Friday, December 31, 2010

Indian justice: punishment by trial?

High-profile human rights activist gets life for treason, exposing cracks in justice system.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - December 31, 2010)

NEW DELHI, India — Consider the following scenario: A much-admired man points out gross human rights violations committed against tribal peoples — including alleged rapes, murders, etc. But the state consistently seeks to cover up the incidents this man exposes, and instead uses a colonial-era law against free speech to sentence him to life in prison.

If this were China and its Nobel Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo, it would come as no surprise. But, brace yourself, this is cuddly India we're talking about.

One of India's biggest selling points, particularly in contrast to China, has been its progressive attitude toward human rights and its commitment to the rule of law.

But the conviction and subsequent sentencing of human rights activist Binayak Sen — and the similar sedition charges leveled against novelist Arundhati Roy and several other outspoken Indians this year — show that India's commitment to democracy is more fragile than anyone believed.

The question now is, will it be enough to threaten India's image as a progressive, democracy-loving state?

Here's a play-by-play: On Christmas Eve, a lower court in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh sentenced Sen, a celebrated pediatrician and activist, to life in prison for his alleged links to the Maoist revolutionaries.

Sen and his supporters say he was targeted for exposing the state's involvement in the large-scale clearing of villages. In 2005, Sen led an investigation that pegged so-called economic development — in the form of Chhattisgarh's booming mining industry — as the culprit in driving indigenous tribes off their ancestral lands and turning them into beggars.

After Sen received his life sentence and the judgment was made public, outrage began mounting almost immediately among India's intellectual circles. Some asserted that Sen was railroaded through the system as payback for exposing alleged rape and murder committed in the name of the government.

Many critics said his treatment once again exposed the weaknesses in India's legal system. Corruption and politically motivated trials, critics said, have now joined incompetence and sloth to make a travesty of justice.

"The judge has become a willing instrument of the state to victimize people who are raising their voices against [its] human rights abuses," said Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan. "It's not merely a gross miscarriage of justice, it's outrageous."

So, what's the impact going forward?

The court decision has further polarized an India already deeply divided over the path its economic development should take. One side says develop at all costs, even if that means stealing land and giving it to mining companies who destroy the environment and ravage indigenous cultures. The other side says that further subverting the rule of law in favor of crony capitalism promises a disastrous future.

Already, street protests have mushroomed across India and associations of every stripe — including police — have condemned the verdict. But even if it is eventually overturned by a higher court, the apparent misuse of the legal system as a political tool could have broader implications.

Indian students, teachers and activists protest in New Delhi against Binayak Sen's life sentence, Dec. 27, 2010. (Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images)
"The whole judiciary system is a mess at so many levels — delays, process, sanctity of evidence — and [a judgment like this one] really shows you how vulnerable it is," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who heads the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Some of those problems are notorious. An overburdened system has created a vicious cycle of continuances, appeals and a mounting backlog that some estimate will take hundreds of years to clear. Petty corruption — fees to access files and the like — is ubiquitous, and hardly a day goes by without a report of a witness recanting his testimony when challenged over lack of evidence.

But in recent years allegations of higher level corruption have been given seeming validity by the supreme court's refusal to make judges' assets subject to public scrutiny under the Right to Information Act (RTI).

Increasingly, high-profile judgments like the Allahabad High Court's decision to divide into three parts the disputed Ayodhya site [2] of the destroyed Babri Mosque and the decision to reopen the case and dole out a harsher sentence to the policeman accused of molesting Ruchika Girhotra have showed that India's courts are all too willing to ignore the letter of the law when it is expedient or popular to do so.

More and more cases like Sen's have demonstrated that the legal system's other deep flaws make it ideally suited for abuse for political, or even criminal, ends.

"We often say punishment should be after due process," said Bhanu Mehta. "In India, due process can be the punishment."

That doesn't make India look good in the eyes of investors. An unknown wag once quipped that an Indian civil suit was the closest one could get to experiencing eternity. A simple property dispute — such as evicting a delinquent tenant — can take decades of monthly court appearances to resolve. And corporations have by and large dismissed the Indian legal system as a means of enforcing contracts, writing in clauses that mandate arbitration or litigation in foreign courts.

But for the Indian people, who must depend on the courts to protect their rights and enforce their laws, it's chilling.

The Chhattisgarh court found Sen guilty of two counts of sedition and conspiracy based on charges that he carried letters from a jailed Maoist leader to his comrades in the field and opened a bank account on behalf of another rebel.

But because the evidence presented by the prosecution hinged largely on circular reasoning — proof of links to people whom the police claim are Maoists but who themselves have not been convicted, for instance, and the letters that Sen allegedly carried contain nothing incriminating — critics say that it's nothing more than another attempt to silence peaceful support for the tribal people caught between the Maoists and the state.

Most ironic of all, Sen earned his life sentence for the same crime — sedition — that India's British colonizers used against Gandhi and other freedom fighters.

Typical of persecution laws, the storied history of the supposed crime gives its perpetrator an added aura of legitimacy, much like China's old standby, "exposing state secrets" — which implicitly acknowledges that the dissidents jailed for it speak the truth.

Worse than that, to apply it to Sen's case, legal experts say the Chhattisgarh district judge had to ignore a landmark supreme court ruling that mandated that sedition could only be allowed to curb free speech when there is a direct incitement to violence or serious public disorder.

"It's a hideous judgment; it's a hideous case," said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, which researches terrorism and other Indian security concerns. "They had no business taking this to court in the first place. They had no evidence."

If there's any silver lining, it can be found in the encouragingly unified chorus against the verdict. However, most of the criticism has hinged on the claims that Sen is a good man, rather than a clearheaded assessment of the evidence and his legal rights.

And Sen himself — who was jailed for two years without bail after his arrest in 2007 — must be growing tired of all the support. In 2008, the cause celebre languished in jail while 22 Nobel winners lobbied for his release after he was chosen to receive the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for his efforts to reduce the infant mortality rate and deaths from diarrhea. Who's to say today's protests will be any different?

"What you are doing right now is using what I describe as punishment by trial," said Sahni. "If he is innocent, how are you ever going to restore those years to this man? And if he's guilty, you should have brought the evidence against him. It's utterly disgraceful."

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Can telecom scam bring down India's government?

In scam central, corruption allegations alone might not be enough to engineer change.

By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - Dec. 21, 2010)

NEW DELHI, India — As investigations continue into the most damaging corruption scandal to strike the Congress party in decades, Sonia Gandhi, the party's leader, had a go at flipping the script.

At the party plenary marking the Congress' 125th year on Sunday, Sonia stood up for beleaguered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. She unveiled a five-point plan to root out corruption, and she blasted the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for its "despicable" attacks on Singh — they said he was asleep at the switch while his telecom minister allegedly defrauded the country of billions of dollars. But Singh, she said, is an "embodiment of sobriety, dignity and integrity."

It wasn't Sonia's remarks, however — or Singh's promise to appear before an investigating committee, saying "I have nothing to hide from the public at all" —that gave the best hint as to the Congress strategy for regaining control of the news cycle. That came from the party's general secretary, Digvijay Singh, in the role of hatchet man as he defended the 40-year-old prime minister-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi.

Embracing Rahul's trepidations about "Hindu terror" — WikiLeaks' diplomatic cables revealed that Rahul told the U.S. ambassador that he feared Hindu terrorist groups more than Islamic ones — the general secretary attacked the BJP's Hindu nationalist parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). And by amplifying Rahul's rhetoric — he apparently sought to shift the focus from corruption to communalism, the word India uses to discuss its religious divides.

"The RSS in the garb of its nationalist ideology is targeting Muslims the same way Nazis targeted Jews in the 1930s," Digvijay told plenary attendees.

In a less corrupt country [2], the context for the general secretary's comments might itself be enough to reveal it as a transparent attempt to distract attention from the problems besetting his party.

Thanks to a series [3] of high-profile corruption scandals [4], the Congress party faces its biggest challenge in years. Every day, new revelations hit the headlines from leaked transcripts of tapped telephone conversations between an influential lobbyist and top politicians, billionaire tycoons and (formerly) respected journalists.

And even though the party has already ousted the chief accused — who is a coalition ally, rather than a Congress party member — the perception remains that the government is dragging its feet on a full-scale inquiry, as its resistance to an investigation by a joint parliamentary committee was at the root of opposition disruptions that prevented legislators even from meeting for all but seven hours of the month-long winter session of parliament.

"After the Bofors [defense kickbacks] scam in the '80s and various scandals of the Narasimha Rao government, this is the first time the opposition has something that it looks like will stick," said Delhi University professor Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst. "The opposition is united with an issue for the first time since the beginning of the UPA [the Congress-led coalition government.]"

Despite his impeccable personal reputation, the prime minister's two terms at the helm of the UPA have paid rich dividends in allegations of corrupt dealings — or what Indian reporters like to call scams. In the so-called rice scam, for instance, officials at state-owned companies involved in grain exports to Africa allegedly bent rules to help private players cheat the government out of $500 million.

In the Commonwealth Games scam, organizing officials allegedly bilked the state for $100 million in inflated rentals for furniture and other fixtures. And in the mother of them all, the 2G spectrum scam, former Telecommunications Minister A. Raja of Tamil Nadu's Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam party allegedly cost the country as much as $40 billion by allowing top industrialists to buy telecom licenses for what opposition politicians term "throwaway prices."

