Sunday, January 29, 2023

BBC AND HINDENBURG MUST BE IGNORED BUT INDIA NEEDS SERIOUS INTERNAL DISCOURSE & REFORMS

    Over the last two weeks, two incidents have dominated the discourse in Indian media. One concerns controversial BBC documentary indicting PM Modi of Gujrat riots of 2002. The second concerns Hindenburg report on an Indian tycoon whose wealth has meteorically risen over the last few years defying all logic.  

    Reaction in India’s political and media space has been on the expected lines. People have taken positions depending upon their political loyalties and personal preferences. Entire public domain resembles a psychological or propaganda warzone. 

Under these conditions, I am not sure how an attempt to place a sane perspective in public domain shall go down. 

    The timing of BBC documentary after two decades of a forgettable incident certainly arouses suspicion. It has reopened wounds that had healed over time. Given the track record of BBC, and certain forces in the Western world, especially those known for supporting Pak linked organised crime networks, it would be fair to suspect that the documentary is not driven by noble professional intentions. It has attempted to drive social and political wedge in India and undermine credibility of its institutions, including the apex court. But at the same time, I do not endorse panic bans. Ideally, our institutions and credibility should have been strong enough to prevent something like this. Simultaneously, a strong Supreme Court of India could have hauled up BBC to deter such psychological warfare.  

    While it will be disaster for political dissidents in India to seek solace in such malicious propaganda by a media institution whose sections have always been under influence of Islamic organised crime networks, it will not serve our interests if we ignore deficiencies in our own institutions. Ideally, the twin attacks must inspire our stakeholders to come together to address our deficiencies in this direction. However, it looks improbable at this stage.  

    Over the last few decades or since independence, India has been facing a pernicious psychological warfare from sections of Western media and even their state establishments. They have always sought to put India on the same pedestal, or at times even lower than, as the Pakistani state controlled by a notoriously criminal Army. The objective appears undermining and scuttling rise of a powerful democracy. This is not to say that we do not have strong pockets of support in these states. Unfortunately, most Western democracies themselves have been divided. It is influence of slush funds and lobbying as well as larger organised-crime networks on some of the Western democratic institutions that is worrying.   

    From the turn of 21st Century, there had been noticeable abatement of hostility from the Western states. This is largely due to protests in these states over increasing disclosures of Pakistani involvement in terrorism and organised crime in their territory in the wake of 9/11 attacks. However, the situation is far from satisfactory. Simultaneously, the world has increasingly witnessed a difference in the quality of Indian and Pakistani diaspora. The latter has dominated prisons and ranks of organised crime, whereas the former have been gainfully contributing almost everywhere to economic and technological empowerment of host nations.  

    Over the last many centuries, Islamic identity has been frequently abused not only by hardy marauders but even neo converts to Islam to unleash violence, terrorism, extortion and crime against so-called non-Muslims. Near complete exodus of non-Muslims from Kashmir or prior to that complete cleansing of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan have been cited as examples of violent parochialism inbuilt in Islamic practices on the subcontinent. These have been backed by pernicious propaganda to paint Hindus negatively all over the world. Indian state remained a moot spectator not only to what has continued to happen against non-Muslims in Pakistan but also in most Muslim majority areas of independent India.

    It was extension of same tendency when 59 Hindu pilgrims were burned alive in a train in Godhra on Feb 27, 2002 without any provocation. The perpetrators had the audacity to do so even in an overwhelmingly Hindu majority state where a Hindu nationalist Government was in power. It would be insane to claim that the Government of the day had colluded in a pre-planned gruesome killing of these train passengers, as state police had failed to detect and prevent. 

    This was not an isolated incident. Terror attacks from Mumbai (1993) and Surat (1993), besides violence in the Kasmir Valley (since late 1980s), had built a momentum of their own. A strong clandestine infrastructure of Islamist terrorism and organised crime networks had come up in different countries as well as in different parts of India, including the economically important and peaceful state of Gujrat. Innocent civilians were regularly killed in such attacks.  It is no surprise that India had remained the second most impacted state by terrorism as per Global Terrorism index (GTI) since 2001. 

