News & Events
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1.Only jats, not jobs: Intense west UP campaign by all parties is on many things, just not on economic problems
Beginning February 10, the first batch of 690 assembly seats across five states will record polling. Attention is largely focussed on UP, where the assembly has 403 seats, or 58% of the total. The first two rounds of polling in UP will have a predominant focus on western UP, the state’s relatively less poor agricultural region, which contributes about 73 seats. While it doesn’t provide the bulk of representation in the assembly, the campaign themes here encapsulate the full spectrum of both identity and economic issues that have captured public attention.
The highlight of the current phase of campaigning for western UP is the pitch made to attract Jat voters. They have been integral to BJP’s social alliance in UP that has delivered in three successive elections since 2014. However, passage of three farm laws in Parliament in 2020 undermined this coalition as Jat farmers were a part of the agitation against the reform. True, farm laws were withdrawn last November. However, the agitation brought out larger problems in west UP’s agrarian economy, which is dependent on the government price support system for two key crops, wheat and sugarcane.
The presence of a significant Muslim population in many constituencies has introduced a big element of polarisation in the campaigning. The critical question is will BJP’s winning social coalition hold or will the other pole, the SP and RLD alliance, create a successful grouping. In this mix, perennial issues such as outstanding sugarcane dues to farmers owed by sugar mills and disgruntlement over ticket distribution will affect the dynamics. West UP has often set the tone for elections in other regions of the state and BJP has pulled out all stops in this tight contest, with home minister Amit Shah embarking on door-to-door campaigns.
But, and unsurprisingly, solutions offered by political parties to agrarian challenges suggest no poll outcome will have a meaningful economic impact. Promises revolve around free electricity and creation of a corpus for sugarcane payments. UP’s poverty ratio is 38%, with only Jharkhand and Bihar trailing. For millions of young job seekers in UP, elections don’t offer much.
2.Wait for SC: Let the court’s committee find answers on Pegasus. Broader point: we need a national security law
Pegasus is back again as a political controversy, and given how these things play out, there will be plenty of sound and no light. The best and the logical choice to shine a light is the Supreme Court, which has the matter before it. As of now, SC has constituted a committee mandated to identify those surveilled, establish if any government agency acquired the spyware, and whether lawful procedures were followed for operating it. Therefore, whether Israel sold Pegasus to India, as reported by the New York Times, is a question the committee should be able to answer. The opposition is expected to demand a discussion in Parliament, but disrupting the Budget session over the issue may do it little good, even in an election season, since the issue is not one that’s easily saleable in the rough and tumble of a campaign. The government, on its part, should cooperate fully with the committee. It’s obvious now that some answer is necessary on whether and how Pegasus was bought by official agencies.
On a broader scale, and as argued previously by this newspaper, just as there’s no doubt that some national security imperatives require covert surveillance, there’s also no doubt that in a democracy opposition leaders, judges, journalists and activists cannot be spied on. As SC had said, a government cannot get a free pass every time it mentions national security. The court had also specifically observed that spying on journalists reduces their professional ability to gather facts and is, therefore, antithetical to democracy.
What India needs, and no government, whether Congress or BJP, has paid notice to this, is a national security law – a set of rules that will govern surveillance. Most well-functioning democracies have such laws. It’s the lack of rules that allow surveillance far beyond the scope of what can be reasonably thought as national security concerns, because no party involved in covert information gathering feels constrained. Intelligence gathering in a democracy cannot be via ad hoc decisions, and neither can citizens’ privacy be violated in similar fashion. That’s the key learning from Pegasus.
