Sunday, October 23, 2016

Vote in India Reshapes Landscape


NEW DELHI – Eleven years ago, when she took over as president of India’s oldest political party, Sonia Gandhi was seen as India’s most improbable politician: a foreigner with a shaky command of Hindi, reclusive to the point of seeming aloof, a wife who had fought to keep her husband from joining politics and who lost him to an assassination.

Today, Mrs. Gandhi, 62, is credited with having scored a stunning political coup. Her Indian National Congress party made its best performance in 25 years in the parliamentary elections completed last week, picking up 205 of 543 seats on its own, and with its coalition partners coming only 12 seats shy of an outright majority. All it needs to do now to form a government is stitch up alliances with a handful of independents and small parties.

No longer would it be beholden to the many small party bosses that it needed during the first five-year term a Congress-led coalition was in office. Most important, for the sake of foreign and economic policy, it would no longer have to rely on India’s Communist parties to stay in power, as it had for most of that time.

“Cong Gets Free Hand,” screamed the front-page banner headline in The Times of India on Sunday. It featured a photograph of Mrs. Gandhi dressed in a red-ochre sari, ushering the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to a podium to address the news media.

Meghnad Desai, an Indian-born economist and a member of the British House of Lords, went as far as to compare her to Catherine the Great, the powerful German-born empress of Russia.

Mrs. Gandhi is the Italian-born wife of the slain former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the daughter-in-law of the prime minister before him, Indira Gandhi. She is known for rarely giving interviews, and she declined to be interviewed for this article.

She has said she joined politics to save the legacy of the party, which her husband’s family has been associated with since before independence. “I had to accustom myself to the public gaze, which I found intrusive and hard to endure,” she said in a speech at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands two years ago.

Critics say she is simply paving the way for her son, Rahul, 38, who is expected to take a cabinet post in the new government. The party’s often-slavish devotion to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, perhaps its biggest albatross, was evident over the weekend.

On Saturday evening, hours after the election results signaled the victory of the Congress-led coalition, a party leader and minister assigned to Mr. Singh’s office, Prithviraj Chavan, declared on television that Mr. Gandhi could become prime minister whenever he wished. This was after Mrs. Gandhi and her son had repeatedly endorsed Mr. Singh as the party’s choice for the top post.

The Congress landslide was all the more remarkable because it defied an Indian tradition of anti-incumbency. The Congress-led coalition, which routed the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2004, was not only re-elected but it picked up 57 seats.

Students of Indian politics pointed to several factors.

First, under Mrs. Gandhi’s leadership, the Congress-led coalition homed in on the rural poor. During its first term, buoyed by robust economic growth, it used record government revenues to increase social spending, not just raising health and education budgets, but also starting an ambitious public works program in the countryside and a costly loan repayment waiver for farmers.

Second, she masterly cast herself as a leader who relinquished power, turning down her party’s appeals to become prime minister, first in 2004 and again this time. Instead, she chose the soft-spoken economist, Mr. Singh, and between them, they divvied up the job: she took care of the hard-knuckles politics of keeping the coalition together, while he served as the chief executive, albeit one who was always seen as subservient.

“She remade him,” said Mr. Desai, a longtime friend of the prime minister. “This victory is as much due to him as to her. He has made dynasty palatable.”

During the election season, the Bharatiya Janata Party sought to portray the prime minister as weak. It accused his government of being ineffective against a spate of terrorist attacks and unable to tackle a worldwide economic crisis, which is beginning to be felt here.

The opposition strategy did not pay off. Its coalition trailed with 159 seats, while a third alliance, spearheaded by Communists, won fewer than 80 seats.

Even with a free hand, the Congress-led government will face formidable challenges. India needs to swiftly build roads, highways and power plants; improve public schools and build universities for a swelling young population; and hire nurses and doctors for its feeble public health system.

Most of all, it needs to address its abiding poverty. Despite over a decade of high economic growth in India, 300 million people remain below the poverty line. Large tracts of the country are racked by a Maoist insurgency. And for the first time in years, growth rates have dipped sharply and the deficit has ballooned.

