Ex-CECs bat for simultaneous elections in India, but say 2019 time frame for implementation looks unachievable

Even as the debate over holding simultaneous elections for state Assemblies and Parliament rages on, two former chief election commissioners have come out in support of the idea. Pitched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the idea found supporters in N Gopalaswami and SY Quraishi on Wednesday who said that it will be cost and time effective for a country like India.

“If the question is whether the Election Commission will be able to conduct such an election. The answer is an emphatic yes,” Gopalswami, who was the chief election commissioner between 2006 and 2009, told Firstpost. 

Quraishi, who served as the CEC between 2010 tro 2012, said, “Logistically, it is the most convenient and the best idea. This is because voter is the same, the polling station is the same, the staff and the security is also the same. Modi has been a votary of simultaneous elections,arguing that a continuous cycle of elections across the country harms developmental works due to enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct, besides incurring a huge cost.

The buzz around simultaneous elections gathered steam after President Ram Nath Kovind in his annual parliamentary address backed the Centre over the idea. “A sustained debate is required on the subject of simultaneous elections and all political parties need to arrive at a consensus on this issue,” Kovind had said in his address.

Quraishi urged the Modi government to call for an all-party meeting to establish a consensus on the issue, which has sharply divided the political parties in India. On the other hand, Gopalswami said that the ruling party needs to have the will power to implement the idea.

Making state and central elections simultaneous would, however, mean an amendment to the Indian Constitution. But Gopalswami was confident.

“We need a constitutional amendment for validating simultaneous elections in India. If political parties have to come together in the past for dozens of amendments, they can do so this time too,” Gopalswami said while pointing out the manner in which parties came to a consensus on the Goods and Services Tax.

However, as high profile states such as Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat had voted in 2017, a simultaneous election to the Assemblies and the Parliament in 2019 would mean snap polls in these states.

“We can see this happening in 2024 or 2029. The machines won’t be ready for the process by 2019. There are already some states that go to polls with Lok Sabha. In 2019, few more may go for simultaneous polls,” Quraishi, a 1971-batch Haryana cadre IAS officer, told Firstpost.

Gopalswami also echoed similar views and said, “Implementation will be a problem as the election season is not in sync now. We may see this happening in the next cycle (2024 or 2029).” Historically, India followed the pattern of simultaneous elections till 1967 before it was broken by former prime minister Indira Gandhi, who called for an early election in February-March 1971.

Former home minister Lal Krishna Advani, too, had pitched the idea of “one nation, one poll” in 2009. However, regional parties and national parties like CPM have been opposing the idea on the ground that it would go against the principle of federalism.

Speaking at an event on Tuesday, Congress leader P Chidambaram dismissed the idea as an “election jumla.”

“In a parliamentary democracy, especially when we have 30 states, under the present Constitution you cannot have simultaneous election. This is another of these election jumla. One nation, one tax was a jumla. Now one nation, one election is a jumla,” the Rajya Sabha MP said.

“This is why Modi needs to come to a consensus with all parties so that the process is smooth,” Quraishi said. Gopalaswami agreed and added, “India is more unitary than federal. Those raising the issue of federalism are just indulging in political gimmick.”

Ultimately, simultaneous election is also being pegged as a measure to fight money power in election campaigning. Quraishi, who has written extensively on electoral reforms in India, referred to his 2016 article published in The Indian Express, which had urged the government to clamp down on corrupt practices. While Quraishi maintained that elections have “become a fountainhead of corruption”, he added, “To win an election, you need to collect funds and every election cycle is also a corruption cycle.”

Gopalaswami had a tongue-in-cheek response: “The idea will be bad for only those voters who are used to receiving money twice in five years.”

This article was originally written for Firstpost.com

Afghanistan’s ordeal: Will terror-hit country realise its economic potential or fall prey again to geo-political machinations?

Things changed forever for Afghanistan in 1979 when the first Soviet troops entered through the then Tajik SSR (now Tajikistan). For the next decade, Afghanistan became the battleground for a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the end, the Soviets experienced their “Vietnam”, but not before the Cold War rivalry ravaged millions of lives.

But for the men and women of Afghanistan, the misery didn’t end. With a weak central government, anarchy ruled the mid-90s until the Taliban took power in 1996. It took another invasion, this time by the US-led NATO forces, in the aftermath of the 9/11, to overthrow them. But, fast forward to 2018: Suicide attacks and car bombings haunt the country.

Afghanistan was a major topic of discussion at the recently-concluded Raisina Dialogue 2018 in New Delhi. And rightfully so. Strategically located at the crossroads of South and Central Asia, Afghanistan’s stability is of paramount importance for all players involved in the region: US, India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China.

Kabul has recently been rocked by multiple attacks. The recent uptick in such incidents, especially in urban centres, is alarming. Speaking with Firstpost on the condition of anonymity, a member of the Afghan administration said: “The Taliban is still prominent. The attacks are only rising as they have realised that the NATO troops will increase, and that the coalition may not leave Afghanistan.”

In August 2017, US president Donald Trump announced a troop increase in Afghanistan. That process was completed in November. While Taliban remains the obvious threat, the rise of the Islamic State is a worrying trend. For a country already facing religious extremism, this added another dimension to the ongoing War on Terror.

US vital to Afghanistan’s stability

The official added, “We are not studying the Islamic State. We are not focusing on how we can get rid of them. We have been relying on US military to eliminate them.”

