- Torn between politics and ideology
- Men, women and the cities
- Myanmar and the politics of Asean slogans
He may be a controversial figure, but Narendra Modi looks like the Bharatiya Janata Party's best bet to lead it on the road to New Delhi.
AS India heads into an election year, the Congress Party-led government is on its last legs.
After two terms in power, it is enmeshed in corruption scandals and an unshakeable perception of poor governance.
Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India's main opposition party, which should be taking advantage of the government's dire condition, is faltering.
Following successive election defeats, and a political environment primed for a change, the BJP faces a choice: move toward the political centre or cling to ideological purity and lurch rightward in an attempt at a divide and conquer strategy.
All signs point to a rightward shift. The BJP's embrace of the far right is embodied by the rise of Gujarat state's chief minister, Narendra Modi, a controversial figure who represents an uncompromising strand of his party's Hindu-nationalist ideology.
Should the BJP choose Modi as its standard-bearer for the general election – a real possibility given his increasing popularity – Modi's polarising style would likely scare away prospective coalition partners and lead to an unstable government dominated by small, regional parties.
Most troubling, Modi's Hindu-nationalism is likely to lead to a deepening of sectarian divisions, India being home to the world's second-largest Muslim population. His questionable conduct during the 2002 riots in Gujarat that left more than 1,000 people dead, mostly Muslims, has shadowed his ascent to the national stage.
He is accused at the very least of doing nothing while Gujarat burned, and at worst of having helped to orchestrate the violence.
In a recent interview with Reuters, Modi did not help his cause when asked about the riots. He answered by saying his feelings of pain for the tragedy were similar to how he'd feel if a puppy had been run over by a car in which he was merely a passenger.
As a consequence of the riots, Modi suffers the indignity of a US visa ban, in effect since 2005, and he remains a target of human rights groups the world over.
He also faces the spectre of investigations into the extrajudicial killings of suspected terrorists by the police in Gujarat, which could implicate his closest aides, and perhaps even Modi himself, in the coming weeks.
For all his talents he has few allies outside his party, a handicap in an era of coalition governments.
The BJP should now be welcoming more partners into its fold. Instead, in June it lost its largest ally, Janata Dal (United), in the large swing state of Bihar, a break-up catalysed by Modi's ascension.
Still, most BJP members - and increasing numbers of voters - seem convinced that Modi, with his larger-than-life persona and unquestioned religious pedigree, is their long awaited Hindu Hriday Samrat - the ruler of Hindu hearts.
The son of a tea-stall owner, Modi, 62, has spent most of his life in politics, joining the right-wing Hindu-nationalist Sangh Parivar organisation early on and rising through its ranks by displaying impressive organising abilities.
He moved to the BJP in 1987 and was appointed chief minister of Gujarat as a midterm replacement in 2001 without ever having fought an election.
In the decade since, Modi has won three straight state elections and engineered remarkable economic growth for his province – some even go as far as describing it as the Guangdong of India.
His focus on pro-investment policies, cutting red tape, extensive infrastructure development, while using his personal charm to woo foreign and domestic investment, has been a marked contrast to most other state governments.
When Tata Motors fell out with the West Bengal government in 2008 over plans to set up a production plant for its "People's Car" - the Nano - Modi wasted no time in text messaging Ratan Tata welcoming him to Gujarat with open arms.
Soon enough, the first Nano was rolled out in his state. Other corporations say they've found Gujarat an oasis for investment.
With a national economy that has recently hit a wall, it's no surprise that India's business class stands united behind Modi as their preferred choice for prime minister, a trend mirrored to a lesser degree in recent national opinion polls.
He describes his governing philosophy as "maximum governance, minimum government," a creed familiar to conservatives everywhere.
Impressive as his achievements may be, his model of development is unlikely to be a good fit for the rest of India.
Gujarat may be an industrial powerhouse but the state's performance in areas of concern to the common man, like human development, is spotty.
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal a year ago, Modi appeared out of his depth when he diagnosed his state's high malnutrition rates as being a result of the vegetarian diet, and the state's middle class being "more beauty conscious than health conscious".
The lessons Modi has learned running a one-party state with a strong hand would likely not apply well to the consensual give-and-take nature of a coalition government in New Delhi.
No prime minister of modern India has been able to rule by diktat.
The BJP would do better to look to the example of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose years as prime minister from 1998 to 2004 were largely characterised by a consensual approach to governing.
Vajpayee was like an Indian Ronald Reagan: a true believer in the conservative cause who packaged his ideological stridency into a narrative that depicted the BJP as a responsible party of governance, palatable to its core voters while allaying the fears of disparate coalition allies.
But once Vajpayee left the scene, the BJP steadily drifted toward the far right.
