a pro-Pakistani government in Kabul.

From the beginning, the army saw the Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government as an enemy of Pakistan. Once the US decided to invade Iraq in 2003 General Musharraf concluded Washington was none too serious about its war on terror and the Taliban could be quietly revived. By 2006 the insurgency was back in business.

The Bush administration was not alone in its misunderstanding of what was happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The media also played an important role in misleading the world about what had happened in Afghanistan in 2001. Television cameras had shown US missiles illuminating the night sky over Kabul as they exploded in government offices or among the frontline bunkers. In reality there was little fighting. The Taliban were experienced enough fighters not to wait to be bombed. Their trenches were mostly empty. Assisted on their way by large bribes to individual warlords by the CIA most Taliban units vanished. They had probably been told by their Pakistani advisers that they should wait to fight another day.

I followed the retreating Taliban from Kabul to Kandahar waiting for them to make a stand. They never did. In the ancient city of Ghazni the Taliban simply switched sides, the only serious disputes in which six Taliban were killed, were over whether or not they should hand over government cars to the incoming administration. The Taliban had an armoured unit in Ghazni which had been heavily bombed but again there were almost no military casualties because Taliban fighters had sensibly abandoned their vehicles as soon as they realised they were going to come under air attack.

In Kandahar itself the Taliban had disappeared but they had not gone very far. Some were across the Pakistani border in Quetta and others had just returned to their villages. When I asked in one village if I could meet former Taliban commanders they said it might take as long as an hour to assemble them in the village guest house because some of them lived in outlying farms.

They were confident men who did not sound as if they expected to be out of power for ever. The villagers' objection to the Taliban was primarily to their rigorously enforced ban on growing opium poppies. As soon as the first American bombs fell, local farmers explained they had ploughed up their fields and planted poppies "on the grounds that the Taliban would have other things on their minds to think about than enforcing the poppy ban". They said their crops had failed because of a series of droughts and this was the only way they could pay off the money-lenders.

The Taliban were unpopular all over Afghanistan. They had never had support outside the Pushtun, the community to which 40 per cent of Afghans belong. The Tajiks, who make up a quarter of the population, were the backbone of the opposition Northern Alliance together with the Uzbeks, who make up a further 6 per cent. The Hazaras of central Afghanistan constitute a further 18 per cent of Afghans and had been savagely persecuted as Shia Muslims by the fundamentalist-Sunni Taliban.

In the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban there was hope all over Afghanistan that life might be about to get better. Reporting of the country usually dwells on violence rather than deprivation but it is one of the poorest countries in the world. The UNDP rates it as 174th out of 178 countries in the 2007-08 world poverty index. There were some positive developments after 2001 but by no means enough. "Even after almost seven years of reconstruction and development assistance, a large percentage of the population suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, and electricity, and cannot afford the rising price of food," according to a report by the Centre for the Study of Global Governance in London.

"Afghan women face the highest rates of illiteracy and maternal mortality in the world and unemployment still hovers around 40-70 per cent with few prospects available." Despite numerous pledges of international aid only $15bn of $39bn originally pledged has been disbursed according to an Oxfam/Acbar report last year. Out of this, 40 per cent goes back to the donor countries in the form of company profits and consultants' salaries.

Afghanistan is an economic wreck ravaged by war since 1980. The problems are immense whoever is handling them, whether the US, the Afghan government or aid agencies. Aside from corruption and incompetence even the most efficient government would have difficulty satisfying these needs. Iraq, the victim of 30 years of war and sanctions, at least had a tradition of central government. But in Afghanistan the government of Hamid Karzai has limited authority outside Kabul. Instead power has remained in the hands of warlords and militia leaders, detested by ordinary Afghans, who batten on the population. The Taliban's rise to power in the 1990s came about partly because they seemed an alternative to the warlords but in practice their success was often the result of co-opting them or buying their services. The US and the Karzai government pursued a similar policy after 2001 so the power of the warlords was never really broken.

The strength of the Taliban is in large part a reflection of the weakness of the government. This has enabled the Taliban to set up a parallel administration in many areas, meting out its own justice. The group also benefited from the ill-thought-out approach of the US-led foreign forces. For instance destruction of the opium poppy crop, which accounts for 52 per cent of the country's GDP, has for long been an American policy. But Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, this week dismissed this scheme as "wasteful and inefficient" and said that the $800m spent on eradicating the poppies would have been better spent if it was given to Afghan farmers. "It has not hurt the Taliban one iota," declared Mr Holbrooke. Other sources say the Taliban had even welcomed the US eradication programme because it alienated farmers and drove up the price of their opium stocks.

The US troop surge in Afghanistan can probably prevent further erosion of the Afghan government's position if enough troops are deployed and money spent. But there are limits to what the US can do. The Taliban is never going to be defeated so long as it has its bases in the Pushtun belt inside north-western Pakistan. Nor is it likely that the Pakistani military will act against the Taliban so long as it sees them as one of its few allies against India. American drone attacks on Taliban and al-Qa'ida within Pakistan may kill some leaders but further anger ordinary Pakistanis. The ISI may not directly control the insurgency in Afghanistan but it can determine its intensity. This in turn gives Pakistan leverage over the US to prevent the Americans going too far in supporting India.

One of the main achievements of the surge in Iraq was that it gave the US public the impression that a victory had been won which in turn allowed the Americans to agree to withdraw their forces. President Bush was able to sign a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government at the end of last year which included a timetable for a US pull-out which Washington had furiously rejected in the past.

The surge may play a similar role in Afghanistan. One of the main reasons for keeping American and British forces there is because it would be humiliating to withdraw. But the role of foreign military forces has always been ambivalent. They prop up the Karzai government but they also de-legitimise it as a puppet administration. Their use of firepower, originally designed for use against the Soviet army, against mud-brick compounds in Afghan villages means an inevitable flow of civilian casualties and builds support for the Taliban. And despite all these efforts Mr Obama says military victory is not feasible. The Americans are finding, as the British did in the 19th century and the Russians in the 20th, that the effort of keeping an army in Afghanistan is not really worth it.

The men who will shape Afghanistan:

Richard Holbrooke

President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan is emerging as a key figure in the new administration's foreign policy. Came to world prominence under Bill Clinton's presidency when he brokered talks that led to the Dayton peace accords between the warring factions in former Yugoslavia.

Mohamed Omar

The Taliban's supreme leader, there's nothing moderate about Omar. He is believed to be hiding out close to Quetta in Pakistan. Nonetheless, he has reportedly given the green light for representatives of his "Quetta Shura" or council to take part in Saudi-sponsored peace talks.

General David Petraeus

He rose to become America's most admired soldier after executing the surge in Iraq. Since October, the man described by some as future presidential material has been in charge of Central Command, a theatre that takes in the Middle East as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Abdul Salam Zaeef

The former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan until late 2001, Zaeef made headlines recently for browsing the internet on his iPhone. He spent more than three years in Guantanamo, but now lives in Kabul and is seen as a go-between for moderate Taliban and the Afghan government.

Peter Galbraith

Former US ambassador to Croatia and close ally of Richard Holbrooke. Has been assigned a UN key post in Afghanistan, which reinforces American influence over the UN's operation there as the new Obama strategy is unveiled. Mr Galbraith, son of the economist JK, will oversee the "civilian surge" which will accompany additional troop numbers.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

Famed Jihadi commander in charge of Hezb-i-Islami, Hekmatyar's people have indicated to Kabul and the international community that they are willing to negotiate. Distinct from the Taliban, Hekmatyar was one of the anti-Soviet commanders backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and sidelined when the Taliban swept to power.

Advani challenges PM to TV debate

SEPPA, Arunachal Pradesh: Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani Thursday challenged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to a live television debate ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, like in the US, and also described Manmohan Singh as the weakest political head the country has ever seen. "Let the prime minister come for a live TV debate for which I am ready. This is the practice prevalent in the US during elections," Advani told an election rally in Sepa in East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh bordering China. The BJP's prime ministerial candidate also termed Manmohan Singh as the weakest prime minister India has ever seen. "I have never seen a prime minister who has to take orders from the party high command to do anything for the country. Without Sonia Gandhi's approval, nothing moves in the government," Advani said at a modest gathering. The BJP leader also challenged Manmohan Singh to contest parliamentary elections instead of taking the Rajya Sabha route. "Singh will be more acceptable to the people of India if he decides to fight the elections and go to the Lok Sabha," Advani said. Manmohan Singh is a member of Rajya Sabha from Assam. Earlier, Advani addressed two election rallies in Assam where he lashed out at the Congress party for what he termed its failure to tackle infiltration from Bangladesh which has posed a threat to the country's internal security. Advani's remarks come two days after Manmohan Singh challenged the BJP leader's ability to rule India, saying his only contribution to "national welfare" was his role in the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque. Advani had on Tuesday termed Manmohan Singh a "weak" prime minister.

March of India's big parties halted

IF INDIA had a televised pre-election debate for its prime ministerial aspirants, the organisers would have trouble deciding how many lecterns to put out.
At least 12 politicians have been touted as potential prime ministers, but others could yet materialise.
For more than a decade, India's two major parties — the Indian National Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party — have been unable to combat the gradual fragmentation of Indian politics.
A clutch of smaller parties with local, caste-based and religious agendas are likely to win a large proportion of seats, denying either major party a mandate in next month's poll. A frenzied and unpredictable round of horse trading will probably determine the shape of the new government.
"This election will deliver a fractured mandate," says G. V. L. Narasimha Rao, a political analyst and BJP adviser.
While the 76-year-old incumbent, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from the Congress party, and 81-year-old BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani are still considered front runners to lead any governing coalition, other contenders could emerge.
Vidhu Verma, a politics professor at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, says the uncertainty is a sign of the declining influence of Congress and the BJP. "Neither have much of a chance of winning a clear majority, so the regional parties might try to negotiate an alliance where they bargain for their leader to be prime minister," he said.
Heading the colourful field of alternative prime ministers is the controversial "untouchable" leader Kumari Mayawati. From the low caste or "dalit" community, Ms Mayawati is Chief Minister of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and has made no secret of her ambition for the top job.
Other contenders are drawn from strong regional parties. They include Sharad Pawar, currently the Agriculture Minister and chairman of India's peak cricket body, the BCCI; Jayalalithaa Jayaram, a former film star and chief minister of Tamil Nadu in southern India; H. D. Deve Gowda, who was prime minister in a short-lived coalition of left-wing and regional parties in the 1990s; and M. Chandrababu Naidu, a former chief minister of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
Earlier this month an alliance called the "Third Front" was launched. It includes India's communists and a collection of regional parties, but is yet to sort out its leadership or develop a coherent platform.
At the last election in 2004, smaller parties won about 260 seats in India's 543-seat lower house — nearly double the tally of Congress.
Sonia Gandhi, Congress leader and matriarch of the Gandhi political dynasty, cobbled together a coalition called the United Progressive Alliance that has ruled for five years.
The alliance has unravelled in the lead-up to the election, but Congress hopes their partners will return after the poll.
Despite its crumbling alliances, Congress this week confirmed Dr Singh as its candidate for prime minister and attempted to win votes by promising cheap rice or wheat to the poor.
The BJP is also struggling to deliver a coherent political message as it tries to preserve its Hindu nationalist identity while presenting a moderate image.
In a curious twist, an outburst by Varun Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi's nephew, has created trouble for the BJP. Varun Gandhi, who deserted Congress and is standing as a BJP candidate, is accused of making inflammatory anti-Muslim statements in a recent speech, undermining the party's efforts to tone down its Hindu nationalism.
Abhay Kumar Dubey, from Delhi's Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says the Varun Gandhi controversy will make it more difficult for the BJP to forge post-election alliances. "The whole situation is always in flux — that is the interesting thing about Indian elections. Nothing is fixed or predetermined."

