Only a global alliance can reshape the regulatory regime to make it more democratic
Earlier this year, it was revealed that India is facing legal claims from international investors in as many as 23 arbitration cases, before various tribunals. These claims, worth billions of dollars, arise out of bilateral investment treaties between India and other states. One striking feature of such treaties is that they allow international investors (primarily MNCs) to initiate a dispute directly in an international tribunal, bypassing the state’s own constitutional system and its courts. Often, the disputes revolve around measures that were triggered by public health emergencies, economic crises or other matters directly involving public welfare — which would therefore be permissible under the Constitution, but which a corporation believes have negatively impacted its financial interests.
This reveals an important truth about the contemporary, globalised world: issues that were earlier resolved within a sovereign state in accordance with its constitutional system have now acquired a transnational character. There are other contemporary examples: because of its attempts to make essential medicines affordable through amendments to its Patent Act, India has come under pressure from the U.S. and the European Union (at the behest of prominent pharmaceutical companies), while finding support and emulation in countries like South Africa and Thailand. Indeed, in 2011, the EU seized shipments of life-saving Indian drugs that were being transported to Africa and Latin America, on the basis that it could apply its more restrictive patent and customs laws to goods in transit through its territory.
Clearly, while global problems cannot be solved without nation-states, nation-states cannot solve their problems on their own. India’s battle to preserve affordable access to medicines is part of a larger struggle, where participation in the global intellectual property regime has severely constrained the ability of countries to respond to public health crises. Whatever a country’s Constitution may say about the right to life and the right to health for its citizens, it will still be dragged before an international tribunal if it attempts to forestall or mitigate a public health crisis by lifting patent restrictions upon, for example, a life-saving drug. The point is not only about who finally succeeds in litigation — rather, it is that the final decision is taken by a set of individuals who are beyond the structures of accountability that are established in democratic and constitutional states.
As pointed out above, the transnational character of these issues suggests that the response cannot succeed if it is unilateral. In the latest version of the model bilateral investment treaty drafted by India, for example, the scope of investor-state dispute settlement by international tribunals has been curtailed. But it takes many to tango: until the perils of bypassing national constitutional systems are accepted more broadly, individual attempts will fall short.
The issues are not limited to conflicts before international forums. Recent months have seen clashes between national regulatory authorities and the corporations that drive the new “gig economy”, such as Uber. In October, Uber and Ola drivers in Mumbai called for an indefinite strike over low pay, after a similar strike in Delhi earlier. In the U.K., the EU and various States in the U.S., there has been protracted and bitter litigation over the legal obligations that Uber owes to its drivers. The conflict may take different forms in different countries, but each time there are striking similarities, stemming from Uber’s business model, which is transnational in character. And, like in the case of investment treaties, it is often difficult for one country to tackle the problem alone – especially when the corporation is global in character, and can issue a credible threat of withdrawing substantial levels of investment. Nor is worker power, as long as it is confined within borders, and not trans-nationalised, sufficient to combat the power of MNCs.
The example of DiEM25
It is always helpful to look elsewhere, to see how people in other parts of the world have attempted to engage with such issues. A recent example is that of the Democracy in Europe Movement 25. DiEM25 arose after the debt crisis in Greece had resulted in a wide-ranging “structural adjustment programme” imposed upon that country by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (or “the troika”). This included severe austerity measures (including cuts to public funding, resulting in mass unemployment) and widespread privatisation, in direct contravention of the publicly expressed will of the people, through both elections and a public referendum.
The central insight of DiEM25 — one of whose co-founders, Yanis Varoufakis (in photo), was Greece’s Finance Minister during the debt crisis — is precisely that today a progressive movement oriented towards social justice and fundamental rights cannot succeed if it is constrained within national borders. Many of the fundamental decisions that shape national policy (with wide-ranging consequences) are simply beyond the ken of nation-states themselves. For this reason, DiEM25 identifies as “pan-European”, and isolates a range of issues “currently left in the hands of national governments powerless to act upon them” — including public debt, banking, inadequate investment, migration, and rising poverty. In its manifesto, DiEM25 returns these issues to democratic control, but also acknowledges that the solutions needed to achieve this can only come from transnational action.
