BY SHASHI MALLA
Setback for Modi
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s ruling Hindu nationalist political party has suffered a setback in elections to five state assemblies – in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh (from the Hindu Belt), as well as in Telengana and Mizoram. The Indian National Congress (INC) won in the first three states, whereas the regional parties, the Telengana Rashtra Samithi won in Telengana (88 out 119 seats)and the Mizo National Front in Mizoram (26 seats out of 40 in the north-eastern state bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar).
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi suffered his biggest loss since taking office in 2014, and just months before national parliamentary elections. According to results announced by India’s Election Commission, the main opposition Congress party was a clear winner in Chhattisgarh (68 seats from a total of 90), and fell one seat short of a majority in both Rajasthan (99 out of 200) and Madhya Pradesh (114 out of 109). With a regional party offering support, the Congress party is set to rule all three states of the Hindu Belt, replacing Modi’s BJP. This major setback to the BJP is expected to revive the political fortunes of the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi, the 48-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, who took over as party president from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, a year ago. He had campaigned extensively for the Congress in the three states.
The central states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are widely regarded as BJP strongholds – part of a bellwether region, the Hindi-speaking heartland of India. The solid performance by Congress will help it rejuvenate and uplift the morale of party workers. It has already stimulated the image of party leader Rahul Gandhi and made it more acceptable to possible regional allies after the forthcoming crucial national elections. Above all, it has sent a clear message that the colossal BJP is not invincible.
It has now become clear that the 2019 general elections will be a referendum on Narendra Modi and his policies. In 2014, he swept to power promising change and hope. This has been largely eroded away and the BJP has fanned hate, especially against the Dalits (Untouchables/devoid of caste) and Moslems. This has left the country deeply divided. It remains to be seen whether Modi will be punished for his grandiose promises – the Indian electorate is very discerning – and the Congress can offer a more sustainable narrative and mount a credible challenge to Modi, still – to all intents and purposes – the ‘star’ of the BJP.
These state elections have also demonstrated that domestic issues have trumped external affairs. For a rising India has successfully pushed its demand for a seat at the table of global powers, and is ready to set its own terms on everything from defense to climate to trade. “More than at any time over the past quarter-century, India is well on its way to global power,” writes Alyssa Ayres (a former US deputy-assistant secretary of state for South Asia and currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) in her new book: “Our Time Has Come: How India is Making its Place in the World.” She notes: “We are witnessing a country chart its course to power, and explicitly seeking not to displace others but to be recognized among the club of world powers, one in which it believes its membership is long overdue.”
Sri Lanka on Democratic Path
In order to avoid an imminent government shutdown, Sri Lanka’s would-be executive president Maithripala Sirisena had to retreat ignominiously last Friday and reinstate former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom he had sacked on trumped-up charges. He had previously insisted he would never in his lifetime reappoint him as prime minister. Sirisena himself had triggered the country’s unprecedented political turmoil by dismissing Wickremesinghe unconstitutionally, and unilaterally replacing him with his flamboyant former opponent and predecessor Mahinda Rajapakse. This precipitated an unparalleled constitutional crisis and political tug-of-war between rival political forces.
Wickremesinghe remained standfast, refusing to step down and insisting that his dismissal was illegal. Thus, the strategic Indian Ocean island of 21 million people was left with two leaders claiming the premiership, and the political theatre of one occupying the PM’s office and the other the PM’s residence! A veritable game of political ‘chicken’ then started. Raajapakse was defeated in a no-confidence motion in parliament on November 14, but refused to budge. However, the Speaker ruled that neither man would be recognised as prime minister leaving Sri Lanka effectively without a functioning government.
The Supreme Court then ruled that Rajapakse could not exercise the powers of a prime minister until he proved his majority support in parliament – establishing his legitimacy – which he failed to do. In this stalemate, the country was heading for a government shutdown if parliament failed to approve spending for 2019. Credit rating agencies also downgraded the country’s debt standing amid fears of a sovereign default. There were palpable doubts about Sri Lanka’s ability to repay US Dollar 1.5 billion due to bond holders by January 10 without a legally constituted government.
Last week, parliament voted overwhelmingly to demand the reinstatement of Wickremesinghe. Rajapakse, who as president ended Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, finally threw in the towel “to ensure stability”, after having been sacked by parliament twice in a very short period of time. Wickremesinghe was sworn in as PM before President Sirisena this last Sunday, taking over the post for the fifth time. This brought to a close the political instability into which the island republic had been plunged and parliament had descended into mockery on multiple occasions with MPs throwing punches, hurling projectiles and chili powder and boycotting proceedings. But in the end Sri Lanka demonstrated the resilience of its democratic institutions.
Glimmer of Hope for Yemen
Yemen peace talks in Sweden have reached a ceasefire deal for the Red Sea province of Hodeida, including for its rebel-held port city. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said it includes the deployment of neutral forces and humanitarian corridors, with the UN playing a “leading role”, as stated by special UN envoy Martin Griffiths. The UN chief was cautiously optimistic: “This will facilitate humanitarian access and the flow of goods to the civilian population and it will improve the living conditions for millions of Yemenis,” adding: “There is a long way to go, lots of agreements needed, it’s just a beginning but at least it is the beginning of a process.” The next round of talks is planned for late January, according to Guterres, who added that a “mutual understanding” had also been reached for Yemen’s third city of Taiz, the scene of intense fighting in the past.
The UN-sponsored peace talks sought to establish a political process to end the warring Arab nation’s four-year conflict amid widespread starvation also involving by proxy the regional opponents Saudi Arabia and Iran, and with military support by the United States for the former. The talks had already seen some preliminary progress regarding the exchange of war prisoners. However, there was no reference to Sana’a airport, which has been closed to commercial flights for nearly three years.
In the meantime, the US Senate voted with support from lawmakers in both parties to end American military support for Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen civil war. The 56-41 vote marks the first time the Senate utilized powers granted under the 1973 War Powers Act, which gives Congress the power to demand an end to military actions. The bipartisan vote is a major rebuke to Saudi Arabia, a longstanding US ally. Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent of Vermont), the key sponsor of the resolution said: “Today we tell the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia that we will not be part of their military adventurism.”
Immediately afterward, the Senate unanimously approved a second resolution condemning the brutal killing of Saudi dissident journalist and “The Washington Post” columnist Jamal Khashoggi and attributing blame for his murder on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka “MBS”.
However, Republican leaders prevented the House of Representatives from holding a full vote on the same proposition, helping to ensure that the US remains complicit in Saudi machinations. As “New York Times” columnist Nicholas Kristof sarcastically, but poignantly put it, ‘US citizens’ tax dollars have helped starve Yemini children’ [!] Nevertheless, the Senate did send a profound message, and next year the Democrats will have a majority in the House to set things right. And President Trump is already up to his neck in domestic travails, facing extremely difficult legal questions regarding his tax returns, the 2016 elections (collusion and obstruction of justice), conflict of interests, financial entanglements in Russia and Saudi Arabia, among others. Forget about a renewed Trump presidential candidacy and a second term, 2019 may very well be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency!
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]