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Can President salvage the sinking ship of democracy?

Shahid Islam
 
Every nation stands in need of some innate power while facing excruciating moments of truth. Such an urge turns more pronounced when consensus among various stakeholders proves elusive and the peoples’ desire to choose their nominees to govern face hurdles of a kind that can lead to the rupture of the systemic edifice on which peace and stability hinges.
Full Story
Shahid Islam
 
Every nation stands in need of some innate power while facing excruciating moments of truth. Such an urge turns more pronounced when consensus among various stakeholders proves elusive and the peoples’ desire to choose their nominees to govern face hurdles of a kind that can lead to the rupture of the systemic edifice on which peace and stability hinges.
The existing political climate and the reality of Bangladesh’s political culture leave no room for vacillation, vagueness, inaction and indecisiveness by the President of the Republic. And, those who think the president is a lame duck perhaps lack in grasping fully the nuances of the legality from which he derives his authority.
 
President’s the supremo
The President is the head of the state and the supreme commander of the nation’s armed forces; denoting that all the executive actions of the state is performed in the name of the President, pursuant to Article 55(8) of the constitution.
The President is also empowered by the constitution to appoint the Prime Minister, all the ministers, chief justice and other judges of the Supreme Court, Chief and other election commissioners, etc.  Article 72 of the constitution even allows the President to summon, prorogue and dissolve the parliament with the PM’s advice.  These are reasons why the nation is now looking at the president to come of age, offer leadership, and salvage the ship of a sinking democracy before anarchy, more authoritarianism and the disintegration of vital national institutions start pulling back the nation far away from its desired destination.
Make no mistake that the business of politics has been lifeless in this nation for a long time, especially since the military intervention of 2007. The BNP is one of the main political parties which had abstained from contesting the January 2014 election, which was a walk in the park by the ruling AL and proved to be ‘no brainer’ to anyone home and abroad.
The necessity of holding the next general election in a manner so as to dispel further controversy, to inject some semblance of credibility, and to be perceived by all stake holders as being an acceptable one is hence unavoidable.
 
Constituting the EC
BNP’s propositions in constituting the new Election Ccommission, which the President had reportedly entertained with deserved importance and dignity, and had assured through his responsible aides that he would sit with the BNP representatives upon returning from abroad where he’s undergoing medical treatment, does have merits that none can brush aside as irrelevant; not under the existential exigencies facing the nation.
Yet, some ruling party leaders have smelt the stench of ‘conspiracy’ in the BNP’s proposals, which is lengthy, detailed and which mostly emphasizes upon ensuring that “The Election Commission is constituted upon ‘consensus’ of all registered political parties of Bangladesh, and or, of all political parties who over different periods had representation in the National Parliament since the liberation of Bangladesh.”
The BNP proposal further states, “The President will continue talks on the qualification, disqualification and nomination of the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners until ‘consensus’ is reached among all registered political parties of Bangladesh, and or, with all political parties who over different periods had representation in the National Parliament since the liberation of Bangladesh.”
The proposal can be encapsulated as having laid down some strict preconditions of choosing the CEC and the other ECs, only when a consensus about their bona fide, neutrality, and acceptability is reached at. Such a prerequisite does undercut the ruling party’s monopoly and discretion to choosing any one they like. Whether it tantamount to planting a conspiracy depends on how the ruling party wants the EC to be organized in the first place, and, how the BNP reacts to the government’s decisions in this regard, if done without BNP’s collaborations and coordination.
 
EC the caretaker!
It needs no reiteration that the nation has been in a dire crisis since the 15th amendment had repealed the caretaker government provision and the constitution stipulated the holding of the election under the incumbent regime’s umpire-ship.  The changed scheme has been unacceptable to the BNP and its allies in the ‘unofficial opposition’ for reasons on which no one needs further counseling.  And, as the AL will also not partake in an election under the BNP’s incumbency, the empowering of the EC is the only way out of this vicious cycle. For an acceptable EC can supplement the absence of a neutral caretaker regime by acting honestly, and by being non-partisan. As well, as an independent constitutional entity, the powers of the EC (pursuant to Article 118(4) and 126 of the constitution, and Article 4 of the Representation of the People Order (RPO), 1972) are virtually unlimited.
With the president’s cooperation, the EC can use the services of the armed forces to ensuring full application of laws and hold a fair, credible and inclusive election pursuant to Article 126 of the constitution (and Articles 4 and 5 of the RPO) that make it incumbent upon all other executives of the nation to assist the EC in discharging its functions of holding a free, fair and inclusive election, which is what is most needed and desired at this moment.  Last but not the least, since an opportunity had lurked before the President to uphold his constitutional mandate ­and act as the peer of the nation to ensure that democracy is not only preserved, a precedent is left behind to avoid future squabbles on the process of changing government in a country that had been independent since 1971 — he should grasp and grab it fully to carve out a niche in the annals of patriotism and statesmanship.