The promise of a Modi victory could prove to be a mirage. Elections are still decided in rural India, where he is yet to be fully tested.
Only L.K. Advani, the octogenarian co-founder of the BJP and Modi's mentor-turned-rival, stands in his path to leading the party.
But Advani's failure as prime minister candidate in the 2009 elections, and the groundswell of rank-and-file support for Modi, may undermine his quest.
Yet, even if Modi is victorious, he would most likely lead an unwieldy coalition government involving decision-making by consultation and consensus, a balancing act that is not his strong suit.
On key global issues like nuclear disarmament, climate change, trade and terrorism, India would find it nearly impossible to craft a coherent policy.
On top of that, India relies on foreign funds to finance its alarmingly large current account deficit – currently contributing to a steep depreciation of the rupee – and if foreign investors were to lose confidence in a new and unstable government, the economy's downward slip would accelerate.
With Indians begging for good governance, the BJP must decide whether to choose Modi's ideological path or to recalibrate to Vajpayee-like inclusiveness.
On that question hinges the outcome of the election – and the future of India.
But Modi's message may well prove difficult to resist: "From snake-charmers, we are now a nation of mouse-charmers. Our youngsters are shaping the world with the click of a mouse." — © 2013 The International Herald Tribune
Krishan Partap Singh is the author of "The War Ministry", the latest in a series of political novels set in New Delhi.
In crimes of sexual violence in urban contexts, men in Pakistan and India can target women without fear of accruing any social cost.
ISLAMABAD: It happened around dusk, the time when the cities of South Asia – Lahore and Delhi and Mumbai and Karachi – exhale collectively and let millions out into the streets to begin their slow crawl home.
The victim was a photojournalist who had been taking pictures of an abandoned factory in Mumbai. For protection, perhaps, she had a male colleague accompany her. It was not enough.
As news reports would decry soon afterwards, the 23-year-old was brutally raped by a gang of five men and her escort beaten. India, which has hardly recovered from the gang rape of a bus passenger in Delhi barely a year ago, was once again stunned by this latest act of gender violence.
Spurred into action by media coverage and denunciations by activists and political parties across the board, Mumbai police authorities had, by Sunday, arrested five suspects, each of whom, if found guilty, is expected to face the maximum 20-year sexual violence penalty passed into law by the Indian legislature a few months ago.
The victim is said to be recovering from her injuries. In a statement to the media, she said: "Rape is not the end of life. I want the strictest punishment for the accused, and to return to duty as soon as possible."
Her brave remarks were praised by activists and political figures across India.
The victim of the gruesome Delhi gang rape, they may have remembered, had died from her injuries and never been able to make such a statement.
Across the border in Pakistan, rape often is the end of life, with many victims choosing to commit suicide or suffer in silence rather than press charges. If social taboos do not destroy their chances of survival, other factors will ensure their persecution.
Even while Indian legislators increased the penalties for rapists this year, the Council of Islamic Ideology, Pakistan's constitutional advisory body on Islamic injunctions, deemed DNA evidence inadmissible as primary evidence in rape cases.
Already, the number of victims coming forth or pressing charges in Pakistani courts is quite low.
The burden that gender places on the subcontinent's females is thus formidable. In both India and Pakistan, droves of people are pouring into cities, leaving behind the communal structures of old.
Recent studies reveal that the Asian cities are seeing the greatest increase of urbanisation in the world.
Karachi is supposed to be the fastest growing city in the world and is projected to overtake Shanghai by the year 2025. Mumbai is similarly situated. On both streets, millions of women take to cars, buses and rickshaws every day, out to earn a living.
The rupees enable them to manage the steep costs of living, a parent's healthcare bills, a sister's wedding or a younger brother's tuition. The demands are many and the pressure is great.
Against all of this are pre-urban social structures that have not yet developed the cultural mechanisms to ensure women's safety or punishments for those that jeopardise it.
In India and Pakistan, the basic moral mechanisms of society continue to be largely communal, resting on the maintenance of reputation, honour and the precept that a woman must be kept at home to be kept safe.
According to the old ways of life, before the city, the best deterrent against the commission of rape is the threat of retaliation and the shaming not only of the person who commits the act but his entire extended family.
In the post-migratory urban environment, this mechanism fails. In crimes of sexual violence in urban contexts, men can target women without fear of accruing any social cost, the intimate nature of the crime precluding the likelihood of their ever being caught.
The anonymity of a newly-grown city, with police forces still dominated by patriarchal ideas of old, serves thus to victimise women.
In the namelessness of new urban landscapes, male reputations, it seems, can be made and remade many times, creating an amoral space where men can do as they please.
Women, however, are left still imprisoned, dangling between governments that are unable to hold men accountable in the newly individualised urban environment and old communal arrangements that expect them to abandon public life for safety.