    The Godhra train carnage had outraged people in the state. Tempers were running high as Indian state had appeared incapable of protecting Hindus from violence in name of Islam. Ideally, the Indian state should have acted promptly and arrested all the culprits involved in this mass murder and launched a massive hunt for such Islamic terrorism and crime networks in the state and beyond. Probably our institutions were not strong enough to do so. 

    The media reports stated that the then Gujrat Government had sought reinforcement of security forces from neighbouring states and Government of India. Bureaucratic procedures and political considerations appear to have delayed the process. These gave opportunity to malignant sections of society to take law into their own hands. Whatever happened was a shameful chapter in history of India. It was one of the rare episodes in independent India where spontaneous gangs of thugs came up killing scores of innocent people. But it would be unfair to assume that Muslims alone were killed in this so-called retaliatory violence. Against 790 Muslim killed, 254 Hindus were also killed. However, none of the Western or even secular media at home have ever highlighted this fact. Would 250+ Hindus have been killed if the entire state machinery was partisan and 90%  Hindu population of the state were communal? 

    The rampaging mobs did not spare even some of the high-profile privileged Muslim families who had traditionally enjoyed wider respect and influence in their localities. This was reminiscent of attack on wealthy Hindus in West and East Pakistan before partition. But the scale was much lower. Such failure of police institutions drew immense flak from all concerned including their Hindu friends and civil society groups. There were some gruesome attacks that could have been easily avoided and social cohesion could have been protected. Despite such allegedly state-backed violence against Muslims, vigilante and criminal groups were also able to do the same thing in name of their Muslim identity against Hindu families right under the nose of a "biased" police institution. Efforts were made to use these episodes for political gains. In the process, the larger failure of the state and even pain of ordinary masses - both Muslims and Hindus - never received due attention.

Another unfortunate part of 2002 episode was emergence of a few criminals and rioters as mass heroes and saviours of people. Some of them have joined politics even though a large number of them were indicted and sentenced.  But on a positive side, a large number of Muslims have also been in the inner circle of PM Modi. 

    There is absolutely no justification for any mob-killing of anyone- whether a Muslim or Hindu. It was shameful that our police institutions failed to protect innocent train passengers and subsequently they looked the other way when approached by Muslim civilians for help. Malignant lot in Indian police and security forces have had a long history. Some of them have been suspected of collaborating with organised crime networks linked with Islamist groups and act otherwise only to protect their turf or themselves. But large sections of them definitely protected all people irrespective of their identity. But a credible democracy like India needs absolute levels of impartiality and efficiency from its police institutions. 

    Political opponents of Shri Modi, who was Chief Minister of Gujrat at that point of time, targeted him individually. As head of the government, he was responsible for collapse of state institutions. But none of the agencies could ever establish his direct role in abetting violence against Muslims. It is pertinent to mention that a different political party had ruled at the centre for 10 years. Rather, it was his resolute handling of the episode that helped near complete elimination of well-entrenched organised crime cartels in Gujrat. No major communal violence ever recurred in that state. People praised him for securing public spaces and eliminating crime. But the damage had already been done. 

    It was a Catch 22 situation for the Indian state.  Enemies waging all out covert war against India seemed to be mocking: “Heads I win; tails you lose”. If the CM had allowed the situation to drift and terrorists to have their sway, he may have been doomed. If he acted decisively, he could still be discredited with charges of excesses. 

     But people of India gave him a resounding mandate. The Indian state has also been able to significantly fend off sustained covert war from Pakistan, which was eventually exposed globally over its complicity in terrorism and organised crime. Simultaneously, several clandestine cartels are believed to have quietly changed their colour in quest of state patronage, without which they just can't survive. They are suspected of sabotaging any transition to real rule of law for which reforms in political parties and criminal justice system are unavoidable. Indian PM has consistently spoken of these, but such strategic reforms are nowhere on the horizon. 

    Dysfunctional and subverted institutions have remained a long-term reality in India. These have given rise to powerful forces with strong vested interest in status quo. Most astute politicians have been cautious in dealing with them to avoid risk of public disorder and unmanageable levels of turbulence. But visionary statesmen do find ways and means to address such difficult challenges.  A robust security and dynamic criminal justice system is a fundamental necessity for a stronger India. 