While the unnamed official was supportive of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan, former president Hamid Karzai, a panelist for one of the Raisina sessions, criticised the US for failing to stop the rise of the Islamic State.

But Karzai’s rather “mild rap” betrayed the fact that any debate on Afghanistan’s present or future was incomplete without accounting for the United States. Speaking at the dialogue, Karzai urged the Americans to continue helping to rebuild Afghanistan.

However, the relationship between Kabul and Washington is at best complex, thanks to the US’ historic ties with Pakistan (an adversary of Afghanistan). Karzai narrated an interesting story to describe the Afghan-Pakistan-US quandary,

“As the president, I once met several US senators and informed them about the terror sanctuaries in Pakistan. Then suddenly, one of them told me that Pakistan is 50 times more important to the US than Afghanistan.”

However, speaking to Firstpost, veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as US envoy to Afghanistan between 2003 and 2005, said the US will continue to thwart Pakistan’s designs on Afghanistan.

“Since 9/11, we have been fighting against Pakistan’s plans for the Afghans. Apart from a military strategy, we have also used positive incentives to discourage Pakistan from targeting Afghanistan. We also brought Karzai and (Pervez) Musharraf to the table,” he said.

The “Pakistani plans” that Khalilzad alluded to may be Islamabad’s policy of “strategic depth”, which sought to make Afghanistan a “client state”.

Pakistan has also been successful in playing a double game by supporting the Taliban through the Haqqani Network.

But does Trump’s New Year’s Day tweet, which condemned Pakistan for providing sanctuary to terrorists and warned of cutting aid, offer new hope to 34 million Afghans?

While Trump’s tweet might have given some hope to Afghan watchers, past precedent of Pakistani involvement in terrorism (Read sheltering Osama bin Laden) has not deterred Washington from continuing its partnership with Islamabad.

“We have been deceived by Pakistan in the past. This must change. We need to convince them to change. If that does not happen, there are a number of steps we can take including freezing of security assistance,” said Khalilzad.

While Karzai complained about nuances of American policy, he was vocal in backing the US-led West to stay in Afghanistan.

“I am a pro-American person. We invited the US-led NATO because we believed in their ideology of freedom and democracy. We definitely need the US to stay in Afghanistan as our ‘strategic partner.’”

‘India is like a friend to Afghanistan’

India has pumped in more than $3.1 billion since the fall of the Taliban regime. Several Indian companies have showed interest in the untapped sectors of the Afghan economy, while the two air corridors connecting Kabul to Delhi and Mumbai as well as the opening of the Chabahar Port will boost bilateral trade.

India’s involvement with Afghanistan strengthened in September 2017, when it agreed to jointly work on 116 new “high impact” development projects in 31 provinces of Afghanistan.

In terms of optics, India has ticked all the right boxes. The inauguration of the Salma Dam and the Afghan Parliament, both built with Indian funds, as well as several showcases of soft power have created goodwill for India.

“India is like a friend to Afghanistan,” said the unnamed Afghan official when asked if Afghans perceived New Delhi acting like “big brother”. “A brother will dictate you… don’t do this and that, which is not the case with India.”

China, India’s geo-political rival, is another notable player. China’s humanitarian contribution may well be below that of India. But Beijing, betting on Kabul’s strategic location and untapped market and emerged as the biggest foreign investor after 2014. “One cannot deny the fact that China is a huge reality in Afghanistan and it is here to stay,” Karzai said. ​

The biggest player in Afghanistan is undoubtedly the United States, which along with its NATO and non-NATO allies, contributes the largest chunk to the global humanitarian aid, and therefore holds considerable influence. With reports of over $3 trillion worth of untapped mineral resources lying under the Afghan land — a discovery attributed to the United States — Washington isn’t going anywhere, at least in the near future.

As External Affairs Minister VK Singh noted, “Afghanistan will be in trouble till the time there is no free flow of goods and services. This will improve the economy and integrate it to the rest of the world.”The economic opening up of Afghanistan may turn out to be the much-needed boost to fight terrorism and instability. Better economic integration may help Afghanistan shed the unwanted tag of being the biggest producer of opium and contribute positively to the global economy.

Will history repeat itself?

History bears witness to Afghanistan’s strategic advantage being exploited by global powers even as it repeatedly falls prey to geo-political machinations.

In the 21st Century, the story of Afghanistan may lie somewhere between the larger tale of US decline and China’s ascendance as a dominant power in international affairs.

China, for its part, is outlining its global agenda through the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While Afghanistan is still not officially involved in the two projects, media reports claim that the Afghan government is willing to participate.

Afghanistan’s unexplored resources may quench China’s growing energy needs and its location can help it transform into a transport hub connecting South and Central Asia. However, that’s easier said than done.

China’s rise clashes with Trump’s new policy for Afghanistan, which envisions a greater role for India. Which could result in two scenarios: China, the US, India and to an extent Russia, cooperating in the interest of Afghanistan’s long-term stability. Or another superpower rivalry in our backyard, not necessarily involving guns, but yet again undermining Afghanistan’s sovereignty.

This article was originally published on Firstpost.com. Read the original article here.

Nepal polls 2017: As Communists rise to power, India’s ‘big brother’ attitude only alienated the Nepalis

When the then Nepal prime minister Sushil Koirala attended the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi, there was hope for a rejuvenation in bilateral ties. Such an optimism was also backed by Modi’s aim to help India forge stronger ties with its neighbours.