Murder of an Indian CEO

On September 21 last year, the day before he was clubbed to death, Lalit Kishore Chaudhary was on the telephone to his local business association, complaining about flooding. Late monsoon rains had exposed the inadequacy of the half-built infrastructure of Greater Noida, an industrial zone on the eastern edge of Delhi, across the Yamuna river from the capital’s centre. Without proper drainage, the wide roads had become waterlogged and, in some places, impassable.
Chaudhary, chief executive of Graziano Trasmissioni India, knew he had far bigger things to worry about than the state of the roads. His factory, producing components for auto makers around the world, was in turmoil, its industrial relations on a knife edge following dismissals and disciplinary action. His management team felt besieged by political forces beyond the factory gates they did not fully understand.
Before the water had drained from the roads, the 47-year-old executive was dead, his skull smashed in by a hammer. The chain of events that led to Chaudhary’s murder is heavily disputed and six months later still the subject of a police investigation.

According to the company and the police, on the morning of September 22, a crowd gathered outside the gates of the Graziano factory in Gautam Buddha, Nagar district. Many were former employees sacked in the preceding months due to disciplinary problems; they were seeking a meeting with management to agree a return to work. But unlike previous gatherings of protesters, the mood quickly turned hostile. The crowd overpowered the factory’s frightened security guards and used a truck to force their way into the plant. Local police were nowhere to be seen, leaving senior management to face the 200 protesters alone.
“It was a violent outburst. It wasn’t very well planned; there was no planning of the murder of the chief executive,” says Surendra Kumar Verma, the local police chief. “The protesters were there to agitate, and the violent mob mentality took hold.”
Early reports suggested Chaudhary was knocked down in the yard as he tried to pacify his assailants. But his company, which is based in Italy and owned by the Swiss industrial group Oerlikon, tells another story. In this version, rioters armed with metal bars and hammers roamed through the factory on a terrifying hunt for the bosses. “He tried to escape the mob by locking himself into one of the offices,” a company spokesman said. “The locked door was broken. He tried to escape again by jumping out of the window and was beaten to death at the very point he landed.” Oerlikon said the riot was “calculated and planned as part of an effort to destroy the relationship between the company and the employees”.
Another senior manager and one of Chaudhary’s closest colleagues, speaking anonymously, describes how he hid under a desk in fear for his life as the mob rampaged through the factory. He is sure that, had he not done so, he would also have been clubbed to death.
Five Italian employees of Graziano who were visiting the factory at the time of the attack also escaped. Had they become victims of the mob, a senior Italian diplomat argues, the incident would have blown up into an international incident. As it is, it is difficult to imagine now the gruesome events that took place just off the wide, dusty streets of Gautam Buddha. Pedestrians don’t know where the Graziano factory stands, let alone what happened there six months earlier.
. . .
By all accounts, Chaudhary was a quiet, diligent man who kept to himself. Business associates say he was dedicated to his job and to his family. They all agree that he was not a belligerent manager, bristling for a fight with labour unions, though some say he became close to local gangsters, or goondas. “He was a nice guy,” remembers one colleague. The chief executive commuted about 30 minutes every day to work. He came from Haryana, a state neighbouring Delhi, and was a graduate of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. His widow, Ratna, is a reader at Delhi University’s physics department.
For almost a decade under Chaudhary’s leadership, the Graziano factory ran smoothly. The Italian company was part of a wave of overseas groups drawn to India by the country’s engineering skills and low pay rates. Graziano had been lured to Noida by government offers of land grants and generous tax breaks for foreign investors bringing industrial jobs.
The growth of the auto-parts industry in India is a showcase for the country’s integration in the global economy. India’s strong engineering skills have helped it become a low-cost outsourcing hub for auto companies from the US, Europe and Japan. Analysts estimate that sourcing parts from India is up to 20 per cent cheaper for US carmakers than buying home-grown products, and as much as 50 per cent cheaper for their European counterparts.
Things started to go wrong at the Graziano factory in December 2007. A series of disputes broke out involving the suspension, lockout and dismissal of workers and trainees. The violent confrontation that led to Chaudhary’s murder followed the dismissal of 200 workers in July last year and subsequent efforts to bring some of them back. But those involved say that trouble had long been simmering over the company’s use of contract workers, terms of employment and union representation inside the factory. “The problems were deep-rooted there,” says Rajesh Tyagi, convenor of the Graziano Workers Solidarity Forum and a lawyer at the Supreme Court. He wrote a report cataloguing the steps towards confrontation, based on the testimony of two workers. “For workers, there was a long-term battle against the management,” he says.

People close to the company say that issues such as where workers were dropped off by a bus after their shift, drinking taps said to be too close to the toilets and the quality of the food in the canteen helped inflame an already charged atmosphere. Others say unions, often affiliated with political parties including the communists, radicalised workers and, in some cases, tried to blackmail the company by backing employee protests.
The company has complained that it was besieged by “self-proclaimed” workers’ representatives. “We had some people who became union leaders of a portion of our employees,” said a company spokesman. “They were very extreme, very radical.” An Indian executive at the company says the workers had aligned themselves with the All India Trade Union Congress, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions and Hind Mazdoor Sabha, a left-leaning trade union centre. “We kept on getting letters of complaint [about terms of employment]. There was ever-diminishing production as people created a nuisance inside the plant. We were spending the maximum amount of time in dispute procedures and not on production.” He says the company is still being harassed with letters of complaint by unions.
In the highly factional world of local union politics in India, violence is a frequent feature and enforcement of the rules patchy at best. “Some of the union leaders repeatedly attempted … to impede the operations in Noida with activities illegal under Indian as well as international law,” Graziano said in a statement. But Santosh Roy, the national secretary of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) and author of another report on the dispute at Graziano, contests this. He says employees were made to work 14-hour shifts for meagre wages and that even during the past three months the “company was not allowing some workers to go home”. “The management didn’t allow unions. If there was a union, [the chief executive] wouldn’t have been killed.”
Workers and management had signed a three-year wage pact in January 2008 and had agreed to mediation by the district labour commissioner, but this had not prevented a strike in May over apprentices and shifts, followed in July by vandalism and dharna, or hunger strikes. As relations deteriorated, the company tried to rid itself of protesters by firing them – a move it later tried to reverse in negotiation with local authorities. Relations between workers and management were deteriorating so quickly by this point that the Italian government became involved, warning the state government of Uttar Pradesh, led by Kumari Mayawati, India’s most powerful low-caste leader, that Graziano was under threat. Nothing happened.
he situation was further inflamed by disputes over land. To bring foreign companies to Noida, the government of Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states in India, had made agricultural land available for factories. The scheme had stoked local resentment among dispossessed farm labourers. “Steadily, the government is taking farmers’ land and now youths are unemployed,” says Aditya Ghildiyal, president of the Greater Noida Industries Association, and who works at the New Holland tractor plant next door to Graziano. “The money given for the sale of land runs out.”
Comparisons have been drawn, mainly by union leaders, with a more high-profile dispute about plans by Tata Motors to open a car plant in West Bengal – a factory that would have produced the Nano, a flagship of India’s technical advances. Farmers, backed by Trinamool Congress, at the time in opposition, laid siege to the proposed site. Activists staged protests demanding that the government return 400 acres of land to farmers who had not accepted compensation for their relocation. Tata finally gave in and moved the project to the western state of Gujarat.
. . .
Following Chaudhary’s murder, police arrested 136 people in connection with the rioting at the plant. Graziano Workers’ Solidarity Forum, a group of lawyers, academics and unionists formed in the days after the killing, has been campaigning for the release of some of those people. Its version of events that day is in stark contrast to the company’s. The group says that workers whom Graziano had earlier suspended were called to the factory two-by-two to make a formal apology for their conduct. If they showed contrition, they were offered reinstatement. While the apologies were being heard, a scuffle broke out, the group says. A shot was fired by a security guard and a tense stand-off broke into open conflict. Once the fighting had subsided, Chaudhary was found among the 34 injured. He was rushed to hospital but efforts to revive him proved useless.
The report by the AICCTU is even more damning of the company. “On the day of the incident, police remained absent at the behest of the Graziano authorities, who planned to get the leading elements of the agitation beaten up after getting them inside the factory premises on the pretext of talks,” says the report. “While the workers’ delegation was inside and being assaulted, one worker ran out to the gates and told those assembled outside that their comrades within were being beaten. Then, workers stormed in and the confrontation took place which resulted in the CEO getting killed.”
The police deny that there were gun shots, but say that if the company was attempting to extract apologies from its former workers, it should have had better security in place. The company, meanwhile, described early reports of the events surrounding Chaudhary’s killing as “completely misleading”. Graziano’s senior management in Italy said it did not agree with reports issued by the unions or the Graziano Workers’ Solidarity Forum. It said workers’ leaders had taken as a pretext a company decision not to employ five trainees at the end of their probation to start strikes and other actions that led to the injury of employees and damage to equipment. The company responded with dismissals and a lock-out. It said the ”horrible acts” of September 22 by “a huge mob” had come without any warning.