        Simultaneously, corporate sectors all over the world have been battling varying degrees of erosion in integrity and transparency. Only the means and methods have varied. Congressional Research Committee of United States to various Nobel prize winning economists have alleged that mega corporates have rigged the entire regulatory capacity of state even in the West. Ill-effects of unrestrained privatisation or unhealthy nexus between politicians and corporates, to the detriment of collective interests of the communities, is a global reality. However, the entire process is too discreet and sophisticated in the West compared to what we have in India. Democracies need to find an answer to this both for the sake of their credibility and optimal governance efficiency.  

    If we adhere to the strictest levels of probity and integrity, probably no mega corporate entity anywhere in the world can come clean. Some of the local detractors of PM Modi have been flagging that crony capitalism has been a longstanding reality in India but the scales were never that high and mode never so direct. We all know that crony capitalism and opaque political funding share a symbiotic relationship. Many political and corporate leaders have admitted in private that high levels of integrity and transparency were simply not viable in our ecosystem. This is neither a new nor an isolated phenomenon. With onset of strict anti-graft laws in the West, Indian corporates run the risk of being targeted by their global rivals over such soft underbelly. Sharp decline in stock prices of such entities, directly hits average consumers or investors for no fault of theirs. Govt is duty bound to protect such people for which it needs to build a much broader consensus and understanding among various stakeholders.  

    I have always maintained that an economy of our size cannot afford so many billionaires. Such sudden rise in wealth of any individual does not appear possible under normal circumstances.  Real economic strength of a nation like ours does not rest on number of mega corporates and billionaires. It needs a larger culture of industry, enterprise and innovation where several smaller enterpreneurs rise on the strength of innovation and excellence in multiple niche areas. 

     Under-performing institutions and deficient criminal justice systems have remained a perennial reality in India. But at the same time, India is the only stable democracy in the entire post-colonial world whose rise is often linked with larger stability and security of this region and beyond. Hence, both BBC and Hindenburg reports do not deserve the kind of attention that they are enjoying. But we shall ignore need for serious reforms in both political parties as well as corporate sector of India, only to our own peril. These reforms are not luxury but critical necessity for optimising our economic strength and external security.   

    I am also posting a clip of part of a lecture of Jan 2020 during which I had emphasized on centrality of reforms in political parties and private sector.     




Tuesday, January 10, 2023

TURMOIL IN BRAZIL: LESSONS FOR DEMOCRACY

 

Rioting in Brazil Over Disputed Electoal Results

The ongoing turmoil in Brazil over disputed electoral results is a stark reminder of fragility of the entire idea of democracy in most parts of the world. It appears increasingly unsustainable in countries with long traditions of authoritarianism, heavy clout of corporate leaders or organized crime networks and deficient mechanisms of rule of law. 

Barely a week after incoming President took office, violent supporters of his predecessor and right-wing populist former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed the main city centre in Brasilia. Wrapped in yellow green colors of national flag or official jersey of Brazilian soccer team, they shouted slogans in favor of their fatherland and liberty to claim their rioting as acts of patriotism to salvage the nation. They tried to avoid confrontation with police by shouting at them “may God bless you and prevent you from attacking us patriots”

Protestors vandalised Presidential office building - Planalto Palace, Congress and Supreme Court premises and occupied the main public square in the area, in what appeared a clear replay of insurrections at Capitol in Washington DC two years back. Security forces claimed that by the evening of January 8, they had cleared all government buildings from rioters, arresting nearly 1200 of them and charging 700 of them with violence. But thousands were on the run following five hours long pitched battle with the police. The incident has scarred democracy in Brazil and invited world-wide condemnations.

These attacks have been described by sections of media as the biggest assault on rule of law and democracy since 1964 military coup that had deposed the elected government of President Joao Goulart a.k.a. ‘Jango’ of Brazillian Labour Party. It took 21 years for this Latin American behemoth to transition to what is described as 6th Republic since 1985 through protracted negotiations with Military leadership that had led to enactment of 1988 Constitution, which came into force on Jan 01, 1990.

A Planned Insurrection?

Available media inputs suggest that the so-called mass-eruption in Brasilia was not spontaneous. Rather it was well-planned and well organised. Social media posts have been detected inviting “patriots” to take part in this march with promises of free food and free bus rides. Bolsonaro supporters, from countryside and other cities, had started milling around the protest venue as the weekend approached.

