Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Save the tiger: Environmental dividend from economic development

This is the Chinese year of the tiger and people are interested in saving the tiger from extinction more than ever. Several conferences are being held, and a lot of money is being thrown at saving the tiger, but all this can't work if the Government can't mitigate the conflict between locals and wild animals. The lack of agricultural productivity forces farmers to encroach on the habitat of the tigers. This has to be resolved. China and India can save the tigers by cooperating with each other.

A shorter version of my article was published in The Wall Street Journal on August 25th.

Asia’s economic potential was first demonstrated by the four tiger economies. In recent decade, the focus has shifted to China, India and others. While economies are growing, the real tigers in the wild are living a precarious existence. It is time to reap the environmental dividend from growing prosperity, and save the tiger from extinction.

This is the Chinese Year of the Tiger! Undoubtedly, the focus is once again on ways of saving the wild tiger from extinction. This coming weekend the international Tiger Forum will meet in the north-eastern Chinese city of Hunchun. Next month a tiger summit is scheduled in St Petersburg, Russia. Last month 13 nations - Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, and Russia agreed, at a meeting of the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI), to double the tiger count from about 3200 at present to 7,000 by 2022. Incidentally, the tiger numbers have halved since 2002, when the claim was 7,000. Many today believe that these numbers were grossly inflated due to faulty counting procedures.

In 1900, it is believed that there were about 100,000 tigers in the forests of Asia. The number declined to about 40,000 by the 1950. Today, billions of dollars are being spent to save one of the iconic animals in the world, but the future of the tiger continues to be bleak.

According to estimates used in draft documents for the St Petersburg Tiger Summit, the economic benefit of ecological services coming from forestry and wildlife estimated in 1997 to be as high as $ 33 trillion annually, and would be much higher today. But another estimate claimed that for the people living in tiger forest in countries like Cambodia, the annual economic benefit per household to be barely $675. The numbers don’t add up!

Over the past decade, just the central government in India increased its allocation for Project Tiger, from $ 16 million (Rs 75 crore) in the 9th five year plan, to $ 32 million (Rs 150 crore) in the 10th plan, and $ 128 million (Rs 600 crore) in the current 12th Plan (2007-2012). This is equivalent of about $ 25,000 per tiger per year, for a mere 1200 animals. Compare this with the flagship rural employment programme for the poor that promises about $ 70 per family per year.

There seems to be growing gulf between the prescriptions offered by many international, largely western experts, and what domestic policy makers in China, India, and elsewhere confront on the ground.

Many of the international experts agree on the need to commit larger sums of money, monitoring of the tigers and their habitat, and almost military style enforcement to keep people and poachers out.

But these old prescriptions don’t inspire confidence any more. Indian policy makers are increasingly aware of the rising aspirations of the people, and the demand for land, for agriculture and other developmental purposes. For some others, the biggest threat to tiger comes from the growing intensity of conflict between man and wild animals. They would not like to stake everything on counting tigers.

Just in the past two months, two people lost their lives in the vicinity of the famous Ranthambore tiger park. Typical compensation for a life lost is only $2200. This is barely 10% of the annual allocation by the central government for every tiger each year, at present. Just this week, in the same park, a forest ranger who was bravely trying to shepard a tiger that had strayed near a village, armed only with a stick, was mauled.

Last year Bangladesh reported 50 deaths from tiger attacks in the Sundarbans area of the Gangetic delta. In India, the annual death toll from wild animal attacks range from 200-300 each year, in addition to injuries, loss of property and crops. Tigers and other wild animals will have a future, only if this conflict can be diffused. Otherwise the beasts will stand no chance against the ire of man.

The problem in India, and some other tiger range countries, is not that there are too many people living in close proximity to wildlife. Typically, in such areas agricultural productivity is abysmal, poverty is endemic, and non-farm economic opportunities non-existent. Without resolving this human problem, neither a proliferation of conferences nor throwing cash will help the cause of the tiger.

But this need not be the situation. If India doubles its agriculture productivity the demand for agricultural land could fall by almost 40%. If non-farm opportunities are allowed to spread, dependence on subsistence agriculture will decline rapidly. One can already see glimpses of how the natural environment can recharge once the human pressure declines.

This is most dramatically visible in China. China’s agricultural productivity is almost double of India’s. The rapid movement of millions of people from rural to urban, and changing economic structure from agriculture to industrial, explains the rise in forest cover.