Another important insight of the DiEM25 manifesto is that the world today is based on “the reduction of all political relations into relations of power masquerading as merely technical decisions.” For example, what steps a country like India must take to ensure the availability of life-saving drugs (and not only during a public health crisis) is a decision that must be taken democratically and politically, within the constitutional framework. At present, however, it always remains ultimately subject to a “technical decision” (potentially taken by an international tribunal) about whether India has breached its obligations under an international intellectual property rights treaty regime. What needs to be done is to reshape that regime to make it more democratic, an effort that, by its very nature, cannot be undertaken by a single country.
The focus on democracy is particularly important with respect to a third issue: the increasing role of technology in our daily lives. This debate has come to the fore recently, with the long-running conflict over Aadhaar, and the draft DNA Profiling Bill. The relationship between technology and human freedoms will be vital in the future. It is therefore particularly interesting that, through the evolving concept of “technological sovereignty”, DiEM25 has drawn a specific link between technology and democracy, which can help us think through contemporary issues such as platform monopolies, the ubiquity of AI in public decision-making (including on public welfare), etc.
An international new deal
In September, writing for The Guardian, U.S. politician Bernie Sanders called for a “progressive international”: “an international progressive movement that mobilizes behind a vision of shared prosperity, security and dignity for all people, and that addresses the massive global inequality that exists, not only in wealth but in political power.” Mr. Varoufakis responded to this by calling for an “international new deal”. Movements such as DiEM25, which have sprung up in various parts of the world, serve as potential blueprints and models for what a “progressive international” may look like. It is a conversation that progressive movements in India must take heed of, and engage with, if we are to adequately address the transnational problems that face us today.
Walking the tightrope
India must remain hyperalert on the U.S. waiver on Iranian oil imports and Chabahar
The six-month waiver on sanctions granted by the U.S. to India and seven other countries importing oil from Iran highlights the importance of economic factors in the India-U.S. strategic partnership. The exemption also puts the spotlight on the link between economics and strategy.
No special treatment
The waiver gives India a breathing space of sorts and will help maintain India-U.S. ties on an even keel. But the U.S. has not given any special treatment to India. China, India’s main Asian competitor and perceived by the U.S. as its main security threat, has also been granted a waiver. President Donald Trump’s explanation is that he is going slow on sanctions with the intent of avoiding a shock rise in global oil prices.
The waiver shows that Washington and New Delhi will cooperate on India’s oil and gas needs. Indeed, their Strategic Energy Partnership (April 2018) sees energy cooperation serving “as a centerpiece in the bilateral relationship”. This is because the U.S. believes that it is the world’s leading producer of oil and gas. The U.S. National Security Strategy of November 2017 highlighted the importance of “energy dominance — America’s central position in the global energy system as a leading producer, consumer, and innovator”. India should entertain no illusions about the Trump administration’s wish that it should open up as a key energy market for the U.S. Indeed, since Mr. Trump became President last January oil exports from the U.S. to India have risen. In 2017, India imported 8 million barrels of American crude. Until this July it had imported more than 15 million barrels of U.S. crude.
But boasts about America’s energy dominance ignore the interdependent nature of today’s global energy market, and of relations between states. Unsurprisingly, India needs the help of both the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. is India’s main strategic partner. Indeed, American naval power is indispensable for preserving maritime freedom and security in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
Ties with Iran
At the same time, friendly ties with a politically stable Iran undoubtedly suit India. But the strengthening of commercial and political ties with Iran has been an uphill climb. In 2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency demanded that Iran stop uranium enrichment. India made it clear that it did not support Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and voted against it.
At another level, India has had a bilateral trade deficit with Iran over many years. In 2017 it was $8.5 billion. India’s offer to pay for oil in rupees is unattractive to Iran. Tehran does not want to buy enough Indian goods to make acceptance of rupee payment for its oil worthwhile. But the use of any currency other than the U.S. dollar would mean that a cash-strapped Iran must extend more credit to India. The two countries must find a way out of this conundrum.