There are videos of Bolsonaro instigating violence by urging his supporters to take arms much before these protests. In fact, there are far too many indicators suggesting that more than a year back, he had expressed apprehension of elections being rigged to deny him a second term. Many Brazilian experts had predicted in 2021 itself that in case Bolsonaro lost lections, he could act like Trump to debunk results, cry foul, and incite his supporters to take up arms to overthrow democracy.

One such video of discussion of 2021 by David Rockefeller Centre of Latin America, captioned as “The State of Democracy in Latin America” is available at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3YVP1Shpyc.

Bolsonaro did not disappoint such predictions. Once he lost elections, he skipped inauguration ceremony of the incoming President Lula. Rather he left the country and camped at a location in Florida in the United States and kept drumming up charges of stolen election results. He not only kept quiet when the riot was building up, he rather actively abetted it. There are also videos, though one does not know how authentic, where he describes Brazilians as martial race, urging them to take up arms or spurring even military to take over government. Even his supporters demanded military takeover to prevent Lula from returning to the helm after 12 years. He showed immense reluctance to even condemn the violence initially. Later when he did so, he only disapproved of invasion of public buildings but added qualifiers that protests were part of democracy. In the same vein, he also went on to charge his opponents of organising unlawful protests in the past to overthrow democracy that needed to be investigated. 

Brazil's Record On Democracy

Brazil has never been a model democracy. As per leading institutions like freedom House and V-Dem, Brazil ranks much lower on parameters of democracy, governance, social peace and corruption perception compared to its smaller neighbour like Uruguay, Costa Rica and Chile. This is despite its early foray with democracy and republicanism that commenced way back in 1889, when a cartel of coffee planters of Brazil, who accounted for nearly 65% of the world-wide coffee output, had overthrown 67 years of independent monarchic rule that had parted ways with imperial homeland of Portugal in 1822.  

Frequent disruptions of democracy, with phases of authoritarianism and military dictatorship, have hindered rise of robust institutions and traditions of participative governance in Brazil. But following last transition to democracy in 1985, Brazil had shown immense promise. At the turn of the Century, as the biggest South American state, and the fifth largest in the world, accounting for more than half the population of the continent, Brazil was hailed as one of the rising major economic powers along with China, India and South Africa.

With its formidable economic and military prowess and world-wide influence, Brazil was expected to play a stabilising role in the region and spearhead the larger process of democratisation in whole of Latin America. The region is known for fragile democracies and weak institutions. We already have serious conflict going on in Peru where dozens have been killed. Democracy deficit has resulted in serious misgovernance, with transnational organised crime cartels perennially influencing politics in many neighbouring states and sparing virtually none. Under these circumstances, political stability and efficient governance in Brazil gains significance for security and stability of the entire region.

          Tumltuous Journey Of 6th Republic

The 6th Republic in Brazil has had a somewhat tumultuous journey so far. The first President– Tancredo Neves of Brazilian Democratic Movement - who took over in 1985, following negotiated transition, fell sick even before taking oath of office and died soon. Democracy took some time to take off as the transitional era, from the term of Acting President and Neve’s Deputy - Jose Sarney- until the inauguration of new Constitution in 1990, continued to be governed by authoritarian Constitution of 1969.

The first President who got elected under the new Constitution in 1989 and took office on Jan 01, 1990– Fernando Collor de Mello – had to resign in 1992 following charges of Corruption. His Deputy Itamar Franco, who served remainder of the term until 1994, has probably been the only President in the history of Brazil who enjoyed reputation of a gentleman leader with unquestionable records of personal integrity besides delivering well on governance front. He stabilised economy and democracy both and accommodated various shades of political forces in the cabinet. He abdicated office after completion of the tenure as the new Constitution did not allow an incumbent President, even if he or she served part of the tenure, to run for re-election.

Franco’s successor Henrique Cordoso, a noted academic and politician with a left of the centre orientation, had come on reputation of his sound performance as Finance Minister under Franco. He had mixed results on governance and democracy with some of his pro-poor policies receiving popular endorsement but he struggled on many and few backfired. But before completion of his first tenure, he got the constitution amended in 1998 and got re-elected for another 4 yr term from Jan 1999 to 2002. This was first major tinkering with the new Constitution by an ambitious leader that came too soon in a nation that had barred an incumbent President to run for re-election, fearing return of dictatorship.