Between 1990 and 2007, according to World Bank database, China’s Per capita GDP increased 8 fold, from $ 314 to $2,566, while for India it just tripled, from $374 to $ 1,046. During this same period, China’s agricultural GDP shrank from 27% to 11%, and forest cover as a share of total area rose from 17% to 22%. It is this 30% increase in forest cover in 17 years, which makes it plausible for China to attempt to rebuild wildlife habitat, and reintroduce animals. In contrast, for India, agricultural GDP declined slowly from 29% to 18%, but forest cover stayed almost the same from 22% to 23%. This indicates that in India, there is a much higher pressure on forest from people who are not able to move beyond rural livelihood, and explains the continuing conflict between man and animal.

China and India, are neighbours and competitors in many fields. But in the arena of tiger conservation, they could greatly complement each other. China barely has 45-50 tigers in the wild, mostly near the Russian border in Siberia. India has among the best wildlife experts with capacity to manage tiger habitats.

India is already trying to reintroduce tigers in to two tiger parks where all the tigers were lost in recent years. India is also toying with an ambitious effort to reintroduce the Asiatic Cheetah, which had gone extinct in 1947. But today, India’s economic transformation is not yet deep enough to remove the potential for man and animal conflict. But it will happen. Working with the Chinese on tiger conservation would help build up Indian capacity to reap their own environmental dividend.

By cooperating with each other today, China and India would not only save the tiger in the wild, but redefine the meaning of “Asian Tigers”. Wildlife and forest are not mere intangible resources, whose values are only determined by creative book-keeping. For instance, in the US, the tangible economic benefit from wildlife and nature tourism, including fishing and hunting, was estimated at $125 billion in 2005. Asia could surely give the US a run for its money, if it manages the environmental resources better.

This will require a see change in thinking. Only when people profit from forest and wildlife, will they have any interest in preserving them, and then counting every tiger will become irrelevant. Tiger economies are better equipped to secure the future of the species too!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Commonwealth Games: The Politics of Sports

The excitement of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games is building up in Delhi. The spot light is not on sporting performance, but the construction delays, cost overruns, and allegations of corruption. These are symptoms which have affected many other projects. I believe, the legacy of these games could be that all such projects would be put under similar scrutiny. Below there is a table giving the official break up of expenditure on account of the games, and related development project. A version of this article was published in the Wall Street Journal Online, on 10 Aug 2010, titled "India's Political Games".

Indian politicians played games in Parliament, this week, as they debated the chaos surrounding the Commonwealth Games set to open in Delhi, on October 3. While dozens of members of Parliament from many political parties had their say, the chairman of the CWG organizing committee, Mr Suresh Kalmadi, who is also a MP from the ruling Congress party, chose not to speak.

It is politically correct to believe that sports and politics should not be mixed. But international sporting events are often close to a war, which is politics by another name! Equally politics is a sport too, and can be even more exciting.

Less than two months before the Commonwealth Games is to open in Delhi, the media is giving live commentary on the state of preparations. Everything that could have gone wrong, seems to have gone wrong – construction delays, poor quality of construction, cost escalation, allegations of corruption and money laundering, inflated prices of items procured, resignation and sacking of senior officials.

Virtually every agency of the government at the city, state and national levels, and the CWG organizing committee, have been starring in this competition for a share of the wealth, which the games have provided.

But should anyone be surprised? Political leaders have always used sporting opportunities to try and claim a share of the glory and the pie.

For instance, the communist countries traditionally invested a lot in sports in order to show its prowess, in an attempt to seek legitimacy for its political system. Following the collapse of the Soviet Empire, China has the baton, and has emerged as a major sporting nation. The Beijing Olympics in 2008, was therefore much more than just the medals won by China.

Politics in sports has a long history. The 1936 Berlin Olympics was tailor made for Hitler to display his Aryan supremacy. Unfortunately, Jesse Owens punctured that balloon on the field. Even India had a small role, winning the first field hockey gold medal by beating the German team. That was India’s first of the eight Olympic gold medals in hockey.

But India is not a sporting powerhouse. According to some calculations, India is among the two bottom ranked countries on the ratio of Olympic medals to population size. India’s lone individual Olympic gold was won only in Beijing by Mr Abhinav Bindra in shooting. Bindra hardly owed anything to India’s sports establishment, but to his parents who were capable of meeting the requirements for his talents to blossom.

