Friday, April 23, 2010

Legalise gambling

In the wake of the growing controversy surrounding the Indian Premiere League (IPL), and the accusations of illegal betting and possibility of matches being fixed, the Times of India, on 23 April 2010, invited a few people to comment on this issue under the title, "Legalize gambling, subject it to regulation". I was one of them, and the following was my brief comment.

Gambling is socially acceptable, but legally not. It is this dichotomy which is at the root of the periodic bouts of headlines about betting and match fixing that comes to haunt us.

The IPL format was tailor-made for betting, and cricket could have benefited even more had betting been legal. By bringing the bets on the table, the competing interests of various stakeholders would have ensured that the prospect of match-fixing did not affect them. We will do well to remember that the epic tussle between the good and the evil in the Mahabharata could not have happened if people did not know that the game of dice was fixed. The good would not have won had the game been played underground. Freedom to choose, and bearing the consequences, is at the root of free society, a lesson from the epic we may do well to remember.

(Liberty Institute had published a small book titled ‘The Joy of Gambling’ (2002). It had three essays authored by Rakesh Wadhwa, Atam Uppal and Tom W. Bell, looking at economic, ethical and social aspects of gambling)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pull the land from under the Maoists

There has been a lot of discussion about the growth of the Maoist insurgency in tribal dominated forest areas. While the security issues have dominated the debate, there has not been adequate attention on winning the hearts and minds of the local population by recognising their property rights in land. That is what I discuss in this article titled, "Pull the Land Issue Out From Under the Maoists" in the Wall Street Journal on 21 April 2010.

India is girding for war against an internal enemy, the Maoist guerrillas known as Naxalites. This conflict will inevitably be bloody—in the last three years alone about 2,500 people have died in Maoist violence, about one-third of them civilians. However, counterinsurgency operations are won not only on the battlefield, but also in the hearts and minds of the people. While the government beefs up the security forces, it shouldn't neglect the main complaint of the population from which the Maoists recruit their fighters: a lack of land rights.

The Maoists thrive mainly in forest areas amid tribal villagers whose right to land is poorly defined. The origin of the problem lies in colonial times, when forests were seen as royal estates, and the tribal people were at best tolerated, at worst seen as pests. There were no surveys to try to settle the land claims of indigenous populations who had lived there for longer than anyone could remember. After Independence in 1947, the Indian state recognized these people as citizens, but their right to the land was largely ignored.

India's Maoists capitalize on the anger and frustration of these marginalized groups by promising to protect their land. This highlights one of the greatest ironies of Indian democracy: The state, whose primary task is to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens, is resented by a section of the tribal population. And the Maoists, who have no respect for individual life, liberty or property, pose as protectors.

However, there is precedent for this. Land rights and property ownership have fuelled the drive towards political participation and democratic governance ever since the ancient cities of Greece discovered democracy. Sixty years ago, Mao Zedong successfully mobilized Chinese peasants by promising to give land to the tiller. Of course, after taking power Mao broke that promise and extinguished private property. His experiment in communal farming led to the starvation of tens of millions in the worst man-made tragedy in human history.

The Indian government has been trying to bring economic development to the indigenous tribes, but it has been going about it the wrong way. In the past few years, it has invited companies to invest in large projects in some of these remote areas. Governments at the state and national levels believe that the projects will benefit the local population.

But the projects may be making the situation worse because they involve forced land acquisitions. The tribal groups then protest against the projects, fearing displacement and loss of livelihood. Given the record of extremely tardy compensation and inadequate resettlement policies for such projects in the past, their suspicion is hardly unjustified. Consider that indigenous tribes constitute only about 9% of India's population, but over the past few decades about 40% of land acquisitions have affected them. Coupled with lack of basic amenities, collapse of law and order, and appalling blindness to injustice, the alienation of the population from the state seems complete.

Today, the Maoists are claiming to defend the land rights of the tribals for tactical reasons, just as they have tried to ride other popular movements that express resentment against some state policies in the hope of expanding their support base. For them, power only flows from the barrel of the gun. Indeed, the Maoists are profiting by extorting protection money from the companies, their agents and contractors operating in these areas, even while accusing them of land grabs.