"People are struck by the magnitude of the scandal," said political analyst Praful Bidwai. "This is pretty outrageous."

But in scam central, questions remain whether corruption allegations alone — or even a smoking gun — is enough to engineer a change in government. One need look no further than the last election results to see that Indians — who by and large believe that all their politicians are equally corrupt — suffer from scam fatigue.

Despite new efforts to publicize the criminal records and outsized assets of politicians, the number of members of parliament who face charges of crimes including robbery, extortion and murder increased from 128 in the 2004 elections to 162 in 2009, while the average lawmaker's assets grew to $1 million apiece from around $400,000.

True to form, while this season of scams brought the legislature grinding to a halt, there was no sign that the government might fall. Moreover, with the next national election not scheduled until 2014, unless it loses a confidence vote the Congress will have more than enough time for damage control. And that's where the renewed focus on fundamentalism gets interesting — if we look back at the most famous corruption scandal in Indian history.

Though it certainly contributed to his defeat, the Bofors defense kickbacks scandal, revealed in 1987, was only the final straw for then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Like the present, the late 1980s were halcyon days for the "India story." Rajiv, who had not yet turned 40, was hailed as India's John F. Kennedy, and his efforts to open up the economy ushered in industrial growth of 5.5 percent and manufacturing growth of 8.9 percent a year.

But during Rajiv's term, Sikh terrorism had spread, militancy had begun in Kashmir, reporters had begun to call his intercession in Sri Lanka's civil war "India's Vietnam," and two catastrophic droughts had struck the poor even as his economic policies drew criticism for pandering to the rich, according to Ramachandra Guha, the author of India After Gandhi.

Moreover, instead of ousting an implicated cabinet minister — as Manmohan Singh has done — Rajiv sacked the man who had brought the irregularities to light.

Even then, Rajiv might have been able to weather the storm if not for the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. The BJP capitalized on a new enthusiasm for the god Ram and the claim that Rajiv had adopted a policy of Muslim appeasement to increase their tally of parliamentary seats from just four in 1984 to 88 in 1989 — tipping the balance in favor of the National Front coalition.

And three years later, after Rajiv's assassination, the Ram temple movement and the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya — believed by Hindus to be Ram's birthplace — began the rise of the BJP as a legitimate national rival to the once unassailable Congress.

With the Congress itself now endeavoring to turn the national dialogue back to multicultural secularism versus Hindu nationalism, the Bofors comparison shows how much India has changed — and how much it remains the same.

Today, in stark contrast to 1992 or 2002, the Congress believes that the BJP's failures to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment after the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai indicates that the opposition party's fundamentalist ideology is a weakness, rather than a strength. But at the same time, today's daily allegations about the back room deals behind seemingly every Indian fortune — and the public outrage that trusted journalists, too, might be corrupt — suggest that in the broader arenas of business and politics the wide-eyed enthusiasm for the "new India" was mostly plain naivete.

During the Bofors era, when a former gas station attendant built Reliance Industries into India's most powerful company by dint of his political connections, every large business house maintained lobbyists in New Delhi to lever an advantage from the so-called License-Permit Raj, according to Guha.

But cutting the red tape associated with the planned economy wasn't enough to destroy — or even dent — the culture of corruption, the ongoing 2G telecom license debacle shows. The corruption-free information technology boom of the 1990s was an aberration, because there were no regulations governing IT and thus no bribes to pay. But now that India's economic growth has shifted to mining, telecom, property development and public works, the continued dominance of crony capitalism is becoming clear.

The only thing that's changed in this era — often called India's Gilded Age, in allusion to the freewheeling decades that created the fortunes of America's robber barons — is the scale.

"Business has never been as powerful, as interfering, and as assertive and self-confident as it is now," Bidwai said.

India: illegal guns plague cities

According to aid groups, India accounts for about 40 million of the 75 million illegal small arms currently in circulation.

By Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng
GlobalPost - December 2010

Editor's note: "India: armed and dangerous" is a three-part series on India's rising gun culture, the proliferation of illegal weapons and the middle-class fight to bear arms. Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng researched this project with the aid of the South Asian Journalists' Association (SAJA) Reporting Fellowship.

NEW DELHI, India — About a year after India's first school shooting, Soumya Viswanathan, a 26-year-old television journalist, was shot and killed on her way home from work. A pretty and vivacious girl with a broad, bright smile, she had stayed late at the station to help her colleagues finish editing a story. At 3 a.m., knowing that her parents worried about her, she called her father to tell him that she was on her way home. She never made it.

"She was not coming," Soumya's father, M.K. Viswanathan, said, remembering that night. "I told [my wife] I would go downstairs and see why she was not coming. And then she said 'No, no don’t go downstairs. It’s 3:15 in the morning."

He stayed in bed. But sensing something was wrong, he kept calling Soumya's mobile phone. After another hour, Madhavi, Soumya's mother, began trying from her handset, as well. "Somebody picked up around 5. They said, ‘Who is on the line? There has been accident.'"

Soumya was less than a mile from her house, within shouting distance of two police stations, when a car full of young men allegedly tried to force her to pull over. Most likely, they wanted to rob her. Or, like too many of Delhi's young men, they saw a girl traveling alone, in the dark, as practically asking to be raped. When she didn't stop, one of them pulled out a country-made pistol and fired.

In a terrible stroke of fate, the simple single-shot weapon didn't misfire or blow up in his hand. The bullet flew true, and Soumya became another of India's ever-increasing multitude of illegal guns.

According to the International Action Network on Small Arms, Amnesty International and Oxfam, India accounts for about 40 million of the 75 million illegal small arms currently in circulation.

Even more troubling, local experts say illegal factories produce a huge number of pistols and machine guns every year. In many places, police say, a so-called "katta" or country-made weapon, costs as little as $10, and picking one up is as easy as buying paan, the betel nut-based stimulant ubiquitous in the subcontinent.

"If you look at serious crimes for our national capital, the looting of cash vans, bank robberies, house robberies, car jackings — invariably country-made weapons are involved," said H.G.S. Dhaliwal, deputy commissioner of the Delhi police (South District).

After Jigisha Ghose, a 28-year-old IT executive, was killed in similar circumstances, police arrested five men they believe were responsible for Soumya's murder. But more than a year later, her shattered family is still waiting for justice — which in India might take a decade or more.

"Criminals are roaming free," said Soumya's mother. "It is we who are sort of put in a prison somehow. We are frightened and have to stay in the house. That’s the way it’s become. Even in house it’s not safe. Anywhere it’s not safe."

In 2008, the year that Soumya was murdered, only 73 people were murdered with guns in Delhi, compared with 292 in New York City — which now has one of the lowest crime rates of America's largest cities. But as police in the Big Apple are succeeding in bringing down gun murders by taking illegal weapons off the street, their counterparts in Delhi say the number of illegal firearms in India's capital is climbing steadily.

Already, there are eight illegal guns for every legal weapon in Delhi, and more than 90 percent of crimes are committed with unlicensed guns. Most of them are made in secret sweatshops in neighboring states with a reputation for lawlessness and political turmoil.

"There’s a joke in India which says if you want sophisticated weapons, illegal weapons you get it from the northeast of India [where several insurgencies are simmering,]" said Binalakshmi Nepram, head of the Control Arms Foundation of India. "If you want really crude weapons you get it from the heartlands like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh. In these parts of India, [the] cottage industry of guns is huge."

In just one rural district, Munger, Bihar — where the current chief minister has cracked down on criminals — police uncovered as many as 65 illegal gun factories last year. They estimate that the trade earns some $4 million a year for the rustic backwater. But reports suggest that there are thousands more such factories in manufacturing centers like Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, across the country.

For nearly 10 years, 27-year-old "Sanjay," who asked that his real name not be revealed, was part of the problem. A short, muscular young man with a close-trimmed beard, Sanjay parlayed a job in a metal shop in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, into a lucrative career as a gun runner between 1992 and 2000. Then one of his own gang members betrayed him, setting him up for an ambush by a rival crew who had placed a false order for a thousand pistols.

"We had been given half the money. On the last day when we were doing all the packing up, they came and attacked us. Three of my men got killed, including our best gun maker, who was their target all along," Sanjay said. "He was a very close friend of mine. He was the one who saved my life. But in doing so he got killed. That's when I decided to stop the business."

In the beginning, Sanjay's crew made cartridges with gunpowder sourced from a local company licensed to make firecrackers and fuses contrived from feathers rolled with carbon and chemicals found in detergent and other household products. Then, he graduated to making .315 and .12 bore pistols in three different barrel lengths: "small," "quarter" and "half" — the same terms used for bottles of local whiskey. His best products, with barrels sourced from Rampur, another district in Uttar Pradesh, could be fired three times in rapid succession without overheating, and they never exploded in a customer's hand. He sold them for between $50 and $100, compared with nearly $2,000 for a simple legal .32 caliber revolver made by one of India's official, government-owned ordnance factories.

Villagers bought his weapons to show off and protect themselves from wild animals and bandits. Schoolboys and college kids bought them to protect themselves in the cutthroat business of student politics. But most of Sanjay's customers were criminal gangs who enjoyed the patronage of local politicians, who use thugs or "goondas" to influence voters and even capture polling booths during elections. And now with ethnic tensions, overcrowding and scalding temperatures causing tempers to flare, country-made pistols have come to the city, and it's not just hardened criminals pulling guns.