The debut of the “neighbourhood first” policy was spectacular by all measures. No other leader in the past had invited leaders of the SAARC nation to his/her swearing-in ceremony.

The symbolic gesture helped Modi to hit the job running as far as foreign policy was concerned. However, three and a half years later, the “neighbourhood first” policy is now under scrutiny. Courtesy: Nepal.

Communists rise to power

As per latest news reports, the Left alliance — CPN-UML and CPN Maoist — have won an outright majority to form the next government after the democratically-struggling Nepal voted for a new parliament.

According to the latest Election Commission of Nepal report, the Left alliance has won 116 out of the 165 directly-elected seats in the parliament.

For the first time since the republic came into existence in 2008, the Communists command a clear majority.

Given the historic antipathy of the Communists towards India, the election may end up being a watershed event in India-Nepal ties. And the reasons for it are not difficult to find.

India’s big brother attitude: 1950 to present 

Both Nepali Congress — often considered pro-India — and the Communists have decried the alleged “big brother” attitude of India.

In geopolitics, “big brother” attitude is an oft-repeated allegation against regional powers. But Nepali politicians are not totally wrong too.

Since the 1950s, India has treated Nepal as an extension of its own geographic reality, so much as those allegations of New Delhi’s “intervention” in Kathmandu’s domestic affairs have been raised at regular intervals.

It was this anti-India sentiment which helped in the rise of the Maoists in Nepal, who waged a civil war between 1996 and 2006.

The Nepali antipathy seemed to have hit the nadir in the last decade or so.

During the popular uprising against the Shah monarchy, India remained a confused observer of the happenings. Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran stated in his latest book How India sees the World that India first backed the Royal Nepal Army against the Maoists. However, sensing the change in the wind, India later backed a reconciliation between the mainstream parties and Maoist.

But historical baggage attached to India as well as its own confused policy between 2001 and 2008 did not help matters for India.

Downturn in ties under Modi

Not that India under Modi did not start on a good note with Nepal. In August 2014, Modi was the first prime minister to visit Nepal in 17 years. The prime minister had also announced a $1 billion Line of Credit for the former Hindu kingdom.

India’s prompt response in the aftermath of the devastating Nepal earthquake was appreciated. However, the way Indian media presented the whole rescue effort as some kind of a “favour” bolstered the local antipathy towards Nepal.

A democratic Nepal felicitated the rise of China in Nepal. For a country long under the intimidating shadows of India, China came as a saviour.

As per a Hindustan Times report, China has invested about $8 billion in 2017. In the last 11 years, China’s bilateral trade with Nepal has grown 17 times faster than India’s. In 2014, the year Modi took power, China surpassed India as the biggest foreign investor in Nepal.

If economic ties are any mark of diplomatic trajectory, then India seems to have already lost the plot.

To make matters worse, India enforced a blockade on the India-Nepal border, unhappy over the new constitution which it believed did not do justice to the people of the Terai plains.

In this case too, India played into the hands of anti-India forces in Nepal and reinforced the “big brother” argument in the hill state.

Moreover, the Nepalis were reminded of the 1987 blockade, which was a result of India’s strategic insecurity vis-à-vis China.

Such was the impact of the long-drawn blockade that even KP Sharma Oli, reported by the media to be India-friendly, turned towards China.

“It is unthinkable that a sovereign nation faces such an inhumane and severe pain, misery and blockade in the 21st century for having a Constitution with progressive, pro-people and democratic contents through an elected Constituent Assembly with people’s overwhelming participation and democratic franchise,” Oli said in a televised address in November 2015.

With such an acrimonious downturn in the last two years, the recent results come as no surprise.

A China-backed Oli is all set to bolster China’s footprint in Nepal, all at the cost of India.

Can we hope for a better future?

Of all the countries that India shares a border, it is perhaps Nepal, with whom it shares a very close relationship.

Given such “brotherly” ties, the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship came as no surprise. Much to the credit of both the countries, the treaty has stood the test of times despite occasional upheavals.

But that novelty that India has been enjoying may soon end if India does not do the necessary course correction.

In his latest book, Saran, a former ambassador to Nepal, stressed upon the need for India to give open access to its ports and transportation network to Nepal. According to him, this may help create “positive inter-dependency” between each other.

In the post-blockade era, Saran’s idea seems to be a repentance for what India did in 2015. But will that help resurrect the relationship is yet to be seen.

 

This article was originally written for Firstpost.com

Ahead of RBI policy, Surjit Bhalla wants MPC to cut rate by 200 bps, says central bank shouldn’t be carried away by 6.3% GDP

Mumbai: Ahead of the Reserve Bank of India’s Monetary Policy Committee meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday, Surjit Bhalla, noted economist and part-time member of Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, on Monday reiterated his demand for a deep cut in the policy rate.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a discussion hosted by the Asia Society India Centre, on his latest book ‘The New Wealth of Nations’, Bhalla said, “Either the RBI needs to cut rates by 200 basis points over a period of time to bring it (real repo rate) to one percent or else inflation must rise at the same rate.”

“The MPC had a target of 1.25 percent real repo rate – repo rate minus the inflation rate. However, the average real repo rate since last 14 months has been three percent, which is double the RBI’s target,” he added.

Bhalla urged the RBI to not be carried away by the recent jump in the growth rate from 5.6 to 6.3 percent, adding that the central bank too had projected a potential growth rate of over 7.5 percent.