The government's bleak record on land rights is beginning to change, however. After years of political struggle, the Forest Rights Act was passed in 2006, for the first time recognizing the land rights of the tribal people, despite vociferous opposition from various environmentalists. Under this law, every nuclear tribal family can claim up to four hectares if they were working that land prior to 2005.

While the law has many shortcomings, it does have the potential to empower some of the most deprived sections of Indian society. If it improves the economic condition of these people, it would dramatically alter the political equation. The Maoists' support base would be undercut.

Unfortunately, the Indian state has been slow to appreciate the law's importance, and little attention has been paid to its implementation. A few nongovernmental organizations, like the ARCH Vahini in Gujarat, are using low-cost GPS devices to plot the land and then are transferring the coordinates to Google Maps. This is being done with active participation by local communities, who have shown great maturity in trying to resolve any disputes over boundaries of each other's land. For the first time, they hope to secure a clear title over the small plots on which their ancestors have lived for centuries.

These initiatives can and should be replicated across the country. If the state were to take its primary task of protecting property rights more seriously, the Maoist movement would be deprived of popular support. Empowered by property, poor Indians will be able to participate more actively as citizens and strengthen the country's democratic foundations.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sri Lanka: Will election weaken democracy?

Sri Lankans will go to polling booths on April 8, to elect a new parliament. The general perception is that the coalition headed by the president will win. There seems to be an uncanny parallel between the political siutation in India in the 1970s, and Sri Lanka today. I hope history will not repeat itself. Will Mahinda Rajapaksa choose to secure his own future or that of Sri Lanka?

My article titled "Winning the War, Losing Democracy" in the Wall Street Journal was published on April 6, 2010.

Sri Lankans will elect a new parliament tomorrow [April 8]. The election results are a foregone conclusion, but the future of Sri Lanka, unfortunately, may not be so certain. On the face of it the idyllic island nation seems poised to seize on a historic political opportunity at the end of a 25-year civil war against the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But the initial sense of hope that followed the total military victory over the terrorists last May has slowly dissipated as President Mahinda Rajapaksa consolidates his hold on power.

Those who are alarmed by the developments of Mr. Rajapaksa's rule often point to parallels with the history of neighboring India under the rule of Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. After military victory over Pakistan in 1971, Mrs. Gandhi led her Congress Party to a huge victory in the general election. But her populist policies failed to deliver; as inflation rose, political and social unrest spread. By the summer of 1975, Gandhi declared emergency rule, suspended civil liberties, jailed political opponents, packed the judiciary with yes-men, and coerced most of the media into submission.

In Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajapaksa followed up on his emphatic victory in the presidential election in January 2010 by jailing his main opponent, former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka, for allegedly plotting a military coup. This has damaged the country's democratic credentials and aggravated political fissures. Gen. Fonseka, who led the military in its finest hour, today stands accused of corruption and of engaging in politics while still in uniform. The date for his trial has not been announced yet, but he remains in custody.

The presidential election also exacerbated political fractures between various ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional groups. The opposition candidate, Gen. Fonseka, carried six provinces with larger concentrations of Tamils and Muslims, while Mr. Rajapaksa carried the Sinhalese dominated countryside in 16 other provinces. With the end of the war, the elections should be an opportunity to restart the normal political process. But it would be an unfortunate result if the democratic process only deepens the pre-existing political and social tensions. It is precisely those tensions between the Tamil and Sinhala ethnicities that helped sustain one of the bloodiest ethnic terrorist movements in modern times.

Criticism of Mr. Rajapaksa's government is not looked on kindly, which is impacting democratic discourse. Violent attacks on journalists and media offices have continued, and these incidents are not being conclusively investigated. This has given rise to speculation not just about the competence of the administration, but also its possible complicity. In one of the best known instances, Lasantha Wickramatunga, a senior journalist who was killed in January 2009, left behind a statement laying the blame on the authorities should he be harmed. Today, even many supporters of the government are afraid to speak their minds.

There are also growing doubts over the independence of judiciary. The Supreme Court has repeatedly failed to clear the air surrounding a 1982 constitutional amendment about mid-term presidential elections, which allows a president to call a snap election to run for a second six-year term at any time after the fourth year of his first six-year term. The amendment under debate gives a re-elected president the right to begin his second six-year term after completing the year in which the midterm election is held, regardless of when he called the election. In 2005, Supreme Court took the common sense view that a second presidential term should begin immediately after a midterm election is held, without invalidating the constitutional amendment. But within days of the latest presidential election, on February 1, the Supreme Court appeared to reverse that ruling and—at Mr. Rajapaksa's request—issued an interpretation that essentially hands him an extra ten months in office.