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Global impact of Sino-Russian ‘special relationship’

Bob Savic in London
 
The rise of a more politically and militarily assertive Russia and an economically and institutionally ascendant China may be characterized as the two principal forces challenging the United States in global policymaking.
China’s and Russia’s strategies for international expansion, in each of their respective areas of policy specialization, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Arguably, both countries’ intensified involvement on the world stage is not only complementary but to a growing extent directly and indirectly supportive of each other’s increasingly commonly-defined interests.
Full Story
Bob Savic in London
 
The rise of a more politically and militarily assertive Russia and an economically and institutionally ascendant China may be characterized as the two principal forces challenging the United States in global policymaking.
China’s and Russia’s strategies for international expansion, in each of their respective areas of policy specialization, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Arguably, both countries’ intensified involvement on the world stage is not only complementary but to a growing extent directly and indirectly supportive of each other’s increasingly commonly-defined interests.
The growing international significance of China and Russia’s key political and economic partnership must be considered a major factor in global policymaking going forward.
 
Sino-Russian ties before 2014
China and Russia have largely formulated their economic and political relations based on an evolving series of strategic partnerships. While there is no “model” strategic partnership, in the sense that the terms are negotiated individually with a partner state, both countries have incorporated certain core principles into each partnership.
Following two partnership agreements in 1994 and 1996 and a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 2001, the 2012 comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation (the 2012 Strategic Partnership), underlined the principles of mutual benefit, mutual trust, and equality in addition to setting specific economic targets in China-Russia bilateral relations.
Notably, although the 2012 Strategic Partnership, signed by President Hu Jintao, China’s president at the time, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, was intended to provide the basis for implementation of relations over a ten-year period, it was prematurely superseded by the 2014 agreement calling for a new stage in the comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation, the 2014 Strategic Partnership.
In this case, China’s President Xi Jinping, was the co-signatory.  The involvement of Xi, who came to power in 2013, a year after Putin’s re-election as Russian president, has become a key driver in the intensification of bilateral relations.
The 2014 Strategic Partnership, ratified shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, amid the launch of U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia, is widely regarded as the most enhanced in terms of depth and breadth of economic, political, and security relations of any one of China’s or Russia’s network of strategic partnerships.
Some of the much-publicized and high-profile deals emerging from the 2014 Strategic Partnership included a 40-year gas supply agreement between Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). The landmark gas supply deal, including plans to build the “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline, was indirectly referred to in the 2014 Strategic Partnership as a measure aiming to “strengthen the Sino-Russian energy partnership.”
Rising trade, energy coop.
A further deal with Russia’s largest oil company, state-owned Rosneft, involving financing deals with CNPC to supply oil worth up to $500 billion from Russia’s largest oil field, was also established shortly after, prospectively enabling Russia to surpass Saudi Arabia as China’s main supplier of oil.
Also in 2014, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) and the Central Bank of Russia signed an arrangement for a currency swap worth 150 billion yuan and 815 billion rubles ($24 billion at the time). The first such Chinese currency swap to be announced for any country outside of Asia, the deal was meant to facilitate settlement in national currencies and boost bilateral trade.
Since 2014, and particularly in 2015, Russia has become one of the five largest recipients of Chinese outbound direct investment in relation to the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connecting Asia with Europe. Meanwhile, China was Russia’s largest bilateral trade partner, in 2015; in spite of declining overall bilateral trade in U.S. dollar terms (mainly due to sharp declines in the ruble as well as the yuan), relative to 2014, trade flows continued to expand in terms of volume.
In this context, it was significant that Russia’s exports of mechanical and technical products to China rose by about 45 percent over the course of 2015 possibly signifying an important trend in the diversification and competitiveness of Russia’s non-energy sector in terms of bilateral trade prospects with China.
Importantly, the economic relationship between China and Russia has been driven by a variety of bilateral intergovernmental commissions, including 26 sub-commissions. According to Putin, in spite of often slow progress in reaching agreements, both sides invariably maintain a common goal of cooperation to eventually find a solution on a wide range of complex issues.
 