However, Bhalla rued the MPC’s reluctance to cut rates and said, “We have the third highest real interest rates in the world. The average inflation rate is around three percent since last year. Previously, it was around 8-9 percent. The world is becoming competitive, yet we have high interest rates.”

Bhalla sought an explanation from the RBI as to why the central bank decreased the interest rates in October 2016, when the inflation rate was around five percent, but is unwilling to do so now when the inflation rate is much lower.

Bhalla told reporters that the members of the MPC are not allowed to speak to the media, which he said hampers effective communication over key policy matters.The economist believed that even the 1.25 percent target of the RBI is high for markets with low inflation rates and excessive competition like India.

On the impact of the goods and services tax on the economy, he told Firstpost, “We need to give GST some time. It is a major tax reform of the Modi government and very few countries have attempted it on such a large scale. I applaud the government for admitting to its mistake openly. In the next six months, the glitches will be gone, and we will see some positive effects.”

Bhalla said the government needed to prioritise boosting economic growth rates to create more jobs for the youth, while he blamed the MPC for not doing its role in maximising India’s growth potential.

“The central point is why the MPC is not cutting down the interest rates to reduce the cost of capital. MPC’s reluctance to do so means that no businesses can survive as the cost of working capital is high and no entrepreneur will be willing to hire new people,” the PMEAC member said.

Bhalla believed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project Skill India has been going in the right direction till now.

“It has gone through its own set of problems. Hopefully, the Indian economy will see the benefit from this programme,” he told Firstpost.

The economist added that acquiring skills is increasingly becoming important in the modern competitive world, since just basic education won’t suffice now.

On India’s sluggish export figures, Bhalla rejected calls for devaluation of the rupee and added that the exchange rate is competitive. He said that India’s exports have taken a hit due to high tax rates as well as higher cost of capital.
“Exports will certainly improve if the RBI reduced the interest rates, while the government slashed taxes,” the economist said.

Bhalla lauded the Modi government for kickstarting the reform process in the banking sector adding that the reforms in sectors such as education, healthcare and agriculture can begin from 2019 onwards.

“In the past, reforms meant reducing or increasing taxes. This is history now. A committee has been set up under Arbind Modi to consider direct tax system reforms. We already have the GST, which has reformed the indirect tax system. Then from 2019 onwards, we will see reforms in other sectors too,” he said.

This article was originally written for Firstpost.com

Narendra Modi in Israel today: Tel Aviv’s journey from being a ‘pariah’ to becoming India’s strategic partner

Turning pages back to August 1977, a man came on a secret assignment to help his country forge diplomatic ties with India. However, he had to leave the country without being able to convince the Indian leadership. The man was none other than Moshe Dayan, the legendary Israeli general-turned-foreign minister.

What Dayan failed to do in 1977, finally happened in January 1992, when the India and Israel finally established full diplomatic ties. The momentous shift in the relationship did not just happen in short notice.

***

To begin with, India did recognise the existence of Israel on 17 September 1950. New Delhi also allowed Tel Aviv to have a consulate in Mumbai in 1953. But with India taking the side of the Palestinians, ties were largely non-existent. It is a matter of fact that even today Israel is hyphenated with Palestine, just as India has historically been bracketed with Pakistan.

India was the first non-Arab country to recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. Consequently, PLO opened its office in New Delhi in January 1975, which was granted full diplomatic recognition in March 1980 – just weeks after Indira Gandhi returned to power. Indira’s foreign minister was PV Narasimha Rao, the man who eventually helped India establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. Under Rajiv Gandhi, India became one of the first countries to recognise the State of Palestine in November 1988.

It is well recorded that PLO chief Yasser Arafat had good relations with India’s establishment, particularly the Gandhi family. Former foreign minister Natwar Singh wrote in his book, “Walking with the Lions: Tales from a diplomatic past,” how Arafat called Indira his “elder sister” after Cuba’s Fidel Castro questioned him on his tantrums during the opening session of the NAM Summit in March 1983.

That fact notwithstanding, India’s ties with Palestine were built on certain principles too.

Firstly, a partitioned-ravaged India was against any other partition based on religion. This explains why New Delhi voted against the creation of Israel in 1947.

Secondly, as a victim of colonialism, the Nehru-led India was at the forefront of the anti-colonial fight. Nehruvian ethos dubbed the Palestinian cause as a colonial fight against West’s oppression. Years later, when the UN debated whether Zionism is racism, India voted in favour of the resolution.

Thirdly, India was a founding member of the Non-Alignment Movement, a group of third world countries not aligned to the US or the USSR – the two superpowers of the Cold War. However, the prevalent line of thought in the NAM camp was closer to that of the Soviet bloc rather than truly being neutral. Additionally, India had been close to the erstwhile communist superpower, which had close ties with the Arab world (at least until the mid-70s) and no diplomatic relations with Israel.

While these three factors had largely been instrumental in determining India-Palestine ties, the Hindu right-wing had long been alleging Congress’ fear of losing its traditional Muslim vote-bank behind India’s support to the Palestinian cause and its refusal to establish ties with Israel.

Nevertheless, it also cannot be denied that the Palestine issue has been construed as a Zionist war against Islam by Islamists. But such a view is essentially flawed as the Fatah and the PFLP, the two largest factions of the PLO, were ideologically secular and espoused Arab nationalism – not Islamism.

