Talking to Tehran

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Is Iran a threat to global peace and security? No, says Ambassador Roberto Toscano, who represented Italy in Iran between 2003 and 2008. The West ‘lost many chances for dialogue,’ he says. ‘Talking to Tehran is both possible and necessary,’ according to the ambassador in an interview with Marina Forti of il manifesto, Italy.

Iran is often described as the new threat to global security: a country both close to acquiring nuclear weapons as also willing to use them. The dialogue between Tehran and the western powers has been deadlocked for almost two years. A few weeks ago it was announced that the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, invited the Iranian chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to return to talks with the P5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). But no one apparently takes such invitation seriously: at the same time the European Union declared an embargo on Iranian oil starting from July 1st, a decision that appears like an act of war.

Yet, solving the Iran crisis ‘would remove a major source of tension’, as six former ambassadors to Iran from European countries recently wrote in an op-ed. Among them is the Ambassador of Italy, Roberto Toscano. After a career that brought him to Chile (in 1973, during the military coup), Soviet Union and the USA, Ambassador Toscano represented Italy in Iran between 2003 and 2008 before moving to India. Since leaving the diplomatic service last year, he has been a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. We met him in Rome in February.


Why is the dialogue deadlocked? You wrote that the West should ‘give up the unrealistic pretension of compelling Iran to forsake its enrichment programmme entirely.’

Yes, this is the main point. And this is the divide between sanctions meant to soften an uncompromising antagonist and sanctions that can escalate into a war. We need to consider what is the bottom line for the other party. If we declare sanctions in order to force the other to surrender, we are already at war. Uranium enrichment is non-negotiable for Iran, and it would be no different even if a reformist government was in place. Instead, we can and must insist on safeguards; since Iran has not always been transparent, justifying the West’s suspicions, we should ask Tehran to accept the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and perhaps further controls. We must remember that nothing in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) forbids the enrichment of uranium.


But we often hear that Iran is in violation of the NPT, that it is close to building nuclear weapons...

Iran has not violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The IAEA reports raised many doubts and questions, but we cannot turn questions into affirmative answers. One must also remember that the IAEA inspectors have continued to visit the declared Iranian nuclear sites. Of course, the Additional Protocol would allow for inspections in sites other than the declared ones, and that would provide the best guarantees. But again: how many members of the NPT also signed the Additional Protocol? It was only a small minority.


So, when the Iranians say the West applies a double standard to them...

It is true. Having said that, it would be in the interest of all parties to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, both for the consequences it would have on the regional scene – Saudi Arabia, Turkey could join an arms race, proliferation generates more proliferation – and because it would be a major factor in escalating tension. But the point is: what if we fail to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? We need a fallback that is a classical strategy of deterrence and containment. If it was possible with the Soviet Union, why not with Iran?


In the last few months we have seen a crescendo. Iran is described as a global threat that must be stopped by all means – embargo, isolation. The world media is debating a military action as if preparing the public for the inevitable. Doesn’t this remind you of the months leading to Iraq’s invasion in 2003?

The parallels are indeed alarming. And the mood is all the more dangerous because a false idea is spreading: not only that Iran is in violation of the NPT, but that deterrence will not work with Tehran because they are unpredictable, mad... Now, I think the nature of the Iranian regime is indeed what its enemies describe: let’s just recall the suppression of the opposition movement after the 2009 presidential elections. It is an illiberal regime. But we cannot draw the conclusion that they want to build an atomic bomb, and not just a nuclear capability, which is out of the question – or that they want it to destroy Israel, as many in Israel are convinced. One thing does not imply the other. Besides, the United States is considering negotiating with North Korea, a nation that denounced the NPT, performed nuclear tests and has a belligerent regime. Here again we see a double standard.


You mean the international community should accept the possibility of a nuclear Iran?

I think focusing only on the nuclear issue is not helpful. The point is Iran’s regional role, its ever more explicit antagonism to Saudi Arabia. The Arab neighbours have feared Persia’s neo-imperial ambitions since the Shah’s years. Though Iran has never invaded a neighbouring country, they fear it seeks regional hegemony. We must take these suspicions into account. Yet, it is impossible to exclude Iran from the regional scene. So we need a formula to recognize an Iranian regional role that is not alarming to its neighbours. Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami did try to build bridges with the Saudis and other Arab countries. We must consider that the Iranian revolution has lost its early expansionist ambitions: with a Soviet comparison I would say it is now ‘socialism in only one country.’ In fact, Iranian foreign policy is extremely classical. Its relations are based on its national interest much more than on any ideological/religious dimension. With Russia, Iran never raised problems about the Chechen Muslims. Even in the case of Bahrain, it took a very moderate stance. There are two exceptions: one, Lebanon, not so much because of religious affinity but because Hezbollah is an asset for Tehran, offering an ‘asymmetrical deterrence’ to an attack from Israel. And second, Iraq: not just for its important Shi’a population but because the Iraqi leaders spent their exile years in Iran and continue to have a close political relationship with the Iranian regime. I think that Tehran’s foreign policy is far more pragmatic than is usually assumed. And this means that an agreement is possible. To describe the Iranians as a bunch of fanatics willing to die in a nuclear holocaust is completely wrong.