Integrating political interests
Since the 2014 Strategic Partnership, amid a strengthening of personal ties in the Putin-Xi relationship, there has been an extensive broadening of bilateral relations beyond merely focusing on economic interests. This has centered on mutual support concerning each country’s “core interests,” including “strengthening close coordination in foreign policy.” They have also jointly advocated for reform of the international financial and economic architecture to accord with the rapidly-changing global real economy.
The relationship between China and Russia has, therefore, evolved into intensified cooperation in political areas in the last couple of years. Chief among those developments was the announcement on May 8, 2015 in Moscow, on the occasion of the annual parade commemorating the end of World War II, of the planned integration of the Chinese-led BRI with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
The BRI comprises the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, with the objective of developing a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road routes. The EEU groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia in an inward-focused trading network.
Beijing’s policy of integrating the BRI, its flagship international development program, with Moscow’s EEU stood in sharp contrast to the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program with former Soviet states. The latter program required these countries to sign up to EU economic and political associations and to relinquish their trade agreements and political affiliations with Russia.
Further evidence of the growing high-level political relations between China and Russia was manifested in the international financial markets under the co-arrangement of up to 6 billion yuan in “Baikalbonds” (a yuan-denominated Russian government bond issued in Russia).  The co-arrangers were China’s ICBC and state-owned Gazprombank — Russia’s third-largest bank, which has been under U.S. sanctions since July 2014.  This issuance of offshore yuan foreign sovereign bonds was the largest ever undertaken, exceeding the U.K. government’s earlier 3 billion yuan sovereign bond issue.
 
Bilateral Coop in multilateral bodies
At the Hangzhou G20 Summit, held in September 2016, the China-Russia dialogue was accorded a high-level agenda by both leaders.  The dialogue focused, especially, on principles such as the “rule of law” in promoting tax and legal concepts for enhancing investments, investment protection, privatization, and the provision of state guarantees on finance for projects. At the level of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Putin and Xi’s proposals for integrating China’s BRI with the Russian-led EEU played a key role in significantly elevating the status of the SCO.
Although the SCO is a separate institution to the BRI and EEU, it is increasingly viewed by governments across the world as an organization reflecting the political and economic ascendancy of the Eurasian region. Partly, as a result, India and Pakistan, currently holding SCO observer status, have submitted applications for full membership, anticipated to become effective by early 2017. Moreover, an increasing number of other countries from around the world have also requested to join the organization.
At the recent November 2016 summit of SCO prime ministers, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang proposed a free trade area among SCO members. The proposal was supported by Putin, who stated that the long-term economic interests of China and Russia should outweigh national protectionist sentiments to protect local producers.
The Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral grouping is considered by its participants as an important arrangement in securing political stability, both globally and in the region. India and Russia’s relations have remained strong for several decades, with Russia being India’s largest defence and nuclear energy partner. However, while China’s and Russia’s relations have clearly improved in the last few years, the China-India relationship has somewhat lagged the development of the other two legs of the triangle. Consequently, Russia has played a role in bringing both sides closer together through its interactions in the RIC grouping.
 
Military & security cooperation
At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum held recently on November 2016, in Peru, Putin and Xi further reiterated their close cooperation and ongoing communication on policy matters with an international dimension. They agreed to promote the APEC bloc by fostering regional and economic growth strategies. This included their support for an Asia-Pacific free trade area for all 21 member states.  Their joint support for regional free trade came on the heels of U.S.  President-elect Donald Trump seeming to back away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement – an exclusive U.S.-led trade bloc including 12 states on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
A major feature of China’s and Russia’s defence and geostrategic interests has been rising levels of official support for each other’s security, increasingly pitched as common defence concerns. The most prominent recent affirmation of this position came in the form of China’s and Russia’s stated opposition to the deployment of the U.S.  Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile defence system in South Korea, a decision made in mid-2016. Both governments have warned that THAAD risks igniting an arms race in the Asia-Pacific that could potentially destabilize the region.
In this vein, China and Russia have been accelerating their joint military drills including holding their first joint naval drills conducted in the South China Sea this year. According to senior officers at China’s Central Military Commission and Russia’s Defence Ministry, since both sides are faced with a more complex international security environment, closer mutual cooperation has been widely considered a necessity.
The Russian government has also voiced its support for the Chinese government’s position in the South China Sea, backing Beijing’s call opposing interference by powers outside the region. In turn, China has increasingly provided verbal support intimating its sympathy with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and backing Russia’s intervention in Syria, while calling for a political settlement to the war.
 