On the security front, India’s cooperation with Iran has to be seen against the broader context of its regional rivalries with Pakistan and China. India and Iran share regional interests. They could build a strategic partnership focussing on Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia. Together with Russia and some other countries, they are signatories to the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) agreement, using Iran as the trade route to Russia and northern Europe. INSTC transit routes enable India to bypass a hostile Pakistan by exporting goods via the sea.
That is why India has been developing the Chabahar port in southern Iran in a strategic bid to connect to Central Asia through Iran and Afghanistan. Chabahar provides war-torn Afghanistan a crucial link to Indian goods and Iranian oil. In December 2017, India made its first shipment of wheat to Afghanistan via the port.
Realising the advantage of India developing Chabahar, the U.S. has also exempted India from certain sanctions so that it can make progress on the port. The sanctions relief for the port is motivated by a mix of politics and economics. Washington sees Chabahar’s utility in development and humanitarian relief work in Afghanistan. The U.S. is also aware that China has a stake in developing Chabahar port and could easily replace India if the latter were unable to maintain its foothold there.
On its part, Iran is keenly interested in building the port. Control over Chabahar could put the ace card in its hands as it deals with the competition between China, India and Russia in South and Central Asia.
Admittedly, India remains opposed to Iran’s alleged efforts to acquire nuclear weapon capability. A nuclear Iran would disrupt the balance of power across West and Central Asia, with serious consequences for India’s economic and strategic interests. But a stronger relationship with Iran would increase India’s influence in West and Central Asia. That could help to counter China. And a friendly U.S. could then approach Iran on nuclear issues through India’s good offices.
Despite Mr. Trump’s propensity for springing unpleasant surprises, India has, so far, walked the U.S.-Iran strategy-economics tightrope. It has a good chance of remaining on the tightrope.
Will Ayodhya be an issue in the 2019 elections?
Elections will be fought on a polarised agenda, but it will not be easy for the BJP
Whether Ayodhya matters to the electorate or not, it will be made to matter by the BJP-RSS combine and the Vishva Hindu Parishad in the run-up to the 2019 general election. The question is this: what will be the modality of foregrounding the Ayodhya issue in a context that is vastly different from 1992?
Ayodhya has been less about faith and more about a muscular Hindu majority that wishes to rule by bringing the Muslims into near-complete submission and denying them their legitimate claim of being equal citizens. The problem, however, for the Hindu Right is that Muslims no longer fit into that imagination of an aggressive or militant opponent; instead, they are a vanquished lot looking for physical safety and basic survival.
In search of an enemy
Militant Hindutva mobilisation today is based on the search for an enemy. Muslims have steadily become economically marginalised, socially ghettoised and politically less influential. In fact, in much of the north, Partition witnessed the migration of social elites among the Muslims, leaving behind the economically weaker sections amongst them. Today their plight is far worse than the Dalits and even the Adivasis.
In the context of a virulent mobilisation without a palpable enemy, the discourse around the construction of the temple raises the question of the viability of political instrumentality in stoking the issue before every general election and the demand that Hindus prove their faith. It is now about the ‘good Hindu’ and the ‘bad Hindu’. While Muslims face the threat of physical violence, Hindus have to prove their faith in a political arena that is far removed, and in deep tension, with Hinduism’s everyday spiritual and religious dimensions. The heat, therefore, has also turned on the BJP to prove its commitment to the issue outside of its political calculation, and the campaign by Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray is symptomatic of this. For the BJP and the RSS, if the issue is settled early, it becomes a non-issue for the election, and if they drag it for too long without efforts to actually begin the construction of the temple, there is the danger of the electorate seeing through their game.
The reality and the narrative
This is where the BJP and the RSS have to make the issue matter; the issue no longer has the kind of natural velocity that it carried earlier. This time around, high-pitched emotions have to be constructed; they are perhaps not readily available. It is here that the ability of the BJP and the RSS to construct a reality that matches their narrative will be tested. The ‘reality’ is constructed to suit the narrative through rumours, fake videos, street violence, the use of social media and by engineering riots. The ground for this has been prepared for quite some time and we cannot make sense of it unless we read the issue of Ayodhya, unlike in previous times of the Rath Yatra, not as a standalone issue but one that has the capacity to condense the various elements and narratives floating around. The turn towards a more militant Hindu mobilisation came with the ascendance of the RSS and the paranoid social imaginaries initiated by M.S. Golwalkar. Today that anxiety has been quelled after the massive violence following the Rath Yatra in 1991 and the Gujarat riots of 2002.