Dialogue is deadlocked on the western side. What about Tehran’s side?

On the Iranian side two factors are at play. One is the division within the regime that makes it impossible to identify the interlocutor: Is it President Ahmadinejad? Is it the Supreme Leader? The other is that the regime, and most notably the Leader’s faction, is not willing to give up the identitarian element represented by the enmity to Israel and America. Now, when we see the crowds chanting ‘death to America’, it is always the same people ferried by bus to regime gatherings, we know it is just a ritual. The Iranian people are rather sympathetic to America. Whoever manages to normalize relations with the US will gain an incredible consensus, and that is why each faction of the regime tries to prevent the others from succeeding. I would say that a further reason to oppose the idea of a military attack on Iran is that it would only strengthen the regime. Like in 1980, when Saddam Hussein invaded a weak and fragmented one year-old regime, it only ended up stronger than before. The idea that attacking Iran would favour democracy is just crazy.


In the last few weeks we have seen conflicting signs. Hostile gestures like the oil embargo, but also signs that a political option has not yet been shelved, like the postponement of joint Israeli-US war games that would have simulated an attack on Iran. In your opinion, how important is the US electoral campaign to this aspect?

Barack Obama does not want a military escalation with Iran, but he is weakened by the election campaign. The Republican opponents are making bellicose statements, and the president is compelled to say that ‘all options are on the table.’ Obama is a centrist, but the centre has shifted pretty much to the right. And the domestic factor is important, both in the US and in Iran. At this very moment the domestic politics of both countries, for different reasons, are not conducive to an understanding. Quite a paradox: it is said, and I believe it is true, that Ahmadinejad would not be hostile to a compromise. But the high level of rhetoric in his foreign policy – the infamous statements on the Holocaust and similar rhetorical outbursts – means that his counterparts simply cannot take him seriously. Obama says that he wants a peaceful solution, and it is probably true. But in Tehran, a partner for dialogue has not emerged so far. Perhaps, with the next executive... Many Iranians say that a person like Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf as president would reopen the domestic political scene. Although he is a former high ranking officer of the Revolutionary Guards, the reformists would not be hostile to him. He is efficient, moderate, and a modernizer. The Leader, who at first tolerated Khatami, then blocked him, then ‘invented’ Ahmadinejad but is now repentant... well, the Leader might now turn to a Qalibaf to save the regime.


Europe was the first to attempt a dialogue with Iran in 2003, the same year you were posted to Tehran, but it went nowhere. Did the Europeans lose an opportunity?

There is no doubt of it. In 2003, Khatami was the president and the Iranians launched a ballon d’essai with a proposition for a comprehensive dialogue on an agenda of mutual interest: it came to be known as the ‘grand bargain’. But the door was slammed in their face by the US. The reformist version of the Iranian regime would have been strengthened had Khatami obtained a political recognition of the Islamic Republic. In the process Europe lost an opportunity. The fact is that on the main issue, which is enrichment, Europe’s line was not independent from that of the American. It is true that Khatami addressed his proposal for dialogue to Washington: the Iranians always look toward the US, not Europe. It is difficult to blame them as long we are unable to take an independent stance. The negotiation with the ‘EU three’ (UK, France and Germany) was distorted because the real ‘subject’ was absent.


In 2010 the agreement between Turkey, Brazil and Iran on a nuclear fuel swap could have reopened the dialogue. Why did it fail?

The Turkish-Brazilian formula was another opportunity lost. The reason is clear: the United States thought it was better to go on with sanctions rather than put to test a partial agreement. But sanctions will not persuade Iran to give up uranium enrichment. Tehran might concede on inspections, may accept that nuclear fuel be produced by an international consortium – all these hypothesis have been discussed at some point. Do not forget that the nuclear programme is one of the few areas where the regime enjoys a wide public consensus. Most Iranians see the right to a peaceful nuclear programme as a national, not a regime, issue. This explains why the Iranian leadership has a political interest to keep firm on this issue.


From end of history to post-capitalist future of history

WHAT does it mean when a leading mainstream newspaper like the International Herald Tribune runs a story on the front page with the heading, ‘At Davos a Big Issue is Have-lots vs the Have-nots’? It is heartening that the Davos World Economic Forum, which is considered a bastion of the neoliberal capitalist establishment, discusses the imperative of equality and inclusive growth. The founding President of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, has admitted that capitalism ‘is out of whack’ and requires to be fixed. Schwab now argues that the economic crises is due to excesses and ‘lack of inclusiveness’. Normally such issues would be sympathetically debated by leftists and at the other counterpoint forum called the World Social Forum. Is the experience of the global economic and financial crisis in the West and the malaise of the ‘free market’ leading to a serious rethink of the old cannons of the laissez-faire growth model?