Long term headwinds
Possibly the most serious undermining of the China-Russia relationship could come from its very success. As both countries integrate more quickly and as migration flows expand, there is likely to be mounting concern in Russia of a “Chinese takeover” of the sparsely-populated Russian Far East and other regions of Siberia.
Should this pose China’s and Russia’s greatest challenge going forward – in light of the popularity of Russia’s opposition nationalist party in the Far East and Siberian regions during the 2016 Duma elections –then both sides will need to need to consider jointly upgrading the regulation and monitoring of migration flows.     Detailed satellite mapping of the two countries’ common border, in addition to having resolved all outstanding border disputes in 2005, should facilitate the necessary cooperation in managing migration across Russia’s politically-sensitive regions.
Driven by strengthening personal ties between Putin and Xi, the breadth and depth of China-Russia relations have spilled over into multiple spheres of governmental and institutional policymaking.  This has included both countries’ central governments, as well as regional and municipal governments, in addition to the increasing role played by state and private companies and various sectors of civil society.
As a result, the speed and scale of the relationship may be more aptly described as “revolutionary” rather than evolutionary. Clearly, external factors such as the Ukraine crisis were pivotal in turning the Russian leadership away from its post-Soviet relations with Western Europe. The degree to which the Russian public was going to back their government’s shift from West to East, however, was more questionable.  Nevertheless, Chinese and Russian state-led activism in supporting this process has, thus far, brought some degree of success.
 
Bob Savic is a Senior Research Fellow at Global Policy Institute, London Metropolitan University and a Partner in Eurasia Corporate Services, St. Petersburg Capital Management LLP.—The Diploma

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India Bangladesh to sign defence pact this month

Shakhawat Hossain
 
India and Bangladesh is most likely to sign a pact during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s upcoming visit to India later this month to expand bilateral defence partner-ship, Indian media reported.
Officials said both sides are looking forward to expanding security ties as part of the growing strategic partnership, according to an article of the New Delhi—based online newspaper called The Economist Times.
Full Story
Shakhawat Hossain
 
India and Bangladesh is most likely to sign a pact during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s upcoming visit to India later this month to expand bilateral defence partner-ship, Indian media reported.
Officials said both sides are looking forward to expanding security ties as part of the growing strategic partnership, according to an article of the New Delhi—based online newspaper called The Economist Times.
Hasina is set to arrive in New Delhi on December 17 for a four-day trip, her first official visit since the Narendra Modi-led NDA government assumed power in May 2014.
“The secretary level talks in Delhi between the two sides on Monday and Tuesday will be followed by the visit of the Bangladesh Navy chief this week, a precursor to signing the defence deal,’’ said the online report.
Security and border management issues were discussed during the home secretary level talks along with the issue of counterterrorism, officials said. The last such meeting was held in November 2015 in Dhaka.
The Bangladesh Navy chief is due to visit India from December 7, a week after the visit of India’s defence minister Manaher Prrikar to Dhaka. Some time ago India and Bangladesh had set a template for other countries in maritime dispute resolution through peaceful means under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. There have been suggestions on how China can follow this model to address its disputes with smaller Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea region.
The two countries now want to expand their partnership with the Indian Navy even as Bangladesh has already purchased two submarines from China. Areas of naval cooperation that have been proposed by India include option of coordinated patrolling along International Maritime Boundary Line, bilateral exercises involving the two navies, joint surveillance of Exclusive Economic Zone and cooperation in hydrography, reads the article written by journalist Dipanjan Roy Choudhury.
Hasina is scheduled to hold talks with Prime Minister Modi on December 18 on issues including the pending Teesta water sharing pact. Since 2015 she has visited India twice, once for the funeral of President Pranab Mukherjee’s wife and the other to attend the BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach meets on invitation from her Indian counterpart.
The Indian media report, however, did not mention whether the continuous killing of Bangladeshis by the members of Indian Border Security Force (BSF) will come up for discussion this time. Number of times, the issue was discussed at high level meetings between the two sides for stopping such trigger happy behaviors of the Indian troops, and despite repeated assurances, nothing happened.
Some analysts say that it could be difficult to explain even if after signing the bilateral defence cooperation pact with India, the BSF continues its habit of killing Bangladeshis along the border of the two friendly countries. The construction of barbed wire by India along the two countries’ peaceful border has not been liked by the people either.

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Delhi targets Pakistan, seeks presence in Afghan urgently

Shamsuddin Ahmed
 
The ‘Heart of Asia’ conference was held in Amritsar, India on December 4-5 and was described by CNN News18 and other news agencies as an attempt to isolate Pakistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and delegates from around thirty countries attended the two- day conference in the holy city of Shikhs.  Countries including Pakistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates represented in the conference.
Full Story
Shamsuddin Ahmed
 
The ‘Heart of Asia’ conference was held in Amritsar, India on December 4-5 and was described by CNN News18 and other news agencies as an attempt to isolate Pakistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and delegates from around thirty countries attended the two- day conference in the holy city of Shikhs.  Countries including Pakistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates represented in the conference.
The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process was launched in 2011. India hosted the sixth conference for taking measures in curbing terrorism in the region, especially Afghanistan.
 