Comparisons with the Beijing Olympics and the recent Soccer World cup in South Africa are inevitably being drawn.

The question is, if Beijing did it, South Africa could do it, can India follow? The answer lies in politics. Both China and South Africa had primarily a political reason for wanting to host a major international sporting event. For the Chinese authorities, the Olympic was an opportunity to announce to the world, and more importantly to its own people, that it can exercise control, yet awe the world. On display was China’s political capacity, in terms of resources, technology and management, to handle the spectacle. Although an area in Beijing was demarcated for officially sanctioned protests, officials did not approve even one of the 77 applications for protest during the games. And it was among the top two in the medals tally.

For South Africa, following the end of apartheid, and establishment of democratic freedoms, it wanted an event that would provide an opportunity to showcase the new country. South Africa overcame all the doubts and hiccups to present a most fun filled World Cup, probably because most South Africans had apparently accepted the idea. Although, the tickets were priced beyond the reach of most citizens, and the home team was not expected to progress beyond the initial group stage, the fans more than made up for it by staying engaged and supporting a diverse range of teams competing. They created a new icon – the vuvuzela! The noise of the vuvuzelas was drowned only once when the real life icon, Nelson Mandela, made a brief appearance during the closing ceremony.

Unlike South Africa, organizers of CWG have not really involved the ordinary people, and the public at large seems to have not taken to the idea of the games with any particular enthusiasm. And, unlike China, Indian leaders did not really have any broad political vision for the games.

India had bid for the CWG in 2003, when the “India Shining” campaign of the BJP led coalition government in Delhi was at its peak in the run up to the national parliament election in 2004. But, the campaign did not inspire the voters, and the electoral mandate passed on to the Congress led coalition. The Congress in its election strategy had focused on the common man, the “aam admi”, in contrast to those who few were perceived to be real beneficiaries of India’s economic changes.

Consequently, CWG was no longer a political priority. Despite repeated efforts to rope in Mr Rahul Gandhi, the influential Congress general secretary, and son of the party leader, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, he showed little interest. This is in contrast to his father, late Mr Rajiv Gandhi, who began his sudden entry in to public life, by taking over the leadership of the Asian Games in 1982, the last major international sporting event held in India.

The 1982 Asian Games did not bring any political benefit for the political leaders of the day. Within a year the country was torn by social and political unrest, and bloody insurgency in Punjab and Assam. Then in 1984, the violence in Punjab escalated, and the Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

The Asian Games quickly faded from memory, and the sporting infrastructure decayed due to neglect. But the political class seems to have taken a vital lesson, political dividend from such international events are quite illusive. This explains the consistently lukewarm political support for these games.

This lack of political interest in CWG, however, seemed to have created a new incentive for a game of wealth. It would not be far-fetched to suggest that almost every project was initiated late, and deliberately so. After all, unlike traditional infrastructure projects, the CWG projects have a sharp deadline. These delays created an opportunity to justify cost escalation, and lower oversight in the rush to meet the deadline. This is perhaps the best explanation for the unprecedented increase in costs, and the delays.

Connaught Place is the circular arcade at the heart of Delhi. The construction of a new series of underground walkways was initiated barely six months ago, and now the holes on the roads are being filled up, because of the realization that the project cannot be completed before the games.

The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the main venue of the games, was built in 1982 for about US$ 2.1 million (Rs 10 crores). Today, the cost of renovation and expansion of the facilities in that stadium alone has been put at US$ 204 million (Rs 961 crores). The cost of organizing the games had been put at US$ 31.9 million (Rs 150 crores) in 2003, the current estimate is over ten fold. At that time, it was said the games village would be converted in to students’ hostel after the event. Now it is being sold as premium apartments to the rich and powerful. The total cost of games including some of the infrastructure in Delhi and the various venues have been officially set at US$ 2.4 billion (Rs 11,494 crores), others have estimated at two or three times as much. However, barely 5.7% of the official expenditure is actually aimed at helping the sports persons who are expected to bring laurels to the country.

The games have also been criticized on the ground that the money could have been much better spent on more important developmental projects. But only a small fraction of such expenditure actually reaches the targeted beneficiaries. Administrative costs and leakage, consume the bulk of the budget. There is nothing to assume that the games' money could have been well spent elsewhere. This week, the government acknowledged in parliament that of the 578 large infrastructure projects being monitored, 268 are delayed and have had cost overrun to the tune of $ 10.6 billion (Rs 50,000 crores).