"Earlier guns were used as mostly status symbols," said Rajat Mitra, a psychologist and expert on violence who works closely with the police. "But now guns are seen as a way of solving problems, of resolving issues, of using threats and intimidation that were not considered necessary earlier. And there is a perception among a very large number of young people and even children that having a gun is not morally wrong."

Last year, in a typically petty incident, 22-year-old Himanshu Sharma was shot dead in an altercation over urinating on the street. This June, another 22-year-old was shot and killed in an argument over water, a married couple from different castes was gunned down in an apparent "honor killing" and a government employee shot three security guards, killing one, when they barred him from entering a building in the city's red light district.

In response to this kind of violence, India's home ministry has tightened the laws on licensed guns, which DCP Dhaliwal said "haven't been any problem at all," while allowing the rotten core of the illegal gun trade to fester. And insiders say that as long as pervasive corruption continues to make politics the country's biggest money spinner — turning elected officials with no real assets into millionaires in a single term — nobody will destroy the factories who arm the parties' musclemen.

"This game happens at a big level," said Sanjay, who now works as a police informer. "Otherwise it couldn’t happen. Mostly it’s politicians who help us. Police and politicians both together help us do business. Nothing happens without their sanction."

Monday, December 20, 2010

India's own Charlton Hestons

A new lobby group modeled on America's NRA is pushing for Indians' right to bear arms.

By Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng

Editor's note: "India: armed and dangerous" is a three-part series on India's rising gun culture, the proliferation of illegal weapons and the middle-class fight to bear arms. Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng researched this project with the aid of the South Asian Journalists' Association (SAJA) Reporting Fellowship.

NEW DELHI, India — At a posh farmhouse outside Delhi, a group of gun enthusiasts gathered on a recent Sunday afternoon to compare weapons, do a little shooting and talk strategy. Software professionals, executives and salesmen in their 30s and 40s, they're typical upper middle-class Delhiwallahs. Except for one thing: While liberal India bemoans the gun culture taking over its metropolitan cities, they're fighting to make sure one day every Indian gets the right to bear arms — American-style.

"Everyone’s life is precious. And everyone has the right to defend their life and liberty. And that right is meaningless without the means to do so," said Abhijeet Singh.

With some 40 million guns in civilian hands making India the second-most heavily armed nation in the world and a steady rise in violent crime, the debate over gun control is heating up. Gun control advocates are pushing India to crack down on guns and sign a United Nations Arms Trade Treaty that would tighten restrictions on small arms, while supporters of gun rights are fighting to make the country's gun laws less restrictive. And with both groups citing Gandhi as precedent, at stake is the very identity of India itself.

A 38-year-old software engineer, Singh founded the web forum,, which brought these Sunday afternoon firearm fans together. But in late 2009, his hobby took on a new urgency when the home ministry proposed several amendments to India's 1959 Arms Act that would make it much more difficult to get a gun license and harder to buy ammunition. Already an old hand in disseminating editorials and raising petitions, Singh soon joined forces with another group — the National Association for Gun Rights India (NAGRI) — that's modeled on America's National Rifle Association and led by Haryana's Naveen Jindal, a member of parliament who studied in Texas.

"The National Rifle Association in America is the standard by which all gun owners judge themselves," said Rahoul Rai, NAGRI's semi-official spokesman. "Here is an organization that has protected the fundamental democratic right [to bear arms] which has withstood the test of time. Which has brought gun ownership not just to the United States but to the whole world. For us in India, this is the beacon of hope."

NAGRI held its first meeting in January 2010, and so far few police officials or politicians take the organization very seriously. But that dismissive attitude may be misguided. According to several estimates, there are hundreds of thousands, even millions of Indians waiting for stalled gun licenses or smarting over rejections. In some regions, the desire to own a firearm is great enough that the government population control program dangles the reward of a gun license to convince men to get a vasectomy. With people like these, NAGRI claims, it's already struck a chord.

"The response is overwhelming," said Rai. "From all the corners of India, people have been sending us emails, giving telephone calls and personally meeting us, supporting the cause. ... We are now trying in a lawful and peaceful manner to organize all this energy, organize all these feelings to tell our elected representatives that this [move to tighten licensing restrictions] is wrong."

Already, it's extremely difficult to get an arms license, though many of the existing hurdles are not enshrined in the 1959 Arms Act, and the Indian government has itself argued to the United Nations that India has one of the most stringent gun control regimes in the world. Apart from owners of heirloom weapons, citizens can obtain a license only if they are a competitive shooter or they can demonstrate an imminent threat to life and limb. Prices for legal guns and ammunition are among the highest in the world, due to import restrictions that give a near monopoly to government-owned ordnance factories — which weapons enthusiasts say make some of the worst products on the planet. Licensing bureaus can impose limits as low as five cartridges per year on legal purchases of ammunition. And if all else fails, there's always reams and reams of red tape.

"The whole process of applying for a gun licenses is very humiliating for most people, which is why people who have firearms also decide to sell them and not continue with the tradition of owning firearms in their family," said Singh. "Because it is just so difficult."

But with pressure from the U.N. and arms control advocates, a host of simmering guerrilla rebellions and growing concern over gunplay spilling into the streets, India's home ministry aims to make owning a gun even tougher.

This July, the prime minister's cabinet approved a proposal requiring a "verification report" from the police before a license could be issued. Several more amendments are on the anvil, such as requiring license holders to produce a record of when, where and why they fired their weapon anytime they want to buy replacement ammunition. The ministry's justification for these changes, naturally, is the increase in violent crime and the apparent proliferation of guns. But that's exactly the reason NAGRI says every law-abiding Indian deserves the right to carry a firearm himself.

"How then is the ordinary citizen going to protect himself?" said NAGRI's Rai. "How then is the ordinary citizen going to take care of his loved ones, of his family of his property? This is the reason why there is a need to have legitimate weapons."

With less than one officer per thousand people, India has one of the world's most understaffed police forces. And while it's true that a third of Indian districts are affected by terrorism and the crime rate is increasing, only a tiny fraction of that violence can be attributed to licensed guns. For instance, National Crime Records Bureau figures show that just 574 of 4,101 gun murders were committed with legal firearms in 2008 — while nearly 30,000 murders were committed with knives and other weapons. Moreover, only about 5.5 million of the 40 million odd guns in India are legal.

"If a guy can get [an illegal] katta for 200 [rupees], on what moral grounds can the government deny a law-abiding citizen a license for a gun on which he will blow a packet and [then face] all sorts of restrictions and encumbrances?" Singh said.

Gun control advocates say that the climbing crime graph is all the more reason to crack down further, and cite the U.S. crime data to prove that the most thoroughly armed nation is not the safest.

"We have to leave it to the state to tackle the security of every Indian," said Binalakshmi Nepram, head of the Control Arms Federation of India. "NAGRI and the Indians for Guns have to understand the fact that the independence of India was won without firing a single bullet. India gave the world non-violence. [It gave the world] Mahatma Gandhi the epitome of non-violence."

With America replacing Britain as India's primary cultural influence, rethinking India's colonial history may not be so simple, however. Perhaps because India's colonial revolution was achieved through nonviolence, the constitution written shortly after it does not specifically guarantee Indian citizens the right to bear arms.

But in at least one court case, a judge has ruled that "the right to bear arms is embedded in Article 21 of the Constitution," which states "No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law."

And NAGRI and others point out that the Arms Act itself was not written to restrict the ownership of weapons. It was drafted to repeal British regulations that disarmed the general population after the Uprising, or Mutiny, of 1857 — of which Gandhi himself wrote, “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest.”

With that in mind, NAGRI stakes its own claim to the Mahatma's legacy.

"An armed society is a polite society," said Rai. "I think if people are armed, other people will think twice before attacking them. I think if a nation is armed other nations think twice before attacking them. This is how we get more ahimsa. This is how we get less lawlessness. This is how we get a better society."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

India: gun culture - and gun violence - on the rise

As India gets rich, it's trading Gandhi for guns.

By Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng

Editor's note: "India: armed and dangerous" is a three-part series on India's rising gun culture, the proliferation of illegal weapons and the middle-class fight to bear arms. Jason Overdorf and Poh Si Teng researched this project with the aid of the South Asian Journalists' Association (SAJA) Reporting Fellowship.

NEW DELHI, India — Three years after two teenage boys allegedly gunned down his 14-year-old son, Abishek, over a playground spat, Gurgaon businessman Rajinder Tyagi is dry-eyed as he describes the boy's senseless murder. A veteran of hundreds of media interviews, he's made himself numb in an endeavor to shield his wife and daughter from the press.

"My son was walking down the stairs," recalls Tyagi, his face set with grim determination. "They shot him from the back. Four bullets. He died on the spot." India's first school shooting at the posh Euro International School in New Delhi had claimed young Abishek Tyagi's life.

For now, schoolyard gunplay remains rare. But thanks to a strange coincidence of Americanization and traditional machismo brought on by rapid economic growth, India has developed a gun obsession that makes Charlton Heston look like Gandhi.

Police say there has been an alarming rise in gun violence in and around Delhi over the past few years as weapons proliferate. Illegal factories have become so common that country-made guns are sold like candy in local bazaars. And as more and more people seek to obtain legal, licensed guns, an organization modeled on America's National Rifle Association has emerged with the mission to ensure every Indian the right to bear arms.