No place to settle score: Russia
Ashraf Ghani, who seems to have ganged up with Narendra Modi, singularly accused Pakistan for terrorism in his country. Equally vituperative Modi launched campaign against Pakistan without naming the country for exporting terrorism. Pakistan’s veteran diplomat security adviser of Prime Minister Newaz Sharif present in the conference was visibly embarrassed by the accusation.
Russia’s special envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, who attended the conference, later told newsmen that all parties involved in the war-torn Afghanistan’s reconstruction must work together and that the Heart of Asia was not the platform for India or Pakistan to score brownie points.
Downplaying Russia’s military exercise with Pakistan two months ago, Zamir Kabulov, who overseas Russia’s engagement in Afghanistan, referred to India’s increasing cooperation with the US. India has close cooperation with the US, does Moscow complain? Then why complain about much lower level of cooperation with Pakistan, he told journalists when asked about Russia-Pakistan military exercise.  He was of the view that bilateral issues should not cloud forums like the Heart of Asia. Journalists referred to the allegations that Pakistan supporting terror groups operating from its soil. Kabulov articulated Moscow’s position on Afghanistan’s transition. He said all major players, including India, must extend all possible support to Afghanistan in its transition. India has a strategic partnership with Afghanistan and is implementing projects worth $2 billion to help rebuild the country’s infrastructure. No comment from delegates of other countries was available.
One thing should be made clear that it has been well proved military might and enormous financial assistance will not help end terrorism in Afghanistan. USA, UK, EU and other western powers have had tried for more than a decade but failed in their efforts in curbing terrorism and militancy. Finally they left their fingers burnt.
 
Inclusive process needed
What needed most is Afghan-owned, broad-based and inclusive process of peace and reconciliation among home-grown terrorists. It is said as many as 30 home grown militant groups of Al Qaida, Hizbul Islam, Lashkar-e-Tayeba and war lords in Afghanistan dominating over parts of the country where the government has no writ. How can there be peace and stability without their participation in the peace process. Of late, peace accord has been signed with only one militant group –
Hekmatyar group. All others remained outside the peace process.  Hosting the conference, India was seen most enthusiastic throughout the two-day deliberations. The reason is understandable.  Strategically Afghanistan is too important for India. During the 1980s and 1990s, because of local and regional developments, India had lost contact with the governments and people in Afghanistan. Now, New Delhi is trying to re-establish the old ties.
For a long time, strategic analysts in India had been criticizing the foreign policy establishment for not paying sufficient attention to the region. New Delhi has tried to address this imbalance during the last decade, enhancing its ties and presence in its immediate and extended neighborhood. From Nepal to Sri Lanka, and from Afghanistan to Myanmar, there has been an added emphasis in dealing with the region.
Afghanistan received the special attention from the Indian policymakers. There was a push not only in terms of attention and bilateral relations with Afghanistan but also an increased presence and support to their government. Although India’s over $5 billion investment in and aid to Afghanistan may appear less significant compared with the US and the EU, for India it is substantial. From building infrastructural networks to schools and hospitals, dams, roads, cricket stadiums, Educational institutes, scholarships to Afghan students and food. New Delhi has invested substantially in helping the government in Afghanistan and its people.
 
Convergence of interest
The first major challenge for India is to protect its investment. New Delhi has established substantial linkages with the Karzai government including a strategic partnership. It would like to strengthen this relationship further with the successive governments of Afghanistan.  In late 90s, India lost all contacts with Afghanistan. When an Indian passenger flight was hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar, it did not even have basic official communications with the government in Kabul. In future, India would like to avoid such a situation.  India also sees Afghanistan as an essential component of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline. To address its energy needs to sustain its economic growth, pipelines from Iran and Central Asia would be extremely important. It is generally feared in India that an unstable Afghanistan would hurt the construction of this pipeline and stop the subsequent flow of gas.  Finally, a section in India is extremely apprehensive of Pakistan attempting to scuttle India’s presence and influence in Afghanistan. Every country would like to establish an element of presence and influence in Afghanistan, including Pakistan, because of its geographical proximity. While New Delhi should appreciate this, what it is afraid of is Islamabad playing a negative role in Afghanistan to undermine India’s investments. Pakistan has an advantage because of its proximity and cultural linkages with Afghanistan.

