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- United colours of the ‘yellow vests’
- Hues of a new political landscape
- A valid pause
- From a manifesto to a movement
- Colombo’s perceptions
- A political march
United colours of the ‘yellow vests’
As the French state tries to withdraw, it faces an unprecedented backlash
The sight of flaming barricades and upturned cars in Paris usually sends journalists scurrying to their cliché cupboard. For historically literate commentators, current events in France evoke the storming of the Bastille and the Paris Commune. For the politically minded, they seem more akin to the Popular Front of 1936 or May 1968. And, for those aware of France’s difficult colonial past, the spectacle of the police confronting ordinary citizens brings back memories of the Battle of Algiers.
There is a kernel of truth to all these clichés. It is true that political violence in France follows well-worn patterns that have their roots in the country’s revolutionary past. This means that the mere erection of a barricade can turn a tedious protest march into a pseudo-revolutionary action with powerful political ramifications.
It is also true that some of the techniques used in the recent protests in France mirror those used by trade unions. Shutdowns and blockades have been the stock-in-trade of the French labour movement for more than 150 years.
And, yes, after the collapse of the French empire in the 1950s and 1960s, the French police did bring their peculiarly violent methods of control and interrogation back to metropolitan France, with sometimes devastating consequences.
The problem is that none of these clichés really gets to the heart of the so-called gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests that have rocked France for the past three weeks. This is because the protests do not fit the usual historic parallels.
For a start, the gilets jaunes movement is not led by any union or political party. No one can say that it is a structured ‘movement’. It also seems to combine elements of the right and left — and especially elements of the far-right and far-left — that make an ideological interpretation of the protests awkward.
Most importantly, the protesters’ demands are not clearly articulated: some want tax cuts (on fuel), some want tax rises (for the rich), some want more public services, some want more generous state benefits, some want to smash up symbols of capitalism, some want a stronger President, some think the current President is too strong, and some want all of these things at once.
Given this extraordinary dispersion of demands, it is hard to give a fixed reading of what the gilets jaunes represent. Instead, it is more useful to focus on the few things that unite them. There are two that stand out.
Double-bind of French state
The first is the obsessive focus on the French state. From the beginning, the gilets jaunes have targeted the French state as both villain and saviour. They have organised groups to protest outside government offices all over the country, especially in smaller provincial towns. This has frequently been accompanied by violence and vandalism. Almost all of the protesters agree that the state is not doing enough and has neglected their needs.
This belief has been exacerbated by the imperious attitude of French President Emmanuel Macron. His avowedly statist orientation, his embrace of the hyper-presidentialism of the Fifth Republic, and his fondness for monarchical symbolism have merely stoked the fire. Like an ill-fated king, Mr. Macron has turned anger at the state into anger at his person.
Yet, despite their ire, the gilets jaunes also demand redress from the very same state they abhor. They want the French government to lower fuel taxes, reinstate rural post offices, increase their ‘purchasing power’, cut property taxes, and hire more doctors for rural clinics. They firmly believe that the state can and should fix their problems. The fact that many of the issues at the heart of the protests relate to deep structural imbalances in the French economy makes no difference. The state is held as sole responsible and sole guarantor.
This paradox has a long pedigree in French history. Especially since 1945, the French state has expanded enormously, to a point that French people are comfortable with high levels of state interference in their social and economic lives. The massive subsidies put in place to soften the blow of deindustrialisation in the 1980s further increased this dependence.
Today’s demonstrations are a logical outcome of this double-bind: as the French state tries to withdraw, under pressure from European Union-wide austerity politics and its own budgetary overreach, it faces an unprecedented backlash.
Centre and periphery
The second common theme in the gilets jaunes protests is their very wide geographical dispersion. In this respect, the focus on Paris has been misleading. What is most interesting about recent events is how spread out they are across metropolitan France and even overseas.
While cars were burning on the Champs-Elysées, thousands of people in provincial France blocked roundabouts, staged sit-ins on town squares, and threw rocks at town halls. Meanwhile, in the overseas territory of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, the entire island has been brought to a standstill by targeted traffic blockades.