John Keynes, the famous economist, noted during the great depression of the 1930s that the markets, especially financial markets, were to be blamed for their inherent inability to distinguish between ‘enterprise’ and ‘speculation’ and to be dominated by the activities of the speculators to a point that ‘enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation.’ This led to the low level of employment and output in the economy, leaving thereby the livelihoods of millions of people dependent on the whims and caprices of a bunch of financial speculators, ‘a by-product of the activities of a casino.’

All this sounds so familiar today but no lessons were learnt. Keynes, though not a socialist, advocated socialization of investment or state intervention to ensure proper investment to ensure full employment. Amartya Sen has pointed out that markets may be good for demand in the economy but are inadequate for social and human development. Karl Marx described commodity fetishism as the alienation of the worker from the product of his work and its social use. Similarly, we can talk today about finance fetishism which is disconnected from productive activity and its social use.

Young people with brilliant minds who graduate from top business schools and enjoy huge pay packets are narrowly focused on short-term profits and targets and have little concern for ethical business, social responsibility and a wider horizon. The present education system is only good at producing bright minds to make the bad system work more efficiently. What they do not teach at the Harvard Business School is how to cultivate a ‘good business heart’, good motivations and wider ethical perspectives.

Andrew Simms of the New Economic Foundation has suggested that the first shift soon after the financial crisis and economic downturn might be a radically different approach to public spending. ‘Now that they have seen their governments spend eye-popping sums of money to get out of a crisis, won’t voters demand similar largesse to solve other pressing problems? For decades politicians have told constituents that there simply isn’t the cash to pay for, say, the £3 billion that would be needed to halve child poverty by 2010, or the annual £8 billion it would take to get 20% of our energy from renewable sources.’

Individualist hedonism and consumerist lifestyles inspired by some norms of western culture, corporate globalization and advertising hype, now widely emulated around the world, are leading to the rapid depletion and pollution of the environment. At the same time the pursuit of aimless affluence causes the disease of what has been called ‘afluenza’, where a life of high stress, instant gratification, breakdown of community and family and lack of meaning produces depressive modern angst. The solution to the economic and environmental crisis is deeply connected to a simpler but better quality of life and happy relationships rather than on consuming more quantities of products.

The World Economic Forum conventionally consisted of leaders and experts who have advocated that inequality was acceptable as long as there was high GDP growth. It was believed that ultimately wealth would trickle down and inequality would encourage innovation and entrepreneurship among the aspiring. This wisdom is under intense critical scrutiny today.

In an earlier age, Adam Smith wrote, ‘No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.’ Today in the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement complains that the 99 per cent of the population is paying for the sins of the wealthy one per cent of the rich. The protests, beginning in New York, soon spread to other cities around the United States and across the world. Thousands of indignant people gathered in Madrid and other cities in Spain to express their frustration over mass unemployment and government austerity measures. In the Arab world, protest movements toppled governments. It all began with public anger over lack of economic opportunities in Tunisia.

In spite of economic liberalization for two decades and many years of the second highest economic growth in the world, India is still ranked at the lower end in terms of human development and achieving Millennium Development Goals. Mass hunger and poverty persist. The levels of corruption generated by the government corporate complex in India rose manifold as wealth grew for the elites and middle class. Such injustice has led recently to a huge India Against Corruption protest movement

The World Economic Forum, in a recent report, highlighted the growing income divide as one of the biggest risks facing the world in the coming years. The report added, ‘In developed economies, such as those of Western Europe, North America and Japan, the social contract that has in recent decades been taken for granted is in danger of being destroyed.’ The forecast seems to be a ‘dystopian future for much of humanity.’

In a study published in 2011, Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund, analyzed the long-term economic performance of countries, concluding that those with more equal division of the wealth often grew faster. In their words: ‘A rising tide lifts all boats, and our analysis indicates that helping raise the smallest boats may help keep the tide rising for all craft, big and small.’

The analysis of trends from 1970 to 2010 by the 2011 United Nations Human Development Report shows that the emphasis on economic growth does not lead to equality or to human development: ‘Achievements are possible even without fast growth. Similarly, countries that achieve high growth rates do not always do well in terms of health and education.’ The overall correlation between growth and health and education improvements over the four decades since 1970 is weak. The ‘Top HDI (Human Development Indicators) Movers’ are very different from a conventional list of national development successes. The indicators include income, life expectancy or health, education and gender equity. The top ten countries that improved their HDI most relative to their starting point include the usual high growth trajectory suspects such as China, Indonesia and South Korea, but also several others, such as Lao PDR, Nepal and Tunisia. In the second category countries, progress in non-income social development indicators has been remarkable.