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Politicians are black money promoter: It is time to bring them down

Ashish Khetan
The Wire
 
If you really want to clean your house, start cleaning at the top.
“Jhadu uppar se lagai jaati hai” is the common Hindi saying.
The prime minister wants to eliminate corruption and black money from the country. However, as former BJP general secretary and a veteran politician who has run various elections campaigns, he should have known that political parties sit at the top of the ladder of black money.
Full Story
Ashish Khetan
The Wire
 
If you really want to clean your house, start cleaning at the top.
“Jhadu uppar se lagai jaati hai” is the common Hindi saying.
The prime minister wants to eliminate corruption and black money from the country. However, as former BJP general secretary and a veteran politician who has run various elections campaigns, he should have known that political parties sit at the top of the ladder of black money.
Politics paise waalon ka khel hai (politics is a game for the rich) is a common belief.
 
Accounting for cash
Politicians and black money go hand in hand. In north Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar, MLAs move around in a fleet of SUVs, with a host of lackeys in tow. Each minister is a parallel economy unto himself, his cronies entirely dependent on him for survival and more.
Who finances their politics? Most government contracts – for roads, bridges, liquor and so on – are cornered by cartels controlled by the legislators themselves. These contracts generate cash in abundance to keep the political cycle of an average legislator lubricated. Many ministers and MLAs are strongmen – extortion, protection money, supari and other kinds of crime proceeds add to their well of black money.
A large part of the black money thus generated goes to party funds.  The deeper the war chest of a party, the more power and influence it has and greater are its chances of winning an election.
In addition, parties are funded by contractors and corporations.  Bigger the party, bigger the corporations financing it. Departments like public works, urban development and irrigation make major contribution to party funds. Contracts are awarded in government departments, but decided in party headquarters.
So how do the political parties account for all this cash received?
Section 29c of the Representation of the Peoples Act, 1951 says that political parties are required to submit details to the Election Commission of only those donations received from a person or company that are in excess of Rs 20,000. Taking advantage of this rule, major parties like the Congress, BJP and Nationalist Congress Party, between 2004 and 2015, have shown more than three-quarters of their funds as cash received from unnamed sources, with each separate transaction being less than Rs 20,000.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is the sole exception to this rule. As per a report released by the Association for Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch, AAP was the only major political party to declare details of donations received below Rs 20,000, in 2014-15. The BSP, on the other, had showed all its donations as below Rs 20,000.
 
Limiting poll expenses
Once the ill-earned money is camouflaged as cash donations, comes the question of how to harness it to win elections.
Under rule 90 of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, the Election Commission prescribes the upper limit of the total election expenditure that an individual candidate can incur. Violation of the ceiling amounts to a corrupt practice under section 123 (6) of Representation of the People Act, 1951 and disqualification for six years. At present, the upper limit of election expenditure for an assembly constituency in bigger states is Rs 16 lakh and for a parliamentary constituency is Rs 40 lakh.
But there is no cap on party expenditure. Since the party can spend as much money as it wishes to, the objective behind capping individual candidate’s expenses is defeated. This distortion was in full display during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Arguably, the prime minister ran the most expensive election campaign in the history of Indian parliamentary democracy.
But since now he is firmly in the saddle and has undertaken the great purge, it is time he strikes at the very genesis of black money.
“Flags go up, walls are painted, and hundreds of thousands of loud speakers play-out the loud exhortations and extravagant promises. VIPs and VVIPs come and go, some of them in helicopters and air- taxis. The political parties in their quest for power spend more than one thousand crore of rupees on the General Election (Parliament alone), yet nobody accounts for the bulk of the money so spent and there is no accountability anywhere. Nobody discloses the source of the money.  There are no proper accounts and no audit. From where does the money come nobody knows. In a democracy where rule of law prevails this type of naked display of black money, by violating the mandatory provisions of law, cannot be permitted,” noted the Supreme Court in Common Cause Vs Union of India in 1966.
 