Whether the Hindu majority cutting across castes will perceive the links between the narratives that are far more complex than a simple-minded narrative of a Muslim adversary is a difficult issue to assess right now. But surely the elections are going to be fought on a polarised agenda. This will be an uphill task for the Hindu Right, however, given that the economy has been sluggish and there are shrinking job opportunities.
The Ram Mandir issue is not a political agenda that is meaningful to poor voters
It sounds out of place that nearly two years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened the BJP’s campaign for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in favour of vikas (development), he will change course. Mr. Modi had lashed out at the Samajwadi Party and the then Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav, and had urged voters to end “vikas ka vanvas (development’s exile)”. Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party were blamed for having derailed development on account of a fetish for personal aggrandisement and corruption. Even prior to that, when Mr. Modi campaigned as Gujarat Chief Minister in 2012, he showcased his Gujarat development model. Mr. Modi continued to speak of development in the 500-plus rallies that he addressed in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
Minimalist electoral strategy
What has changed so dramatically in the past year or more that we need to even ask the question whether the Ram temple issue will displace vikas as the central theme for the 2019 election? It is being speculated that with Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and with Mr. Modi as the Prime Minister, and with the large majority that they command on the floor of the House, pressure could be brought to bear on erecting the temple on the disputed site in Ayodhya. While the Supreme Court is only hearing a review and challenge petition on the Allahabad High Court’s judgment on the title suit, there is a misconception that this judicial pronouncement is what is needed to build a temple. Notwithstanding the partisan political posturing on this issue, I see this as a minimalist electoral strategy — one that seeks to mobilise a ‘militant’ core and pitch it against an enemy ‘other’. More importantly, it masks the deep deliberations on the ground amongst poor voters on issues that matter to them.
Development is the concern
I argue on the basis of voter expectations, electoral deliberations among the poor and the offerings of political parties that it will be difficult to displace the centrality of development in voter aspirations and deliberations about how they will act politically. While religious belief, or aastha, has a role in the lives of the poor, attempting to garner votes primarily on the basis of this is a thing of the past. After reaping the dividends of the Rath Yatra in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP did not do so in 1993 following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. But even the ‘secular’ opponents of the Rath Yatra and Babri Masjid demolition — former Chief Ministers Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Bihar and U.P., respectively — lost their elections largely because they were perceived as not having done enough development in their States. In the same time that these Chief Ministers put their faith in caste combines and in the backward castes, Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu was writing a different script in Andhra Pradesh. He was referred to as a “CEO” in the arena of democracy.
Nitish Kumar and Akhilesh Yadav later came to power in Bihar and U.P., respectively, in the name of development. And Mr. Kumar retained power despite not having a solid caste-based vote block of his own. Poor voters are more likely to opt for change if the political agendas are meaningful to them. Unfortunately, Ram Mandir is not one of their priorities.
Southern States and the Northeast are not caught up in the Mandir frenzy
The frenzy in the media appears to have created the impression that the survival of the Indian depends on building the Ram temple. A similar frenzy was generated in 1992, prior to the conspiratorial destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6 that year. But there is a difference. There was not such a large media network and certainly no social media. The communal poison was spread by the organisational outfits of the Sangh Parivar.
Questions being debated
However, the question is whether the BJP will electorally benefit from this. Suddenly, the controversy of the civil war in the Central Bureau of Investigation and the internecine warfare between the Reserve Bank of India and the government has receded to the background. Can or should the government issue an ordinance and let the temple be built or should it wait for the Supreme Court to give its opinion? Is the temple issue essentially a matter of faith or law? Can the Hindutva groups terrorise the courts or should they be booked for law and order disturbances? These are some of the questions being debated.
