Perspectives: The Month Through India’s Eyes
Media headlines in India in April were focused on domestic events, with the attack by Maoist insurgents on Indian armed forces, the results of the municipal elections in Delhi and the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the creation of Lokpal (a political ombudsman) all being scrutinised. In the aftermath of an attack by Maoist insurgents in North East India that resulted in the death of 25 members of India’s armed forces, the country’s long-standing conflict with the Maoists was analysed at length. Political and legal analysts also weighed in on The BJP’s victory in the recently concluded elections for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, and on the Supreme Court of India’s ruled that the Lokpal can be set up without the presence of the leader of the opposition on the selection committee.
Attack by Maoist Insurgents on Indian Armed Forces
On April 25, more than 300 Maoist insurgents launched an attack on India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Sukma, a village located in the North-Eastern state of Chattisgarh. 25 members of the CRPF were killed in the ambush, and in its aftermath most national newspapers weighed in on the current state of India’s standoff with the Maoist insurgents, and the suggested path forward for the government. The Hindu characterised the attack as “a tragic reminder of the failure of the Indian state to effectively address the security challenge the Maoists continue to pose.” Introspecting on the attack further, the editorial stated that the attack “indicates a breakdown in intelligence-gathering, possibly on account of a lack of effective coordination between the State police and paramilitary forces. It may have had no bearing on the attack, or the probability of averting it, but the fact that the post of the Director General of the CRPF continues to be vacant is a lapse amplified by the tragedy. The inadequacies are more grave than this administrative oversight.” Finally, turning its attention to how the government should respond, the article suggested, “The Centre needs to urgently put in place, in mission mode, measures to strengthen, expand and arm the State police, most of all in Chhattisgarh. This needs the State governments to show far more political will to persuade local communities than they currently do. The Maoists long ago lost the argument with their murderous ways; but the political and civil establishment is yet to win that argument by addressing the people’s security and welfare needs, and their concerns about extractive state policies.”
A column in the Indian Express, penned by current Union Minister, M. Venkiah Naidu, focused its ire on human rights activists and their “silence” in the aftermath of the attack. “While the Maoists have been perpetrating mindless violence for decades, what is surprising is the support and sympathy they have received from so-called human rights activists, left-leaning columnists, armchair intellectuals and a section of the media — in the name of human rights. It should be noted that human rights are for humans, and not for terrorists. The silence of the human rights activists is as dangerous as the violence of the Maoists. Such people should realise that they are weakening the unity and integrity of the country by silently condoning Maoist violence. Terming them “Gandhians”, legitimising their violent struggle, is inexcusable… By their tacit support, these human rights activists are emboldening the Maoists to indulge in barbaric acts. These activists should answer if they believe in the Maoist ideology of achieving power through the barrel of a gun. It is time to expose the double standards of these activists and other so-called intellectuals who romanticise the Maoists.”
Finally, an editorial in Live Mint chose to focus on the positives, arguing that this recent attack notwithstanding, “the Indian state has been successful over the years in pushing back militants… after 2010, as the Union and state governments cracked down on the insurgents in a more proactive manner, the situation has slowly but steadily reversed. According to the Union ministry of home affairs, the number of incidents has dropped consistently: 1,760 in 2011, 1,415 in 2012, 1,136 in 2013, 1,091 in 2014, 1,089 in 2015 and 1,048 in 2016. The number of civilians and security personnel who have lost their lives to LWE has also been on a downward trajectory, even though in 2016 both figures did rise compared to the previous year. Concurrently, the number of militants killed or surrendered has risen. In terms of state coverage, today only Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar are considered to be severely affected while West Bengal, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh are partially affected and Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are considered slightly affected. This is quite an improvement from 2009, when the government declared as many as 223 districts across 20 states to have been affected by Maoist violence.”
Municipal Corporation of Delhi Election Results
The recently concluded elections for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi saw the BJP retain its stronghold over the civic body at the expense of the Aam Admi Party (AAP), which currently form the state legislative government. In light of the BJP’s victory – yet another poll victory in 2017 – political analysts opined on the success factors driving the BJP’s campaign, the AAP’s allegation of faulty electronic voting machines (EVMs), and the likely change in power and governance dynamics in the state of Delhi in the aftermath of these elections. An editorial in the Economic Times attributed the BJP’s victory to the mass appeal of Prime Minister Modi, and the waning popularity of Delhi Chief Minister (and AAP chief), Arvind Kejriwal. “Municipal elections in one city do not normally become an object of national attention. But the elections to the three Municipal Corporations of Delhi (MCDs) were considered a gauge of how urban voters perceived the BJP in the wake of Demonetisation. The BJP has come through with flying colours. More precisely, people have once again reposed their faith in Narendra Modi — the BJP had sent sitting councillors packing and put up fresh faces, seeking votes in the name of Modi and Vikas (development). The biggest loser in Delhi’s municipal elections has, of course, been Arvind Kejriwal. The voters have told him in no uncertain terms that they disapprove of his vaulting ambitions on the national stage, for which he is perceived to have forsaken his chief ministerial responsibilities. It could well be that the disenchantment kicked off by the split in the party that has led to a formation, Swaraj joining the fray in Delhi, has rendered many former AAP activists passive.”
