Sunday, July 27, 2008

Serial blasts fail to shake the people's resolve

The serial bomb blasts have failed to shake the popular resolve not to be provoked. Tragically, the political consensus necessary to fight the perpetrators of terrors have failed to crystallise so far. It is clear from these attacks that the intention of the terrorists were to provoke a wider flare up among different sections of society. By refusing to get provoked the common man on the street have risen to this challenge, therefore, defeating the very purpose of these cowardly attacks on innocent people. I wrote this article in the aftermath of the serial bomb blasts that rocked Jaipur and Ahmedabad on 25th and 26th July 2008, and this was after the blasts in Jaipur in May.

Serial bombs fail to shake popular resolve, yet political consensus to fight terror elude

In the 16 serial blasts that rocked Ahmedabad city on Saturday, 49 lives have been lost so far. On Friday, nine explosions in Bangalore in the afternoon had killed two, and injured quite a few. With these two latest series of bombs in public places, we have had 11 serial bomb attacks in different Indian cities, beginning with one in Delhi in October 2005.

While the tragedy of these attacks have failed to shake the popular resolve not to be provoked, the political consensus necessary to fight the perpetrators of terrors have failed to crystalise so far.

While the deaths and destruction from each of these tragedies have varied, there is a common thread. From the nature of these blasts, it is clear that the effort has been not just to cause death and destruction, but primarily to cause panic, and provoke a wider flare up among different sections of society, particularly the Hindus and Muslims. But the common man on the street seems to have risen to this challenge in a spectacular manner. There has not been any general breakdown of law and order, and no reports of riots or retaliatory attacks on any community have broken out in the aftermath of these serial blasts.

The frustrations of the perpetrators could be best seen in their attempt to place their explosives in or around Mosques (Malegaon, Hyderabad, Ajmer) and in temples or around Hindu festivals (Ajmer, Delhi and Jaipur), in the desperate hope of provoking a wider reaction. The cowards behind these heinous attackers have failed miserably in their basic objectives of causing chaos and social breakdown, so far.

Unfortunately, the intelligence agencies have failed to get any information about these attacks, and the police investigation have failed in virtually each of these instances, to identify and apprehend the perpetrators, and prosecute them in courts of law.

The question, therefore is, will the political leadership and investigative agencies will rise to this challenge, rather than shirking their basic responsibility to protect life, liberty and property or engaging in political rhetoric or perpetuating the blame game, and meet the expectations of the public who have so far done everything in their capacity to demonstrate their capacity to absorb the shock of these blasts, and resolve not to fall for the provocation.

Chronology of serial blasts in India

PTI on NDTV, 26 July 2008
  • 26 July 2008: Serial blasts in Ahmedabad killing at least 49 people and injuring more than 100.
  • 25 July 2008: Nine explosions in Bangalore create terror killing two people and injuring twelve.
  • 13 May 2008: Eight serial blasts rock Jaipur in a span of 12 minutes leaving 65 dead and over 150 injured.
  • 11 October 2007: 2 killed in a blast inside Ajmer Sharif shrine during Ramadan.
  • 25 August 2007: 42 dead, 60 hurt in Hyderabad 'terror' strike.
  • 18 May 2007: A bomb at Mecca mosque in Hyderabad kills 11 people.
  • 19 February 2007: Two bombs explode aboard a train, near Panipat, bound from India to Pakistan, burning to death at least 66 passengers, most of them Pakistanis.
  • 7 September 2006: 30 dead and 100 hurt in twin blasts at a mosque in Malegaon.
  • 11 July 2006: Seven bombs on Mumbai's trains kill over 200 and injure 700 others.
  • 7 March 2006: Three bombings at a train station and two temples in Varanasi kill 20 people.
  • 29 October 2005: Three bombs placed in busy New Delhi markets a day before Diwali kill 62 people and injure hundreds.
  • January 2008: Terrorist attack on CRPF camp in Rampur kills 8.
  • August 2003: Two taxis packed with explosives blow up outside a Mumbai tourist attraction and a busy market, killing 52 and wounding more than 100.
  • September 24, 2002: Militants with guns and explosives attack the Akshardham Hindu temple in the western state of Gujarat, 31 killed, More than 80 injured.
  • May 14: Militants attack an army camp near Kashmir's winter capital, Jammu, killing more than 30, including wives and children of soldiers.
  • December 13, 2001: More than a dozen people, including five gunmen, killed in an attack on parliament in New Delhi.
  • October 1, 2001: Militants storm the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly complex, killing about 35 people.
  • March 1993: Mumbai serial bombings kill 257 people and injure more than 1,100.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Market reform in politics