This geographical reach reflects another long-standing structural pathology of the French economy, namely the sharp division between centre and periphery. While urban areas in France have tended to develop better infrastructure and more integrated community structures, the withdrawal of state aid has had the opposite effect in peri-urban and rural areas, and in the highly unequal overseas territories.
In this respect, it is significant that the catalyst for the protests was rising fuel prices. Those most reliant on their cars are those who live farthest from urban areas and do not have access to regular public transport. In addition, there has been a complete policy reversal on diesel fuel. After almost half a century of subsidies, the French state has been taking away financial incentives on diesel since the early 2000s. This is a heavy blow for the 61% of French people whose cars run on diesel, and for the truckers and farmers who were used to getting their fuel on the cheap.
A bleak future
So what can be done? The answer is, probably not much. The most likely scenario is that the protests will peter out due to fatigue, demobilisation and a lack of leadership. It is not clear how, if at all, any political party can capitalise on them, except perhaps for the far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who sees herself as the voice for France’s peripheral squeezed middle.
The biggest danger is spiralling depoliticisation. Mr. Macron’s plunging approval ratings before and during the gilets jaunes protests indicates a crisis of leadership at least as acute as the one that marred former President François Hollande’s five years in office. Not for the first time, the most urgent task facing France’s elite is to elaborate a more inclusive political project that will begin to reduce the country’s well-documented inequalities.
Emile Chabal is a Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh and the author of ‘A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France’
Hues of a new political landscape
The BJP’s electoral dominance is contributing to the saffronisation of other political parties
The president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, while addressing a national executive meet in New Delhi in September said that the party would continue to remain in power for the next 50 years if it won the 2019 general election. From ruling seven States in 2014, the party runs many States by itself or in an alliance. For a party that has earned such unprecedented electoral success, the feel of invincibility is natural, but Mr. Shah’s claim sounds pompous.
In 1984, the Congress party won 404 Lok Sabha seats but tasted inglorious defeat in 1989. Likewise, its leader Indira Gandhi, who was venerated in 1971, had to bite the dust in 1977. India’s electoral world is dangerously precarious. Moreover, the Indian voter’s mind is very difficult to read. Looking at various political trends, however, the BJP’s dominance as single largest party for some time regardless of the outcome of the 2019 election is a fact.
The BJP’s dominance partly hinges on what sort of political resistance it faces from the Opposition. The clue that we get from the history of resistance is this: the most organised resistance to the BJP took place in 1996, when the party led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee was isolated and restricted to running the government for not more than 13 days even though he was seen to be more moderate than Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Such an event is not possible in 2019 or later for at least three reasons. First, having led the National Democratic Alliance coalition, the BJP has developed working relations with various regional parties who no longer see the national party as politically untouchable or are scared of its ideology; Second, the leaders of regional parties, most often dynastic in nature, have very limited stakes in the national polity and a limited interest in fighting a battle outside their turf. Third, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah leadership, which presented itself as one with a difference in elections held 2014 onwards is also accommodative of their opponents. For instance, the Congress’s Rita Bahuguna in Uttar Pradesh or Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam or the Janata Dal (United)’s Nitish Kumar were accommodated generously. So why is an ideological party so forgiving towards its opponents? Because its key objective is to drain the Opposition politics of vital resources so that any future consolidation against it is weak.
Another crucial factor is the emergence of anti-Congressism as an ideology — a major source of political dissent and resistance in Indian politics that acquired concrete shape during the anti-Emergency movement in the mid-1970s. Political formations owing their origins to anti-Congressism are deeply sceptical of going with the Congress or its coalition as an alternative even if broadly they pretend to champion secular politics. The ambivalence shown by parties led by the Biju Janata Dal leader Naveen Patnaik, Mr. Nitish Kumar, and the Telugu Desam Party leader N. Chandrababu Naidu (though he has now warmed up to the Congress) can be traced to this. On the other hand, this has lead to some advantage for the BJP in seeking partners in the short and long term. Consequently, we are now witness to the rhetoric of the Opposition leaders being more about anti-Modi-ism than anti-BJPism or anti-Hindutva as such.