 Subsequent Presidents Luis Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), who is again back at the helm, kindled great power aspirations for Brazil through faster growth rate during his tenure but with a tinge of rampant corruption. He was later himself indicted on corruption charges well after he demitted office and was sentenced and had to spend some time in prison.  He eventually succeeded in overturning the verdict by citing the bias of prosecutors and came clean on all charges. His successor Dilma Rousseff faced more ignominy, when she was impeached during second year of her second term on corruption charges only.

There is a strong possibility that even Bolsonaro too may face similar charges at some point of time in future. There are already few cases against him and Lula is likely to institute more. Bolsonaro's fall from grace is not likely to do any good to his future. 

Democracy, development and corruption have converged in Brazil. Judiciary has been selectively assertive but has not remained immune to influence. Further, local and global ecosystem have made it extremely difficult for Brazilian democracy to preserve integrity of its institutions, provide a robust governance and a strong mechanism of rule of law. A country that is so rich in natural resources and with its vast size and fairly large population, it is crying for efficient governance to translate its great-power potentials into reality. 

Manifestation of a Global Trend: Lessons For Democracies

Recent developments in Brazil are indicative of a larger global trend of erosion in integrity and credibility of democratic institutions, notwithstanding some exceptions and few variations. Elections have turned into high stake battles for warring elite not only in arena of politics but also corporate sector, sections of military and probably those in the grey world who probably need state support for their survival and clout. Hence, the phenomenon of populist leaders seeking to build their personality cult needs far closer examination and evaluation. Exploitation of nationalist or identity sentiments have potential to generate such levels of mass frenzy, at least among their supporters, that can knock out rule of law from list of key governance priorities. This can reduce democracy into arbitrary rule by elected dictators. Simultaneously, emotive strength of nationalism and identity provide a brilliant cover to deflect popular attention from governance failures and corruption.

The most striking feature of the Brazilian protests have been initial police reluctance to crack down on the rioters. Sections of Western media have suggested that Bolsonaro had been seeking to cultivate cartels within the security forces. While key figures in military or police who were part of the erstwhile military regime have faded out but progenies and proteges of those stalwarts continue to retain significant clout due to sheer inner dynamics of these institutions. Bolsonaro has been rather soft on military and security officers who have been found indulging in excesses or violating rule of law or what some would suggest a suspected nexus with regional crime cartels to run various shades of grey world operations. Eventually sanity prevailed and security forces could bring situation under control. But a lot of damage had already been done by that time. 

Political options that Brazilian democracy offers may not be ideal. Both Lula and Bolsonaro have been accused of corruption and knocking out their political opponents through ruthless manipulation of institutions. Rule of law and robust governance capacity automatically become a casualty under these conditions.  Besides, rising influence of China, through a set of local collaborators, and clandestine clout of organised crime syndicates further ensure continued decline of Brazilian democracy and sustained pilferage of its economy, especially the rich natural resources. 

Such phenomenon reinforces my belief that democracies need to re-discover themselves to optimise their latent and real potentials. Legitimate political, economic and social stakeholders in democracies need to work out a mechanism to address their differences, if they genuinely care for comprehensive and sustained defence of universal access to freedom, equality and opportunities. Otherwise, despite an outward fa├žade of democracy, even larger states, with not so robust institutions, run the risk of being controlled by a combination of local and global cartels to the detriment of collective interests of their communities and even the entire nation. There may not be easy answers in this direction.  Brazil appears too fractured and divided at this juncture, where robust institutions do not appear sustainable. It needs to heal internally for which both incumbents of state and society need to contribute. It shall also require exceptional statesmanship from incoming President Lula to negotiate a combination of highly complex internal and external challenges threatening his nation at this juncture. 

BBC AND HINDENBURG MUST BE IGNORED BUT INDIA NEEDS SERIOUS INTERNAL DISCOURSE & REFORMS

     Over the last two weeks, two incidents have dominated the discourse in Indian media. One concerns controversial BBC documentary indicti...