Debating India


Frontline 2003

Thursday 15 January 2004

GLOBAL politics in 2003 was sharply polarised over the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Beyond the tired charade of opinion polls, concerned citizens all around the world spoke unequivocally against the war on February 15 in demonstrations of unprecedented scale. The United States and the United Kingdom were not listening and plunged into a brutal war of occupation just over a month afterwards. The year-end brought the occupying forces the all-important trophy of the war: the capture of the former Iraqi dictator. But the Iraqi resistance continues. And the political fate of the two main architects of the war - U.S. President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair - could be settled in the year to come by the evident disillusionment in their domestic constituencies over the course the occupation has taken. Attempts by the global public to make sense of the war and the litany of falsehoods that paved the way for it, continued to draw upon the writings of the guru of informed dissent, Noam Chomsky.

In India’s politics, the year ended with sweeping electoral victories for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. These verdicts were registered exactly a year since Narendra Modi’s unequivocal triumph in Gujarat in 2002, and seemed to represent a new milestone in the onward march of Hindutva. But efforts by the Hindutva fraternity to resurrect its main campaign theme of Ayodhya have failed conspicuously to ignite public enthusiasm on any scale. And the process of establishing public accountability for the violence inflicted in the name of Hindutva gained momentum with significant interventions by the Supreme Court and the National Human Rights Commission. It seemed that the Congress(I) was gearing up for a serious challenge at the national level with the election victory in Himachal Pradesh. But by year-end, the BJP had established a clear lead in the home stretch to the next national elections, with the Congress(I) reduced to a state of strategic confusion. Unable yet to fashion a credible response to the compulsions of coalition politics, the Congress(I) suffered serious factional strife in Kerala. Although still a force in the States that recently passed out of its control, the Congress(I) would have to assume the role of the supplicant if it is to gain any kind of a foothold in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav have reaffirmed their dominance.

In India’s neighbourhood, there was a rapid acceleration of the process of normalisation with China and a twisted route towards reconciliation with Pakistan. India sought to underline its unswerving resolve in fighting terrorism while still pursuing peace, but anti-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir were often overtaken by hyperbole. A semblance of peace came only with the formal adoption of a ceasefire by both sides late in the year.

The Sri Lankan peace process went through its own tortuous course and remains delicately placed at year-end. Within the dyarchic political dispensation that prevails in Colombo, perceptions of the Tamil insurgents are sharply polarised. The executive presidency in Sri Lanka has just not been able to accept the professions of good faith by the Tamil Tigers at face value.

India played host to the Asian Social Forum in January, bringing together civil society groups from across the continent in their resolve to fight the authoritarian logic that there is no alternative to globalisation. The resistance at the global level crystallised at the Mexican seaside resort of Cancun, where developing countries managed to turn back the effort by developed countries to author a new rule-book for world trade entirely in accord with their interests.

The policy of privatisation encountered serious political turbulence when the crown jewels of the public sector, the nationalised oil companies, were placed on the auction block. And a judicial intervention later in the year requiring the government to seek parliamentary approval for their sale seemed to signal a decisive change in the environment. The recently privatised sector of telecom continued to confound efforts at regulation in the public interest and a major shakeout could be imminent with the shift towards unified licences late in the year.

Labour, both organised and unorganised, continued to suffer the inherent coercion of economic liberalisation, with unemployment mounting and the Supreme Court striking down the right to strike for government employees. The perils of a ruthless market orientation to address the malaise of youth unemployment were rudely brought home when ethnic riots erupted over recruitments to the Indian Railways. It was a chastening moment amidst inflated claims of the "shine" that India had acquired after over a decade of economic liberalisation.

The media faced the challenge of political intolerance when The Hindu, parent newspaper of this publication, was targeted by the Tamil Nadu legislature in an invocation of sky-high privileges. Protests swept the country and the magnitude of its miscalculation soon became apparent to the ruling party in Tamil Nadu. The Supreme Court stepped in with an injunction and as The Hindu petition acquired a broader scope, the matter was referred to a Constitution Bench for an authoritative opinion.

The country mourned with the rest of the world when Karnal-born Kalpana Chawla went down in the fiery blaze that engulfed the space shuttle Columbia on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. But there were few other occasions in 2003 when a similar spirit of global solidarity was evident.


Article paru dans Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 01, January 03 - 16, 2004.

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