In sum, the few old strictures that were available to curb male sexual violence are no longer viable, the mores of "protecting" women by restricting them to the home are no longer economically feasible.
At the same time, the mechanisms of state – the laws and their enforcers – are unable or unwilling to fill the moral vacuum or let go of the beliefs that see all women in the public as somehow sexually available.
Growing fast and teeming with women, the cities of South Asia are thus moral spaces that are contested between the old and the new and between men and women.
Acts of collective male violence against women, such as the rape in Mumbai, reveal the gross inequality in the moral costs of urbanisation, where the absence of robust mechanisms for prosecuting rapists effectively creates an environment where women can be victimised without repercussions, leaving them condemned to a life on the defensive.
In this sense, in both Pakistan and India, women's bodies become targets for male rage and aggression, their visibility even being equated with the opportunities being taken away from men in the city where chances are few and the burdens many.
> The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
BANGKOK: After a series of closed door discussions and numerous rephrasing by policy-makers including foreign experts, Myanmar has finally picked the theme "Moving forward in unity towards a peaceful and prosperous Community" for its engagement with Asean next year.
Like previous Asean chairs, the title reflects Naypidaw's agenda and priorities when it takes up the grouping's helm in 127 days.
The 10-word slogan, the longest ever in Asean history, was personally given a nod by President Thein Sein recently.
Earlier a few versions were put forward for consideration focusing on the centrality of Asean, economic cooperation and community building as well as political and economic reforms taking place in the past two years. The chosen theme was neutral and encompassing.
"It is very comprehensive," said a senior Asean official who attended the Asean Economic Ministerial meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan, where Myanmar made the official announcement.
After the Asean leaders endorsed the 2014 chair in November 2011, Myanmar has studied the themes and performances of each Asean chair since 2008 when the Asean Charter was adopted.
That year, Singapore chaired Asean with an impressive theme "One Asean at the Heart of Dynamic Asia," echoing the island's desire to increase the grouping's profile beyond South-East Asia.
Thailand succeeded Singapore with a major task to implement the new charter. Bangkok was true to its slogan, "Asean Charter for Asean People," with packed programmes of civil society groups' participation, which scared a few Asean leaders away.
Then came Vietnam with a simple theme: "Towards the Asean Community: From Vision to Action." It did not take long for the chair to find out that spurring common actions among the Asean members was an uphill task.
Indonesia took over Vietnam's chair with a shoo-in goal, "Asean Community in a Global Community of Nations".
As the only Asean member in the G-20, Indonesia wanted to be the Asean voice among the world's most economically advanced countries. Asean's position was uplifted. But it was temporary.
Last year, Cambodia's messianic theme of "One Community, One Destiny" had the opposite effect. As the last country to join Asean (in 1999), the practice of the "Asean Way" had yet to sink in.
Cambodia should be credited for narrowing development gaps among the old and new Asean members but very few people took notice.
"Our People, Our Future Together" is the current theme advocated by the chair, Brunei. True to form and substance, every move the chair initiated is based on consultations and consensus.
The remaining four months would be smooth, paving the way for a conservative but holistic approach by the next Asean chair.
Myanmar has good reasons to be cautious with the role.
First, Naypidaw will serve as the chair for the first time – 16 years after its admission.
It skipped the 2005 slot due to domestic crisis along with pressure from the Asean colleagues. It does not want to adopt an "overtly" forwarding looking tone as it could sound a bit patronising.
Second, the theme must be topical enough to reflect norms and values as well as the inspiration of Asean and its peoples. In this case, Myanmar had to forego the so-called non-Asean elements related to their reforms.
Finally, it must also resonate well with the situation at home. The chair's domestic condition would certainly dominate next year's Asean agenda, especially the situation in Rakhine State and the fate of Rohingya people.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei would raise the issue. This time the chair cannot get away scot-free. Myanmar turned down the planned Asean special meeting on in October to discuss Rohingya issue, which was later cancelled.
Concerned Asean countries affected by the influx of Rohingya prefer a regional solution.
Much is at stake for Myanmar, especially its manner in handling sensitive issues with transnational and international impacts. It will serve as a barometer for the depth and scope of its ongoing three-year reforms.
As a latecomer, Myanmar is learning from the Asean experience. A few years after Indonesia turned democratic in 1998, it opened up and discussed internal problems with Asean.
At the recent Asean annual meeting, Jakarta reported voluntarily the human rights condition to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights.
Myanmar was relieved after the deadline for the Asean Community was later postponed to Dec 31, 2015.
That means the chair has an additional year to prepare the grounds for the Asean Community realisation, in which Malaysia will take charge. As the theme suggests, Myanmar now is confident that it can be a catalyst for the strengthening of community-building in Asean.
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