The AICCTU report, compiled by Roy, portrays the Graziano factory as a prison camp, where workers were intimidated and abused by a hated security company called Awake. The report alleges that of the 1,200 employees, only 500 had regular, full-time posts – the rest were on contracts. Regular workers were paid Rs3,200 (£44) a month for a 12-hour day; contract workers received Rs2,200 (£31) a month.
The Graziano Workers’ Solidarity Forum accuses the company of “super-exploitation of the labour of poor workers”. In a timeline published on several websites, the group describes a tough management regime that harassed workers and forced them to accept low-paid contract work. In one striking episode, it claims that the Graziano management switched off the cooling system on the factory floor to punish workers. “The employers did everything in their control to curb the protest of workers, from suspension to lock-out to outright intimidation,” it alleges.
And yet the group says the workers did not take up arms in revenge for working conditions. In a letter to the labour ministry, it accuses rival business interests of orchestrating the attack that led to Chaudhary’s death.
Others seem to agree – although the identity of those said to be responsible is never clear. “It’s very sad that this is what happened,” says Aditya Ghildiyal at the Greater Noida Industries Association. “From the industrial point of view, there must be the hand of outsiders. Companies coming out here have stopped because of what the newspapers are saying about what happened to the Italian company’s chief executive.”
. . .
Shocking though it was, the murder of Chaudhary was hardly an isolated incident in the area. In a 48-hour period in January, police reported a rape, kidnap, shooting and stabbing. Even the police acknowledge that Noida’s reputation for lawlessness is deserved. “Sometimes we are ahead of the criminals, at other times they are [ahead of us],” lamented Uttar Pradesh police superintendent Ashok Kumar Tripathi. Criminal gangs come on raids from the nearby town. Kidnapping is common. Farmers who have lost their land turn to stealing to support themselves.
“Rents are very cheap because the safety and security is so bad,” says Ghildiyal at the local business association. “In Greater Noida there is no police protection. The street lighting is bad. There are electricity shortages. Thugs come around. The police are not trained for industrial security.” Within days of the Graziano attack, another chief executive, this time the head of a US software company, Expedien eSolutions, had to fight off three assailants who were trying to hijack his car.
Industrial protests are also commonplace, and sometimes lead to violence. In 2004, an attack by workers on Jaypee Greens, a property developer, led to one death. About 125 workers and 10 police were injured when employees at a now-deserted factory owned by Daewoo, the Korean industrial group, marched on the company office. Hindon Rubber wound up its operations last year after employee protests.
Nor are violent workplace confrontations confined to Noida: one of the most serious protests took place on the other side of Delhi, in another fast-developing satellite city, Gurgaon. There, clashes between workers and police at Honda’s motorcycle and scooter plant in July 2005 saw 3,000 workers march on the factory. About 400 people were arrested, of whom 63 were jailed. In Graziano’s case, several days passed before police rounded up and charged people in connection with the rioting. According to staff at the factory and members of the business community, some of those involved remain at large and are active in local politics. The plant, they say, is still under threat. “Again [the unions] are trying to create problems for us [with complaints],” says one manager.
Rome, meanwhile, called the events leading up to Chaudhary’s death “totally incomprehensible and unjustifiable”, and pressed New Delhi to issue “words of reassurance” and to put in place security measures that would restore a “climate of confidence”. The reaction from Indian politicians was more equivocal. Oscar Fernandes, the then labour minister (he resigned this month) and a confidant of Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress Party, was forced to apologise for remarks in which he appeared to defend the actions of the rioters and criticise the company for using contract workers (a practice the company doesn’t deny). The attack “should serve as a warning for management”, he said.
Following his remarks, Kamal Nath, the commerce and industry minister and India’s chief trade negotiator, tried to calm frayed tempers among international investors. Describing the violence as a “stray occurrence”, Nath argued it was “completely at variance with the Indian culture and tradition of peace”.
And yet Fernandes was not alone; his words betrayed a deep-seated distrust of foreign capital that lurks behind India’s seemingly enthusiastic transformation from a largely agrarian economy to a more industrial one.
. . .
Today, the Graziano plant is under heavy guard; its Swiss owner has only just appointed a replacement for Chaudhary – Vivek Prakash, a veteran of the motor industry. Outside the sheet-metal gates, security guards with shotguns eye passers-by and workers reporting for duty. The factory has all the attributes you would find in a European counterpart, boasts Marcello Lamberto, Graziano Trasmissioni’s worldwide chief executive – except the wage structure.
The incident continues to perplex Graziano’s executives, who acknowledge that the investment made in the plant makes it almost impossible to pull out. It closed for just a few days after the murder; three months later, production had returned to 75 per cent of capacity. But the scars run deeper than those numbers might suggest. And efforts to ensure a cooling-off since the attack have been hampered by agitation from Europe: Indian workers and their representatives have received messages of support from far-left groups in Italy.
The mood at other companies in Noida is glum. “Big companies have taken their own security measures,” says Aditya Ghildiyal at the local business association. “They have put up CCTV systems, they now have two entry barriers and they are checking under cars with mirrors.”
Ghildiyal continues: “There’s more focus on the elections [in April and May] right now. Industries are taking extra security measures. There’s an increase of kidnappings for ransom before elections. The reason is that money needs to be spent on politicians’ election campaigns. Parties need funds at this time. This is something industrialists are worried about. Some are not even picking up the phone.”
Justice in India, meanwhile, arrives slowly, and sometimes not at all. Of the 136 people arrested, 72 who were charged with minor offences have been released, but 64 – those facing charges of murder or attempted murder – remain in Dasna jail in Ghaziabad. They recently had their application for bail rejected. In the worst cases, where the charges stick, a jail sentence might only be for five to 10 years. And it remains unclear who exactly struck the fatal blows.
“When a mob is involved, no one gets penalised,” says Ghildiyal. “Things subside. Nothing happens. After a number of years, they will be set free. Yes. Someone has been killed. But you can’t justify holding them for so long.”

Amar Singh to act in a Bollywood film

New Delhi, Mar 24 (ANI): Samajwadi Party (SP) General Secretary Amar Singh will get a chance to act as the Home Minister in the forthcoming Bollywood film ‘Charge Sheet’, which is to be directed by Dev Anand.
‘It’s my privilege that Dev Saab asked me for this favour and I simply agreed to it. Till date, I haven’t become any Minister and I never wanted to become one. In fact, I never thought of becoming the Home Minister. So no matter whether it’s just in the film, ‘ said Amar Singh.
The 85-year-old Bollywood veteran approached the 53-year-old Amar Singh with a role considering him suitable for the character. He said that the role revolves around politics.
‘Amar Singh is playing the role of Home Minister. It would be correct if a Home Minister would do politics. Because I knew him as a friend, he was easily accessible to me and I approached him,’ said Dev Anand.
A part of the film will be shot at Amar Singh’s official residence at Lodhi Estate after the elections. (ANI)

FanSpeak: Indian Political League

New Delhi: The FanSpeak article of the week speaks about the political wrangles that led to the IPL moving out of India. In an article aptly titled The Indian Political League, the author Mahesh Sethuraman says "any talk of separating cricket from politics in India is living in denial of reality".
Politics and BCCI have never been far away. To move Jagmohan Dalmiya out, it required a man of Sharad Pawar's political Stature. Lalit Modi's nexus with ex-Rajasthan chief minister is too well known. And a lot of the state cricket associations' office bearers are affiliated to various political parties as well. So any talk of separating cricket from politics in India is living in denial of reality.

After weeks of ping ponging with the government, the BCCI has finally acted decisive or is it blackmail? Despite preparing nearly 50 possible schedules as alternatives to factor in almost all possible scenarios, IPL officials could not get the government to give a clear go ahead for the second edition of IPL.

Along the way Maharashtra government announced their support to hold IPL in Mumbai with modified schedule and withdrew soon, Political parties expressed his interest to utilise IPL slots for election campaign advertising until Lalit Modi said no to any political advertising in IPL and in the meanwhile Lalit Modi lost a none too irrelevant election in Rajasthan Cricket Association. No wonder that IPL venue for Rajasthan Royals was shifted even before election security issues cropped up.

So what's the real issue here? The rhetoric of "which is more important to the country – Elections or IPL?" hardly makes sense. Does the EPL stop when there are elections in England? No, so why should it be a problem here. But that's because EPL doesn't ask for paramilitary forces from the government to be able to conduct its tournament. So once the IPL has asked for it (sad after effects of Mumbai attack and more importantly the recent attack on Srilankan cricketers in Pakistan), they have no choice but to work around the government’s constraints (however real or unreal they maybe).

It all looks fine so far. So isn't taking IPL offshore the most sensible solution albeit all the compromises involved. But it's fine only if there is nothing more to it than what meets the eye. But that's hardly a convincing hypothesis. Surely there seems to be political power play at work. BCCI was either too ignorant or too arrogant to not figure out that the Pakistani attack had huge ramifications on IPL and that coupled with the announcement of election schedule should have ensured they were working with the government from the early stages to sort out the security arrangements. But they were busy assuring the media that India is a safe country and it'll go ahead as per schedule and presumed it's their birthright to ask for paramilitary forces for security support.