***

The 1990s brought about major changes in India’s post-independence history. Along with its tryst with LPG (Liberalisation, Globalisation and Privatisation), India was also witnessing the demise of the Soviet Union. With Moscow no longer in a position to support New Delhi on the international stage, India had to amend its foreign policy.

While India’s had been warming up to the US since the 80s, the dissolution of the USSR gave India a chance to truly have an independent foreign policy in a post-Cold unipolar world.

India’s diplomatic reach out to Israel was hastened by the events of 1991, though the collapse of the mighty Soviet Union played only an indirect role to say the least.

There were some major turning points which led to India’s embrace of the Jewish state.

In 1969, Pakistan stopped India from becoming the member of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). This was despite the Arab countries inviting New Delhi to the first summit in Rabat. However, from then onwards, Pakistan strengthened itself in the group, often gaining support on the Kashmir issue.

During the 1971 India-Pakistan war, UN Resolution 2793, which sought to end India’s intervention in East Pakistan, was endorsed by all Arab countries except Oman.

Years later, JN Dixit, the former foreign secretary, is reported to have said,

“What have the Arabs given us, if I may ask? Did they vote for us in the Kashmir issue? Were they supportive of us when we had the East Pakistan crisis?”

With Egypt, India’s NAM partner, once an arch-rival of the Jewish nation, recognising Israel in 1979, and the Arab countries de facto recognising the Jewish state after the 1991 Madrid Conference, India’s stance looked more and more obsolete in a dynamic arena.

***

The decision to forge ties with Israel was taken by the Rao government after seeking PLO’s tacit “No Objection” to the decision. Vinay Sitapati in his book, “Half Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao transformed India,” described how a wily Rao made Arafat toe his line.

When Arafat had visited India in January 1992, Rao privately informed him that India can put diplomatic pressure on Israel only if it has an embassy in Tel Aviv. Arafat understood the real context and in a press conference gave tacit support to India’s path-breaking decision.

However, the outreach to Israel did not mean India had abandoned Palestine. Symbolism plays a pivotal role in politics. What Rao did was just that. The foreign ministry released a photo which showed the prime minister giving a bear hug to Arafat – a signal that India valued its friendship with Palestine.

Nevertheless, the initial days were not encouraging. The fear of Muslim resentment prevented the Congress party from openly pursuing the relationship. For example, when Arjun Singh became the first cabinet minister to visit Israel, he came under hostile fire. When Israel proposed a civil aviation deal with India, the proposal was rejected on fears of “alienating a large section of Muslims.”

The relationship remained in shadows until the BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee cosied up to Tel Aviv. The then home minister, LK Advani and foreign minister Jaswant Singh visited Israel in 2000.

The major milestone in the bilateral ties came on 9 September 2003, when the then prime minister, Ariel Sharon visited India. The visit paved way for a slew of defence deals, notableamong them the Phalcon early-warning radar system.

However, after the Vajpayee government was voted out and the United Progressive Alliance formed the government, relations remained lukewarm – at least in the public eye. The reason once again had to do with Palestine. This, however, did not mean that the ties cultivated since the early 1990s were downgraded. In fact, it was during UPA regime that Israel began emerging as one of the top defence partners of India.

While Russia – and the United States since the last few years – remains India’s top defence destination, its position is being threatened by Israel. A February 2017 report by Sweden-based think tank SIPRI highlighted Tel Aviv’s rising military clout. The report noted that 68 percent of India’s arms between 2012 and 2016 come from Russia, while the US came a distant second at 14 percent. While Israel was a distant third, contributing just 7.2 percent of India’s total arms in those years, it is nevertheless a major achievement for a country which does not produce heavy weaponry like tanks and aircraft. Israel’s strength lies in developing technologies that aid such heavy weaponry.

The Barak 8 missile system has been the biggest military collaboration between the two countries. A joint project between the Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Barak 8 is an anti-aircraft missile system, which would be fitted in all Indian Navy warships in the future.

The Barak 8 missile system constitutes both, Medium Range-Surface to Air Missiles as well as Long Range-Surface to Air Missiles. In April 2017, the IAI bagged a $2 billion deal to supply these missiles for the army and navy. A month, the IAI bagged another $630 million deal to supply Long Range Surface to Air Missiles for the armed forces. The missile deal may have propelled Israel to the numero uno position as a report in Business Standard noted that the Jewish state could overtake the US as India’s largest arms supplier in 2016-17.

***

Notably, India and Israel had developed clandestine military ties way back in the early 70s itself. At least on two occasions, the two countries seemed to have sought some co-operation from each other.

During the 1971 war with Pakistan, Indira had authorised the RAW to buy weapons from Israel through the principality of Liechtenstein. However, in return, the then Israeli prime minister Golda Meir wanted New Delhi to recognise Tel Aviv. But the request was not granted.

Then in 1984, Israel had sought India’s tacit support in destroying Pakistan’s Kahuta nuclear plant, to stop Islamabad from building an “Islamic nuclear weapon.” According to strategic expert Bharat Karnad, the plan was stymied by the US after it warned India of strict action.

***

While security matters still underline the relationship between New Delhi and Tel Aviv, there is a lot more to the relations than just arms and ammunitions.

In fact, over 50 percent of the non-defence trade constituted of diamonds in 2016, with the total non-defence trade standing at $4.15 billion. This comes as no surprise as both countries are major centres for diamond trade. In overall terms, there has been a whopping 2,000 percent growth in merchandise trade since 1992.