According to Francisco Rodriguez, head of research team of the United Nations Human Development Office, the evidence shows that the massive increases in education and health achieved over the past 40 years has hardly anything to do with globalization. The real reasons are decision by states to expand their educational and health systems, together with initiatives of the international community to enable access to vaccines and antibiotics. Rodriguez adds, ‘Another striking finding by Gray and Purser is that the correlation between economic growth and changes in the non-income components of human development over their period of study is nearly zero. These results suggest that the oft-repeated dictum that growth is a necessary condition for increasing human development is simply not true.’

Inequality is not only becoming huge between the elites and others but also between one generation and another. Intergenerational inequality is appalling if we look at the looming climate crisis. Michael Marmot, a University College London professor who is Chairman of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organization comments, ‘If there’s one thing we should all believe in, it is that every generation should have a fair chance, and that’s not happening.’

Carmen Sobczak writes in Yes Magazine, ‘In 1980, the average American CEO’s income was 40 times higher than that of the average worker. Today, it is well over 300 times higher.’ Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire founder of the investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, advocated higher taxes on the rich, saying it was time to stop ‘coddling’ the wealthy. In Europe, prominent chief executives in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere have issued a similar call.

As the economist Simon Johnson has argued, the recent concentration of wealth in the United States has already become self-reinforcing. The financial sector has used its lobbying clout to avoid more uncomfortable types of regulation. Schools for the well-off are better than ever; those for everyone else continue to deteriorate. Elites in all societies use their proximity and access to the political system to defend their interests, especially in the absence of a counter democratic mobilization to redress the situation. American elites, given the resources of the conservative political climate, reinforce the rule, perhaps in a more extreme form.

Particularly alarming for policy makers is the correlation between inequalities in income and wealth, on the one hand and social indicators like education and health, on the other. The rich are better educated, eat better, smoke less, live longer and healthier lives. Huge inequalities are not confined to the West. According to Gapminder, for example, the average income in Shanghai is about 10 times the level in less developed Chinese region of Guizhou. Similarly, the difference in the infant mortality rate is even greater between Guizhou and Shanghai. Infant mortality is less than one-twelfth in Shanghai.

There is serious anxiety that while traditional inequalities continue, the new research today shows that inequalities are now carried over persistently from one generation to the other. Some studies show the decline in social mobility in the United States, thereby demolishing the idea that anyone could rise from humble roots, which was always a big part of the American dream. Similarly in Britain, persistent inequalities are reinforcing traditional class barriers.

Maurice Lévy, chief executive of the advertising company Publicis Groupe based in Paris, also points out that efforts to promote growth are vital. But Lévy, one of the signatories of an open letter to the French government calling for higher taxes on the wealthy, also said that it was only fair, when governments were cutting welfare spending, to bring budget deficits into line.

Francis Fukuyama is famous for propounding the end of history, declaring that liberal capitalist democracy had triumphed forever. Recently, however, he has revised his view, admitting that we need to seriously reform capitalism. In his recent article, ‘Future of History’, he notes that, ‘The bursting of the housing bubble in 2008-09 was nothing more than a cruel reversion to the mean. Americans may today benefit from cheap cell phones, inexpensive clothing, and Facebook, but they increasingly cannot afford their own homes, or health insurance, or comfortable pensions when they retire.’ Fukuyama now agrees with venture capitalist Peter Thiel and the economist Tyler Cowen that the gains of the most recent phase of technological innovation have gone disproportionately and unfairly to the most talented and well-educated members of society. These trends have helped cause the huge growth of inequality in the United States over the past generation. In 1974, the top one per cent of families received nine per cent of GDP; by 2007, that share had increased to 23.5 per cent.

Fukuyama suggests that politically, the new ideology would need to reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics and reinforce the government as the protector of public interest. There is a need for forthrightness for more redistribution and to present a practical strategy to end the domination of politics by interest groups. He adds, economically the new ideology would not see markets as an end in themselves but would value global trade and investment, not in terms of aggregate national wealth or GDP but the extent to which they contributed to a flourishing middle class.

The Sarkozy Commission in France, including Nobel Prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, set up to evaluate how the economic performance is impacting social progress, has proposed limits to GDP as an indicator of socio-economic progress, and that economic performance needs to be addressed by investigating possible extensions or modifications of the current conceptual framework. Second, that quality of life approach is significant because it measures social progress from a broader perspective. Well-being and happiness or subjective well-being takes into account metrics derived from asking people about how they themselves feel about satisfaction with life. Finally, sustainable development and environment reflect one of the biggest concerns about the inadequacy of the current measures of economic performance and social progress. Amartya Sen has for long maintained that economic growth should be considered not as an end but as a means for developing human capabilities, education, health, participation and empowerment ,equality and the ability to choose a valuable life which is worth living

A new study reported in the Psychological Science Journal concludes that economic equality leads to happiness. For Americans to be truly joyful, it suggests we need to close the gap between our wealthiest and poorest citizens. ‘Over the past four decades,’ according to the study, ‘the American people have been the least happy in years when there was the widest gap between rich and poor.’ One of the author’s, Oishi, advises that: ‘If the ultimate goal of society is to make its citizens happy, then it is desirable to consider policies that produce more income equality, fairness, and general trust.’