Arvind Subramanian: The tantalising promise of the next election

Voters distinguishing good from bad incumbency would be the best outcome.
The spectacle that is Indian democracy—that justly-mined source of India’s soft power—will be on full display in the next two months. And one question will be insistently asked: will the outcome lead to better policies, especially economic policies? Answers to this question will focus on the immediate future: on the fortunes of the Congress and BJP, the potential of the Third Front, possible coalitions, the drawing power of various politicians such as Mayawati, and so on.
But this election may turn out to be important less for these proximate outcomes than perhaps for what it signals about the democratic process itself. There is just a tiny sliver of possibility that this election—especially at the level of the states—may signal a turnaround in the deep failings of Indian democracy, raising hope for better economic policies in the future. How so?
For some time now, we have given up on the promise of democracy as a mechanism of ongoing accountability. But we still harbour hope in the promise of democracy as a mechanism of episodic accountability. That is, while society is unable to discipline the daily, deadly predation of politicians and related parasitic species, at least it can throw the rascals out once every five years.
The sustaining fiction or rather delusion in all this, of course, is that somehow the incentives created by this once-in-every-five-years exercise of people power will be strong and positive enough to deliver some of the benefits of ongoing accountability in the form of better public institutions: a less corrupt political process, a more effective and less tardy system of justice, a more responsive bureaucracy etc.
But the distinctively Indian phenomenon of anti-incumbency in politics raised doubts even for this objective of episodic accountability. After all, how can a system be considered as appropriately incentivised if the incumbents are thrown out routinely, regardless of their performance (leaving aside the important exception of the overthrow of Mrs Gandhi in 1977)? Indeed, anti-incumbency did not just de-incentivise politics, it actually created perverse incentives. If electoral failure is guaranteed, looting overwhelming dominates delivering essential services as a governing strategy.
In an insightful recent piece, Pratap Bhanu Mehta has drawn attention to the possibility that anti-incumbency may be losing its iron grip on Indian politics, and attenuating the disconnect between performance in office and subsequent performance in the polls (notable recent examples here include Narendra Modi in Gujarat, Sheila Dixit in Delhi and Naveen Patnaik in Orissa).
To some extent this ought to have been a corollary of economic decentralisation. Indeed, in a paper that I co-wrote (Chapter 2 of my recent book, India’s Turn: Understanding the Economic Transformation, and available at http://www.iie.com/publications/papers/subramanian2006.pdf), we found strong evidence that beginning in the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s, state-level economic growth was more strongly correlated with state-level institutions and policies in a way that was not true before the 1980s. The chart from that paper illustrates this strong correlation, where state-level institutions are proxied by the transmission and distribution losses of state electricity boards.
This correlation provided some basis for being optimistic about politics. Good policies deliver good economic outcomes, which provides an opening for opportunistic politicians. One political economy question was, of course, whether voters could trace the causation from good economic outcomes to the “policies” of, and hence give credit to, governments. Pratap Mehta’s new argument is that this attribution is easier for voters when the coinage of politics is “money,” and indeed the 2003-2008 boom in the revenues of state governments allowed good leaders to use this coinage to good effect. But the re-elections of Modi, Dixit and Patnaik suggested that voters could see and trace the benefits not just of fiscal spending but of good governance more broadly.
There is good news then for a politically decentralised India. It is not essential that there be such responsive politics all across India and all at the same time. It is sufficient that there are a few visibly successful experiments, allowing demonstration effects and the competition-between-states dynamic—which are the keys to India’s long-run development—to facilitate their spread throughout India.
Not just for broad governance but in relation to specific sectors too, there is promising experimentation going on. Take the case of the last and impregnable bastion of the licence raj: higher education. Reforms flowing down from Delhi seem unlikely. But enough states are creating enough of a policy framework to allow progress to be made in improving higher education. One promising prospect is the Vedanta-financed university that is in the works in Orissa which, if successful, could prove to be a model that elicits rapid emulation.
An important policy implication follows for the Thirteenth Finance Commission. Successive commissions have struggled to balance the competing objectives of equity (giving more fiscal resources to the poorer states) and efficiency (linking resources to performance to strengthen the incentives for good governance). If India’s long-run economic future is indeed going to be strengthened by the twin processes of political decentralisation and more responsive state politics, the Commission should, on balance, err on the side of greater fiscal devolution. This not only means favouring the efficiency objective over the equity objective at the margin when it comes to sharing the pooled fiscal resources. It also means ensuring that a greater share of resources is raised in the states themselves than at the centre so that there is less to redistribute.
As the election results start trickling in, the eyes of India and the world will be on who will occupy power in Delhi. But India’s long-run economic future may well hinge on what happens in the states. The greater the signs that voters renounce anti-incumbency and distinguish between good incumbency and bad incumbency, the more reasons to rejoice: not just for the well-conducted ritual, for the “sheer romance” of Indian democracy, but for its substantive future, and hitherto elusive promise.

‘Congress, BJP marked by failure’

In 2004, the CPI (M) fought the elections with twin goals: defeat the BJP and maximise Left presence in Parliament. The party was spectacularly successful in this. This time, the CPI (M) aims to strengthen the Left and democratic forces and form an alternative secular government.
The CPI (M)’s general secretary Prakash Karat has played a pivotal role in the formation of a Third Front. In an interaction with K.V. Prasad, he talks about the emerging political scenario.
This is the first time the CPI (M) is contesting a general election after you became the General Secretary. What is the new strategy to increase the CPI (M)’s presence in the Lok Sabha?

The election line of the party does not depend on who the General Secretary is. The Central Committee decides the party’s political approach and tactics for elections. As for strategy, the role the CPI (M) played in national politics in the last five years is going to be basis on which we will go to the people. We expect that people will recognise that we played an important role in defending national sovereignty and ensuring that certain pro-people commitments made in the Common Minimum Programme were implemented. We strived hard to see that polices that were harmful to people were not adopted.
Your overall political assessment in the country and that of the Left parties’ performance in particular.
The overall political situation in the country has been marked by the failure of the two major parties, with the Congress and the BJP unable to win increased support. The other factor is that both the alliances, the UPA and the NDA, are in the doldrums. The country is experiencing the adverse impact of global economic crisis, [with] growing economic difficulties of the people, whether it is loss of lakhs of jobs, rise in the prices of essential commodities or agrarian crisis. None of these are being effectively tackled by the Congress-led Government. At the same time, the BJP has proved incapable of rising above its sectarian and communal agenda. This has created a situation where the emergence of a Third Force has become credible and gathered momentum. The CPI (M) and the Left parties are working to build an effective non-Congress, non-BJP alternative.
The CPI (M) leadership was mandated to strive for a third alternative. How much of this task has been accomplished?

We had envisaged a third alternative based on policies opposed to that of the Congress and the BJP. Such an alternative needs to be built over a period but for this Lok Sabha election, we are striving for an electoral alternative. This platform will broadly cover four major areas: initiate pro-people economic policies as against neo-liberal policies; firm defence of secularism; strong federalism; and independent foreign policy. It is around such a platform that an alternative can be set up.
Has the CPI (M) given the Bahujan Samaj Party a greater l profile than the party had achieved so far?
The BSP had acquired a national profile after its victory in Uttar Pradesh assembly in 2007 and it is not the CPI (M), which has contributed. What we have done is to identify areas of cooperation between the Left and BSP during the trust vote in July 2008. You had mentioned that the effort this time would be to ensure that a non-Congress and non-BJP Government is not rocked by either party from the outside. How do you plan to do this?

We have the experience of having non-Congress secular governments in the country. In 1989-90, it was the National Front Government of V.P. Singh in 1996-98, it was the United Front Government. They were destabilised by the Congress or the BJP or together. Our effort in these elections is to muster enough strength for a non-Congress secular government to be able to run on its own. It is a difficult task but given the churning that is going on in Indian politics, it is not impossible.
Is the issue of whether the new national alternative should seek the support of the Congress settled? Or has it been left for the future?
As I said, we would like to see an alternative secular government, which will have the strength to run on its own steam. What will happen after the elections cannot be speculated now. It will have to take into account post-election situation. Realignment [of political forces] is bound to happen. We do not expect the UPA and the NDA to remain in the present form.

Bollywood’s ‘Gulaal’ Takes on Indian Politics Before Election

March 25 (Bloomberg) -- It took eight years for Anurag Kashyap to make “Gulaal.” Yet this tale of political intrigue on a campus in northwest India is timely, with general elections scheduled for April and May in the world’s largest democracy.

The film centers on mild-mannered law student Dilip (Raja Chaudhary), humiliated by seniors in a harsh initiation ceremony in a college in Rajasthan. That brings him to the attention of Dukey Bana (Kay Kay Menon), who’s plotting to revive the erstwhile Rajputana, the kingdom of the Rajputs. Bana persuades Dilip to stand in college elections after his handpicked nominee is murdered.

The well-meaning Dilip wins the rigged poll and is manipulated by those around him, including the rival he beat, Kiran. She seduces him and something snaps in Dilip when she becomes Bana’s lover, leading to a blood-soaked denouement.

While writer-director Kashyap’s take on campus politics isn’t new, he uses the story to make wider political points. Bana stands for the provincial, divisive leader desperate to exploit a sense of grievance and determined to destroy the idea of India: that a billion people of vastly differing characteristics and cultures can find enough common ground to unite around a secular, democratic ideal.

“Gulaal” is rough, rude and brutal. There are some splendid performances, particularly those of Deepak Dobriyal, as Bana’s aide, and Piyush Mishra, who plays Bana’s peace-loving older brother and also scored the music.

Dobriyal melts into the characters he plays. In one scene he is chewing paan (betel leaf), a moment set up so well that conversation would have robbed it of the resonance he brings to his wordless performance.

The movie title refers to the colors used during the Hindu festival of Holi. Still, “Gulaal” has nothing celebratory about it. The movie is about the masking of true intentions by the smearing of a bit of color on the face of things.

Gulaal is produced by Zee Limelight, a unit of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. Rating: ***1/2.

‘Little Zizou’

First-time director and veteran screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala’s “Little Zizou” is also about jumped-up, malevolent and intolerant bigots, of which there seems to be an endless supply.

Taraporevala regularly collaborates with another director, Mira Nair, who she met at Harvard. This time she turns her gaze inward, choosing to look at her own Parsi community, followers of the Zoroastrian faith who fled from Persia and began settling in India about 1,000 years ago.

Some Parsis adhere to “purist” theories of lineage, especially when it comes to women who marry outside the community.

‘Psycho Dad’

A widower, Cyrus II Khodaiji, is one such dogmatist, described by his older son Art as “my psycho dad.” The younger son, Xerxes, spends most of his time being mothered by the neighboring aunty Roxanne, who is married to Boman Pressvala (Boman Irani), a liberal newspaper publisher and enemy of Khodaiji.

Xerxes is an imaginative 11-year-old, dreaming about his dead mother and about the soccer player Zinedine Zidane coming to Bombay (Mumbai), hence his nickname and the film title.

Khodaiji seeks to turn his troop of followers into firm defenders of his values. He also believes the Russians are coming, seeking to gain admittance to the Parsi faith and take over properties held by the community.

Pressvala exposes Khodaiji in his paper, ridiculing his efforts at building up an “army.” As the battle escalates, Khodaiji tries to get Pressvala’s paper shut down.

Taraporevala brings a light touch to “Little Zizou,” using humor and sparkling dialog in scenes that never outstay their welcome.

Irani is the best of a terrific ensemble, with the ability to bring the house down with his one-liners.

Rivals and relatives contest India's election

ENTERING the home of Maneka Gandhi in New Delhi some years back was a slightly nervous experience. About 15 dogs including large mastiffs lolled on the pathways and across the entrance, eyeing you like fresh meat.

As it turned out, none of them were on a meat diet, and Maneka was no friend to the butchers of the Indian capital. A strict vegan herself, she fed her pets on vegetarian substitutes, and at the time was busily galvanising a crackdown against the city's butchers for alleged cruelty to animals.

Her then-teenage son Varun, she proudly informed me, had been weaned on a formula made from ground lentils and water, rather than cow's milk.