One reason why politicians have fallen in public esteem is because they are not seen to be operating in an open market, I argue in this article, "Market reform in politics", published in the Mint, on 22 July 2008.

The run-up to the trust vote has been as exciting as a Twenty20 (T20) game of cricket. Fortune is fluctuating every hour. It is a cliff-hanger!

But rather than enjoy the political game, commentators are lamenting that high principles of parliamentary democracy have degenerated to lowly bazaar bargaining.

It’s time our politicians took a leaf out of the T20 experience and created a legitimate market for politics.

Indian Premier League’s success was not in the T20 format. Beginning with the private ownership of teams to auctioning of the players, branding and marketing, cricket was commercialized as never before. It produced quality entertainment for the paying public and unearthed new talent.

In contrast to cricket, parliamentary discourse is handicapped by accusations of horse trading as if hard-nosed political bargaining is somehow unparliamentary.

One reason why politicians have fallen in public esteem is because they are not seen to be operating in an open market. This is in contrast to a regular scene of a street market, where the rich and poor rub shoulders, bargain over a product and go their separate ways without rancour.
If only politicians could operate in an open and competitive market-like environment, Parliament would be able to redeem itself.

If we are disgusted by closed-door political dealings and rumours of cash for votes, then we must allow our politicians to publicly and legitimately bargain over political ideology, negotiate electoral prospects, and be allowed to be persuaded by cash or kind if necessary.

When politicians are free to debate matters of ideology and strike bargains over public policy, the quality of parliamentary debate will enrich the country. But for this to happen, we have to scrap the most undemocratic element of our Constitution, the anti-defection law, which has stifled debate and endangered democracy itself.

In the marketplace, offers of cash or kind are tools for influencing potential customers. So, if a politician believes that ideology or policy is not adequate to further his political interest and, by extension, of his constituents, he should legitimately open himself to political auction.

Transparent and public bidding will remove insinuations of cash stuffed in suitcases. Since politics is an important way of organizing and sustaining free society, the amount raised by political auctions or contributions should be tax-free and without limit — the condition being that it be open to public audit.

If an MP were to auction his vote for Rs100 crore, his voters would legitimately ask for a share of the windfall. If unsatisfied, the voters could remove the leader at the next ballot. A political leader who can’t get elected is unlikely to command a high price. Then it will dawn on all that while money is necessary, it is not a sufficient condition for getting elected. Party, policies, performance, too, are required.

These two reforms in politics — marketization and transparency— will drastically reduce corruption and improve the quality of political discourse and unleash new talent.

Given the range of discretionary power in the hands of the government over a large number of economic issues, it’s possible that despite these political reforms, there could still be some element of undercover dealing in exchanging favours.

Having reduced the scope of political corruption, we will greatly enhance the capacity of law enforcement agencies to vigorously pursue the remaining instances of corruption. With increased competition and prospect of change of governments, the fear of getting exposed by rivals will act as a deterrent.

The true strength of a democracy lies in its people. With increased transparency, information about political leaders will freely flow. Empowered with information, citizens will be able to hold their elected representatives accountable. With economic reforms, we have begun to enjoy the benefits as consumers. With market reforms in politics, we the people will finally begin our reign as sovereign.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Economic climate casts a shadow on climate change

The politicos at the G8 summit in Japan, seem to have drawn their lessons from the Kyoto Protocol, two decades earlier, when they burned their fingers by accepting short-term goals of emission cuts by 2012. The hard reality is that the political leaders can no longer afford to sacrifice the poor today, at the altar of climate change, for the sake of the rich tomorrow. India can legitimately play a leadership role and change the climate of discussion on climate change, I write in "Economic climate at G8 overshadowed talk of climate change", published in the Mint, on 17 July 2008.