Israel, owing to its arid geography, developed innovative water management techniques in the 60s. As a result, drip irrigation emerged as one of the greatest innovations in modern agriculture. As elucidated in an earlier article on Firstpost, with India reeling under agricultural crisis, Israel’s expertise can help transform the sector.

Moreover, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had praised Israel’s innovative drip irrigation technologies during his visit 2015 visit to the country. In the same year, both countries also signed a MoU to co-operate on water resources management.

While R&D provides both the countries with the opportunity to take their bilateral cooperation to the next level, there is one sector where India can take some important lessons from Israel – start-ups. Israel is world’s leading start-up nation, with the highest ratio of start-ups in proportion to the population. On the other hand, India, on the back of the “Start-up India” plan, is an aspiring “start-up superpower”.

Understandably, NITI Aayog recently held a competition for start-ups, with the winner getting an opportunity to exhibit his or her work during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tour of Israel.

Israeli envoy David Carmon had told Firstpost in a 2016 interview:

“We believe Israel’s experience in creating a thriving ecosystem for innovation can and should be shared. We should create more platforms for ideas and people from Israel and India to meet and interact.”

***

When Narendra Modi touches down at Tel Aviv on 4 July, it will mark the beginning of a new era in India-Israel ties. Modi will be first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, which for at least four decades remained an “untouchable” for India. The timing is also significant for the fact that this year also marks the 25th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

What makes this trip even more significant is the fact that Modi may skip Palestine during his three-day visit to Israel. If this happens then it might signal a definitive shift in India’s policy towards the Palestine. It is no secret that the BJP has always been pitching for greater ties with Israel. With Modi in office, New Delhi’s engagement with Tel Aviv is finally out in the open – and for good.

But India still maintains good ties with Palestine. During Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ visit to India in May, Modi had pledged India’s support to Palestine. Vajpayee too reiterated his support to the Palestinian cause after Sharon’s 2003 visit. Both times, the prime ministers threaded a cautious path between maintaining old ties and deepening a newer alliance.

Ahead of the historic visit, the Israeli media called Modi “world’s most important prime minister”, an indicator of the importance attached to India-Israel ties. But whether Modi will be able to successfully de-hyphenate Israel from Palestine and bring India’s ties with the Jewish nation out in the open will be seen in the coming days.

 

This article was originally published ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel. Read the original article on Firstpost.com

Election 2017: Constituencies set for wafer-thin margins and photo-finish results

The 2017 election season is here. Five states — Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa — will hold Assembly elections, which start on 4 February in Goa and Punjab.

Uttar Pradesh, the biggest state in the country, will be the most crucial battleground for all parties. The sheer scale of elections in UP, with all its complexities and unpredictabilities, can be mind-boggling for any Indian, let alone for a foreign observer like the BBC, which compared UP to the nation of Brazil.

Punjab, on the other hand, is all set to witness a three-cornered fight between the AAP, Congress and the ruling SAD-BJP alliance.

The tiny tourist haven of Goa — 40 Assembly seats — also seems to be moving towards a three-way electoral contest between the ruling BJP, Congress and the newly formed MGP-led alliance.

Uttarakhand, which experienced a brief spell of political instability last year, will see a straight toss-up between Congress and BJP, while the volatile state of Manipur, which is witnessing a long-drawn economic blockade, will see Assembly polls marred by the traditional Meitei versus Naga rivalry.

While the run-up to the election itself will witness spectacular fireworks by rival political parties, the possible scenarios post the election results on 11 March can spring many surprises for political pundits and contenders alike.

Close contests:

Close contests in any election can be nerve-wracking for the candidates. Ask Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who just about crossed the finish line after a hard fought race against BJP’s O Rajagopal in the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in the historic 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Historically, closely fought electoral bouts have sprung surprises too. Yashwant Deshmukh, noted psephologist and managing director of international polling agency C-Voter, recalled the unexpected thumping of Congress veteran CP Joshi by BJP’s Kalyan Singh Chauhan in the 2008 Rajasthan Assembly election. The unexpected loss of the Congress’ chief ministerial candidate was compounded by the fact that he had lost by a single vote! However, the story ended in an anti-climax, when the election was declared void by the Rajasthan high court.

Nevertheless, close contests are an integral part of democracy. Narrow margins of victory are seen commonly in the tiny constituencies of the North East states. In the opinion of former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi, who had notably presided over the 2012 cycle of the five-state elections, “narrow margins can make a big difference in smaller states”.

Take this for example: In the last election to the Manipur Assembly, 20 out of 60 seats were won by a margin of fewer than 1,000 votes; seven were won by a margin of less than two percent votes, with the narrowest margin of victory recorded in Hiyanglam constituency: 17 votes!

“North Eastern constituencies are so small that margins of 1,000 to 2,000 votes seems large. Any victory with a margin of less than five percent can be considered close,” Deshmukh told Firstpost.

Similarly, if one glances through states like Goa, one can witness that many seats have historically been won by a margin of less than five percent.

Possible reasons behind photo finishes:

In the outgoing 403-seat UP Assembly, 106 MLAs were elected by a margin of less than three percent votes. That is more than one-fourth of the total strength of the Assembly. If one includes legislators who won by a margin of less than five percent, the list gets longer.

There are often many reasons for constituencies turning into arenas for pitch battles between rivals.