Delhi is no Peshawar — yet — but it's starting to look an awful lot like South Central. Police say Abishek's 14-year-old classmates allegedly followed him into a deserted stairwell, where they shot him at point-blank range with an imported .32 caliber Harrison pistol that one of the assailants had brought to school hidden in a sock. When Abishek arrived at the nearby Pushpanjali Hospital, he had two bullets in his chest and one in his head.

"He was our only son," Abishek's father said, holding up his boy's school photo. "He was a good athlete. He was good in his studies. He was good natured. I remember everything from his childhood till the day he died. I spent 14 years of my life with him."

Every few weeks there's a new story. A motorist pulls a pistol to clear a traffic jam. An armed gang shoots and kills a young woman returning home late at night when she refuses to pull over to be robbed or raped. A man pumps a bullet into the skull of his fiancee when she decides to call off their marriage. Thugs gun down a real estate broker over a business deal. A businessman — drunk and angry over losing his job — shoots his wife, daughter and son before he turns his gun on himself. A middle-aged woman who berates two roadside Romeos for harassing her daughter is shot dead for her trouble. Or the police shoot and kill traders trying to escape with a stash of smuggled guns. In north India, and increasingly across other parts of the country, it seems, the emergent "India Shining" of election campaign slogans may turn out to be nickel-plated.

Nationwide, around 40 million firearms — only about 5.5 million of them licensed — are in civilian hands. That's the second-highest total in the world, after the U.S., though it amounts to only four guns for every 100 people in India, compared with 90 guns for every 100 Americans. And despite relatively strict gun control laws, police and anti-proliferation activists say the number of weapons on the street is growing steadily.

"We have weapons ranging from homemade guns, which are called kattas, right [up] to [fire]arms as sophisticated as the [American] M-16 and Israeli Uzi," said Binalakshmi Nepram, head of the Control Arms Foundation of India. "And in places like Uttar Pradesh, they say gun shops are mushrooming like public telephone booths."

India's most populous state — and known as one of its most economically depressed — Uttar Pradesh has around 900,000 licensed gun owners, and several times that number of illegal arms. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Uttar Pradesh, and two other northern "cow belt" states, Bihar and Jharkhand, accounted for two-thirds of India's gun-related homicides in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics have been collected.

But the killing isn't confined to the backwaters of these so-called "lawless states." Just as in the United States and other countries, gun crime is an urban phenomenon. Fearful city dwellers are clamoring for gun licenses to protect themselves from criminals. And, increasingly, the weapons of the mushrooming illegal rural factories of states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — along with the culture of the gun — are finding their way into India's cities.

"Everyone in our family has one. Our family has the largest number of guns in Gurgaon," said Rajje Yadav, a real estate developer who also owns a liquor store.

Yadav is a representative of north India's new rich. Over the past several years, the rapid economic growth of the “National Capital Region” (NCR) that surrounds New Delhi — and an accompanying real estate boom — has brought radical social change to the traditionally macho, honor-obsessed communities of rural Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

Agrarian castes like the Jats and Yadavs have been propelled to fantastic wealth through the sale of their farms to real estate developers. But many have failed to integrate into the new urban society that surrounds them. For every new rich man there's a poor one who covets what he has.

And social tensions have been exacerbated as the educated members of the lower castes who once worked as bonded labor now leverage social programs to uplift themselves and overtake their one-time landlords. Throw in an obsession with izzat, or honor, and a fascination with guns, and you have the perfect recipe for violence.

"We and our relatives who are in the land and wine business have to handle enormous amounts of cash every day, so in order to protect ourselves we have to carry guns," said Yadav. But he admits that there's more to the phenomenon. "Guns have become a sort of status symbol," he says. "Possessing a gun takes a person to great heights."

Accidental deaths at NCR weddings — where revelers show off by shooting into the air — have become so commonplace that a council of leaders from some 40 villages in Delhi's hinterlands banned firearms from marriage ceremonies earlier this year. In a recent incident, for instance, bridegroom Pankaj Kumar was killed by a stray bullet at his wedding celebration when his father couldn't resist discharging his pistol into the air to show his status. No doubt today he feels much the same pain as Rajinder Tyagi.

"We pray to the almighty that something of this sort never happens to anyone, ever," Tyagi said. "The tragedy of losing a child is the greatest of them all."

But the rapid proliferation of guns suggests such tragedies are likely to grow more common. Already, in Meerut, another burgeoning city on the border of Delhi, guns accounted for nearly a quarter of accidental deaths in 2008.

"According to us, the reason behind this is the rapid industrialization and colonization in these areas,” an inspector general with the Meerut police recently told an Indian newspaper. “People are prospering and where there is money involved, there is always a fear of crime."

Because of that fear, it's not just rowdies, politicians and criminals who are arming themselves, and it's not only the newly rich of India's macho castes. It's doctors, lawyers and journalists, from the purportedly bookish Brahmin caste on down.

Consider Rakesh Singh, a native of Andhra Pradesh who has been a practicing doctor in Gurgaon for nearly 10 years. A few weeks ago at the private hospital he founded in 2007, located in a row of property dealers that hint at Gurgaon's red-hot real estate market, he gingerly pulled a licensed Indian-made revolver out of his desk drawer. He wasn't proud. He was angry.

"Deep down there's a sense of insecurity," he said. "Even in this city. Or as such in the NCR — Noida, Ghaziabad, Gurgaon. Even when you're out with your wife on Saturdays with the children, or driving back [home] at 10:30, you have this insecurity."

Not long before, a car had forced him off the road while he was on his way home. Seeing a gun in one man's hand and realizing they planned to rob him, or worse, Singh threw his car in reverse as the man opened fire, shooting three times. Outside his clinic, he pointed out the place where one of the bullets hit the hood of his car. Next time, Singh plans to shoot back.

"[It's] survival of the fittest. If you want to live in Rome, you have to live like how the Romans do," he said. "I have a revolver. But I really wish I had a more sophisticated, easier-to-use weapon. Because I'm really angry about the whole thing and I wouldn't think twice about shooting back. ... Somebody needs to let them know, you're not going to take it lying down. You can't go around, get drunk and go shooting people, bully people around who are just doing their job."

Thursday, December 02, 2010

India's battle to save the tiger

Park rangers have been given a license to kill. Are bullets the answer to poaching?

By Jason Overdorf
Global Post - November 30, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — As dawn was breaking the week before the global tiger summit began in St. Petersburg last month, a team of forest guards in Kaziranga, Assam, in northeastern India, sent their own unmistakable message to the bigwigs debating how to save the majestic cat.

After tracking four poachers through thick fog for much of the night on Nov. 15, the park rangers closed in. Suddenly, a group of guards came face to face with the poachers. The tiger- and rhino-killers opened fire. The guards fired back, killing two of the poachers on the spot. The others fled into the tall grass, escaping with a harrowing story for their partners in the illegal wildlife trade: In Kaziranga, park rangers don't run away. They shoot back.

"It is a common thing," said Surajit Dutta, director of Kaziranga National Park. "This year, seven poachers have been killed, and there have been lots of encounters."

Even before the experts in St. Petersburg sounded the alarm this month — warning that the tiger could be extinct in as little as 12 years time if countries failed to take concerted action — the front-line troops in Kaziranga had thrown down the gauntlet in India, which is home to nearly half of the world's remaining tigers.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, Kaziranga has for years been India's most aggressive tiger reserve when it comes to fighting poachers — arming its forest guards and pushing them to match poachers bullet for bullet. And this July, Assam granted its park rangers the license to kill.

"Kaziranga is the only protected area with shoot-on-sight orders for poachers," said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "There are shootouts frequently."

The results have been salutary, say park officials. Originally instituted to protect the Indian one-horned rhino — which is also highly endangered — the aggressive tactics that Kaziranga uses to fight poaching have helped give the Indian national park the highest density of tigers of any area in the world, with about 33 tigers per 100 square kilometers according to the latest population survey.

"It's not a safe place to be a poacher — or a guard," Wright said. "Every year, some guards get killed. But that's the price you have to pay for protection in this modern day and age because the rhino's horn and the tiger's body is so valuable."

Issued in July, the new notification under the criminal code of procedure essentially gives the forest guards the same immunity to prosecution for firing their weapon on the job that's enjoyed by the police. Instead of criminal charges, an internal investigation led by the local magistrate determines whether or not the shooting was justified.

But in a country with strict (though ineffective) gun control laws, where the vast majority of police officers rely on a bamboo stick, rather than a firearm, to keep the peace, the state of Assam's empowerment of its forest guards is unprecedented.

At least partly in thanks to these tough measures, Kaziranga boasts about 2,000 one-horned rhinos and as many as 100 of the world's 3,500 remaining tigers. But critics say the battle has just begun — and at least one wildlife advocacy group suggests that there's a grim footnote to the "highest tiger density in the world" tag.

Nature's Beckon, a locally based nongovernmental organization, for instance, argues that the real reason that the population of tigers within the Kaziranga reserve is so dense is that the habitat outside its boundaries has been ruthlessly destroyed.

That may well be the story across the country, where wildlife parks mark isolated dots on a map where villages are mushrooming into towns and cities. But with fast-growing India remaining the last best hope for maintaining a viable tiger population, the first skirmish in the fight is surely to stop the hemorrhaging at its national parks.

So far this year, Wildlife Protection Society of India says that India's reserves have lost 51 tigers, 26 of them to poachers, and in 2009 the country lost 85 of the big cats, including 32 killed by poachers. And some parks, like Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh and Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, have been forced to admit that all of the big cats under their protection have disappeared.