3.Limits of power: On Maharashtra MLAs suspension case
The Supreme Court serves a reminder that the House should work within constitutional parameters
In ruling that the one-year suspension imposed last year by the Maharashtra Assembly on 12 BJP legislators was illegal and irrational, the Supreme Court has set the limits of the legislature’s power to deal with disorderly conduct in the House. It has laid down a significant principle that the effect of disciplinary action cannot traverse beyond the session in which the cause arose. Citing precedents from rulings of the Privy Council and the Supreme Court, the Court has sought to read the power of the House to suspend a member as essentially defensive or ‘self-protective’ so that disorderly conduct does not overwhelm its proceedings, but it should not assume a punitive character. Therefore, the suspension beyond the duration of the session was illegal. It was deemed irrational because the need to exercise the power was limited to restoring order in the House; logically, it was not needed beyond the day, or in case of repeated disorderly conduct, to the session so that scheduled business could be completed. It has termed the one-year suspension as a punitive action worse than expulsion. Its reasoning is that if a member is expelled by a resolution of the House, the Election Commission is bound to hold a by-election within six months and the member could seek re-election. On the contrary, the year-long suspension will mean that the constituency remains unrepresented, while there would be no vacancy to be filled through a by-election.
The State government argued vehemently that there was no limit to the action that the House could take for maintaining order and the Court could not examine the proportionality of the action. Rule 53 of the Assembly allowed the Speaker to adopt a graded approach to disorderly conduct; naming members after which they should withdraw from the House for the day, and, in the case of the conduct being repeated, for the rest of the session. However, the Government insisted that the suspension was imposed under the inherent power of the Assembly to ensure orderly functioning. Even then, the Court ruled, in the absence of a rule enabling such a power, the House had to adopt a graded approach and that the same-session limit could not be breached. Referring to the bar under Article 212 of the Constitution on the judiciary examining the regularity of the procedure adopted by the House, the three-judge Bench ruled that the present action was illegal and irrational, and not a mere irregularity of procedure. The ruling is yet another reminder to legislative bodies that their functioning is subject to constitutional parameters. In an era when the government side accuses the Opposition of being obstructionist, and the Opposition alleges that it is being silenced, it is gratifying that the higher judiciary grapples with questions related to the limits of the power exercised by the majority in the legislature..
4.Risky bets: On Russia, Ukraine and hopes of a diplomatic solution
Russia should do more to reduce tensions along its border with Ukraine
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s comment, after receiving a written response from Washington to Moscow’s security demands, that ‘Russia doesn’t want wars’ raises hopes of a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. Last week saw a flurry of diplomatic activities aimed at de-escalating the situation. Besides the U.S.’s written response to Russia, which could set the stage for further diplomatic talks in the coming weeks, French President Emmanuel Macron has held talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Mr. Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are also reportedly trying to revive the stalled Minsk process that sought to find a peaceful solution to Ukraine’s internal conflict between Kiev and the Russia-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region. Mr. Putin has said the U.S. response does not address Russia’s core security concerns. Fears of a military conflict are still there. Russia, which has mobilised thousands of troops on its border with Ukraine, in Belarus in Ukraine’s north and in Transnistria (a breakaway region from Moldova) in its south-west, has a clear military advantage. But the West’s willingness to press ahead with diplomatic options and Russia’s reciprocity suggest that neither side is in a hurry for armed conflict.
There is a strong case for de-escalation. Mr. Putin has already achieved many things, without a shot being fired. He has got the Western leadership to talk to him over the contested issue of NATO’s expansion, which Russia has long been complaining about. By putting a gun to Ukraine’s head, he has effectively drawn a red line in Russia’s relations with the West. Also, as the U.S. and its allies are scrambling for economic measures to punish Russia “if it invades Ukraine”, the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s continued support for separatists inside Ukraine have practically become non-issues. Nobody is threatening to punish Russia for not returning Crimea to Ukraine. The status quo has been redrawn. Besides, the U.S. has said it is open to discuss some of Russia’s security concerns, including missile deployments in Eastern Europe and military exercises in sensitive regions. Russia should accept the U.S. proposals, de-escalate the crisis around Ukraine and opt for more dialogue on critical issues, including NATO’s eastward expansion. If it still goes ahead with an attack, which U.S. President Joe Biden said could happen, it could well be a mistake. Russia might be in a position to overrun Ukraine militarily, but what comes next in Europe’s largest country is as unpredictable as it can get. If the post-9/11 military adventures of the U.S. are any lesson, it is that great powers could clinch swift victories against weaker countries but could fail miserably in sustaining those victories. Mr. Putin should not walk into the same mistake and thereby push Europe back into the darker days of the Cold War.