In a country where, more than in most places, you are what you eat, the issue of diet easily morphs into a communal one. In India, the meat and skin trades are largely left to Muslims and the former Untouchables. Vegetarianism is often a mark of Hindu higher castes, and religions such as Jainism and Buddhism.

Not surprisingly, Maneka and Varun eventually transferred their political loyalties to the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. For Maneka, this is the latest in a series of political shifts. A journalist from a Delhi socialite background, she joined the Congress party's ruling dynasty with her marriage to Sanjay Gandhi, second son of the late prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Sanjay was the son his mother couldn't resist, and seen as her political heir-apparent. He flourished as a bully boy during her 1975-77 suspension of democracy, leading a campaign of compulsory sterilisation and garnering state funds for his pet car project.

When Sanjay was killed doing aerobatics in his light aircraft, his milder-mannered elder brother Rajiv was reluctantly drafted into politics and took over Congress leadership and the prime ministership on Indira's assassination in 1984. Maneka became estranged, and joined the leftist Janata Dal that pushed Rajiv out of power in 1989, becoming a minister for two years. In the 1990s she played her hand as an independent, aligning with BJP coalitions, before formally signing up to the BJP itself in 2004.

Hindutva: Waning in politics, rising in society

Has the BJP already lost the elections? The party has looked shaky since 2008 when

it could not win Delhi and lost Rajasthan. The setback
showed that the security plank
the party had tried to use post 26/11 had misfired. Add to this the nagging headache of factionalism and allegations of corruption. It’s clear the BJP has lost for good its image of “a party with a difference”.

L K Advani, who turned 81 in November, suddenly seems to lack the qualities India expects from a leader these days. And he is definitely not in a position to play the same role as A B Vajpayee in 1999. Last but not least, the Nagpur meeting showed that the BJP was trying to revive the Ayodhya issue, whereas the India of 2009 is not likely to follow the Hindutva agenda of 1989.

Yet, the BJP has never (co)governed such a large number of states (nine) at the time of a general election, which reflects a formidable expansion of Hindu nationalism in geographical terms. Who would have anticipated five years ago that Karnataka would have a BJP government and that it would have won 10 seats in J&K? The BJP is well entrenched in many states where it can mobilize a great amount of resources and activate a robust patronage system. In states like Gujarat, it has inducted sympathizers into the police and the judiciary on an unprecedented scale.

Besides the state apparatus, the BJP can rely on pervasive Hindutva forces whose growth has continued in several directions, including among (ex-) army officers, as evident from the Malegaon case. This network is showing the same propensity to militancy as other sections influenced by the Sangh ideology. In addition to the shakha system, the RSS has embarked on new programmes of social work via Seva Bharti and an active (re)conversion politics via the VHP. How then can we say that Hindu nationalism is on the decline? It has even affected the judicial process, with the guilty of Gujarat still not brought to book, and intensified a strategy of cultural policing.

In fact, cultural policing has been a sheer extension of the anti-Muslim xenophobia of the Sangh parivar. Bajrang Dal activists ransacked M F Husain’s gallery in 1996 in Ahmedabad to punish him for depicting goddess Saraswati far too scantily clad for their taste. But Hindu artists became their main targets subsequently: in 2000 Deepa Mehta could not shoot Water in Varanasi and in 2007 a Hindu painter of MSU in Vadodara was attacked by Sangh activists for his canvas representing a goddess giving birth to a child. But artists are not the only victims of this brand of policing.

In BJP strongholds like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, Sangh parivar activists “rescue” Hindu girls who have married men not of their religion or caste — as in the case of
several Patel girls — even though they are above 18 years of age and even, sometimes, when their parents have approved of their marriage. In many cases, these “operations” are conducted with the tacit approval of the police and the judiciary, a clear indication that if Hindu nationalism is not at its best in the political sphere, the saffronisation of the state and society has made progress in the last 15 years: the Hindu Rashtra is in the making along the societal lines the RSS has always valued. The marginalisation of the minorities, including Muslims, is another illustration of this process.

But has Hindu nationalism declined on the political scene? In fact, the BJP may not win fewer seats than Congress, especially if the ruling party is not willing or able to form a pre-election coalition. Then, it will all depend on the tactical game of the “small parties” which may well be the real winners. The NDA looks weaker as it has lost a record number of constituents — seven — over the last six years. Does it mean that the BJP is back to the Jan Sangh years when no decent man wanted to join hands with a “communal” party? Have Gujarat and Orissa — and maybe Karnataka — at last had an impact on the BJP’s partners, which may be afraid of losing the minorities’ votes and their own credibility? Only the post-election scenario will tell, but if the BJP retains its 2004 tally, many regional leaders may be prepared to do anything for the sake of kursi.

Political babes in the woods

Varun Gandhi is a babe. So is Rahul Gandhi. In fact, these elections are dominated by
the Babe Brigade. Nearly all the newbies on the block fall into the babe category. Most are Pamela Andersons of politics, cashing in on the oomph factor. ‘Babewatch’ rules. Pamela had silicone in her breasts. Desi Babes have silicone in their brains. No issues.
It’s sexy to be in politics these days. Especially if your surname is Gandhi. You can bank on the family name to save your butt after opening your mouth and stuffing both feet into it. As Varun has done with his recent hate speech. If jaws dropped, he didn’t notice them. Or perhaps, he doesn’t really care. This babe has made it to the front pages of nearly every newspaper, with TV channels greedily gobbling up every bon mot uttered by Maneka Gandhi’s beta. He himself insists love means never having to say you are sorry... and to hell with what civil society, the EC and others think of his outrageous, preposterous, provocative and — pardon the word — rabid comments. Mom Maneka has protected the interests of animals for years. She must know how dangerous a rabid dog is. What on earth was Varun thinking? He now claims it was a doctored CD that got the natives worked up. That’s a babe comment. He also adds he is proud of his faith, not apologetic about it and that he is a “Gandhi, a Hindu and an Indian in equal measure.” Jai Ho, bete. Bhagwan tera bhala karey.
I am not a Gandhi (Thank God for small mercies!), but i am also a Hindu and an Indian. Unapologetic on both scores. But i don’t want to cut off anybody’s hand or gouge out eyes to prove my credentials as either. Sensibly, the BJP has promptly distanced itself from the speech and the orator. But that’s the easy part. First you get an out-of-control babe to go out there and bak bak. Then the big boys back off leaving the babe to face the music. By then the damage (or the dirty work) is done. Smart! But sometimes being oversmart has a nasty way of backfiring. As has happened in Varun’s case. This Gandhi Babe is looking bad as compared to the other Gandhi Babe, who dimples away prettily and sticks to the safe and narrow script. The faux pas so far have been harmless and largely inoffensive. Babe Rahul has stuck to the moderate path approved by Mama and other party veterans. He has not grabbed too many headlines, but his style of netagiri is distinctly different from his cousin’s. Which is not surprising given the political ideology of their respective fathers.
Gandhigiri is not the sole prerogative of these two families. But try telling that to the faithful. The scary thought is that Varun’s bluster may pay rich, short-term dividends. Just like his father Sanjay Gandhi’s once did many moons ago, when he instigated his mother Indira Gandhi to impose the Emergency (surely one of the most shameful periods in modern India’s history). Sanjay found takers galore for his demolition drives and other autocratic moves to ‘improve’ Delhi.
It was a short and tragic love affair, but ominous while it lasted. Perhaps Babe Varun’s minders are hoping he, too, will have the ‘Sanjay Effect’ on the gullible who might confuse his aggression and immaturity for dynamism and daring. One can only hope he remains in a minority of one. Someone should remind him that netas like Sanjay briefly streak across the political sky before burning themselves out and disappearing into a black hole. India has always voted with its head and heart and unfailingly chosen moderation over extremism. That has been the pattern so far. And chances are that is how it will continue. Bigotry and hate have been traditionally defeated by those who offered the middle path. That should give us all the hope we require to see us through the coming ordeal. Leaders who challenge democratic principles may succeed as regional satraps (Narendra Modi, please note), but any leader aiming for national acceptancy instinctively knows it is just one thing that is going to do the trick this time — the promise of stability and security for all. The last two words are key — ‘for all’.
Babe Varun has been misguided by his handlers. Winning Pilibhit may be comparatively easy. But winning the hearts of Young India will require much more than a baring of teeth. This babe’s bark had better be worse than his bite. Time to get rid of that silicone, sweetie.

Decline of India's political leviathans

As India braces for another split verdict in the forthcoming general election, Mahesh Rangarajan analyses the decline of the country's national parties.

Neither of the premier parties, Congress or the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is confident of leading their respective alliances to full power.

India is completing a decade in which coalitions dominated by one or the other have held power.

After five years at the helm, the alliance headed by Dr Manmohan Singh has much to smile about. For four of these years, growth rates were well over 8% and even now, amid a global slump, India will be the world's second fastest growing economy.

Yet, the Congress is a shadow of its former self. It last secured a clear majority in the 543-member lower house of the parliament a quarter of a century ago.

Its present coalition is sustained by an array of regional parties, who are now busy driving hard bargains in seat sharing.

Its rival, the BJP, is seeing its alliance actually fall apart.

For the first time since 1998, it will have no ally in two key southern states, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

Recently a long time ally in the eastern state of Orissa pulled away, in part due to the strident and violent campaign by the BJP's cultural fraternal allies against religious minorities in the state last winter.

Excluded groups

India's last experience of a third coalition, then christened the United Front, was for two years from mid-1996 onwards. Held together by support from the communists from outside, it was dominated by regional parties.

The coalition government was headed by HD Deve Gowda, who moved in from the chief minister's office in Karnataka. He did not last long but more than one ambitious regional satrap sees him as precedent, not exception.

Given that Indian states can be large and populous, the term "regional" is something of a misnomer. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous, has 190 million people, as many as Brazil.

Its chief minister Mayawati, may well be a contender. She is both a woman and Dalit; both excluded social groups able to get to power via political mobilisation via the ballot box.

States in the south and west have the added advantage of extensive external trade, with chief ministers very much at ease negotiating with transnational companies or the World Bank.

N Chandrababu Naidu lost power in 2004 in a landslide in Andhra Pradesh in southern India. A pioneer in e-governance, he has forged state-level alliances with smaller parties and reached out to farmers and the rural poor. The "bete noire" of Congress, he has moved away from the BJP.

Mr Naidu's choice is symbolic of the re-emergence of the Third Front in Indian politics.

It is of course easier to define this space by explaining what it is not. There is no one large all-India party at its core. All these are parties that favour a more federal, decentralised polity.

Marginal players

In general, they lean more towards rural than urban voters. Though not anti-reform, they would see welfare as contingent on more public action, not market forces.