Time for reform
If the court were ruling today, it would have added the following to its list of naked display of black money: 3D holographic projection technology, full page ads in leading dailies, TV commercials, LED mobile vans, orchestrated social media campaigns and so on.
But the prime minister has a historic opportunity. The scrapping of high-denominations notes has inconvenienced millions of ordinary citizens across the country. It’s time to cleanse the country of black money.
The prime minister should amend section 29c of the Representation of the People Act and make it mandatory for parties to declare the source of all their donations, even if it is of a single rupee. Further, he should bar parties from taking donations from corporations with an annual turnover of more than Rs 50 crore. This will exclude oligarchs from controlling parties and governments. In addition, he should immediately put a ceiling on the election expenditure of political parties as well. It can be made at par with the cap on individual expenses.
Modi should also grant greater autonomy and powers to the Election Commission. To begin with, he should take the appointment process of election commissioners out of the hands of the government. A panel comprising of the Chief Justice of India and two eminent jurists chosen by him may appoint commissioners henceforth. In January this year, the Election Commission had submitted a proposal for complete independence from government control, including constitutional protection for all three of its members as opposed to just one at present. The prime minister should immediately accept that proposal.
He should make necessary amendment in the RTI Act to make all political parties, including the BJP, comply with the Central Information Commission (CIC) order dated June 3, 2013 that says all recognised national parties should be brought under the Right to Information Act, 2005 as “public authorities”.
 
Black money’s viscous cycle
The CIC order had declared six national political parties, namely the INC, BJP, CPI(M), CPI, NCP and BSP to be “public authorities” under section 2(h) of the RTI Act. All parties have been resisting this order and, as of today, are in breach. The previous Lok Sabha tried to change the RTI act to exclude political parties from the ambit of public authorities. But the bill lapsed.
The prime minister should ask his government to make the necessary change in the definition and include political parties in its ambit.  He should also make it mandatory for political parties to disclose for public scrutiny the complete details of their income, expenditure, donations and funding including details of donors.
Under the Representation of the People Act, only those who stand for elections have to disclose their assets, liabilities and criminal history before the Election Commission. Additional clauses can be added to the Act to make the disclosure clause applicable to all party office bearers, whether occupying central, state or district posts in the party.
These would be the first few steps in cleansing the political arena of black money.
One more thing. In 2014, the Delhi high court found both BJP and Congress guilty of taking foreign funding and violating the provisions of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act and directed the home ministry and Election Commission to take action against the two parties within six months. Both the BJP and Congress had taken large donations from the foreign mining corporation Vedanta. But in April this year, the Centre, through a retrospective amendment in the FCRA, let both parties off the hook by saying that donations from foreign companies with an Indian subsidiary are okay. The prime minister should revoke this amendment and instruct the home minister to initiate action immediately.
The bottom line is those who generate black money are able to do it only because of political patronage. It’s a vicious cycle. Black money finances politics and politics, in turn, shelters the crooked. Only by breaking this cycle can the country be made free from the scourge of corruption and kala dhan.
 
Ashish Khetan is vice chairperson of the Dialogue and Development Commission of the Delhi government.

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Jayalalitha scripted her own fairy tale rise to power

Charu Nivedita in Tamil Nadu
 
When thinking of J Jayalalithaa’s life, (who died last Tuesday) the image that flashes first is from a Tamil Nadu Assembly session on March 25, 1989. The Opposition leader then, she was physically attacked by members of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, right before the speaker’s eyes and at the provocation of M Karunanidhi, who was chief minister at the time. She came out of the Assembly with her sari torn. That incident generated a massive sympathy wave for Jayalalithaa.
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Charu Nivedita in Tamil Nadu
 
When thinking of J Jayalalithaa’s life, (who died last Tuesday) the image that flashes first is from a Tamil Nadu Assembly session on March 25, 1989. The Opposition leader then, she was physically attacked by members of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, right before the speaker’s eyes and at the provocation of M Karunanidhi, who was chief minister at the time. She came out of the Assembly with her sari torn. That incident generated a massive sympathy wave for Jayalalithaa.
In Tamil Nadu, the creation of a leader and the amount of trust the voters place on them is purely a function of the grudge they bear against the ruling party. The only two exceptions to this rule were K Kamaraj of the Congress and MG Ramachandran.
 
When disenchantment set in
In that way, Jayalalithaa owes a lot of her initial popularity to Karunanidhi. The other reasons why she captured a firm place in the minds of people were the events in the immediate aftermath of MGR’s death in December 1987. For several hours after her mentor’s death, she was the only person to be seen standing beside MGR’s body.  Millions of people watched those images on television. However, she was later literally kicked out of the open-top hearse.
For someone who came into public life riding on a political wave of epic proportions, the first signs of disenchantment appeared in 1992 when the Kumbakonam temple stampede occurred during the Mahamakam festival. It was an avoidable tragedy. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and her friend Sasikala went to the temple tank for a holy dip when there were thousands of other pilgrims. For her security, the authorities sealed off the northern and southern approaches and exits from the tank. This led to the death of 50 people, while many others were injured.
Close on the heels of the Mahamakam tragedy came the disastrous wedding of Jayalalithaa’s foster son VN Sudhakaran – a relative of Sasikala – in 1995. Its brazen opulence and scale would have put any medieval sultan to shame. The wedding made it to the Guinness Book of World Records on two counts: for being the wedding with the biggest guest list and for feeding an unprecedented number of people.
Several photographs from the wedding contributed to public opinion on Jayalalithaa turning viciously hostile. The most egregious was one of Jayalalithaa and Sasikala bedecked in more gold than you would find in an entire jewellery megastore.
Adopted by Jayalalithaa in 1995, Sudhakaran was disowned by her a year later. Those events contributed immensely to her crushing electoral defeat in 1996. Subsequently, a case of heroin possession was slapped against the foster son, and he even had to go to jail.
 