While the Modi-Shah leadership deserves credit for helping craft the electoral dominance of the BJP, the fact is that this team is not going to hold sway forever. On the other hand, political history shows that parties fragment for a variety of reasons such as ideological differences or a clash of personalities. Take, for example, the Left or the Congress party, both of which experienced fragmentation. The Janata Party, in the 1970s, imploded though it was more a coalition of various formations. Thus, the BJP’s fragmentation is inevitable. What is hard to predict, however, is when this will happen. Given the almost symbiotic relationship between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP, some argue that the BJP would defy such a fate. But such an ideological grip could not stop B.S. Yeddyurappa, the former Karnataka Chief Minister, from abandoning the party to form the short-lived Karnataka Janata Paksha.
What must be highlighted is this: parties that had an umbilical link with the Congress party such as the Trinamool Congress or the Nationalist Congress Party have a secular thread in them. In the event that the BJP fragments, such parties could pursue an identical Hindutva line. The campaign and programmes of these parties could cause disruptions to minority and human rights.
The sharpening of these majoritarian tendencies would grow in both rhetoric and practice without bringing any change to the Constitution and the term secular remaining intact. Moreover, the BJP’s electoral dominance could contribute to the saffronisation of other parties, as they could emulate the BJP’s electoral strategies. This is evident in the workings of some of the non-Hindutva political parties. Such a development would also aggravate an already fragile secular polity.
Shaikh Mujibur Rehman is the editor of ‘Rise of Saffron Power’ and teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi
A valid pause
While holding rates, the RBI has wisely stuck to its policy stance of ‘calibrated tightening’
The Reserve Bank of India’s decision to leave interest rates unchanged, given easing inflation and the slowdown in economic momentum, was both expected and reasonable. In fact, the RBI was prompted to sharply lower its projection for price gains after an unexpected softening in food inflation and a collapse in oil prices in a surprisingly short span of time — the price of India’s crude basket tumbled almost 30% to below $60 by end-November from $85 in early October. The monetary policy committee (MPC) now estimates retail inflation in the second half of the fiscal year to slow to 2.7%-3.2%, at least 120 basis points lower than its October forecast of 3.9%-4.5%. And it foresees the softness in prices enduring through the April-September half of next year, when headline inflation is projected to hover around its medium-term target of 4% and register in a 3.8%-4.2% range. The MPC’s decision to stand pat on rates must also have been bolstered by the findings in the RBI’s November survey of households’ inflation expectations: the outlook for price gains, three months ahead, softened by 40 basis points from September. On growth, the monetary authority has largely stuck with its prognosis from October, while flagging both external and domestic risks to momentum as well as the likely sources of tailwinds. Among the positives cited, beyond a likely boost to consumption demand and corporate earnings from softer fuel costs, are two key data points from the RBI’s own surveys. Capacity utilisation rose to 76.1% in Q2, higher than the long-term average of 74.9%. Also, industrial firms reported an improvement in the demand outlook for Q4. Still, the forecast for full-year GDP growth has been retained at 7.4%, on the back of an expected 7.2%-7.3% second-half expansion, with the risks weighted to the downside.
Interestingly, and justifiably so, the RBI has opted to keep the powder dry by sticking to its policy stance of ‘calibrated tightening’. Given that its primary remit is to achieve and preserve price stability, the central bank is wary of the uncertainties that cloud the inflation horizon. For one, with the prices of several food items at “unusually low levels”, the RBI reckons there is the clear and present danger of a sudden reversal, especially in prices of volatile perishable items. Also, the medium-term outlook for crude oil is still quite hazy, with the possibility of a flare-up in geopolitical tensions and any decision by OPEC both likely to impact supplies. Buttressing this reasoning, households’ one-year-ahead inflation expectations remain elevated and unchanged from September. Most significantly, the central bank has once again raised a cautionary signal to governments, both at the Centre and in the States. Fiscal slippages risk impacting the inflation outlook, heightening market volatility and crowding out private investment. Instead, this may be an opportune time to bolster macroeconomic fundamentals through fiscal prudence.