A big part of the reason could be the plight of the poorly paid, ill-equipped forest guards. In most of the national parks, they lack radios to communicate with one another — let alone the guns they need to protect themselves against poachers. And in those few instances where a guard does carry a firearm on the job, he dare not use it.

"If you are a forest guard in Panna National Park or any of India's other parks, and you have a license to carry a gun, and they allow you to carry it inside the park for protection, if you fire that gun and kill a poacher, you will be arrested for murder," Wright said.

But not in Kaziranga. Not anymore.

Copyright 2010 GlobalPost – International News
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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Underworld: India's thirst for crime stories

In India, if it bleeds, it leads.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 19, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — In the cluttered North Delhi office of Crime & Detective magazine, editor-in-chief Shailabh Rawat oversees a team of designers who are putting the finishing touches on next month's issue.

As one designer pastes together a lurid photo spread dramatizing a violent crime, Rawat tells him to tweak the "torn" look a bit to leave less white space between the victim and murderer. Then, turning, in Hindi he tells the designer laying out next month's photo story, "Put some more kajol on her eyes. A little more. Enough."

For 25 years, Rawat — India's king of pulp — has been the heart and soul of this country's pioneering, and still top-selling, true crime magazines. Started by publisher Satish Verma in 1984, Crime & Detective now sells in three different versions, the gritty Madhur Kathayen and tamer Mahanagar Kahaniya, in Hindi, and the classic C&D in English.

With titillating skin shots and screamer headlines like, "Shower of love resulted in blood-shed," together the small-press titles — which are ubiquitous on railway platforms and across India's entertainment-starved small towns — sell upwards of 200,000 copies a month.

"Crime is — not in India, but internationally — the most read subject. It's a basic human weakness to read about crimes and such things," said Verma.

A hilarious mash-up of tragedy and farce, Crime & Detective offers an unwitting homage to America's 1940s-era noir and its near namesake, Bernarr Macfadden's True Detective — the pulp classic which helped bring fame to writers like Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson. Relying on police reports and inputs from stringers in India's remote burgs, the stories are embellished and fictionalized to include a patented formula of sex and murder, then translated into a ludicrous semblance of English that sets the gold standard in "so bad it's good." But the biggest payoff comes from the monthly photo story — a comic strip-style narrative of sex and speech bubbles that relies on struggling Mumbai models and low-cut leopard print.

"We have to target what our readers taste is. In high society there are things that happen that are not open, that happen in closed rooms. About that, the middle class reader wants to know more," Rawat said, speaking Hindi. "Those things that are open, people know about already. Those things that are closed, like gigolos or parties with wife-swapping, we try to make such stories available to our readers so that they can learn about that society, too."

But at what cost to Indian society are these kings of pulp flogging a country's guilty pleasure?

Consider some of the stories of the December issue of Crime & Detective — which highlights the story of 15-year-old Joncarlo Patton, an American tourist from the Pittsburgh area who is now on trial for the alleged murder of his mother, Cindy Iannarelli, in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Packed with bodies "simmering like suppressed flames" and punctuated by ads for products like Vita-Ex Gold (UNLEASH YOUR PASSIONS) and Jolly Fat-Go (Extra Tummy, Don't Ignore), the true crime stories manage to titillate and condemn at the same time — enticing conservative readers with boundary-breaking fantasies at the same time that its censuring tone enforces the prevailing social norms.

"Mansi's gang of thieves," for example, tells of a would-be model "with a distaste for service" who joined and then rose to lead a gang of housebreakers to "translate her high-rise dreams into reality." "The poison of suspicion" is the story of an inter-caste love affair that ended in murder when the couple's secret marriage was destroyed by jealousy. And "Seema's glamour mints money" portrays the (inevitable, according to C&D) descent into prostitution that follows when a young woman surrenders to her sexual desires.

"We want to teach them [readers] also, in a way, how to save yourself from all these things," said Verma. "We publish the story when the culprit or the accused is caught, so we want to express that nobody can escape after doing the crime. We do not glorify. We always take the side of the victim."

It's a shifting line — especially as India's fast economic growth engenders sweeping social changes. Over the past 20 years, for instance, the magazine has stopped writing about homosexual affairs as if they were crimes in themselves, says Rawat, even though readers remain obsessively preoccupied with gay murder.

And it's always a tenuous tightrope between truth and fiction, according to Verma, who says that none of his magazines has been forced to pay damages in a defamation case — but a nearly constant string of lawsuits and court appearances is part of the business.

"If the accused after a period gets relief from the court, then they file suit against us," said Verma.

That's right. Though Verma insists that Rawat carry only stories where police cases have been filed — precluding stories from India's mushrooming private detective agencies — Crime & Detective doesn't shy away from writing about crimes in which the alleged perpetrators have yet to be convicted. Facilitated by India's relatively weak libel laws, that's a decision in part motivated by necessity, since Indian court cases often drag on for decades. But this month's edition, which highlights the alleged crime of an American minor, may draw unusual attention.

With an "I never thought I'd be writing to you" type lead-in, "Teenager American tourist's deadly decision" depicts the nearly consummated flirtation between Iannarelli and a Reggie's Camel Camp employee named Jageer Singh as the final straw that pushed Patton to slit his mother's throat — an alleged crime that has yet to be proved. The fictionalization of the narrative precludes any mention of the source for the magazine's claims, and the detailed account of the crime, presented as factual, undercuts the buried acknowledgement that Joncarlo has maintained he is innocent.

Worse, Crime & Detective's signature style is unlikely to go down well with readers associated with the case — in the unlikely event that a copy of the issue comes to their attention. "All the shameful acts of Cynthia that she'd done with the ten member American Tourist Group were enough to anger her son John," a boldface pull-quote reads. "So he decided to eliminate her."

Weak laws or no, them's fightin' words.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

India: infrastructure's secret weapon

A Hindu sect proves India can build things on time — when God lends a hand.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 17, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Just a stone's throw from New Delhi's Commonwealth Games Village, a mammoth Hindu temple testifies to a simple truth: When builders can give laborers a sense of ownership and encourage them to take pride in their work, India's notorious problems getting things done disappear.

Constructed by expert craftsmen using ancient methods, the 140-foot high, nine-domed Akshardham temple was built entirely from white marble and pink sandstone — without the support of steel. Some 7,000 carvers fit blocks together using nothing but a little cement slurry and geometric formulas that have been passed down for generations. They then detailed the structure with more than 200 ornate pillars, 20,000 statues of gods and saints.

But here's the real trick: They pulled it off on schedule and under budget — an achievement that's virtually unheard of in India.

"All the experts who looked at our plans said it would take a minimum of 40 to 50 years to be completed," said Akshardham volunteer Kalpesh Bhatt, speaking at an independently organized TEDx event in Delhi earlier this year — an offshoot of the California-based idea-sharing symposium TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design).

Today, the temple, which is surrounded by a 100-acre cultural complex, attracts about 5,000 visitors per day. Apart from the ancient-style, stone temple, the park includes a life-sized diorama depicting the life and works of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the inspiration for the Gujarat-based Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism that built the cultural complex. An IMAX theater screens a film on the 18th-century pilgrimage the god performed as a young yogi. A cultural boat ride ferries visitors through exhibits showcasing 10,000 years of Indian history — such as the world's first university and some of the discoveries made by ancient Indian scientists.

"It's an organization of middle class, professional people, who are committed to a cause," said Janak Dave, a spokesman for the Swaminarayan sect. "Some scholars compare it to the Presbyterian approach."

Even for these frugal teetotalers, keeping the $45 million project on schedule and under budget was no mean feat. To build the temple in under five years required some 300 million man-hours of labor. The project supervisors, including head engineer, Ashwin Patel, a civil engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi), were all volunteers. To meet the demand for skilled craftsmen, they sent a thousand stonecarvers back to their villages to recruit and train their relatives — whose caste tied them to the art. And to bring them on board, many volunteers moved out to the villages so the added craftsmen could work from home. At its peak, the project employed 7,000 craftsmen and 4,000 volunteers who acted as managers and supervisors.

"Stonework is always difficult, because most of the work is done manually," said Patel. "So it takes maximum manpower, and intricate carving is very time-consuming."

What Bhatt calls "small process innovations" played a key role in cutting costs and speeding the project to completion. For example, by first creating plaster of paris and clay models of the stones they needed, and then building a computer database of their exact dimensions, the builders were able to reduce the amount of stone chipped away into waste from 30 to 40 percent to just 8 percent. Moreover, by using computer design software and huge machines to cut the enormous stone blocks delivered by the quarry into shapes approximating the eventual end-product, engineers reduced the time it took craftsmen to carve the blocks, friezes and statues from 20 days to as short as a single day.

But the most intriguing aspect of the project was the factor that Patel cites as the biggest reason for its success. It wasn't "Six Sigma" or "Total Quality Management" or any of the dozens of change agents that Indian business relies on to improve performance. It succeeded because the volunteers and workers cared, and they took pride in their work. Training thousands of laborers to become artisans, Akshardham increased their earning power by six times, brought new life to an ancient art, and gave the new craftsmen a project of unprecedented size and complexity to work on.

"Only because of the grace of our guruji, because it's a noble job, everybody worked in good faith," Patel said.