The authors’ analysis in the Psychological Science Journal showed that greater inequality was linked to reduction in trust and perceived fairness. It is the loss of trust and fairness that has made people less happy. Oishi and his colleagues, therefore, claim that their results may explain why economic growth has not led to increases in happiness in the United States, unlike in other developed nations.

Most studies agree that up to a certain level improvement in economic standards directly leads to increase in happiness, which supports the idea of basic needs first for the poor as a precondition for happiness. The studies also indicate that after achieving certain comfortable economic standards, happiness is not dependent on further increase in affluence as no corresponding increase in happiness has taken place.

This implies first, the need to focus on enhancing non-economic factors and second, to redistribute wealth from the very rich who do not derive happiness from it, to the poor who will gain greater corresponding happiness through this wealth. Even after satisfactory material comforts have been achieved, people who otherwise should feel happy actually feel dissatisfied and resentful when they compare themselves with those better-off. This phenomenon supports the argument for reducing inequalities to enhance happiness in society.

Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor who co-founded the Gapminder Foundation which studies public health, concluded that, ‘In the past, economic growth came first, then you got education, health and two-child families.’ Now it is the reverse. ‘If you have education, health and two-child families, then you get economic growth.’ The rapid growth of South East and East Asian economies in the last few decades has questioned the trickle down approach

The Scandinavian success is based on the idea of social democracy where both economic growth and distribution went hand in hand. Today, their population pays the highest rate of taxes. Scandinavia is regularly at the top of the world or near there in terms of economic standards of living, human development, quality of life, quality of environment, freedoms, levels of trust and peace, well-being and equality, including gender equality. Norway is rated best in human development and gender equity. Finland has the best school education (based on equal education for all in a public school system) among all the developed or OECD countries. Many studies in the last decade show that Denmark is the happiest (in terms of life satisfaction) and is also the most equal society.

Communism and socialism may have retreated but lessons can be learnt from social democracy and its creative adaptations to suit local conditions. Private enterprise and entrepreneurship is welcome if it is guided by and regulated within the ethical priorities of compassion and care, stronger democracy, equity and social justice and environmental sustainability.

We cannot go back to Soviet style totalitarian state socialism but at the same time the market fundamentalism of Reagan and Thatcher too is now confined to the dustbin of history. Without being imprisoned by dogmas and rigid ideologies, we have to find a healthy mix in favour of the poor, the environment, equity and for well-being and human development, perhaps akin to the Scandinavian countries. Markets and corporations have to be democratically regulated, made accountable and socially responsible. Second, integrated globalized economies are no more the preferred model. Globalization needs to be selective and democratic. Multinational corporate and IMF-World Bank led neo-liberalization has also to be made accountable to a democratic, institutional and global governance process, including all the stakeholders. Speculative finance and equity markets should be taxed (to be used for social development and aid to poor countries) and not be allowed to work as casinos.

In this context two recent books are notable. The first is by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. The second is Tony Judt’s new book, Ill Fares the Land, where he points out that, ‘Critics who claim that the European model of social democracy is too expensive or economically inefficient have been allowed to pass unchallenged. And yet, the welfare state is as popular as ever with its beneficiaries: nowhere in Europe is there a constituency for abolishing public health services, ending free or subsidized education, or reducing public provision of transport and other essential services.’

Tony Judt further adds that the materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent to the human condition. Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: ‘The obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.’

In the middle of the 19th century, Alexis De Tocqueville in his famous book, Democracy in America asked, ‘Can it be believed that democracy that has overthrown the feudal system (one can now add communism) will retreat before the tradesman and capitalist? Will it stop now that it has grown so strong and its adversaries so weak?’ What a pertinent question to ask today.

Prahlad Shekhawat


Just another election?

AS Punjab awaits the electoral verdict, it is time to have a dispassionate and closer look at the latest assembly elections and ask whether they marked a discernible shift in terms of the nature of state politics as it has evolved since the reorganization of the state, or whether it was just another election.

Let us briefly identify some of the long-term characteristics of electoral politics in Punjab. First, the state comprises three distinct historically cultural regions – Malwa, Doaba and Majha – which have also emerged as distinct electoral regions with their own specificities. Second, with a legacy of politicization of social cleavages since the days of the Punjabi Suba movement – caste, kinship, region and religion and sect all continue to remain factors shaping the dynamics of party competition in Punjab.

Third, Punjab has seen the emergence of a stable multi-bipolarity in terms of party political competition with the Congress pitted against the Akali Dal-BJP alliance. Fourth, Punjab has witnessed ‘regular oscillation’ in the form of the ruling party being voted out in each election and replaced by the leading opposition party. This was well before anti-incumbency became more a norm than an aberration in state politics in India.