The almighty
In 2000, when Jayalalithaa was sentenced to jail for owning assets disproportionate to her income, workers of her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, set fire to a bus in Dharmapuri, killing three college girls. That is yet another incident from the leader’s long political life that people are unlikely to forget easily.
Since Jayalalithaa was admitted to the Apollo Hospital on September 22 this year, there has been an element of fear among the public. In 2014, during her incarceration at a Bengaluru prison after her conviction in the wealth amassment case, it felt like the lumpen were running affairs in Tamil Nadu. Nobody could control anybody. Even before the ink on her conviction had dried, shops had downed shutters.  Those that didn’t were ransacked by her supporters.
Karunanidhi is the pioneer of such use of muscle power. In July 1971, Karunanidhi, who was then the chief minister, was conferred an honorary doctorate by Annamalai University in Chidambaram. Protesting the decision, a section of students paraded a donkey around campus with a board around its neck that read “doctor”. The police stormed the hostel and brutally thrashed the students. The next day, the body of one student, Udayakumar, was found floating in a pond on campus.  The police denied his identity. Intimidated by the police, even Udayakumar’s parents denied his death.
In the last 45 years, three politicians – MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa – have had the biggest influence on the history and lives of the Tamil people. Jayalalithaa’s maiden speech as a Rajya Sabha member in the 1980s marked her out as remarkably intelligent and unusually well-read among contemporary Tamil politicians.
There was mild consternation about the prospect of a Brahmin Jayalalithaa infusing a flavour of English education into the culture of Dravidian politics. All such fears were misplaced. The same Jayalalithaa ushered in the by now commonplace but cringe-inducing practice of ministers and apparatchiks falling at her feet.
 
A lonely legacy
Jayalalithaa had led a lonely life for a very long time. She lost her father at the age of two. She grew up in Bengaluru, living with her aunt till she was 10. That was when her mother, Vedavalli, was working in the Chennai film industry under the screen name Sandhya. It was only after she reached the age of 10 that Jayalalithaa started living with her mother. She has spoken about this in the television show Rendezvous with Simi Garewal. During her childhood, it was her mother who controlled Jayalalithaa’s life. Later, it was MGR, and finally the Mannargudi group or the Sasikala family.
Jayalalithaa has followed in the footsteps of Karunanidhi when it comes to politics. She should have learnt some lessons on living a long life as well from her bête noire. After turning 60, Karunanidhi started learning yoga under TKV Desikachar. But Jayalalithaa’s doctors had to be those related to Sasikala.
In the last 45 years, the standards of education or healthcare among the poor of Tamil Nadu have remained pretty much the same.  Jayalalithaa ensured that the poor did not, at least, die of hunger.  Her much vaunted Amma Canteens serve food for as little as Rs 5. The state’s people settled for cheap food and assorted freebies over meaningful development.
I recently watched the TV series Narcos on the life of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. If you take out the killings, Narcos is pretty much the story of Tamil Nadu politics. Every councilor or local body leader in the state is a mini Escobar. The rule of law is subservient to their whims and ambitions. It is a myth that the police are more empowered during Jayalalithaa’s rule. The spate of murders in all the state’s major cities proves that. You can trace almost every murder to a councilor or the land mafia – and in most cases, the two are the same.
 
Props in a fairy tale
How was the life of the average Tamil in the last 10 years, six of those under Jayalalithaa’s rule?
The loneliness that accompanied her childhood was once again a constant feature of her life in her final 10 years. It is inconceivable that the Mannargudi gang could have helped her overcome this loneliness.
Tamil Nadu, too, suffered the effects of Jayalalithaa’s loneliness.  How else do we even try to make sense of O Panneerselvam’s interim chief ministership? Is it possible that one woman’s angst and angularities shape the course of a democratic society in this fashion in the 21st century?
We, the people, are mere props in this fairy tale of epic proportions.
 
The writer is a leading Tamil novelist whose works include Zero Degree and Exile

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