The Hindustan Times also opted to dissect the election results and focused specifically on the AAP’s repeated allegations that the EVMs were rigged against the party. “In the end, many saw AAP leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal as ‘a complaint boy’ who unfairly raised questions about Electronic Voting Machines. A quick scan of the social media shows that people think Mr Kejriwal should give up his politics of victimhood and political street fighting. In an open letter to Mr Kejriwal, former AAP leader Mayank Gandhi slammed the Delhi CM and said he should give up national ambition and focus on ruling Delhi well. Mr Kejriwal must pay heed to this.” Further, the column highlighted that “the popular perception against AAP that it had failed to keep its promises made before the election except power subsidy and rebate on water bills [also] went against it.”
Finally, an editorial in the Indian Express weighed in on future political and governance dynamics in the state, and argued, “the BJP’s new municipal councillors in Delhi and the AAP-run government must learn to work together… With the electorate again giving the BJP control over the city’s municipalities for the next five years, the Delhi government and the local bodies will continue to be run by two different parties. They owe it to the city to stop bickering and pay attention to civic governance. Coming barely a month after the BJP’s sweeping victory in elections in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the Delhi municipal elections assumed national importance. But national politics overtaking local issues does not augur well for a country where 40 per cent of the population is expected to live in urban areas by 2030. It’s true that sanitation, garbage management, housing and pollution are common problems of Indian cities, but civic governance also requires meticulous attention to local dynamics… The BJP’s team in Delhi’s municipalities is entirely new — an acknowledgement by the party of the underperformance of its previous representatives. The AAP-run Delhi government must also shed the baggage of a bitter past. Otherwise, the term “world-class city” will remain an empty catchword.”
Supreme Court Ruling on the Setting Up of the Lokpal
The Supreme Court of India recently ruled that India’s corruption ombudsman, the Jan Lokpal, which was originally envisioned in 2013, could be set up without the presence of a leader of the opposition on the selection committee. The ruling, and the overall delay in setting up the Lokpal, was analysed at length by a number of media houses, with most criticising the Supreme Court, as well as the incumbent government.
The Indian Express, while acknowledging that the “court’s urgency is understandable”, argued that the Lokpal should not be set up in the absence of a Leader of the Opposition (LOP). “Indeed, it is time for a Lokpal in India. But equally, it is crucial that the institution should be fair and independent, that it should rise above partisan political interests and be insulated from government interference — and be seen to be so too. In this context, the presence of the LoP on the selection committee, alongside the PM, LS Speaker, Chief Justice of India or his nominee and an eminent jurist, is enormously important. It is an assurance, real and symbolic, of the institution’s autonomy from the ruling regime. Now, the court’s decree that the LoP is dispensable to the appointment process signals that it is ready to set aside those considerations and, in the process, willing to relegate the principle of separation of powers that is so fundamental to a constitutional democracy. Such a signal from the court on the Lokpal is particularly disappointing given the court’s own battle — protracted and still ongoing — to ringfence the judicial appointments process from governmental control.”
The Asian Age echoed a similar sentiment, characterising the Supreme Court’s judgement as “seriously flawed.” “The ombudsman ideal won’t be well served if those who choose a person for such a significant post don’t take into account the Opposition’s inputs. Even if someone has impeccable credentials for serving as ombudsman, he/she would neither be the consensus candidate nor the ideal one if the search panel is not inclusive. The fear that the institution would be beholden to those in power will be inescapable if the Opposition doesn’t have the option of the choice. India’s hasn’t had an ombudsman for 70 years, and a delay in getting the leader of the largest Opposition party on the search panel won’t bring the nation down. The judiciary may be keen to get the institution into place, but the shortcut it offers negates the principle of a neutral and fearless watchdog.”
Finally, a column in the Hindu laid the blame for the delay in the creation of the Lokpal, and subsequent Supreme Court ruling on the BJP government. “Failure to implement the Lokpal law by the Bharatiya Janata Party government is an indication of how the party is reneging with impunity on its poll promise of a corruption-free India. A lack of will on the part of the government to implement the anti-corruption law can be inferred from its various actions and inactions in the last three years. With the government’s refusal to recognise anyone as the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) after the general election in 2014, the appointment of the Lokpal became an immediate casualty as the selection committee of the Lokpal includes the recognised LoP. In order to operationalise the law, the government had its task cut out —introduce a Lokpal amendment Bill in Parliament substituting the recognised LoP in the selection committee with the leader of the single largest Opposition party in the Lok Sabha. In fact, a similar amendment was required in the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act for the appointment of the CBI Director; it was introduced by the government and passed expeditiously. However, for the Lokpal law, instead of bringing in a single amendment to alter the composition of the selection committee, the government introduced a 10-page Bill which proposed to fundamentally dilute the original law. Given the controversial nature of amendments, it was referred to a parliamentary standing committee. The Bill continues to languish in Parliament.”