Common to their growth is the decline of the larger national parties.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress and BJP between them won just 19 of the 80 seats in the last general elections. The former is a marginal player in the entire Gangetic basin, not just in Uttar Pradesh but in Bihar and West Bengal.

In turn, the BJP has failed to emerge as an autonomous force in much of eastern and most of southern India. Since its defeat in 2004, it has also lost out on its ability to win over and hold on to alliances with regional players.

As elections near, with results out on 16 May after a five-phase poll across this vast land, India is certain to see another bout of coalition government.

But the baton may just pass from Congress hands. It may well have to do business with a conglomerate of regional parties that drive a bargain to share power or worse still, hold it with support from the outside.

Such an arrangement will be shaky. Congress still hopes to get enough seats, even if not its present 150, to fashion a post-poll alliance that can continue to rule India. Even here, a lower score would mean more bargaining power for state level parties.

While by no means certain, there is a clear trend at work.

The polity first saw the removal of national parties from key states by regional players. These now hope to move from sharing power to shaping the federal government.

Fading appeal

The Congress party's decline can be traced to the late 1980s. This is when it lost its appeal to a vast section of the under classes, especially the religious minorities who felt it was compromising on pluralism at the cost of their physical security.

It also was unable to appeal to a new generation of leaders who mobilised those at the lower end of the caste pyramid. Initially, the cultivating communities of north India and then the Dalits, once ostracised as "untouchables", broke away.

Beyond Hindi speaking north India, regional parties also speak for a distinct local personality. The BJP far less than the Congress never quite managed, except in Gujarat, to adequately accommodate regional sentiment.

Conventional wisdom has it that a gaggle of regional parties will find it difficult to provide cohesive government. The two larger parties have a clear line of command, a leader whose authority is rarely, if ever, questioned by colleagues.

Conversely, collations have been held together by compromise not command. Federal governments in India have yielded more, not less, space to states on matters ranging from the economy to culture. Many regional leaders have held critical ministries like the defence portfolio from 1996 to 2004.

Further, any such formation can only hold office by striking a deal with the Congress. This may well serve as a check on any adventurism. While such a coalition is unlikely to last a full term, it may open up new spaces in politics.

This was the case with VP Singh, who as prime minister (1989-90) redefined policies on positive discrimination in government employment. Strange as it may sound, short-lived ministries can innovate in a chosen area of governance and leave a lasting mark on the polity.

The world's largest democracy may well be at the cusp of major changes. Only its voters know whether the satraps in the regions will have the last laugh.

No politics in Gyanendra's India visit: Indian envoy

India on Friday rubbished reports that the recent visit of dethroned King Gyanendra to India was aimed at restoring the 240-year-old-monarchy, which was abolished in Nepal last year.

I don’t think there was any political game involved in the visit of ex-King Gyanendra to India, Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood told reporters on Friday.
Gyanendra is a Nepalese citizen and had been to India on a private visit, he said, adding he has the right to visit the neighbouring country.
There were media reports in Kathmandu that Gyanendra’s India visit was aimed at seeking New Delhi's support to restore the monarchy by installing a 'Baby King'.
Top Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai, who is also the Finance Minister in the CPN-Maoist-led coalition government, had alleged that Gyanendra’s visit to India was an attempt to seek New Delhi's support to install his grandson Hridayendra as the new heir.
Gyanendra, who spent three weeks in India in connection with a wedding ceremony in Bhopal, had met Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Karan Singh and other top political leaders.
Indian envoy Sood also said the visit of former Prime Minister G P Koirala to New Delhi was mainly to have a medical check up. Sood said Koirala held meetings with Indian leaders there and was satisfied with the visit.
The envoy was responding to questions by reporters at a function in Kathmandu to distribute scholarship to students. Sood distributed certificates of merits to Nepalese students under the 'Golden Jubilee Scholarship Scheme' launched by the India in 2002 to mark the 50th years of Economic Cooperation between Nepal and India.

Now, log on to Shashi Tharoor's political world

BANGALORE, INDIA: If BJP leader L.K.Advani can follow the paths of Barack Obama to reach out to the voters vis the worldwide web, why not Dr. Shashi Tharoor – author, former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and the new entrant in Indian politics?
Yes, after being declared the Congress candidate from Thiruvananthapuram Parliamentary Constituency in Kerala, Shashi has launched a special Website to launch his campaign online.
"I have great pride in India and believe I can work to make it an even better land for all its citizens," says the writer-politician, in the newly launched bilingual site (www.shashitharoor.in).
Apart from his visions, credos and promises, the site also says why, according to Tharoor, Indians should vote for Congress/UPA.
Since he knows the cyber campaign cannot take wings just like that Shashi Tharoor has also given links to other blogs, networking sites and also Twitter, where you can become a fan of Shashi, or if you wish campaign for him.
And if you are not interested in his all-new political world, you can still have a glance at his literary world on his old website, where there is no tricolor. Such is the games God plays to make a politician out of an accomplished author, who's learning the basic lessons of practical politics.
Do you think Indian politics would be able move in a new direction by embracing the cyberspace?

Political yatras: get up, close and personal

Although political yatras have always been a part of Indian politics, ever since Mahatama Gandhi popularized the concept, it was revived as a political instrument, first by N.T. Rama Rao
New Delhi: His BlackBerry helps him stay in constant touch with friends. But to woo votes, Rahul Gandhi prefers a political tool that goes back to the days of Mahatma Gandhi: long marches to the countryside.
The Congress party’s lodestar is not the only one who follows a mass contact programme.
Be it L.K. Advani, the octogenarian leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who blogs almost every week, Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM’s, controversial Kerala state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan or former chairman of Lanco Kondapalli Power Pvt. Ltd L. Rajagopal, a high-profile first-time member of Parliament (MP) in the 14th Lok Sabha; they all believe in the power of the so-called political yatra in mobilizing public opinion.
This is despite the rapid growth of the electronic media and live telecast of parliamentary and, in several instances, assembly proceedings, which ensure an unprecedented familiarity with their constituency and also the fact that there is no guarantee that the yatra would yield results.
Significantly, many are not even linked to the general election due to begin from 16 April.
When Andhra Pradesh chief minister (CM) Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddyembarked on a 100-day yatra across the state in April last year to publicize his government’s achievements, his arch-rival and Telegu Desam Party (TDP) president N. Chandrababu Naiduannounced his own march immediately. Telangana Rashtra Samiti president K. Chandrasekhar Raoalso followed the other two in a few days.
While Vijayan’s February-March Nava Kerala Yatra was aimed at asserting his own d ominance in the faction-ridden state party unit, his arch-rival and Congress’ state president Ramesh Chennithalawanted to consolidate his party’s support base in Kerala ahead of the elections by his Save Kerala March, conducted earlier this month.
In Chhattisgarh, CM and BJP leader Raman Singhaddressed 360 public gatherings during his six-day Kisan Utsav march that started on 22 February, to highlight his government’s schemes for farmers. Singh had then distributed Rs440 crore as the first instalment of paddy bonus to about 800,000 farmers, hoping to boost the BJP’s prospects ahead of the polls.
His Madhya Pradesh counterpart and BJP leader Shivraj Singh Chauhanalso went on a Nyaya Yatra on 21 February to protest against alleged discrimination by the Centre in allocation of coal to the state, and other issues.
Although political yatras have always been a part of Indian politics, ever since Mahatama Gandhi popularized the concept, it was revived as a political instrument, first by N.T. Rama Rao, when he launched the TDP in 1982, and later by Advani with his Rath Yatra demanding the construction of a Ram temple on a disputed site in Ayodhya; it helped the BJP consolidate Hindu votes in North India and led to the BJP’s ascent to power at the Centre in 1999 as the biggest party in the National Democratic Alliance.
Political leaders, even young and gizmo-friendly politicians admit that the response yatras receive is amazing. “There is no alternative to meeting them in person. If you have been in touch with them during the five years, nothing else matters,” said Jitin Prasada, minister of state for steel and Congress MP.
Arguing similarly, Rajagopal, MP from Vijayawada, who has personally visited every household in his constituency twice during the last five years, said, “It is better to have personal contacts. No media can reach the entire constituency.”
Some analysts believe that the socio-economic diversity in the country is the reason as to why yatras continue to gain traction.
Rama Brahmam, a professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, said, “This is a tool through which political mobilization takes place. In a country with a large number of illiterates, personal appeal matters a lot when it is towards a cause or for a purpose. These normal political instruments are available and they are significant too.”
However, a senior BJP leader added: “Political roadshows will be effective only if the party or the leader has something solid to offer. Rahul Gandhi could not make any inroads despite his numerous roadshows in Uttar Pradesh. Although Advani’s Rath Yatra was a success, he failed to infuse the same spirit during his cross-country rally ahead of 2004 general elections.”
It will be interesting to see whether this return to the touchy-feely brand of politics returns the desired political dividends in the coming polls