But like everything else, India runs on multiple tracks. While many of the publicly supported sports bodies have systemically failed to produce champions in their disciplines, there are quite a few sports persons who have made their mark on the international arena through their personal dedication and commitment. Ms Saina Nehwal, the current world number two in badminton is the latest star on the horizon, and has just been joined by Ms Tejaswini Sawant who became the first Indian women shooter to win a gold medal at the World Championship in Germany.

The organizing committee of CWG is struggling to raise funds, and has so far secured sponsorship from 11 companies, of which all but two are public sector enterprises, and the Indian Railway. Yet over the past three years, Indian Premiere League for cricket, a game that is played in barely a dozen countries, has emerged among the most promising sporting ventures in the world. The value of the league, in its third year, is estimated at US$ 4.13 billion (Rs 18,000 crores), which compares with the National Football League in the US, and the English Premiere League football ($14 bn). The IPL reportedly had an income of $450 million in 2009, and that is expected to double in 2010. This contrasts sharply with the struggles of the CWG, which got a loan of $500 million from government, with little prospect of recovery.

CWG is caught in an unprecedented dilemma. If it is conducted well, there will be little political dividend, and still be accused of wasting money could have been spent elsewhere. If the games go badly, then of course, they will be damned.

The current public acrimony over CWG is in a way a demonstration of changing political dynamics. The gulf between the abilities of the public and private sector in India are out in the open. The deepening of democracy is bringing the all its public agencies under unprecedented scrutiny, and that is likely to have a much longer lasting impact, than the games. That impact could be more than the medals won in sports, and much more than the apparent gold medal in corruption that many are offering to these games. Asking questions and holding the authorities accountable are the necessary first steps forcing political leaders to explore alternative policy options. That would be a much preferred legacy of the Commonwealth Games for India.

Some tidbits –
  • Over 8000 sports persons and officials from 71 countries are expected to participate. But the hotel industry has not reported any surge in bookings.
  • The Delhi government is trying to ship the beggars out of the some areas of the city where CWG participants might be visiting.
  • Over 70 construction workers have died at different CWG sites. The condition of workers is hardly befitting those who are supposed to be building world class facilities for others.
  • The 1982 organising committee has continued to exist because of a court case involving a dispute over Rs 1.5 crore or about US$ 3 million, and must have spent more money during the past three decades.
  • In 2009, the IPL is estimated to have had an income of $450 million, which is expected to double in 2010. The CWG is struggling to raise even $250 million
  • The current economic crisis in Greece was not helped by the extravaganza at the Athens Olympics in 2004. The legacy of these sporting jamborees is not very rosy.
Commonwealth Games official expenses, based on the statement by Jaipal Reddy, Minister for Urban Development, Govt of India, in Lok Sabha on Aug 9, 2010
Responsibility Type of Project Expenditure in Rs Crores In US dollar (million)
Government of India Sports infrastructure 2,934 624

Training of sports teams 678 144

Loan to CWG organizing committee 2,394 509

MTNL (telephone and connectivity) 182 39

Ministry of Urban Development 828 176

Ministry of Information and Broadcasting 483 103

Ministry of Home affairs (security) 747 159

Ministry of Health 71 15

Archeological Survey of India (monuments) 26 6

Government of Delhi 2,800 596

Others 351 75

TOTAL 11,494 2,446

Government of Delhi On Commonwealth Games (stadiums) 670 143

Flyovers and bridges 3,700 787

ROB, RUB and IG Airport 450 96

BRTS (dedicated bus corridor) 215 46

DTC bus fleet 1,800 383

DTC bus depots 900 191

Roads 650 138

Streetscaping 525 112

Road signages 150 32

Delhi Metro connectivity 3,000 638

Power plants 2,800 596

Water supply 400 85

Health 50 11

Parking facilities 400 85

Communication and IT 200 43

Others 650 138

TOTAL 16,560 3,523

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Changing climate: Hope for the tiger?

Two crouching tigers, some hidden dragons

The winds of change between the two giants could impact not only the environment but also politics. In this article published in the special issue (July-August 2010) of the "India China Chronicle", I look at the possible implications of the cooperation between these two countries at the climate conference in Copenhagen, last year. I believe a much bigger opportunity lies in the field of wildlife conservation, particularly in saving the tiger. Following is the text of the article.