“It is the economy, stupid!” The economic and political concerns dampened the desire of world leaders at the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Japan to ride the hot air balloon of climate change. That’s no surprise. In any contest between a present crisis and future threat, the present always wins. The G-8 leaders are hardcore politicians and recognize that in hard times, politicians must not get carried away by the future. This explains why they agreed to a future goal: 50% reduction in carbon emission by 2050, without any signposts towards that goal for the present.

The politicos seem to have drawn their lessons from the Kyoto Protocol, two decades earlier, when they burned their fingers by accepting short-term goals of emission cuts by 2012. Those targets will, of course, elude most signatories. And so, the leaders at this G-8 meet expressed a desire to reduce emissions by 2050, when few can be held accountable.

Clearly, it suited all not to push the agenda too far. With the economic slowdown, funding for new investments in alternative energy and desire for technology transfer will inevitably get squeezed. Consequently, there is little inducement for major emerging economies to even consider climate goals. This prospect was not lost among the climate change community. As the G-8 leaders were gathering in Japan, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made a pitch to the European Union to take the lead role. A group of senior corporate executives publicly appealed for funds to facilitate the development of energy- and emission-related technologies. It was clear that, in hard times, everyone could do with some spare funds!

The National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh released a week before he left for the G-8 summit seems to have accepted this political reality. And so, India found itself in a comfortable situation at the side meetings at G-8; none of the core points of NAPCC was questioned.

With oil prices at record highs, it is natural that NAPCC will be seen more in the context of energy security, not just climate change. Virtually all the eight missions of NAPCC are policies identified much earlier, but progress has been mixed. NAPCC talks of benchmarking certain energy-intensive sectors. But some of the sectors that have seen dramatic improvement in energy efficiency are those that experienced greater global competition. So the lesson is that, rather than setting industry-specific benchmarks, deepening the reforms process can greatly help in improving industrial competitiveness and efficiency.

Perhaps, it is this relationship between economy, energy efficiency and emissions which made Singh assert that India is unlikely to cross the per capita energy consumption and emission levels of richer, industrialized countries. Increased commerce and competition will motivate Indian companies to leapfrog to higher levels of efficiency with increased access to global technologies.

However, it has dawned on policymakers that there is a real and rising threat of using climate change arguments to restrict commerce. With economic slowdown, the political climate could easily turn protectionist in the richer countries. Thus, it is even more important for India to identify and argue for the economic and environmental benefits of liberalization and free trade.

A key element of India’s position is that the developmental aspirations of its people cannot be sacrificed for emission targets. India’s per capita emission, at 1.2 tonne, is far lower than the world average of 3 tonnes-plus, and a fraction of that in rich countries. Besides, the “historical responsibility” for the anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere lay squarely with the developed world. NAPCC also questions the role of man-made GHGs — it observes changes in climatic behaviour in India, such as a 0.4 degree Centigrade increase in surface temperature over the past century or about 1mm per year sea-level rise in northern Indian Ocean or wider variation in rainfall patterns. Yet, it affirms that no firm link between documented changes and warming due to anthropogenic climate change has yet been established.

This vital question needs to be read along with the last of NAPCC missions, which talks of the strategic knowledge sharing platform to identify challenges of, and response to, climate change and funding for focused research. This can help open the debate to more critical scientific scrutiny and generate more creative policy responses.

IPCC’s repeated assertion that there is a scientific consensus behind its reports and policy prescriptions reflects its own unscientific foundation. Science progresses by continuously questioning existing orthodoxy. The earth’s climate may or may not be changing, but the global economic slowdown and the rise of India among the emerging economies have opened a window of opportunity to change the climate of discourse, by grounding it to real-world concerns.

Ultimately, the hard reality is that the political leaders can no longer afford to sacrifice the poor today for the sake of the rich tomorrow. India can legitimately play a leadership role and change the climate of discussion on climate change.