From a manifesto to a movement
How the Justice Party in Madras became the stepping stone for political empowerment of non-Brahmins
Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times
The author acknowledges in his new book, Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times, that part of the pull to write a history of the region was the “South Indianness” of his mother, Lakshmi Devadas Gandhi. In his four-centuries-long story, from 1600 to modern times, he attempts to study “the people inhabiting this varying, intricate peninsula.” It is a story of four powerful cultures — Kannada, Malayali, Tamil and Telugu — and “yet more than that, for Kodagu, Konkani, Marathi, Oriya and Tulu cultures have also influenced it, as also other older and possibly more indigenous cultures.” Of the four principal cultures, which are “unsurprisingly competitive” and yet complementary, he finds the Tamil part the most Dravidian and possessing the oldest literature. An excerpt:
The 1911 census showed that Brahmins were slightly over 3 per cent of Madras Presidency’s population, and non-Brahmins 90 per cent. Yet in the ten years from 1901 to 1911, Madras University turned out 4,074 Brahmin graduates compared with only 1,035 non-Brahmin graduates. Numbers for other groups (revealing also how the Empire classified the population at this time) included ‘Indian Christian’, 306, ‘Mohammedan’, 69, and ‘European & Eurasian’, 225.
A little over 22 per cent of Tamil Brahmin males in the presidency were literate in English by 1911. The corresponding figure for Telugu Brahmins was 14.75, for Nairs in Malabar around 3, for Balija Naidus 2.6, and for Vellalas just over 2. Among Kammas, Nadars and Reddis, males literate in English were below half a per cent.
Many more had attained mother tongue literacy: 72 per cent of Tamil Brahmins, 68 per cent of Telugu Brahmins, 42 per cent of Nairs, 20 per cent of Indian Christians, and 18 per cent of Nadars.
The span from 1914 to 1918 — in Europe the World War I years — saw competition in Madras between nationalists and opponents of Brahmin domination. A small but significant advance for the latter was the opening in 1914 of ‘The Dravidian Home’ for non-Brahmin students. Financed by men like Panaganti Ramarayaningar (the Raja of Panagal), whose lands lay in the Telugu country to the north of Madras, this hostel was run by C. Natesa Mudaliar, a Vellala doctor in the city.
Demand for Home Rule
Leading the Madras nationalists was the Irishwoman Annie Besant (1847-1933), who had arrived in India in 1894 after tumultuous years in England where she announced that she was an atheist before embracing theosophy. Though also spending time in Varanasi, her political base was Madras, where in June 1914 she purchased a newspaper, renaming it New India.
Through the paper, she asked for Home Rule for India. That stand, plus Besant’s oft-expressed adoration for India’s scriptures, her impressive bearing, and her eloquence made her a force to reckon with. The British in Madras, official and civil, responded to Besant with dislike, and New India was frequently asked to furnish security, all of which added to her popularity.
On September 3, 1916, she launched the Home Rule League. District centres appeared, and one of Besant’s allies, the Congress leader P. Varadarajulu Naidu, an Ayurvedic doctor from a prominent Telugu-origin family near Salem, made speeches in Tamil about Home Rule. There was parallel activity on the other side. On November 20, 1916, around 30 or so eminent non-Brahmins met in Madras’s Victoria Public Hall to form the South Indian People’s Association (SIPA), a joint-stock company for publishing English, Telugu and Tamil newspapers which would voice non-Brahmin grievances.
A month later, on December 20, readers of The Hindu and of Besant’s New India were treated to SIPA’s ‘Non-Brahmin Manifesto’, which declared opposition to ‘the Indian Home Rule Movement’, portraying it as a Brahmin exercise for gaining control over Madras Presidency. It also announced the start of a new political party, the South Indian Liberal Federation (SILF).