Over the past half century, relations between the two Asian giants have been on a roller coaster ride. In recent years too the two countries have seen sentiments swing wildly on issues ranging from trade to Tibet, coloured periodically by the border issue.

Despite its history of turbulence, the two neighbours together made history at the climate summit in Copenhagen in December 2009, for the first time, the world got a glimpse of the possible consequence when China and India join hands for a common cause. prior to the climate summit, there had been a flurry of high level exchange between the two sides. Both countries came up with evidence to show that carbon intensity of their economies had been falling over the past decades. Both made unilateral announcements to reduce the carbon intensity further over the next decade. They also underscored the need for equitable share of the planet's atmosphere to meet the developmental aspirations of the people, and finally, they proposed to focus on a target of temperature increase in the future, as an alternative to the carbon emission targets which had been the cornerstone of the global climate negotiations.

While much of this information was trickling out of Delhi and Beijing prior to Copenhagen, there was very little appreciation of the possible implications of all this at the UN climate summit.

That became clearer in Copenhagen, when it was acknowledged that China and India were in constant touch, developing their negotiating strategies together. Even the ministers on the two sides were meeting almost on a daily basis to ensure that issues were smoothened out.

Today, it is clear that this joint positioning was the most significant factor in the ability of developing countries to withstand the pressure mounted by the rich countries in Copenhagen. With all the hype that was built up prior to Copenhagen, hardly anyone could have believed that at an international event of this magnitude, at an European capital, would have led to the marginalization of Europe itself. It was the Americans who seem to have realised the tectonic shift that was taking place, and decided to cut the losses by striking a deal on the political statement at the end. European governments had banked on the prospect of an agreement in Copenhagen to infuse new life to the Kyoto protocol, which is to expire in 2012, and so the political statement left them quite shocked.

China has been a member of various developing country groupings, including the G-20. But hardly ever was China seen taking the lead at international negotiations. At the WTO meetings over the past decade, it was the Brazilian and Indian ministers who typically articulated the developing country perspective. Copenhagen has changed all that. It is likely that the 2009 climate summit will be remembered not so much for its failure to reach an agreement to go beyond Kyoto protocol, but for the impact that China and India, by cooperating with each other, had on the whole process.

The question that arises: Is this a new phase of India-China cooperation in Copenhagen an exception, or would that become the norm for the future? Will the climate of relationship between the two giant neighbours undergo a fundamental shift in the aftermath of the climate summit?

Needless to say the two countries have a wide range of issues confronting each other. They range from economics to environment, from the unresolved border to geo-politics. While political frictions do surface periodically, both the countries seem to have matured enough not to allow the political cloud to affect the growing trade and economic relationship.

But the wide convergence on different environmental issues facing China and India, could help the two countries to seek common grounds on these areas. Without the historic baggage that affects the political relationship, and the periodic tensions that surface in any trade relationships, the prospect of better relationship on environmental issues because of the convergence of interest seem much brighter. And the cooperation on environmental issues may help improve the level of mutual trust and confidence that could rub off positively on political relationship as well.

The two countries are already cooperating on conventional and non-conventional sources of energy. Other potential environmental areas where there could be complementary relationship are newer and greener technologies,     ship-breaking,     recycling of material, etc. But perhaps the highest political capital lies in the possibility cooperation in the area of tiger conservation.

Tiger is an iconic animal in culture and history of both China and India. There are perhaps two dozen tigers left in the wild in China, mostly along the Siberian border. India currently estimates that about 1400 tigers are roaming in the wild. But globally, tiger is a highly endangered species, and remains so despite many initiatives launched to save it over the past four decades.

India believes that the demand for tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine is one of the major sources of threat to tigers in Indian forests. Others think that the pressure of poaching to meet demand in China constitutes a smaller threat, about 25%. The bulk of the threat to tigers in India comes from shrinking forest habitat and the consequent conflict between human and wildlife.

Tiger conservation is not primarily an issue of law enforcement. India has problem of protecting its tigers, just as China has problem in completely eliminating all trade of tiger parts.

Recently there were some indications that there is perhaps a shift from this mutual blame game. India recently recognized that protecting tigers is primarily India's responsibility, since the Chinese do not come to India to poach the tigers.

China, on the other hand, is exploring alternative conservation strategies. following its economic rise, increasing number of people are finding non-rural economic opportunities, as a result, human pressure on forest and wild areas in many parts of China have significantly reduced. In some of these parts, forests have made a dramatic comeback. Some of these old tiger habitats could be ready again to host wildlife.