Copyright 2010 GlobalPost – International News
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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Obama in India: salesman-in-chief

Analysis: Don't underestimate the shift in US-India economic relations.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 8, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — A scant 10 minutes after U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in India, he'd already made a few foes with his emphasis on jobs for Americans and reluctance to talk tough on Pakistan.

Though he stayed at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel as a symbolic gesture, his speech commemorating the victims of the Nov. 26, 2008, terrorist attacks on India's financial capital neglected to mention "the P-word."

And though he mentioned Pakistan during his visit, it was not until his speech to the Indian parliament today that he struck the right note for Indians, saying "We will continue to insist to Pakistan's leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders are unacceptable, and that the terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks be brought to justice."

Meanwhile, his advocacy of a permanent seat for India on the United Nations Security Council was probably not aggressive enough for Indian leaders, saying only, "In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member."

But the economic achievements of the so-called "salesman-in-chief" may wind up meaning more for U.S.-India relations than tough talk or a host of promises of strategic partnerships. The reason: This time it's America asking India for help, and that may change the dynamic between the two countries.

Calling India "indispensable to addressing the challenges of our time," in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi today, the U.S. president outlined a raft of political moves intended to complement the business deals his delegation cemented in Mumbai. Yet even the biggest agreements — such as the removal of barriers preventing the sale of sensitive technologies to Indian space and defense organizations — appeared to be at least partially concessions to facilitate trade.

"There's a perception that there is a little less asymmetry in the relationship," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research. "This is the kind of give and take you expect between two powers who are mutually dependent on each other. In that sense there's a psychological shift that's significant."

Obama will take home about $10 billion in deals ranging from $1 million to $4 billion in size that are estimated to create more than 50,000 jobs in the United States. And according to the Confederation of Indian Industry, that's just the tip of the iceberg. India's buying of U.S. military and nuclear hardware and civilian aircraft could create more than 700,000 jobs in the U.S. over the next 10 years, the business lobby claims in a recent report.

And what is the U.S. giving? Apart from the lifting of export controls and supporting India's membership in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, Obama and Singh announced that the two countries had agreed to expand cooperation in space exploration, clean energy research, health, agriculture and higher education. Among the concrete steps to emerge from the bilateral talks will be a new joint research center in India focused on alternative energy, a joint disease detection center and agricultural initiatives designed to rejuvenate the fading gains of India's "green revolution" — which was fueled in part by American scientists.

But the most important step forward in the India-U.S. relationship might be in the subtext. By coming to India primarily as the leader of a business delegation — and in the supplicant role of seller, rather than buyer — Obama recognized India's global ambitions, and its ability to attain them. As Harold McGraw, chairman of the McGraw-Hill Companies, put it, "He was selling. Yesterday, he was salesman-in-chief." And that, more than the public statement he made in his joint press conference with Singh, is proof positive that the U.S. president doesn't "think India is emerging. It has emerged."

That's likely to spark a debate in Indian policy circles about how far India can push America, said Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly, especially as rival political forces within India grope for ways to unseat Singh's Congress Party. Hardly 10 minutes after Obama finished his first speech on Indian soil on Sunday, for instance, Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy launched a withering attack against him for failing to act against Pakistan — though the BJP later disavowed his comments.

But can India expect to use its new economic clout, and the promise of access to its huge market, to extort the kind of concessions that China wrestled out of the U.S. in the 1990s? Or should New Delhi instead concentrate on further enmeshing the American and Indian economies to create a balanced, healthy and symbiotic Indo-U.S. business partnership that contrasts with Sino-U.S. codependence?

Obama and his delegation worked hard to prove that India-U.S. business relations have similar potential to the relationship between China and the United States. But India's emergence is coming in a different era from China's late-1990s hardball tactics on technology transfer and World Trade Organization concessions.

"What makes India-U.S. different from the Sino-U.S. relationship is partly that the security dynamic is much more important in our context," said Mehta. "India has to balance three things — the economic relationship, the immediate security context, where frankly the U.S. thinks India is not moving fast enough and India thinks the U.S. is not doing enough, and the U.S. general support for India playing a bigger role in global affairs, [such as in] the U.N. Security Council."

That means even if India has a lot to offer, it also still has a lot to gain, and focusing on the single issue of Pakistan is likely to prove unproductive — at least based on the way local observers are reading the U.S. president's oblique statements. "The truth is that its economic relations with the U.S. dwarf all others in terms of its importance to India’s economic emergence," the editors of the Hindustan Times wrote on the morning Obama was to deliver his speeches in New Delhi.

At the same time, it's clearer than ever that U.S. policy on Pakistan is not going to change, "despite the evidence of Pakistan's duplicity," said former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, who was not persuaded by Obama's statements to the Indian parliament about pushing Pakistan to dismantle terrorist camps and prosecute the perpetrators of the attacks on Mumbai.

"These are the right points to be made," Sibal said. "There's no indication as to what are the specific steps behind the scenes or otherwise that would push Pakistan to actually bring [the Mumbai perpetrators] to trial and punish them. It remains at the level of a statement of desire. Insofar as safe havens in Pakistani territory are concerned, saying it on Indian soil is important, and its importance should not be minimized. But again, the problem is not so much in saying what needs to be said, but what is concretely intended to be done to coerce Pakistan to get rid of these safe havens. That road map is not clear."

In that context, building "win-win" business ties with America may be India's best shot at changing U.S. foreign policy, even as its increasing power makes the relationship more and more complex. As Obama pointed out in his address to parliament, "with increased power comes increased responsibility," and the U.S. will in the future be looking to India for support on issues like enforcing U.N. sanctions and criticizing corrupt dictatorships like Burma.

"As you rise, the range of things in which you begin to matter and the things which matter to you also begin to increase," said Mehta. "India has always played hardball, but now it has to play it when a lot more balls are in the air."

Copyright 2010 GlobalPost – International News
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Monday, November 08, 2010

Obama's Indian strategist?

An obscure Indian author claims to have steered Obama's campaign strategy.

By Jason Overdorf

NEW DELHI, India — As U.S. president Barack Obama makes his way from Mumbai to Delhi, an obscure Indian author is waiting for redemption. His name is Inder Dan Ratnu, and he believes that he deserves credit for the president's stunning landslide victory in 2008, as his third self-published novel, "First Lady President," outlines in detail the strategy behind Obama's "Yes, We Can" campaign.

Written in a month-and-a-half long torrent in 2003, "First Lady President" tells the story of the unlikely election victory of Beverly Hilton and her African-American running mate, Charak Sudama.

In the novel, Hilton selects Sudama as her running mate because she is impressed with an anti-war speech he delivers early in the campaign. But Ratnu believes that the real life inspiration for his African-American character lifted the ideas from that pivotal fictional speech to alter the outcome of the polls.

"He [Obama] was using these two, most powerful points mentioned there — in one of the most important chapters of the book, and underlined portions he was using — so I'm convinced that he used it," said Ratnu, who argues that Obama must have received his novel before forming his campaign strategy because it was sent to him by registered mail in April 2007 and not returned by the postal service.

Now, with Obama on his first trip to New Delhi, Ratnu hopes to get confirmation. Over the past two weeks, he has been trying to arrange meetings with Indian and foreign journalists to draw attention to his story. Obama's visit will focus on U.S.-Indian business relations and cooperation in counterterrorism efforts, but Ratnu hope to focus attention on his book.

"My aim is that somebody here, while he is here, should ask during the press conference this question, and let us see what is his reply," Ratnu said. "Most likely is he will say, 'Well, it is a news for me.' Because he's not that naive that he will say I have drawn inspiration from this book. No politician can do that. But who knows, he may say yes. That would be a blessing for me."

A former bank officer who worked for 23 years at the Bank of India, 60-year-old Ratnu hails from a small village near Jaisalmer, in the bleak Thar Desert of Rajasthan. Educated by a government teacher in classes held under a tree, he describes himself as "a topper, right through college," where he studied agriculture. Having attended Hindi-medium schools, he taught himself English by listening to BBC radio and memorizing the speeches of Winston Churchill — five hours of which he could once recite "word by word." He has not made a penny from the sale of his three novels and one non-fiction book — burning through his life-savings of around $10,000 to see them published and promoted. And he admits that "First Lady President," too, has so far been a commercial failure, even though he did prevail upon American Michael Burchett, who was at the time trying to start an editing/publishing business, to do a 100-copy test printing in the U.S.

"Fortunately, Inder himself was able to rouse sufficient advance interest in the book to allow me to recoup my costs," Burchett said in an email.

Whatever the merits of the author's story, the story of the author is remarkable.

With nothing more than a political intuition sharpened by Churchill and the BBC, Ratnu claims, he crafted a crucial campaign speech for Charak Sudama that bears striking similarities to the rhetoric of the Obama campaign, including its central message.

"The call for change is very famous, you know," Ratnu said. "That was the lady's speech in the book, which he [Obama] also adopted for himself. She said, and that is underlined, she says, 'It will not be a mere change of the gender of the White House, it will be a genuine change of the quality of life of the American people.'"

Many of the specifics of that change, including reforming social security, eliminating the budget deficit, and focusing on alternative energy, are also mentioned in the fictional speech, he adds, leafing through the novel and then quoting, "'We will in a big way develop alternative and cleaner sources of energy,' yet another point. Obama used it all. 'So we are not held hostage' — he used these very words, look! — 'So we are not held hostages by some oil companies or any nation or any region.' He used these very words, I tell you, in some of his speeches."