On top of this conflict between the letter of the law and the spirit of justice, security forces still maintain a visible presence on the streets, making it seem as if the war hasn't ended. Neither has the economy improved, with double-digit inflation and a ballooning budget deficit.

It's not too late to save Sri Lanka's democracy, however. In India, Gandhi redeemed herself by accepting the electoral verdict in 1977, when the Congress Party lost power at the national level for the first time since independence in 1947. That single act of accepting the electoral verdict helped secure the political foundations of democracy in India.

With the acceptance of political pluralism in India came a much greater appreciation of federalism. No doubt, there are still many unresolved problems in the world's largest democracy. But the idea of India—the recognition that social and ethnic diversity enriches, rather than weakens, the country's political unity—has only strengthened in recent decades.
President Rajapaksa dominates Sri Lanka's political landscape. His popularity is not questioned—he received a very handsome 58% of the votes in January. That should give him the confidence to respect a diversity of opinion, which is the essence of a functional democracy. He has an unprecedented opportunity to secure the political future of the island.

But bolstered by military and electoral victory, will the president turn despotic in a vain attempt to secure his own future at the cost of his country? Only Mr. Rajapaksa can answer this. Meanwhile, he could draw some valuable political lessons from recent Indian history and avoid repeating the same mistakes. That would go a long way in ensuring a democratic, plural and peaceful future for Sri Lanka.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why I am against reservation for women in legislature

The women’s reservation bill will disempower the voter, and reduce the incentive for the elected representative to be seriously concerned with the issues affecting the constituencies. It will also seriously undermine the prospect of inner party democratic structures, and empower the entrenched party leadership. More importantly, this amendment is completely unnecessary, since there is nothing that stops political parties to nominate more women candidates, if they were really committed to that cause.

My article titled, "The political fallout of the battle of the sexes" was published in the monthly magazine, Pragati: The Indian National Interest Review, in April 2010.

Symbolism plays a very important role in politics. So it was symbolic that on Monday, March 8th, 2010, the centenary of the International Women’s Day, the governing UPA coalition wanted to present the country with a constitutional amendment to empower women, by reserving 33 percent of the seats for women in national and state legislatures. And it was also indicative of things to come when, at the end of the day, the law minister acknowledged that it was national day of shame, as a few unruly MPs, particularly in the Rajya Sabha, created such a ruckus that the house had to be adjourned six times without conducting much business.

The bill was adopted in the Rajya Sabha the next day, with a overwhelming majority of 186 to 1, out of a total strength of 225, with some of the opposition parties staging a walkout. The government promised to bring further amendments to the bill, and also decided to wait till after the passing of finance bill in the ongoing Budget Session of Parliament, rather than undertake the adventurous constitutional amendment immediately in the Lok Sabha.

While hardly anyone is opposed to the idea of greater political participation by women, yet the political and intellectual divide over the bill can hardly be papered over. Its implementation would have grave consequences for the quality of governance and political culture in the country.

With the major political parties from the governing and opposition sides having expressed their support for the bill, the passage of this constitutional amendment should have been a simple matter. Yet it has not been a smooth sailing for this bill, illustrating the political hypocrisy that underscores the apparent sense of unanimity that surrounds the bill.

The bill had been pending for about 14 years, and many political parties routinely vouched for it in their election manifesto over the past decade. Despite the obvious divide over this issue, there had hardly been any attempt to seriously discuss and explore the implications of this proposal, even within the political parties.

First, it shows that party leaders responsible for drafting their manifestos rarely take that document seriously enough, and therefore do not feel the need to consult even their own party candidates about the key provisions. The candidates take the cue, and focus only on winning elections, not on the policy agenda. There are major political parties that have given up preparing election manifestos altogether.

Secondly, the hollowness of the political consensus stood exposed from the fact that without the fear of disobeying the party whip and attracting the penalty of disqualification from the house under the anti-defection law, the women’s reservations bill could not be passed in parliament. There was no substantive debate on any of the real clauses of the bill in the Rajya Sabha, except perfunctory commitment to gender equality. Afghanistan and Rwanda were presented as models of women’s empowerment in the India’s temple of democracy.