China is seriously looking for ways of reintroducing tigers in a controlled manner, in a few areas where tigers once roamed. Hardly any country has as much expertise and experience of managing tiger habitats as India. With recent relocation of tigers into areas from where they had vanished, India is also grappling with similar problems.

China does not have wild tigers ready for translocation. so they have set up an ambitious effort to try to develop ways of re-wilding tigers that have been born in captivity. This is a very exciting scientific opportunity.

In both these aspects, preparation of tiger habitat, re-wilding and reintroduction of the tiger, China and India could cooperate, and if successful, it would secure not just the tiger, but generate huge amount of goodwill between the elephant and the dragon!

China poses an even more audacious challenge to old conservation mindset. It has almost perfected the art of breeding tigers in captivity. It has more than 5000 tigers in captivity in zoos and other facilities. It could initiate a controlled trade in tiger parts from its captive tigers, and that could lower the incentive to poachers to kill wild tigers.

Even if India does not wish to join in this effort to help the cause of conservation through commerce, it stands to gain if China is successful in meeting the demand for tiger parts from its stock of captive tigers.

From the history of world trade, it is clear that smugglers and criminals profit only when there is a restriction on trade, creating an unmet demand for goods and services. Naturally, when trade is outlawed, only outlaws trade! If China were to legalize trade in tiger parts from its breeding facilities, the poachers in India would have little chance of competing with the market forces. Consequently, threat of poaching will almost get eliminated in India. There are many examples from across the world where legal trade has eliminated illegal trade. Over a million crocodiles are harvested each year from farms, yet there is hardly any evidence of any crocodile being killed in India in order to meet the demand from the international fashion industry.

China and India need to find ways of building on the new climate they sought to create in Copenhagen. Their common position on climate was premised on the belief that economic growth would actually enable the countries to improve energy efficiency, reduce pollution, compete effectively and clean up the environment. And as economies improve, they de-carbonise, as the history of human development illustrates over the past 400 years.

This is the real potential of the changing climate between China and India - harnessing the power of commerce, benefiting people and improving the quality of environment. Today, economic potential of both China and India are now openly acknowledged by all. Now is the time to reap the environmental dividend from economic development

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A time to Party! and part with socialism

Political ideologies are simple tools by which people decide on the general direction they think society ought to take. In a true democracy, different political ideals have to compete to win the support of the people. The authors of the Indian Constitution had specifically debated and rejected the idea of binding the country to socialism. Yet, the Preamble to the Constitution was amended in 1976, and the election law in 1989, requiring all political parties to affirm to the Constitution, and to socialism. Now, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that there are valid questions on the issue of socialism, though academic, at this point in time. So it is a time to form a Party, and part with socialism. Let us be liberal, and play the tune of freedom!

This article of mine, "A time to Party!", was published in Pragati, a national interest magazine, in its August 2010 issues.

Recently, the Supreme Court dismissed a public interest litigation (PIL) that questioned the validity of the 42nd amendment to the Indian Constitution, which among many other things, added the terms “socialist, secular” to qualify the democratic republic in the Preamble. The amendment dates back to 1976, to the dark days of Emergency. Later, the Representation of the People Act, the law governing political parties and elections, was further amended to include the section 29A, making it mandatory for all political parties in India to affirm to “socialism” if they were to be registered by the Election Commission of India for the purpose of participating in the electoral process

The courts always dismiss petitions before them once they pronounce a particular judgment. In this case, however, the Supreme Court acknowledged the “academic” question raised in the petition, but felt that since no political party has so far objected to it, there are perhaps no really aggrieved parties. So it allowed the petitioner to “withdraw” the petition. This withdrawal, however, means that the Court has not ruled against the issue, but considers it to be valid, and has kept it open for a future occasion.

The champions of individual freedom in economic and political spheres have long bemoaned the fact that there is no political platform in India that truly reflects their aspirations. No doubt there are liberals of different shades in almost all political parties, but still there are no avowedly liberal political parties.