Fifth, Punjab has been witness to what can be termed as a process of ‘federalisation of party system’. Despite being a state level party, the Akali Dal has remained the dominant partner in a long-standing coalition involving a national party. Also, it was the state unit of the Congress that defied the high command in unilaterally terminating the rivers water agreement with Haryana. Sixth, with ‘patrimonial’ mode of democratic politics on the ascent everywhere, Punjab too has witnessed competitive populism as all parties indulge in patronage, clientalism and hollow promises to the ‘gullible’ masses. Seventh, the social basis of power in Punjab remains unchanged despite the sizable presence of dalits and backward castes in the state. The state is yet to experience any significant assertion from below in terms of contestation and representation.

Let us now ponder over the 2012 elections to look for continuity and change in terms of electoral politics. How does one explain the unprecedented high level of electoral participation, even by Punjab standards, registered in these elections despite the absence of any ‘wave’? Possibly one can attribute it to the following immediate factors, besides the usual role of identity and inducements in the form of distribution of money and liquor. First, a long-drawn and intense campaigning running into months by the parties prepared the ground for a high turn out. While the Punjab Peoples Party (PPP) led Sanjha Morcha launched Jago Punjab Yatra, the Congress embarked on Punjab Bachao Yatra, and the ruling Akali Dal undertook a Punjab Vikas Yatra. Even the BJP, after scoring self-goals through infighting and mudslinging involving party factions following the sacking of some of its own ministers on corruption charges, warmed up to have its own Janchetna Yatra.

Second, the emergence of a ‘third alternative’ in the form of PPP, with its ‘unusual leader’ enjoying wider appeal among the state’s youth and urban middle classes with his clean image and powerful oratory, helped in enthusing politically apathetic segments. Third, given the close nature of verdicts in the state, the Congress and Akali Dal were more intent to capture not only the ‘floating voters’ but also to hold their ground against possible encroachment in their traditional ‘vote bank’ by Sanjha Morcha. In the Malwa region, if the Akalis were wary of losing votes to PPP, it was the Congress which was apprehensive of losing the support of the pro-Left votes in Doaba region, which now had a credible choice to vote for PPP-CPI-CPM Sanjha Morcha.

Fourth, the positive nature of the campaign definitely stirred the electorate. For the first time in post-militancy Punjab, the parties not only devoted a major part of their manifestos to the issues of development and governance (besides, of course, promising freebies as usual) but more significantly, refrained from raising emotive issues bordering on ethnicity or indulging in ugly mudslinging even during the campaign, as in earlier elections. The PPP campaign led by Manpreet Badal did have an emotional underpinning, but it was more secular and nationalist and not sectarian in nature. The memory of the youth icons Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh was invoked by the PPP. It called to ‘restore’ the pride of indebted Punjabis and resurrect the glory of Punjab based on a ‘reformist developmental agenda’, an agenda that was also shared by Congress and Akali Dal. Overall, the campaign, cutting across party lines, focused broadly on the performance (or lack of it) of the ruling Akali Dal-BJP combine at the state level, and the Congress-led UPA at the Centre. As a result, substantive issues that earlier found space only in the manifestos but were missing during the campaigns, like the issues of unemployment, corruption, farmer’s suicides, school education, health, massive debt, bijli, sadak and pani, dominated the proceedings this time with the ruling and opposition parties making claims and counter claims.

As for the all important leadership issue: Given the emergence of a personalizing and centralizing mode of party politics in the state, it is the party leaders who shape the form and content of their party agenda/manifesto, tenor of election campaigns and modes of distribution of patronage. The two ‘post-Bluestar’ generation leaders who were put to the ‘litmus test’ in these elections for the first time are estranged cousins – Sukhbir Badal and Manpreet Badal. They led the campaigns of the SAD-BJP and PPP-CPI-CPM-SAD (Barnala) combines respectively. These elections saw Sukhbir Badal emerge from the colossal shadow of Badal Sr. even as he continued to face image problems, a throwback to his alleged rough and ready politics. In his capacity as party president, Sukhbir Badal played a decisive role not only in ticket distribution (all time high number of Hindu candidates being the highlight), but also evolved the party’s electoral strategy and led the Akali campaign in the state.