A member of the charan caste — bards who once sang the exploits of his region's warrior kings — Ratnu wears a white, Rajasthani-style kurta-pajama, graying from repeated washings, plastic-framed spectacles and a brilliant pink, green, purple and orange turban. He has a neat mustache — modest by Rajasthani standards — and he speaks in a soft, resonant voice that drops to a husky whisper when his tale comes to a dramatic point. It was Churchill who inspired his writing efforts, though, and one senses his admiration for the British leader's bombastic oratory in his penchant for underlining and capitalization, as when he describes the evolution of the title of his latest book.

"It [his intuition] became so strong and heavy that I could no longer hold it with me," Ratnu writes on his web site. "I had to pass it on to my publisher with a revelation that I intended to write a book in the future entitled — First Lady PRESIDENT is first LADY PRESIDENT. In due course following due consideration I changed it to First Lady President, highlighting the double meaning of the original title through font and color."

Ratnu is also somewhat prone to hyperbole, describing a question-and-answer book he penned about Churchill as something "nobody has ever tried in the western world" and occasionally referring to Burchett, who also printed his earlier novel about the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, as "my American editor." But it's impossible to fault his perseverance or to resist his sincerity, and, believe it or not, he does seem to have a track record of prescience.

"I'm more accurate than Nostradamus," he said. "What Nostradamus wrote were the stanzas, the verses, which were poetic, and people made conclusions out of it." In contrast, Ratnu's predictions are specific.

In his second novel, for instance, first titled "Ultimate Defense Against Impeachment" and later shortened to "The Ultimate Defense," Ratnu predicted Clinton's impeachment and outlined many of the arguments the president and his accusers would use during the proceedings. (That novel, too, might have influenced history, had it been read by any of the dozen senators or the chief justice to whom Ratnu sent complimentary copies).

And prior to the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Ratnu predicted the second Gulf War and toppling of Saddam Hussein, writing, "Make no mistake, in the event of the election of George W. Bush to the presidency of the United States, there is certainly going to be another round of Gulf War. ... I sincerely believe that even if Saddam, in view of the potential danger to his existence, restrains himself and offers the younger Bush no provocation, George W. in turn is likely to maneuver Saddam into making one, thus clearing the road for a second round of armed conflict."

When the events of his third novel looked to be coming true as well, Ratnu decided to take matters into his own hands. After mailing his novel to Obama, he traveled to the United States in 2008 to attend the Democratic Convention and — unwittingly somewhat in the manner of Sascha Baron-Cohen's Borat — seek out Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain to provide them with his advice.

In Washington, a vigilant bus driver reported him as a terror suspect and he had to talk his way past a cordon of policemen before he could meet McCain staffers — to whose incredulous looks he explained that the running mate of McCain's fictional analogue was a white woman a scant six days before McCain named Sarah Palin. But the real adventures came in New York.

There, Ratnu managed to secure a meeting with Mary DeBree, Hillary's director of outreach, which he attended, as he does all his activities, in his white kurta-pajama and rainbow-colored turban.

"To my surprise, I found that she was not much interested in talking to us," Ratnu said. "Finally, I said, 'Look, there are two points in this book, which are very powerful, the call for change and anti-war, which I think the rival of Hillary Clinton is using.' I didn't mention to her, frankly, that I had sent a copy to Mr. Obama, but I just said he's using two points which are very powerful and they happen to be in this book also, and I think he can bring down your candidate with those points. She just smiled and said, 'Gentlemen, we appreciate you wrote a book, but we know American politics better than you do.'"

The cell number that Ratnu has for DeBree — published on his web site, incidentally — was not accepting calls. But the associate who accompanied him to the Clinton campaign office, Ramesh Gathoria of the Indian-American Intellectuals Forum, confirmed the gist of his story, though when asked if he had read the novel himself, he said, "Not completely, but a little bit, yeah. Mostly, I have heard from his mouth."

Questions also remain regarding whether Clinton read the copy of "First Lady President" that Ratnu left for her.

"It did not even reach Hillary Clinton," Ratnu said, who suspects that the first chapter White House sex scene between the former president and president-elect prompted the Clinton staff to deep six the novel.

"If it had reached, it would have made a difference. I'm certain about it. ... It is in details, the bedroom scene, so they must have felt repelled by that. They didn't see the useful things lying ahead in the book," he said.

So far, Ratnu has received much the same treatment from the White House, where he estimates he has sent a dozen or so letters, and CNN and the BBC, where he says the Indian staff downed shutters when they saw his turban coming. But if by some quirk of fate he does secure a meeting with the president he believes he helped elect, Obama might do well to listen to his next prediction — which sees Obama stepping aside after a single term and helping to put Hillary in office unless he can follow Ratnu's unpublished prescriptions for stopping Osama bin Laden. And those aren't going to come to light anytime soon.

"That I will not tell to any reporter, ever," Ratnu said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "I will tell it only to one man, the president."

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Obama in India: What to look for

Analysis: Can Obama's "breadth and depth" jump-start stagnating US-India relations?

NEW DELHI, India — U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in India on Saturday with a difficult mission.

With no "big ticket" pact in the works, fading popularity at home and suspicions in India about American military aid to Pakistan, he needs to reassure New Delhi that the burgeoning alliance begun by his predecessor is truly becoming a bona fide strategic partnership.

The bottom line: There's very little chance Indians won't be disappointed with the outcome.

"If you look closely at what the background briefings are from the Indian side and what is being said not only in Washington but by the U.S. ambassador here, one gets the sense that nothing dramatic is likely to emerge from the visit," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.

Indeed, at a press briefing to outline the broad agenda for the visit, senior U.S. officials encouraged observers to focus on the big picture, rather than big agreements.

"The president's itinerary in India will highlight the growth, strength and breadth of the U.S.-India partnership and highlight the diversity and cultural vibrancy of India," a senior U.S. official said. "We believe the next big thing is taking this relationship from one focused on the civil nuke deal to one that's deeper and broader, and that rests on a full range of strategic areas of cooperation."

That means that the U.S. president will likely focus on India's potential to create U.S. jobs — simultaneously hitting the right notes at home and assuaging Indian fears about the protectionist tenor in recent U.S. statements and legislation regarding outsourcing. Obama will also emphasize that the U.S. recognizes India as a global power — reflected in more than 50 joint military exercises over the past eight years.

But the fact that the visit hinges on a combination of intangibles, closed-door discussions and a series of small steps forward ensures that the devil will be in the details.

"Mr. Obama and this administration are very good [people], full of nice sounding words, a lot of euphemisms," said Rajiv Sikri, a career Indian diplomat. "But I get the feeling that the Indian side is fairly hard-nosed, and will not be taken in. It's really action on the ground, and what the U.S. policies do to India's security and economic interests that will be the touchstone of how successful this visit is."

What India wants

In the wake of an announcement of more U.S. military aid for Pakistan and revelations that American intelligence may have withheld crucial information about the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai from their Indian counterparts, India wants assurance that the U.S. is coming closer to the Indian view that Pakistan is at the heart of the world's problems with terrorism.

While that won't be forthcoming, Obama's first address, at Mumbai's Taj Palace Hotel, will set the right tone, and the recent U.S. announcement of a director of national intelligence review of the Headley affair suggests that the U.S. intends to put more muscle behind cooperations on counterterrorism.

Perhaps more importantly, closed-door talks between Obama and Singh on Nov. 7 and 8 will likely flesh out the potential outcomes of the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan next year.

But symbolic gestures and closed-door assurances aside, India has concrete demands that Obama will be hard-pressed to satisfy. The two big items at the top of India's wish list are a clear statement backing India's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and some kind of official recognition of its territorial sovereignty — an oblique reference to its border disputes with China and Pakistan. Obama will probably steer clear of the border issues, experts say. And while the U.N. Security Council seat may find its way into one of Obama's speeches, the expectation is that the U.S. president's formulation will be too weak to fulfill India's hopes.

"If this was said after due deliberation, with full knowledge of the implications, a lot of discerning people would see that as a major change in how the U.S. is beginning to look at India after the nuclear deal," said Sibal.

The carefully worded statements of U.S. officials aren't promising. In a meeting with reporters to outline Obama's schedule, for instance, U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns would say only, "Given India’s rise and its significance, we believe that India will be a central part of any consideration of a reformed Security Council," continuing America's "natural candidate" line, which clearly stops short of pushing for immediate reform.

What the U.S. wants

America's ambitions for Obama's visit are smaller, perhaps, but would send clear signals that the economic and strategic relationship between the U.S. and India is growing closer. As a big win, the U.S. is still pushing for a revision of India's nuclear liability laws, which the U.S. nuclear lobby argues have robbed the 2008 Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement of its significance by creating a business advantage for the state-owned nuclear firms of Russia and France.

To provide a much-needed boost for the American economy, the U.S. would also like to see India further loosen restrictions on foreign investment in multi-brand retail for stores like Walmart and finalize billions of dollars in defense contracts that would reportedly create tens of thousands of U.S. jobs. But here, too, little progress is expected.

Though India signed the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC) in October, its own Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Act remains in force. Moreover, with its failure to win compensation for victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy from Union Carbide as the backdrop for the negotiations, India appears both unwilling and politically unable to water down the 2010 law. As minister of state for science and technology, Prithviraj Chavan, told a gathering of reporters at the Founder’s Day celebration of India's Bhabha Atomic Research Center, “We won’t accept any conditions and agreements will be on our terms."