Indian politics’ Clown Prince turns joke on ruling party

NEW DELHI, March 21 — For five years, Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav has been an indispensable coalition ally of the Congress-led government in New Delhi. His folksy humour, for instance, was used to lethal effect in the debate for last year's confidence vote over the nuclear deal with the United States that nearly caused the collapse of the Manmohan Singh government.
Now the man they call the Clown Prince of Indian politics has turned the joke on the Congress Party.
Lalu Prasad, who heads the Rashtriya Janata Dal, this week cut a deal with a rival on his home turf of Bihar state. That has not only left the party of independence angry and embarrassed, but also concerned about keeping its grip on power.
The agreement brokered with his Cabinet colleague Ram Vilas Paswan means the Dal would contest 25 of Bihar's 40 parliamentary seats, while Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party would fight in 12.
For the Congress — which won three of the four seats it contested from Bihar in the last polls — the deal left just three seats uncontested by its partners. It wanted at least six.
The unexpected development shocked the Congress. It underscores how political ambition is superseding loyalty as parties jockey for influence in the days before poll results start coming in on May 13.
Many regional leaders, including Lalu Prasad, believe a fragmented result could land one of them a shot at being prime minister.
“This is a huge setback for Congress, which has been sitting pretty watching the misfortunes of its chief national rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),” said political analyst N. Bhaskara Rao.
“Lalu and Paswan gave the Congress a clear message that there was nothing to discuss. This means the party won't have any presence in two very large Indian states.” He was referring to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Two weeks ago, the Hindu nationalist BJP also suffered a stunning setback. The party that rules eastern Orissa state unexpectedly broke away from it. In doing so, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik severed an 11-year-old alliance.
Analysts said disagreements over ticket distribution and Patnaik's calculations about the post-polls scenario led to the break-up.
Now the Congress is reeling from a similar setback.
“The Patnaik phenomenon is gaining ground,” said Rao.
The Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, expects to get 150 of its own MPs into the 543-seat Lower House of Parliament, according to internal party projections.
It expects alliance partners to bring in the rest and thus take the coalition past the 272 required for a majority.
For that strategy to succeed, however, it needs a decent showing in the vote-rich Hindi-speaking heartland states such as Bihar and next-door Uttar Pradesh (UP).
UP, as India's largest state is called, sends 80 MPs to Parliament. But there too its regional partner, the Samajwadi or Socialist Party, has shut Congress out after disagreements over how many tickets will be allotted to the national party.
In the end, the Socialists unilaterally announced that they would field candidates for 75 of the 80 seats, leaving just five for Congress.
Lalu Prasad has insisted that he will “stand like a rock” behind the Congress president.
But with their principal allies in the two states having turned on them, the Congress has said it will field candidates for 20 of Bihar's parliamentary seats.
It is also flirting with Lalu Prasad's estranged brother-in-law, an MP who was not given a ticket this time by him.
The Congress also plans to turn the contest in Uttar Pradesh into a multi-pronged one by fighting more seats, thus cutting into the Socialists' vote bank and possibly weakening them.
An adviser to BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani says he is certain that the Congress, despite little signs of an anti- incumbency sentiment, will be unable to retain power. “You are beginning to see the unravelling of their grand compact,” he said. “The BJP may have its share of problems, but I tell you, the Congress is set for worse trouble.” — Straits Times

India Polls May Lead to Fractured Verdict, Singh Says

March 19 (Bloomberg) -- Jaswant Singh, former Indian foreign and finance minister, said general elections in April and May could result in a fractured verdict, with neither of the two main parties able to form a government.
“I apprehend there will be a situation in which there will be an absence of a decisive vote,” Singh, a member of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, said in a Bloomberg Television interview today.
The ruling Congress party and the BJP are seeking to retain their allies and find new partners to win enough seats to form the next government. Since 1989, the two main contestants haven’t won enough seats to rule without parliamentary support from smaller parties.
“Inevitably, there will be a problem in governance” if either of the two alliances led by the Congress party and the BJP don’t come to power, Singh said.
The ruling United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, is led by the Congress party and is competing for votes with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, or NDA.
“We are now in the political era of coalitions,” Singh said. These “will have to be an aggregate of views, opinion and policies” of the constituent political parties.
The so-called third front, set up by some of the parties that aren’t included in the two main alliances, has an ideology oriented toward communism that doesn’t offer solutions for India’s problems, the former minister said.
Third Front
The third-front group “lacks conviction, it lacks shape, of course it lacks a policy platform,” Singh said in the interview. “I don’t think the answers to the country are leftwards from where it is today.”
The third alliance is seeking to repeat the performance of the United Front, which ran the government from 1996 to 1998, after neither of the two main parties could cobble together enough parliamentary seats for a majority. A similar alliance had come to power in 1989, with neither of them surviving the full five-year term.
Singh said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance government has abandoned the economic policies and reforms initiated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. The United Progressive Alliance came to power in May 2004, defeating the National Democratic Alliance.
The National Democratic Alliance has addressed issues related to politics, security and economy in its “agenda of governance,” which will be unveiled in the next few days, Singh said. The NDA will tackle such issues if it returns to office.
Elections for 543 parliamentary constituencies across the world’s biggest democracy will be held in five phases from April 16 to May 13. Counting of votes will take place in all constituencies on May 16.

Madagascar’s March Madness

The fourth-largest island in the world, blessed with both a mild tropical climate that is hospitable to an incredible biodiversity – it is home to some 5% of the earth’s animal and plant species, including some 9,000 flora found nowhere else in the world – and as well as an open economy that has been growing at a steady pace of 7% annually and whose perceived success made it the very first country with a Millennium Challenge Corporation compact when it signed an agreement worth $110 million in April 2005, Madagascar seemed to have a lot going for it. Unfortunately, mob actions which culminated in this week’s overthrow of President Marc Ravalomanana have significantly set back progress on the France-sized isle in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa.Unless the 20 million Malagasy regain their sense of balance, they place in jeopardy not only their own recent gains, but those of the entire African continent, at a time when neither can afford to run such risks. The uprising also calls into question the policies of Madagascar’s generous foreign benefactors, including the United States, who have invested heavily in what has proven to be the country’s rather illusory “success.”

Since achieving independence from France in 1960, Madagascar’s political development has been uneven, to put it mildly. The first president, Philibert Tsiranana, gradually transformed the republic into an authoritarian one-party state with his once moderate Social Democratic Party as the dominant political force, brutally crushing a rebellion in 1971. The following year, however, amid widespread protests, Tsiranana was forced to resign, handing power over to General Gabriel Ramanantsoa, who downgraded relations with France, while pursuing close ties with the communist bloc. In February 1975, Ramanantsoa’s interior minister, Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava, used the pretext of new protests to seize the presidency for himself. Ratsimandrava only lasted six days before he was assassinated and replaced by yet another military man, General Gilles Andriamahazo, who managed to steer the country back from the precipice of civil war before resigning four months later in favor of Vice Admiral Didier Ratsiraka.

Ratsiraka dominated Malagasy politics for most of the next quarter-century. After holding a bogus referendum which awarded him – with 95% of the vote, no less – a seven-year term of office, Ratsiraka set about building a one-party socialist state, nationalizing most of the economy and cutting the remaining ties to France (earlier, as his predecessor’s foreign minister, he had expelled the United States ambassador, Joseph Mendenhall; Ratsiraka also shut down the NASA tracking station at Tananarive). Ratsiraka further consolidated power in 1977, when his political party was the only one allowed to contest the parliamentary elections. He was subsequently “reelected” president by lopsided margins in 1982 and 1989. During his rule, Ratsiraka forged even closer ties with the Soviet Union, which provided his regime with military advisers and technical advice as well as access to MiG-21 “Fishbed” jet fighters. The Soviets also built a series of sea lane intercept stations along Madagascar’s western coast astride the Mozambique Channel, although these subsequently were abandoned at the end of the Cold War.

The collapse of his Soviet patrons and growing opposition at home forced Ratsiraka to allow early multiparty elections in 1993, which he lost to opposition leader Albert Zafy, who won more than two-thirds of the vote. Amid frustration at his perceived failure to turn around the country’s economic decline, Zafy found himself impeached by the National Assembly and thrown out of office after barely three years. The special election held after Zafy’s removal allowed Ratsiraka to return to office from where, in 1998, he maneuvered the passage of a constitutional amendment that empowered him to dissolve the National Assembly as well as to appoint the prime minister and government without legislative approval. Angered opposition parties boycotted the provincial elections of 2000, setting the stage for the hotly contested presidential poll of 2001.

Ratsiraka was challenged in the December 2001 election by Marc Ravalomanana, a self-made millionaire who had gone on to become the widely popular mayor of the capital, Antananarivo. The official results of the poll gave Ravalomanana 46% of the vote to Ratsiraka’s 40%, a clear win, although less than the absolute majority needed to avoid a second round of balloting. The run-off was never held, however, because Ravalomanana, claiming he had won a majority in the first round, appealed to the Constitutional Court to review the vote. Ratsiraka’s supporters then blockaded their opponents, who were heavily concentrated in the capital and its environs, while Ravalomanana’s backers declared him president in February 2002. The Constitutional Court backed him with a ruling two months later, although the stand-off continued until July when, having slowly lost control of Madagascar’s provinces, Ratsiraka fled the country, ironically going into exile in France (the former president was subsequently tried in absentia for corruption and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor).

During his first term in office, Ravalomanana was widely credited with improvements to Malagasy infrastructure as well as to education and health, although many remain discontented with the slow pace of economic progress for those trapped in poverty. Running for a second term in 2006 against a field of 13 other candidates, Ravalomanana was reelected by a solid majority, winning 54.8% of the vote in the first round. The following year, early parliamentary elections gave Ravalomanana’s Tiako I Madagasikara (TIM, “I love Madagascar”) party a solid majority of 105 seats in the 127-seat National Assembly.

In retrospect, the September 2007 parliamentary poll was the high water mark for Ravalomanana and TIM. Just three months later, voters in Antananarivo elected a 32-year-old former disc jockey named Andry Nirina Rajoelina as their mayor. After working for a number of years as an entertainer, Rajoelina went into business with financial backing from Pierrot Jocelyn Rajaonarivelo, a Malagasy ambassador to the United States and later deputy prime minister under Ratsiraka who was subsequently convicted of abuse of office (although he fled into exile rather than serving the sentence of 15 years of hard labor). After launching an advertising company and radio and television network about ten years ago, Rajoelina traded on the free media exposure provided by his enterprises and subsequent adulation of fans to make his foray into politics in late 2007. As the Madagascar Tribune observed at the time: “Because his real ‘success story,’ many young people – if not all of them—want to be just like him.” The paper’s reporter was virtually in rapture as he went on report some of the banal maxims which Rajoelina threw about in lieu of anything resembling well-articulated political platform:

Responding clearly to his followers, Andry showed them the value of audacity. “One must dare and always go forward,” he emphasized, “despite adversity and competition.”…

According to him, competition must be innovative, not destructive as some people conceive it. “Doing better than one’s competitors must be the objective, rather than to seek to destroy at all cost.”

These “pearls of wisdom” must sound much better in Malagasy than they do in either French or English, because the citizens of Antananarivo elected Rajoelina mayor with 63.3% of the vote. Nicknamed “TGV” after the high-speed French rail service on account of his energy, the baby-faced Rajoelina soon found his new municipal job less fun than the campaign trail where his thousands of adoring fans sported T-shirts emblazoned with his face and gyrated to the beat of trendy music before pledging their votes to his quasi-eponymous TGV (Tanora malaGasy Vonona, “Determined Malagasy Youth”) movement. However, with a minimum age of 40 prescribed by the constitution for accession to the presidency, TGV’s electoral train would conceivably have to idle for the better part of a decade before he could legitimately seek the country’s highest office. Fortune, however, smiled on the ambitious young-man-in-a-hurry in the guise of the global economic downturn which, in turn, cut demand on the world market for the foodstuffs and primary commodities on which the Malagasy economy depends for more than 70% of its earnings, and in the ham-fisted way the Ravalomanana administration tried to shut down Rajoelina’s Viva TV after it broadcasted an interview in late December 2008 with fugitive former president Ratsiraka.