So, the third point that emerges is that under the anti-defection law, parliamentary debate itself has become a casualty. After all, what is the purpose of a debate if under the discipline of the party whip, parliament is turned only in to a number counting chamber. Should it come as a surprise, then, that debates have been increasingly displaced by disruptions in the supreme debating chamber of the country?

Fourth, if there was genuine widespread political and social support for reservation of seats for women in legislatures, would such a constitutional amendment be necessary at all. Nothing prevents the political parties from choosing more women candidates, and nominating more women from constituencies where they have strong presence, thereby enabling more women to enter the legislatures. Parties do not give too many tickets to women because they do not see women as being able to win election on their own strength.

Fifth, it is argued that putting more women in legislatures will somehow change the status of women in the country. It is another matter that having one of the first women prime ministers in the world, in the mid-1960s, did not really change the fortunes of most women in India. Some of the worst forms of discrimination and deprivation of women continue to take place, with not many politically active women raising their voice against the daily atrocities.

Sixth, there are women leaders like Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, who have been able to rise on their own on the political map of the country through persistence and political acumen. Others like Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje and Brinda Karat have been vocal and visible. And there is Sonia Gandhi, who despite the family name, had to struggle to revive the political fortunes of her party. None of these women needed political reservations to find their own space. So, in the name of empowering women, this bill perpetuates the belief that women cannot make it in politics on their own.

Seventh, the bill raises a fundamental question about the nature of India’s representative democracy. If the reservation of constituencies for SC and STs were considered a temporary anomaly necessary to correct some historical wrongs, the reservation for a section of the population, the women, inevitably undermines the first past the post (FPTP) election system that India had adopted. The bill raises the prospect of fundamentally moving India towards a proportional representation system dividing the population on sectoral lines. The clamour for caste and minority quota within the women’s quota is a logical step in that direction. This would be a fundamental change from the basic design of the constitution, and the debates in the constituent assembly, when the notion of separate electorates was debated and rejected.

Eighth, from the past political experience, it is clear that reserving seats for SC and STs did not lead to the development of authentic political leadership within those communities. Indeed, it led to the creation of a generation of leaders who were pliable and dedicated more to their parties than to the people. The leadership among some of the other historically oppressed sections of society emerged only as the newer leaders mobilised politically, and not because of any reservation, and created their own political territories.

Ninth, it is said that there is a potential political dividend by giving greater space for women, and women as a class would vote en masse for parties that support that section. This is not only vote bank politics at its worst but is completely futile. Sectional mobilisation has rarely worked politically, and could never be sustained. There is no national constituency for women, just as there is none for men.

This of course raises the question, if the social and political context is not conducive why do we have such a demand for reservation for women in legislature.

Everyone agrees that the proposal will significantly change the political contour of India. At one stroke, by rotating the constituencies reserved for women, an enormous political churning will be triggered. Powerful political leaders, legislators who may have nurtured their constituencies seriously for years, will be undermined at a stroke. In effect this will disempower the voter, and reduce the incentive for the elected representative to be seriously concerned with the issues affecting the constituencies. This alone could be a ground for testing the constitutionality of this amendment, because it dilutes the idea of political accountability and representative democratic character, it could fall foul of the basic feature doctrine laid down by the Supreme Court.

In a system where the voters are not in a position to assess the performance of their representative, the parties have to constantly search for new candidates and where there is no inner party democracy there will be one set of of beneficiaries. The proposal to reserve and rotate a third of the legislative seats for women is mainly an attempt by entrenched party leaders to hide behind the fairer sex, to further empower their own authority over the lesser members of the party in the legislature. In an era of coalition politics and fragmentation of the polity this is a misguided attempt by party leaders to keep control over their flock.

Ironically, the bill has also exposed the weakness of the political leadership in all the major parties. No one doubts that Mrs Gandhi’s writ runs in the Congress party. But even she is counting on the anti-defection law to get her will enforced among her party MPs. And despite all her authority within her party, she will not find it easy to replace so many of her MPs and aspiring candidates with women of her choice, without the force of law behind her. The situation is the same within all parties, which is the main reason why entrenched party leaders are supporting this bill.

If the anti-defection law has undermined democracy within the legislative chambers, the rotational reservation for women, with its attendant political turnover, will undermine the democratic process outside.