The coalition era motivated major parties to form alliances with smaller parties to get the electoral combinations right. Especially in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, where religion and caste play a significant role in consolidating votes. If major parties fail to strike the right electoral chords, then the threat of losing crucial “swing” seats looms large.

Deshmukh adds another major reason for possible narrow margins: Strong rebel candidates in otherwise safe seats. Rebel candidates, he opines, can eat up the vote share, which can be detrimental to victory margins. This, he feels, makes electoral results shaky. The most common reason cited by experts for narrow victories is splitting of votes between more than two strong candidates.

N Gopalaswami, chief election commissioner between 2006 and 2009, said that in states like Bihar and UP, the splitting of votes may lead to narrow margin victories. “Look at a state like UP. Here, three parties may get 28, 26 and 20 percent votes respectively. So the 74 percent total votes get divided among them. The ultimate winner wins by a margin of just two percent,” he opined.

The former bureaucrat added that in states like Gujarat and Kerala — places with a clear two-way fight — the vote may still be decisive (Congress versus BJP and Left front against the UDF, respectively).

However, Jagdeep Chhokar, head of the New Delhi-based NGO Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), felt it doesn’t really matter whether there are more than two candidates in the fray. “If all the candidates are evenly poised, then victory margins will be low,” he said.

With UP set to witness a multi-pronged fight between the ruling Samajwadi Party, principal opposition Bahujan Samaj Party, a Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress, Narayanaswami’s statement may prove to true.

Low margin of victories: Rekindling debate on electoral reforms?

Proponents of the First Past The Poll (FPTP) system believe a win is a win, no matter if it is by one vote or several. “The winner takes all” motto is the underlying theme of the Westminster model of democracy.

Quraishi pointed out the ongoing debate among political scientists on introducing proportional representation. Such a system of democracy is seen in Israel and in the West. Quraishi highlighted the case of Bahujan Samaj Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “BSP had recorded the third largest vote share across India. In UP, the party won 20 percent of the total votes polled, yet it could add no seat to its tally,” noted the 1971 batch IAS officer.

However, notwithstanding the probable flaws with the system, Deshmukh felt that narrowly won constituencies represent a healthy side of democracy. He believed that even a victory achieved by a single vote must also be respected.

An efficient Election Commission:

While Quraishi pointed out that the Election Commission’s efforts to educate the electorate have had a positive impact on voter turnout, he believes it might have played an independent but not necessarily direct role in increasing victory margins in constituencies.

Deshmukh too added that while the Election Commission must be applauded for being the most efficient and trustworthy election body in the world, there is no real correlation between high turnout and victory margins.

On the question whether rigging in elections could help trailing candidates to barely scrape through, the psephologist believed that the introduction of EVMs and strict action against booth capturing has reduced the threat significantly. Quraishi added that the policy of re-polling has also helped reduce irregularities in voting.

Around half to about two-thirds of the sitting MLAs and MPs have been losing in the last two decades, while in 90 percent of the elections, the ruling party failed to get itself re-elected, pointed out the C-Voter chief editor. If this trend continues in 2017, we are in for some interesting times.

 

This article was originally written for Firstpost. Read the article here.

Fall of the Soviet Union: 25 years since one of the biggest events in world history

This week we mark the 25th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the once-mighty “communist empire”, which spanned Central and Northern Asia, Eastern, Southern and Northern Europe; encompassing diverse geographies and ethnic groups. The world’s largest country – its successor state Russia now holds the distinction — held de facto control over several nation-states in Eastern Europe and East Asia. Six years prior to its dissolution, the Soviet Union welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev as its new leader.

The new leader Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, Konstatin Chernenkov, Yuri Andropov and Leonid Brezhnev — all of whom represented the non-revisionist faction of the party, was a moderate reformer. While the former two only ruled for roughly 28 months between them — December 1982 to March 1985, Brezhnev ruled for over 18 years, providing stability as well as fostering a culture of nepotism, bureaucratic red-tape, and dogmatic conservativism.

While many Russians still view Brezhnev favourably — a 2013 poll revealed that 56 percent of Russians elicited positive sentiments towards his rule — the era now believed to have ushered in a prolonged period of stagnation in the Soviet economy, one which ultimately hastened its downfall in 1991.

The USSR was a communist one-party system, and like with many dictatorial regimes, accurate information on key socio-economic indicators were hard to procure. Infact, reports in the American media suggest that the CIA itself believed the Soviet Union was an economic powerhouse.

However, independent economists had a different take altogether. Grigorii Khanin, who is now known to have repudiated the official Soviet economic figures, asserted that USSR’s economy grew at a slower pace than what the world believed. Between 1975 and 1980, the Soviet national income grew only by one percent, while in the next five years, by just 0.6 percent.

While military race was a key reason, there were several other factors too. The over-dependence on oil wealth later proved counter-productive. After initially cashing in on the rising oil prices in the aftermath of the 1973 crisis, the drop in prices in the early 1980s, alleged to have been engineered by the West, dried up Soviet Union’s foreign exchange.A large military budget — because of the arms race with the US — signified the dominance of heavy industrial goods, over consumer goods, which were as a result in short supply. A 1981 report by party official Konoplev, states that the military budget utilised about 35 to 37 percent of the total National Material Product (NMP). NMP was the Soviet equivalent of the West’s Gross Domestic Product. Military spending indeed became a headache for Soviet economic planners, after US president Ronald Reagan decided to put a détente on the backburner, and build up United States’ military capabilities with an aim to weaken the USSR. Reagan believed the USSR would try to catch up with the US which will accelerate the collapse of its economy. The war in Afghanistan too aggravated Moscow’s economic woes.