Although the manifesto claimed to speak for all non-Brahmins, and its signatories included Telugu, Tamil, Malayali and Kannada names, SILF’s first aim was ‘not so much to attract a following as to influence the official policy of the British in Madras Presidency’. More places for non-Brahmins in government service and in colleges was the immediate goal.
SIPA’s daily newspaper in English, Justice, first came out on February 26, 1917. The Tamil daily Dravidan appeared in mid-1917. Published from 1885, the Telugu Andhra Prakasika was acquired.
Soon SILF became known as the Justice Party. Many of its members took the line that ‘Tamil’, ‘Dravidan’ or ‘Dravidian’, ‘non-Brahmin’ and ‘South Indian’ were synonymous terms, as were ‘Brahmin’, ‘Aryan’ and ‘North Indian’. Their wish was to ‘rouse all the non-Brahmanas to a recognition of their past glory with a view to put the haughty Brahmana who is the intruder from the North in his proper place’.
Although it attacked Brahmins, Aryans and the caste system, the Justice Party remained elitist. Moreover, its leaders quarrelled publicly, and the colonial establishment’s praise for the party became an embarrassment. Yet the future would identify SILF as the foundation for non-Brahmin political power in the South.
On August 20, 1917, Edwin Montagu, His Majesty’s Government’s Secretary for State in India, had announced in the House of Commons a new policy of ‘increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration’ and of developing ‘self-governing institutions’ towards the ‘progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire’.
The Montagu announcement triggered a range of claims. Pointing out that Muslims had received special treatment in 1909, the Justice Party said that non-Brahmins (comprising, it was asserted, 40 million of the presidency’s population of 41 million) should have something similar.
India encounters a range of reactions in Sri Lanka: appreciation, support, suspicion and opposition
There are no winners in the political crisis in Sri Lanka. President Maithripala Sirisena, whose actions triggered the crisis, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who as Prime Minister lost two confidence votes, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, former Prime Minister who enjoys majority support in Parliament, are locked in a draw.
A ringside view
Against this backdrop, what are the perceptions among the main political actors, which impact Sri Lanka-India relations? A delegation of eminent Indian scholars, former civil servants and a retired navy chief, led by Lalit Mansingh, former Foreign Secretary and chairman of the Kalinga Lanka Foundation (KLF), was in Colombo last month. The delegation’s candid discussions with four leading think tanks and numerous key players on different sides of the political divide provided a ringside view of the situation.
Cutting across party lines, a clear bipartisan consensus emerged about Sri Lanka’s continuing need to nurture a positive engagement with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiatives to improve the relationship evoked appreciation. But given the asymmetries in size and power, Sri Lanka finds itself overwhelmed by India’s presence. Hence, resisting India’s overtures for closer cooperation may be seen as part of Sri Lanka’s assertion of its independent identity.
From the Sri Lankan perspective, cultivating China as a counter to India makes strategic sense. The country needs huge capital for its development. China seems to be the only source willing to provide it, albeit on increasingly tougher terms. Many Sri Lankan intellectuals and policymakers reject the notion of a Chinese ‘debt trap’ and criticism of the 99-year lease given to China for Hambantota Port as ‘neo-colonial’. They argue that they would accept Chinese money, but refuse to embrace China’s presence. Rather unconvincingly, they claim expertise in knowing and dealing with China.
On India-China rivalry, pro-Rajapaksa interlocutors sought a balance in Sri Lanka’s ties with the two Asian powers. A strong, though unrealistic, plea was made suggesting that China-Sri Lanka relations should not be seen from the narrow prism of the complex relations between India and China. They advanced two additional arguments: one, for most projects Colombo had approached India initially and turned to China only later; two, ‘China delivers, while Indian bureaucracy delays’ was a constant refrain.