Tension escalated between President Ravalomanana and Mayor Rajoelina and their respective partisans, especially after Rajoelina called for a general strike in January aimed at ousting the man he publically reviled as a “dictator.” Street protests became increasingly violent, with Rajoelina supporters setting fire the building housing the state-owned radio network as well as attacking a television station owned by Ravalomanana (they latter returned to torch the television studio as well). As the violence spread, so did the casualties, including several dozen people who were trapped inside a department store when looters set it ablaze. In early February, after Rajoelina proclaimed himself the new leader of Madagascar and demanded Ravalomanana’s resignation, the president invoked the constitution and dismissed the mayor from his municipal office. Rajoelina, far from being cowed, proceeded to appoint a rival government. Violence continued to escalate as the two leaders held competing rallies which drew tens of thousands of people.

Only towards the beginning of March that Ravalomanana seemed to have come to terms with the perilous position he found himself in and tried to arrest Rajoelina, who then went into hiding at what turned out to be the French ambassador’s residence. Meanwhile, events were quickly spinning out of control. On March 8th, soldiers based outside the capital mutinied when they received orders to participate in a crack-down against the opposition. Two days later, after the death toll in the violence passed the one hundred mark, the chief of staff of the Malagasy army, General Edmond Rasalomahandry, gave both sides a seventy-two-hour deadline to settle their differences peacefully, threatening to intervene if the deadlock continued. Instead, less than 24 hours after laying down his ultimatum, it was General Rasolomahandry who was gone, driven from army headquarters by pro-Rajoelina troops, and replaced by a subordinate, Colonel André Andriarijaona. The defense minister, Vice Admiral Mamy Ranaivoniarivo, was likewise forced from office, resigning hastily after receiving a “visit” from a group of junior officers who had declared for the TGV. The next day, March 12th, other pro-Rajoelina soldiers seized the Ministry of Finance building. On March 13th, the chief of the military police, General Pily Gilbain, declared for Rajoelina while another officer, Colonel Noel Rakotonandrasana, reportedly sent tanks under his command towards Iavoloha Palace, the official residence of the Malagasy head of state 15 kilometers outside the capital, where Ravalomanana was holed up, protected by a human shield of several thousand supporters who surrounded the compound. The following day, after the prime minister’s offices in Antananarivo fell to his supporters, Rajoelina demanded that the president resign “in order to respect legal procedure.” Instead, Ravalomanana emerged at the presidential residence last Sunday to propose a national referendum on whether he should stay in office or not.

Sensing he had his opponent cornered, Rajoelina rejected the call for a vote and called on security forces to arrest the president. On Monday, soldiers who had declared for Rajoelina stormed the French colonial AmbohitsirohitraPalace, the official offices of the Malagasy president in Antananarivo, and handed the building over the former mayor of the capital who installed himself in the presidential suite. From there, Rajoelina sent supporters out to seize the offices of the Central Bank of Madagascar. The next day, President Ravalomanana, who had fled the capital and hiding in an undisclosed location, gave up the struggle, signing an order turning executive power over to the senior officer left in the Malagasy armed forces, Vice Admiral Hippolyte Ramaroson. Late Tuesday, however, the BBC reported that the naval officer had declined to accept the authority the outgoing president tried to hand off and turned the leadership of the country over to Rajoelina, despite constitutional provisions mandating that the leader of the Senate assume the acting presidency and organize elections within two months should the head of state resign.

In an interview Wednesday with the BBC, Rajoelina, who is six years too young to constitutionally serve as president even if he had entered office in a more regular manner, promised elections within two years after he time to tinker with the constitution and the electoral laws: “We’ll have to change the constitution…have to analyze the law on political parties, the electoral code; we need time to do all this.” Like all too many who have seized power before him in Africa and elsewhere, he claimed exigent circumstances and the mandate of the masses for his having bypassed legal norms: “The life of the country cannot wait, so for this reason the people, the very life force of Madagascar, have named me as president of the republic.”

The Malagasy coup d’état has been widely condemned, with most criticism directed at the extralegal recourse the Rajoelina and his supporters took to vindicate their grievances. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announcedgravely concerned about the evolving developments in that he was “Madagascar.” At the U.S. State Department, acting spokesman Robert Wood told reporters Tuesday that while “all of the parties to this conflict need to exercise restraint and resume dialogue…any extra-constitutional resolution will result in a cutoff of U.S. assistance.”Later in the day, the State Department ordered all nonessential staff at the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo and the families of all American personnel there to leave the country, while Jody Olsen, acting director of the Peace Corps, announced the suspension of the program and the safe evacuation of all 112 volunteers working in Madagascar to South Africa. Meanwhile, the European Union’s high representative for common foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, issued a statement declaring that “the use of violence as a means to short-circuit the constitutional process is unacceptable.”

Similarly the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping, declared the takeover “unconstitutional,” while the Voice of America quoted Burkina Faso’s representative to the pan-African body, Ambassador Bruno Nongoma Zidouemba, acting president of the AU Peace and Security Council, as noting that because Ravalomanana had resigned under duress, “it will be a coup d’état. And as usual, we will apply the rules of the AU. All of these provisions condemn the anti-constitutional changes of government, be they military or civilian or a combination of both. So on this, there is not a doubt and the Council is unanimous on this.” (In two other cases where power has been seized in Africa in recent months, Guinea in December 2008 and Mauritania in August 2008, the AU has suspended the countries from the organization. In a third case, Comoros, it deployed a military mission exactly one year ago to reassert the authority of the national government over an island threatening secession. While Andry Rajoelina in Antananarivo will undoubtedly be shunned by the continental grouping just like his counterparts Captain Moussa Dadis Camara in Conakry and General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in Nouakchott, it is inconceivable that the AU could mount any sort of armed intervention against him like it did against Colonel Mohamed Said Bacar on Anjouan.)

While its ultimate disposition is still unclear at the time of this writing, what are some of the general conclusions might be drawn from this episode?

First, the international community needs to be alert to the tremendous pressure that the current global economic crisis places on financially fragile developing countries like those in Africa. Despite the progress that Madagascar has seen in recent years, especially under the now-maligned President Ravalomanana, more that 70% of the population still struggles to make ends meet on less than $1 a day. And, unfortunately, with the collapse of prices on its primary export commodities – coffee and vanilla – the sheer number of people struggling with poverty has increased. Moreover, unlike past periods, those who find themselves marginalized are no longer suffering silently in remote villages. They are more likely to be congregated in urban centers like Antananarivo where they can be easily whipped into a frenzied mob by demagogues like Andry Rajoelina.

Second, mob rule is the form of government least likely to achieve positive outcomes, much less deliver the sustained economic growth that individual members of the mob in places like Madagascar so desperately need. To do grow their economies, countries must attract investment by being competitive, which means, according to the Lake Kivu Consensus: An Agenda for a Competitive Africa, a recently document published by the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, “the ability to sustain an environment in which firms can profitably produce goods and services that the market will pay for.” Madagascar will take years to recover from the damage which the mass demonstrations of recent months and the overthrow of the country’s democratically-elected head of state has wreaked on the island’s reputation, to say nothing of its investment climate. The same goes specifically for Madagascar’s nearly $400 million a year tourism business, one of the fastest growing sectors of the Malagasy economy. Not many well-heeled tourists will be looking to vacation in a place where angry mobs have been roaming about for several months baying for the blood of their own elected leaders.

Third, while the Malagasy themselves bear primary responsibility for the situation in which they now find themselves – after all, just a little more than three months ago, Ghanaians on the other side of the African continent, likewise stood on the brink, but they and their leaders wisely backed away once they took a hard look at the precipice (see my January 15tb report on “Ghana Again Blazes the Trail for Africa”) – Madagascar’s international partners are not without some responsibility. In a sharp critique published last year in the venerable journal of the Royal African Society, African Affairs, Dr. Nadia Rabesahala Horning of MiddleburyCollege raised the question of why it is that Madagascar, a country that has always struggled to meet its development and environmental goals, never suffered a shortage of foreign assistance. Focusing in particular on aid to conservation efforts, the scholar makes a convincing case that a “mutual dependency” has developed between donors and the beneficiary of their largesse:

The case of Madagascar reveals a great irony: while foreign donors seek to control recipient governments’ policy agendas, they find themselves trapped in a situation of dependency in which the incentives for aid organizations to turn foreign aid into strong development or environmental performance become weak. The dilemma is that the success of foreign aid goes against the very raison d’être of aid agencies and against the interests of the professionals who work for them.

Fourth, Madagascar’s international partners in general and the various agencies of the United States government in particular all need to reassess their analytical protocols and determine how it is they were largely ill-prepared for – if not altogether surprised by – the current crisis. Certainly given the now manifest weakness of the democratic ethos, much less of the governmental institutions, in Madagascar, it almost beggars the imagination that just a few years ago this was the very first country deemed worthy of support from the U.S. taxpayer-funded Millennium Challenge Account. Nor are the American diplomatic and foreign aid bureaucracy the only part of the U.S. government to have invested much in a partnership with the Malagasy. The U.S. defense establishment likewise banked considerably on the stability and capabilities of the Ravalomanana government. In 2006, the Combined Task Force-Horn of Africa, together with the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo, with support from the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), and the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), chose the Malagasy capital as the venue for the first-ever conference on maritime security in East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean as a precursor for what would the following year be a ministerial-level meeting. Less than two months ago, the commander of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), General William E. “Kip” Ward, made his first official visit to the island nation, conferring with President Ravalomanana and various other officials of the now-deposed government.

Finally, if democracy is to be promoted in Africa, then greater attention must be paid to the content and nuance of what is actually being advanced. Last year, commenting in this column space on the post-election violence in Kenya, I noted that “democracy is more than merely counting heads periodically” and quoted James Madison – whose 258th birthday coincidentally was earlier this week – in the tenth paper of The Federalist to the effect that “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Instead, I argued, “the democratic ideal that ought to be proposed to…African countries should include not only by representation, whereby those governing are chosen by the people in periodic free, fair, and transparent elections, but also constitutionalism, which provides for a government based on the rule of law whose power is circumscribed to prevent the abuse of the fundamental rights and liberties of individuals by the majority or plurality of their fellow citizens. Only when the cost of being out of power is lowered below that of political violence to achieve it will African countries know the security and stability without which the prospects for their future – and America’s national interests in an increasingly significant geopolitical space – will be quite bleak.” More than one year later, the mad mobs on the streets of Antananarivo are a sober reminder of just how far a road much of Africa has yet to travel.