Domestic policies complicated economic woes. Like in several socialist countries, the policy of no job layoffs inadvertently encouraged worker inefficiency. Corruption was institutionalised in the country.

Gorbachev had his task cut out. In the 1986 Party Congress, the General Secretary announced “perestroika”, which means reconstruction in Russian.

Under “perestroika”, corruption within the party was targeted and restructuring of the party was undertaken. Multi-candidate elections to the local party organs were allowed for the first time to strengthen grass root politics.

On the economic front, Gorbachev steered the economy towards becoming more market-driven while loosening central planning. However, it is wrong in retrospect to term it “a move towards capitalism”. For Gorbachev, it was more to do with rejuvenating an aging economy within the limits of socialism. In Gorbachev’s own words, “Many of you see the solution to your problems in resorting to market mechanisms in place of direct planning. Some of you look at the market as a lifesaver for your economies. But, comrades, you should not think about lifesavers but about the ship, and the ship is socialism.”

The January 1990 opening of a McDonald’s outlet in Moscow was as a result of “perestroika”. Though insignificant in terms of its impact on the overall economy, the symbolism connected to it was hard to ignore — capitalism had trumped state-ownership.

Another major reform later directly galvanized the people in the constituent republics to secede from Moscow. “Glasnost” — openness in Russian — was meant to usher an era of considerable freedoms to the common man.

One of the biggest changes due to glasnost was the easy availability of previously banned literature. In 1990, glasnost reached its zenith when Gorbachev handed over papers which incriminated Soviet officials for killing Polish officers in Katyn in 1940. Until that time, the massacre had been blamed on the Nazis.

It is common knowledge that the reforms – both economic and political – failed to effect any major positive change. When Mikhail Gorbachev also chose to venture into reforming the social sphere, he became a butt of jokes. Alcoholism was chronic in Soviet Union. In a bid to curb the problem, vodka sales were curtailed, costing the exchequer $7.2 billion in revenue in 1986. When public criticism on his move mounted, he is reported to have asked a crowd, “Can’t you live without vodka?” Gorbachev, however, claimed that the vodka-ban helped reduce work-related injuries and a lower divorce rate. But it was too late as he had to face much bigger challenges in a few years.

Soviet Union was essentially a police state, with severe restrictions on freedom of speech. The “glasnost” helped open up a Pandora’s box for the common man.

The first signs of the dissolution began by 1988. The discontent against the system did not initially begin in Russia, but along the peripheries of the Union — Baltic republics and Armenia. Details of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact — undisclosed to the public till then — played a major role in whipping up nationalist sentiment in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Armenian nationalism rose sharply after Soviet authorities quelled a popular rebellion of Georgian Armenians to merge with Armenian republic.

With the far-flung republics in turmoil, other republics, including the long neglected Central Asian Republics — the “stans”, too joined in the secession battle. While Soviet authorities were unable to control the constituent republics, the situation was not under control in Russia itself.

By 1990, the Communist Party was not the only ruling authority as part of Gorbachev’s political reforms to bring more democracy. Boris Yeltsin was the product of this major reform. In 1990, the Boris Yeltsin-led parliament declared Russia a de-facto sovereign state. Next year, Russia (not Soviet Union) held its first democratic election in which he was elected the president. Dual power centres emerged, with Gorbachev claiming authority over all of USSR, while Yeltsin calling Moscow independent. But that was not to stay for long.

Between 19 and 21 August, 1991, in a last-minute bid to reverse the downfall of the USSR, a group of radical generals and second rung party officials attempted a coup against the Boris Yeltsin-led government. The coup miraculously failed and with it the Communist Party and Gorbachev.

On 12 December 1991, the representatives of the three original constituent republics of the USSR – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – signed the Belavezha Accord. The Accord denounced the 1922 pact to create the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and dissolved the Union. On Boxing Day 1991, the Union ceased to exist.

Twenty-five years down the line, it would be interesting to analyse whether the rot within Soviet Union traced back to Leonid Brezhnev and the era of stagnation or further back in history.

In the final days of 1922, Vladimir Lenin wrote a testament, in which he called for sacking the then general secretary Joseph Stalin. He had written, “Comrade Stalin, having become Secretary-General, has unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution”. Lenin might have already foreseen what a monster Stalin would end up later. Lenin is reported to have wanted a separation of power – with one holding the charge of the party and another of the government.

However, soon after Lenin’s death, Stalin consolidated his power; sidelining (read purges) his rivals by 1938. He also became the head of the government in 1941 – disrespecting Lenin’s idea of separation of power. Stalin’s idea of general secretary being the ultimate leader was observed across the Iron Curtain.

While Stalin presided over a period of considerable “development”, the manner in which it took place laid the foundation for the ultimate disintegration of the Union.

China too passed through such a phase between 1949 and 1980 but what sets apart Deng Xiaoping from Mikhail Gorbachev is one point: Deng never did a Chinese version of glasnost. Had Gorbachev never initiated “glasnost”, the economy founded on Stalin’s principles of five-year plans could have survived.

The dissolution of the USSR was a momentous occasion in world history, which made one phrase enter the political lexicon: “The god that failed”.

 

This was originally published for Firstpost. Read here.