Political parties are plentiful, with around 50 parties represented in the national parliament, and hundreds of parties operating at state and local levels. They represent a diverse range of interests: national, state, regional or local. They claim to represent varied sections of society based on national, ethnic, linguistic, religious, caste, and other identities. Yet, the political ideals on offer are very limited, as all parties are bound by socialism if they are to participate in electoral politics. Incidentally, independent candidates are not required to affirm to socialism, and if elected have only to take oath to uphold the Constitution. One of the reasons for this limited range of political options in the largest and the most vibrant democracy in the world, is the law that requires affirmation to socialism.

By legally restricting the political ideology to “socialism”, a couple of serious anomalies have been created. Having introduced “socialism” through the political and constitutional process, it is now being implied that “socialism” cannot be opposed and removed by the very same constitutional process. How can one mount a political campaign calling for the removal of “socialism” in the election law or in the Constitution, after having affirmed to “socialism” as a political ideal?
Secondly, what does socialism mean? The Constitution does not define it. The judges hearing the PIL commented that the meaning could vary. But could “socialism” include feudalism, imperialism, fascism, Nazism (national socialism), communism, capitalism, and everything else? If it does have such a wide range of meanings, why have it at all? The judiciary spends a lot of effort on interpreting the law by trying to precisely define the words in it. Justice would come to an end if words were given such variable meanings.

The Supreme Court has seen this as an “academic” exercise. But the impact of “socialism” in the Constitution and in the election law raises questions about possible violation of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and basic structure doctrine. If democracy is among the sacrosanct elements articulated in the judgments on basic structure, then what good is democracy where political discourse is limited exclusively to one political ideology?

Political ideologies matter in shaping public opinion and policies. The stated goal of all political action may be to improve general welfare; but, it is the ideology that provides the vision, and determines the direction and nature of the policies that are designed. Policy decisions whether to nationalise an industry or economic sector, or to privatise it, are shaped much more by political ideologies, than by hard core technical analysis of the merits of the proposed policy measures. In a democracy, people and leaders are not experts in all fields. Political ideologies come as a simple tool by which people decide on the general direction they think society ought to take, and the merits of specific public policies.

There is no functioning democracy in the world which restrains the space for peacefully competing political ideologies, except perhaps Germany, where there is some restriction on propagation of Nazi ideology. In every major democracy, the political ideology that is most successful in reflecting the aspirations of the large number of people at any given time, changes the political dynamics during elections. From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair, the fortunes of political leaders and their parties have swung with the popular perception of the political ideologies of the time. This is what makes democracy such a potent political tool, and ensures the political survival of the society through the various competing ideologies.

The Constituent Assembly had deliberated at length on this very question of “socialism” in 1949. Even while acknowledging that there are many provisions in the Constitution that are socialistic in nature, the constitution makers had decided not to tie the hands of the future generations to a particular political idea. No less a person than Dr B R Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee had then said,
“What should be the policy of the state, how society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether …”
If democracy is one of the basic features of the Constitution, then restricting it to on political ideology, is clearly a violation of the basic feature doctrine. What would be a democracy, where political parties are not free to fly their particular ideologies, and compete with each other in an attempt to peacefully persuade the citizens to one vision or another?

Swatantra Party Maharashtra—the inheritors of the mantle of the Swatantra Party, founded by stalwarts like C Rajagopalachari, Minoo Masani and others in 1959—had written to the Election Commission of India in 1994, noting their opposition to the ideas of socialism, and their inability to affirm to socialist ideals. The Commission had replied by pointing at the amendment to the section 29A of the Representation of the People Act which mandates affirmation to socialism. It thus acknowledged that its role is to implement the law as it stands, not to change or reinterpret it.

By acknowledging the “academic” nature of the question in the PIL, the Supreme Court has actually opened a door for the political liberals to come out of the woodwork. Now is the time for the liberals to come together and form a political party, with the sole objective of registering their opposition to the affirmation to socialist ideal. After forming the political party, an application to the Election Commission for registration needs to be filed, even though it is likely to be rejected for not meeting the legal requirement. That would enable the party to go to the Supreme Court and seek redressal of a legitimate and real grievance.

Liberals may not yet be a political force to have an electoral impact in India, but by forming a party with this narrow objective, can leave a permanent imprint on the political future of democratic republic of India. This is a not an exclusively liberal cause, though, and it is open to all shades of political opinion. If one ideology enjoys legal sanction today, then tomorrow another could very easily be banned. Putting democracy in a straitjacket will signal the end of political freedom.

All are welcome to the Party of the free and the brave! If the political space can be legitimately opened up, then the political agenda would have to change too, and then the electoral space will inevitably follow.