In a marked departure from past campaigns, the Akali Dal assiduously avoided taking recourse to the ‘panthic’ issues. A cursory look at the SAD manifesto, print media, cable TV-led campaign, as well as the public speeches as reported in the press, indicate efforts by the Sukhbir Badal-led Akali Dal to broaden its support base. The party wooed urban secular voters while seeking to retain its core support base of rural Sikhs, especially the numerically strong and land owning Jat Sikhs, who easily qualify as the ‘dominant caste’. Listing ‘achievements’, among others, like building expressways, metros, over-bridges, expressways, international airports, and urban drainage and drinking water projects during the campaign, underlined the electoral strategy of the Akali Dal. This was to free the party from being perennially dependent on its long-standing ally, the BJP, a party with a traditional urban, upper-caste Hindu support base. Moreover, not only have the BJPs electoral fortunes fluctuated, it also holds diametrically opposed positions to the SAD on the issue of autonomy as articulated in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution. With a massive direct transfer of public resources to the rural poor in the form of ata-dal, shagun, Mai-Bhago Vidya Schemes (not mentioning the usual over the top promises in the manifesto), the Akalis also sought the vote of rural masses, especially the socially marginal groups who traditionally vote for the Congress. The Congress on its part reminded the poor about the benefits of the UPA-led central government schemes like NRGEA, JNURM, Pradhanmantri Sadak Yojna, Indira Gandhi old age pension schemes, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, stressing that most of the welfare and development schemes have been funded by the Centre and not the ‘bankrupt’ state government.

As for Manpreet Badal, he combined his extensive Punjab Jago Yatra with a media and net-savvy campaign with an ample dose of symbolism and ‘saintly idioms’. Presenting himself as a ‘game changer’, Manpreet Badal promised a ‘third and real alternative’ to the hapless electorate in the beleaguered state in the form of reformist agenda, a promise that probably lacks credibility given the lack of the organizational base of his party that is still in the process of making. The two elderly mass leaders enjoying state-wide stature, both claimants to the post of chief minister, Prakash Singh Badal and Captain Amrinder Singh, while in power have been held responsible for prioritizing the party’s electoral survival while contemplating policy options even at the cost of perceived long-term gains for the state that has experienced a deceleration of growth over the past decade.

These elections also saw an unprecedented rise in ‘kunbaparasti’, with all the leading parties distributing tickets among relatives of the prominent leaders. How does one explain the degeneration of the second oldest party in India, the Akali Dal, an ideologically rooted and cadre-based party turning into a ‘family party’? To what extent should the leadership of Badal Sr., given his control over the Akali Dal as also his unmistakable ‘influence’ over the SGPC and Akal Takht in post-militancy Punjab, be held responsible? It is a moot question, one that cannot be dodged by one of the senior-most politician of the country, widely admired as a mass leader and a ‘reconciler’, at the fag end of his eventful career. As for the Congress, whether in Punjab or elsewhere, it has now more a trend than an aberration to promote ‘family politics’. Even by its own standards, however, the Congress overdid it this time, facing the ‘rebel factor’ as a consequence.

Yet another ‘new’ feature of these elections was the emergence of the ‘Dera’ factor. After Dera Sacha Sauda’s open support that reportedly played an important role in Congress winning as many as 37 seats in the Malwa region in the 2007 elections, the deras are being credited for determining the electoral choice of their followers. Hundreds of candidates, and top party leaders like Amrinder Singh and Manpreet Badal registered their presence in the influential deras (including some Akali candidates in the fray, notwithstanding the party directive against it). Since most the flock of the deras come from socially and economically weaker sections of society, this trend should be viewed as an attempt to play vote bank politics. In a state where the polity remains lopsided, with the leadership firmly in the hands of the upper castes irrespective of the party in power, the parties seem to prefer the ‘softer’ option of cultivating the deras to ‘deliver’ the subaltern votes en bloc without any effort to democratize the social base of the power structure. Moreover, with religion now receding into the background, the sizable presence of dalits and backward communities will be a determining factor in the state’s electoral politics. With the BSP leadership not showing any inclination to consolidate its ‘natural’ support base, the caste based region/state level parties like the Begampura Party representing Ravidasias in the Doaba region, are likely to emerge in the coming years.

As one awaits the electoral verdict, the campaign and the positioning of the contending parties, despite showing a welcome shift to an agenda of development and governance, left much to be desired. In a state scarred by ‘missing girl children’ and facing environmental disaster due to the reckless use of mechanized irrigation and fertilizers, neither the Congress nor the Akali Dal focused on the issue of female foeticide or loss of green cover or polluted rivers and ground water that is turning the cotton belt into a ‘cancer belt’. The Akali Dal, which way back had undertaken a long-term initiative called Nanhi Chhan (the little shade) to save the girl child from foeticide and also create awareness about the environment, no longer saw it as an important issue. All that the Congress and Akali Dal could think in terms of a response was to build a cancer hospital in Bathinda.

The patriarchal character of Punjab’s political culture was also underlined by the paltry presence of women as party candidates. Even over the drug menace that threatens to destroy an entire generation of Punjab youth, especially the unemployed and ‘unemployable’, the parties failed to present a road map. Organizing sports events or building stadiums, as proposed by the Akali Dal, will certainly not protect the youth from the clutches of the drug mafia that enjoys political patronage. And then, there is the unease about the ‘personalized’ mode of politics that encourages collusion between the state and political institutions for nefarious purposes at the local level. During the elections when one heard ordinary people complaining about dhakkashahi, it was not only the 2008 panchayat election violence and intimidation that was being foreground but equally their day-to-day harassment in terms of denial to the access to distributional welfarist schemes or harassment at the hand of the local bureaucracy. How this will affect electoral choices is an open question.