If one looks at the political map, it is obvious that the southern States are not enveloped by the Mandir frenzy. There is no mass mobilisation in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, or Karnataka. Despite Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s provocative appeal, the Shiv Sainiks have not yet been inspired to come on the streets for the Ayodhya cause. By and large, Maharashtra has been quiet despite Nagpur being the RSS’s headquarters. The Marathas are more concerned about their reservation quota and the State is worried about the drought situation and the condition of its farmers. Even Gujarat, the bastion of the BJP and the Modi-Shah duo, has not joined the kar sevaks’ march. West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and the whole of the Northeast appear quiet. The temple issue has not raised the political temperature in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland or Mizoram, notwithstanding the fact that the Sangh has spread its tentacles in that region. There are 21 States in the “command” of the BJP; yet, except Uttar Pradesh, there is no heat anywhere else.
If this is the reality, will it generate electoral hype and heat for the benefit of the BJP? Indeed, the whole effort of the BJP is aimed at keeping the Hindi belt as a Hindu belt. Moreover, the issue has been kept burning just as the election process is on in the Hindi belt, in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where the ruling BJP looks vulnerable. This last-minute Hindu invasion is expected to tilt the voting in their favour, or so they feel.
The BJP is seeking a very simple, even thin, majority, not a landslide victory. If it gets those runs in the last over, it can save the match.
Politics has often defied logic
But there is also a statistical approach to politics. And that is about the electoral battle in 2019. Some of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, 40 in Bihar, 29 in Madhya Pradesh, 25 in Rajasthan, 10 in Haryana and seven in Delhi could be swung by the lava that will flow from the Ayodhya issue. If the BJP wins 125 out of these seats, it will come close to forming a government at the Centre, even if it does not get its own majority. Its new aim is not to be the single largest party; it is the number that can win it new friends.
But politics has often defied statistical logic. One should not be surprised if the BJP’s Ram will have to go into “vanvas” yet again. It is that spectre of being thrown into the political wilderness again that haunts the BJP.
How a religious incantation has been transformed by the BJP into a political slogan in Kerala
A new political slogan has come up since mobs took to the streets of Kerala opposing the Supreme Court verdict that allows women of all ages to offer prayers at the Sabarimala temple: “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa.” This metamorphosis of a religious incantation of devotees on the arduous trek to the hill shrine hints at the Hindu Right’s game plan to build a movement in Kerala akin to the one seeking a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Perhaps they hope it will spread across south India ahead of the Lok Sabha election.
Sections of the Sangh Parivar believe that if the Ram Janmabhoomi movement helped the BJP gain a foothold in the Hindi heartland, the Ayyappa temple agitation will increase their influence in the south. The party’s Kerala unit president, P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, has already stated that the BJP is hopeful of increasing its tally in the Assembly “from one to 71” — the number of seats required for a majority. The strategy could have been devised considering the popularity of Ayyappa across southern States.
The transformation of the Ayyappa incantation is strikingly similar to how the traditional, yet non-communal, greeting of “Ram Ram” in north India became the rabble rousing “Jai Shri Ram.” As historian K.N. Panikkar writes in Before the Night Falls: The Forebodings of Fascism in India, the “image of an angry Ram was implanted in the popular mind” through sustained ideological propaganda. “In contrast to his traditional tranquil, compassionate and benevolent image, Ram was depicted in posters and books circulated by the Sangh Parivar as riding a rath and pulling his bow string, the arrow poised to annihilate. In some pictures, he was carrying a trishul, a sword, and an axe.” The implication is that Ram is out for a fight to recover his place of birth.
Similarly, the image of Ayyappa, popular in the devotees’ minds either as a brahmachari reposed in yogamudra or as a composed youth riding a tiger, holding a bow and with arrows slung over his shoulder, has been changed into one of an angry youth galloping on a tiger out to question the alleged “breach of customs” at his abode. Similar to how BJP leader L.K. Advani undertook a Rath Yatra, Mr. Pillai launched one from Maddur on the Kerala-Karnataka border up north to Pathanamthitta, the entry point to Sabarimala.
According to observers of national politics, the BJP is not expecting a repeat of the 2014 performance in northern States in the 2019 elections. So, the plan could be to try to compensate for this loss from the south. Mr. Pillai has already made it clear that “the agitation will be expanded to other States.” However, with the ruling CPI(M) firmly supporting the Supreme Court verdict and the Congress indirectly echoing the BJP’s views, how this strategy will pan out is another question.