It appears Sri Lanka may be turning away from its identity as a South Asian nation to assert its role as an Indian Ocean country, imbued with an ambition to connect better with ASEAN and Japan. Discontent over the impasse in SAARC and challenges in strengthening the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation are behind this shift. Economic opportunities that could result from better international maritime connectivity and the potential of the blue economy are other motivations. Concerning the Indian Ocean, Colombo clamours for India’s collaboration in its efforts to turn the region into one of peace and harmony. Some express support for reviving the trilateral maritime cooperation among India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Others believe that India and China must cooperate for the region’s benefit.
On economic cooperation with India, Mr. Wikremesinghe has been more upbeat than the President or Mr. Rajapaksa. In retrospect, one of the triggers for the crisis was his insistence to move ahead with projects identified in the MoU signed with India in April 2017 that had Mr. Sirisena’s opposition. Mr. Wikremesinghe, on a recent visit to Delhi, sought to transfer Mr. Modi’s concern over delays in project implementation to Mr. Sirisena. Besides, Mr. Wikremesinghe’s apparent refusal to take seriously Mr. Sirisena’s anxiety over reports of an attempt on his life brought the two to the breaking point.
The KLF delegation heard how the Sri Lankan industry feared being flooded by Indian goods and professionals. The Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement is yet to reach finalisation. Assessment in Colombo is that Indian investors prefer to invest at home; hence Sri Lanka’s push to attract new investments from Southeast Asia and beyond. The point, however, is that all investors will be risk-averse when the country is unstable and politically fractured. The Sri Lankan Tamil view continues to be supportive of a proactive policy stance by India.
India encounters a range of reactions in Sri Lanka: appreciation, support, suspicion and opposition. Indian diplomacy plays on a sticky wicket. New Delhi is committed to refraining from interference in a neighbour’s internal affairs, but it will always defend its vital interests. While being fair to all sides, it is closely monitoring the unfolding crisis.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, and former Ambassador to Myanmar
A political march
Movements such as the farmers’ march in Delhi can be sustained only if they resist short-term electoral baits
Conversations with many of the farmers who had occupied the streets of New Delhi in November revealed that their inspiration to protest was drawn from the Kisan Mukti March that took place from Nashik to Mumbai early this year. It also flowed from the poignant images recently seen in the media — of the bleeding and blistered feet of farmers, of Tamil farmers with human skulls at Jantar Mantar, and of the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally in Delhi this September.
Yet this time was different and unprecedented. The tens of thousands of farmers had travelled from across the country enduring difficult journeys to the capital. Their sole aim was to get their demands heard, to reclaim their rural livelihoods, their fundamental rights, and Parliament itself. They wanted a resolution to the agrarian crisis.
Taken a step further, their mass action reflects a desire to reset the economic and political agenda of the country. This was a planned display of strong political will, made possible by the participation of 208 farmers’ and labour organisations and the support of 21 political parties which have shown willingness to consent to two private bills brought forth by the farmers: one on freedom from indebtedness and the other to do with increasing the Minimum Support Price in accordance with the Swaminathan Report.
The most striking aspect of the rally, however, was the coming together of diverse local issues. There were sugarcane farmers from U.P. and Haryana who are affected by the non-payment of dues, farmers from Maharashtra and Karnataka who are facing crop failure due to an acute water crisis, farmers from parts of U.P. who are facing water contamination due to industrial emissions, farmers from Tamil Nadu who are facing crop destruction due to stray animals, climate change and rising input costs, and farmers facing indebtedness. There were Dalit farmers who are facing landlessness, women farm workers who brought up the issue of unequal pay and Adivasi farmers who spoke about land dispossession despite having cultivated indigenously for thousands of years. Many of these concerns were linked to corporatisation of the farm sector processes.
The trickier question, however, is whether broader and deeper alliances and solidarities with the urban working class, who tend to share more in common with the rural distressed, will yet emerge. The more far-fetched but important support could come from the urban and middle classes if they could be sensitised towards the demands of those who fill empty stomachs across the land. Finally, even if the ruling elites and the Opposition realise that these farmers have the potential to influence the 2019 Lok Sabha election, as any act of mass mobilisation might do, the success and sustainability of these movements depends on how they resist short-term electoral baits.