Finally, it is not only for Manpreet Badal to build an organizational base of his nascent party, but also for the established Congress, BJP and Akali Dal leaderships to institutionalize their party organs and democratize party members. The leadership across party lines needs to remember that irrespective of the electoral verdict, the prevailing lopsidedness and continued degeneration that afflict the democratic polity is bound to reflect adversely in the domain of substantive public policy initiatives and success.

Ashutosh Kumar

* The author has gained from the inputs provided by the students of Panjab University who participated in the CSDS election survey in the state.


India and the Maldives

ON the back of a still-buoyant growth rate, India has been looking to shoulder greater responsibility for the region. Nobody could have imagined, though, that it would be tiny Maldives, with a population of barely 320,000, that would cast such a long shadow on India’s image of itself.

In the week after it dumped former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed – who came to power in 2008 through a democratically held election in which he defeated the dictator of 25 years, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – at the altar of pragmatism, Delhi has decided to resolutely look ahead and deal with the new dispensation of Mohammed Waheed Hassan. Clearly, Delhi seems to have decided that Nasheed was much too much of a maverick, and could not be totally relied upon to do the sensible thing. Evidently, Nasheed had pushed the panic button more than once before. This time around he had outlived his utility. Or so Delhi believes.

Delhi must now hope that the Maldivian atoll soon returns to a semblance of stability. There’s too much at stake – not least because China has welcomed Waheed’s government with some alacrity and promised to work with him and his government of national unity. In the last couple of months or so, it has been interesting to see how China has quietly expanded its presence in South Asia – all the while, supposedly telling each of these countries that India must remain their primary relationship.

In Nepal, less than a month ago, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao is believed to have told his counterpart that India was Kathmandu’s most important partner. In Sri Lanka, none other than President Mahinda Rajapakse, on the eve of his country’s national day on 4 February, emphatically denied that his island nation was part of China’s ‘string of pearls’, indeed if there was such a thing in the first place.

And now in the Maldives, according to the ousted president, one of the reasons he was asked to go, ‘almost at gunpoint,’ by the Maldivian national defence forces, was because he refused to renew the defence agreement with China.

The irony in the Nasheed story is that the largest democracy in the world moved with bewildering speed to effect a change of guard in one of the smallest nations on earth. Perhaps, the principle of pragmatism militates against permanent friends and relationships.

Even if this is true and India believed that its friendship with Nasheed, or Anni as he is called all over the Maldives, was becoming counterproductive because the island nation’s people had never given his Maldivian Democratic Party a majority in the Majlis (the Parliament), the time will soon come when Delhi will have to deal with Gayoom, the man who has most likely orchestrated this democratic denouement.

Several questions will arise. Should India be in favour of keeping alive a democratic government which doesn’t have a majority in power, or should it support a quasi-dictatorship which is unlikely to get the MDP’s support and therefore, whose government of national unity will at best be a sham? Most of all, India’s leadership in South Asia is at stake. Delhi must ensure that the new government treats the MDP according to the democratic rule of law established under Nasheed’s tenure and stop the savage crackdown that continues to take place, especially against MDP supporters.

Naturally, the Maldivians must elect their own leadership, which means that India must pursue the course of holding free and fair elections within a stipulated period of time. Waheed cannot be given the option of this being an open-ended affair. Either he takes charge, like all leaders should, and ensure that free elections are held, or else hand over the job to an independent authority. If Nasheed was a maverick, Waheed is hardly an elected leader himself. He doesn’t have even one member from his party in the Majlis, nor an elected councillor. He certainly cannot now pretend to be president and lead the Maldives into a new, democratic dawn.

Perhaps Delhi was left with little option but to go along with Nasheed when he called India’s High Commissioner to the Maldives, D.M. Mulay, and told him that he was being forced to resign, at gunpoint. Nasheed said he did this to prevent a bloodbath. But India must also lead the international community in asking for an inquiry into the circumstances that led to the coup – or to the more delicate, to the alleged coup.

India has always chafed at being compared with the mighty Chinese. The two countries are cut from different cloth and cannot be compared. But if India believes that it should take charge of the region in more ways than one – opening the doors to trade and investment with Pakistan, streamlining the border issue with Bangladesh, backing Sri Lanka’s Rajapakse so that he can pave the way for the greater integration of the Tamils – then it may be time to really partner with the Maldives, just as the strategic document signed during Manmohan Singh’s November 2011 visit to that country promised.

India can start with doing two things immediately. First, the Waheed government must ensure that its security forces do not target Nasheed, MDP supporters as well as ordinary protesters; it is not enough only to protect Nasheed and his family. Second, free and fair elections should be held in a time-bound manner.

The Maldivians are certainly looking at India to do the right thing – but so are all of us Indians.

Jyoti Malhotra