For the other items on the U.S. wish list, there's optimism on the question of if, but doubts regarding the question of when. Recently, India's commerce minister said the 51 percent cap on foreign direct investment in single-brand retail (e.g. the Nike store) could soon be eliminated, but said that a "consultative process" would be required before the ban on investment in multi-brand stores could be raised to an investment limit of 51 percent.

And while Obama is expected to conclude a $3.5 billion deal to buy 10 C-17 transport aircraft from Boeing, no decision is expected on an $11 billion tender for multi-role fighter jets — for which America's Lockheed Martin and Boeing are competing with European, Russian and Israeli manufacturers.

Wiggle room

Nevertheless, with some $50 billion in bilateral trade — and a broad trade balance — both the U.S. and India have strong economic incentives to ensure that Obama's visit is a success. As a result, both governments have worked hard to develop a set of "deliverables" where they believe there's a good chance to demonstrate tangible progress. These items include relatively anodyne projects in the areas of alternative energy and agriculture. But there could also be some wiggle room on defense moves that would provide clearer signals of a developing strategic partnership.

India is pushing for the U.S. to remove its space agency and defense research organization from the Bureau of Industry and Security "Entity List" that restricts them from purchasing so-called "dual use" technologies with potential nuclear applications, while the U.S. is pushing for India to sign several agreements that it says would facilitate better military cooperation.

Progress on neither is guaranteed, but both moves would mark significant steps forward. The removal of export controls — which were put in place after India tested its nuclear bomb in 1998 — would bring India a step closer to the acknowledgement as a legitimate nuclear weapons state that was the implicit promise of the Indo-U.S. nuclear pact.

Meanwhile, India's signing of America's three arcane defense pacts — the communications interoperability and security memorandum of agreement (CISMOA), the basic exchange and cooperation agreement for geo-spatial cooperation (BECA) and the logistical support agreement (LSA) — would demonstrate that the political and defense establishments in New Delhi no longer fear sacrificing neutrality if it means gaining a broader role in geopolitical affairs.

So far, the U.S. appears closer to removing export controls than India is to signing the defense agreements.

This August, Obama announced a general easing of restrictions on exports of products with potential military applications. And in praising India for signing the CSC, U.S. Undersecretary Burns expressed guarded optimism about the Entity List, saying, "We’re also making progress on cooperation in space and updating export controls to reflect the reality of a 21st century partnership in which India is treated as a partner and not as a target."

In contrast, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony reportedly told U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates point blank at an October meeting in Washington that India would not sign the three "enabling" defense agreements during Obama's visit. Though the U.S. conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country, Indian defense officials maintain that the unsigned agreements do not pose a major impediment to the cooperation, and political concerns make signing the deals difficult.

"The implication of that [reluctance to sign the pacts] is that India should not be seen in too warm an embrace with the United States," said former Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, referring to the desire in some quarters to adhere to the Cold War policies written when India was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. "[But] if India wants to exercise greater responsibility and influence and larger strategic and security capacities in the broader neighborhood, then India will have to take specific stances in situations."

The trick for Obama will be to connect enough dots to create the big picture he needs to convince the remaining naysayers in India.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

India: Turning point for democracy?

An election in India's so-called backward state may herald a new politics of accountability.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - October 26, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — The odds are good you didn't hear about the state elections this past weekend in Bihar.

But had you been paying attention, what you would have read about happening in this dusty, impoverished outpost in eastern India might just wind up signalling a shift toward better governance for the entire country.

Bihar state, located on the Nepal border and long derided as a basket case, closed the second phase of its six phase state assembly elections Sunday on an unusually optimistic note.

Yes, Maoist rebels succeeded in torching a poll booth and abducting three officials. But the insurgents' routine call for a boycott failed to stop voters. In the first two phases of the election, voter turnout exceeded 50 percent — marking a nearly 10 percent increase in voting from 2005, the last time the so-called backward state held polls.

The reason: Nitish Kumar, the state's reigning chief minister, has rekindled optimism by slowly building a functioning government and squashed fear by jailing notorious, politically connected criminals. His re-election — likely but not guaranteed, when votes are counted on Nov. 24, experts said — could therefore mark a turning point in Indian politics by ending the revolving door of "anti-incumbency" and proving that good governance can trump caste- and creed-based rhetoric.

"This election will be a benchmark election, because it has completely new parameters," said Shaibal Gupta, head of the Asian Development Research Institute, based in Patna, Bihar.

What that means is that a state that has always been ruled by identity politics — with voters choosing candidates based on their caste or religious community — has now begun a substantive debate about development and its economic future.

"Every election is a referendum, but this election assumes a greater character because so many steps have been taken that had never been taken earlier," Gupta said. "We have never had a functioning state, so we had to create new benchmarks."

Bihar was once the seat of the powerful Maurya Empire, which spread Buddhism throughout Asia and as far as the Mediterranean. But for a couple thousand years since then, with a breakneck acceleration over the past 20, it's been steadily marching into ruin.

After the British let feudal landlords run rampant, a series of peasant movements made Bihar instrumental in India's freedom struggle. But once India gained its independence, those movements stagnated, and powerful landlords hamstrung any efforts at land reform until a new political
formation of lower caste herdsmen and laborers raised Lalu Prasad Yadav to the chief minister's chair in 1990.

The victory for the oppressed, far from ushering in a golden age of fairness and prosperity, instead accelerated Bihar's descent into chaos. Open warfare prevailed between the militias of upper caste landlords and lower caste tillers, and Lalu, who ruled virtually without rival for three consecutive terms, despite widespread allegations of corruption, used his power to patronize his caste and install his relatives in positions of power.

By 2004, when he was finally defeated by Kumar, the state was barely functioning — unable to disperse funds for ordinary projects like maintaining roads — and most of the rural hinterland was under control of career criminals. Highway travel was out of the question after dark, and even in the capital, Patna, violent crime ensured that the shops closed and the streets were deserted at 8 o'clock.

Finally elected in 2004 after voters finally grew disgusted with Lalu — a charming Falstaff with a brilliant knack for politics — Kumar started Bihar on the path to a turnaround with a risky gambit. Instead of encouraging his own flunkies to get their own forelegs firmly planted in the government trough, he declared an end to the politics of patronage by ending the "transfer industry" that sold coveted bureaucratic posts to the highest bidder and cracked down on criminals that had long enjoyed political protection.

Setting up fast-track courts and hiring ex-soldiers to speedily fill vacancies in the police, he jailed some 40,000 criminals over his first term — more than four times the number of convictions during Lalu's three terms in power. By re-establishing a functioning government, he also increased government spending on building roads and training hundreds of thousands of primary school teachers dramatically.

From $320 million in 2001, government spending rose to $1.2 billion in 2005-2006, Kumar's first year in office, then rose to $2.2 billion in 2007-2008 and $3.5 billion in 2008-2009, raising economic growth from a laggard 3.5 percent under his predecessors to around 11 percent — the second-highest of any Indian state.

There is, of course, still a chance that Kumar might lose. Elections are notoriously difficult to call in India, and not everything has changed in the troubled state. The number of candidates with criminal antecedents — or those who themselves are facing serious charges — remains as high as 40 percent.

And in some constituencies a new trend has emerged in which relatives are standing against each other for rival parties to ensure that power remains in the family's hands, according to Himanshu Jha of the National Social Watch Coalition, a group that monitors politicians and government performance.

Worse still, despite the progress the state has made, the living conditions for most Biharis remain miserable — leaving open the possibility that the very poor may vote against progress in exchange for the promise of sops.

But so far it appears voters are going to the polls this time convinced that there's more to democracy than simply expressing their displeasure with a venal and incompetent government or making sure the candidate from their own caste or religious community comes to power — though all the major political parties are still fielding candidates based on caste- and creed- formulations.

For example, the controversial Sept. 28 verdict [2] that granted ownership of the disputed site of the destruction of the Babri mosque to Hindu groups, which might have galvanized triumphant rightwing Hindus or disappointed Muslims, has played little role in the campaign. Instead, the debate has centered on issues like building roads and providing reliable electricity — new ideas for politics in Bihar.

The real turning point, though, promises to come after the election — if Kumar wins a second term as expected. Kumar pushed an anti-corruption bill through the state assembly in 2008 that has in recent months been approved by the central government. In his campaign speeches this round, Bihar's sitting chief minister has promised to progress from establishing basic law and order to taking on graft, saying, "The first time, I went after criminals. Next, it will be the turn of the corrupt." And, like his crackdown on crime, the promise could well prove to be more than election rhetoric.

Called the Bihar Special Court Bill, Kumar's new law for the first time empowers government investigators to confiscate assets of bureaucrats and politicians accused of corruption — which was previously impossible even after a conviction. And it sets the stage for fast-track courts like the ones he used to jail 40,000 thugs in four years.

In a state where government funds have always been siphoned off before work could begin, rather than while it was actually underway, the impact could be huge. Indeed, if Kumar wins, the money he confiscates alone might send the turnaround state's economic growth rocketing past his first term's 11 percent.

Moreover, because the Special Court Bill is unique for India, it just might make India's most backward state an example for the rest.

"If a couple of hundred people get punished, and their property gets confiscated, it will send out a message all over the country," said Gupta. "Things will be different."

India Bihar India democracy India development India elections India history Nitish Kumar

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