Whether the new administration will fast-track economic reforms, as many business leaders urge, is questionable. Congress politicians, executives and analysts are already tempering expectations.

Kapil Sibal, a Congress member of Parliament from Delhi, said in a television interview on Sunday evening that he expected the new administration to “send a signal” that it would advance reforms that had been stalled during the past five years but would make no “sudden shift” in policies. It would be unrealistic to expect labor law reform in a country with no safety net to speak of, he said, or to expect a greater openness in the banking and insurance sectors in the face of the global financial crisis.

Nandan Nilekani, co-chairman of Infosys, one of the country’s largest technology companies, said Sunday that the government’s immediate priorities should be to raise economic growth and enact a broad set of reforms “that will widen access to both opportunities and public services.”

“We need reforms in higher education, we need reforms in empowering our cities, we need reforms in national security,” he said. “Reforms will cover a diverse set of issues, unencumbered by allies holding them back.”

Not least, Congress will have to keep its promise to the rural poor. Mrs. Gandhi and her son, Rahul, campaigned on a pledge to expand the public jobs program and deepen food subsidies for the poor.

Mother and son face a crucial political challenge as well: how to open access to a party that critics compare to a family-owned company. Mr. Gandhi has been most explicit in calling for internal party democracy. He says he can make that kind of demand because he is a Gandhi.

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

source: The New York Times

Pakistan Is Rapidly Adding Nuclear Arms, U.S. Says


WASHINGTON – Members of Congress have been told in confidential briefings that Pakistan is rapidly adding to its nuclear arsenal even while racked by insurgency, raising questions on Capitol Hill about whether billions of dollars in proposed military aid might be diverted to Pakistan’s nuclear program.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the assessment of the expanded arsenal in a one-word answer to a question on Thursday in the midst of lengthy Senate testimony. Sitting beside Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, he was asked whether he had seen evidence of an increase in the size of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.

“Yes,” he said quickly, adding nothing, clearly cognizant of Pakistan’s sensitivity to any discussion about the country’s nuclear strategy or security.

Inside the Obama administration, some officials say, Pakistan’s drive to spend heavily on new nuclear arms has been a source of growing concern, because the country is producing more nuclear material at a time when Washington is increasingly focused on trying to assure the security of an arsenal of 80 to 100 weapons so that they will never fall into the hands of Islamic insurgents.

The administration’s effort is complicated by the fact that Pakistan is producing an unknown amount of new bomb-grade uranium and, once a series of new reactors is completed, bomb-grade plutonium for a new generation of weapons. President Obama has called for passage of a treaty that would stop all nations from producing more fissile material – the hardest part of making a nuclear weapon – but so far has said nothing in public about Pakistan’s activities.

Bruce Riedel, the Brookings Institution scholar who served as the co-author of Mr. Obama’s review of Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy, reflected the administration’s concern in a recent interview, saying that Pakistan “has more terrorists per square mile than anyplace else on earth, and it has a nuclear weapons program that is growing faster than anyplace else on earth.”

Obama administration officials said that they had communicated to Congress that their intent was to assure that military aid to Pakistan was directed toward counterterrorism and not diverted. But Admiral Mullen’s public confirmation that the arsenal is increasing – a view widely held in both classified and unclassified analyses – seems certain to aggravate Congress’s discomfort.

Whether that discomfort might result in a delay or reduction in aid to Pakistan is still unclear.

The Congressional briefings have taken place in recent weeks as Pakistan has descended into further chaos and as Congress has considered proposals to spend $3 billion over the next five years to train and equip Pakistan’s military for counterinsurgency warfare. That aid would come on top of $7.5 billion in civilian assistance.

None of the proposed military assistance is directed at the nuclear program. So far, America’s aid to Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure has been limited to a $100 million classified program to help Pakistan secure its weapons and materials from seizure by Al Qaeda, the Taliban or “insiders” with insurgent loyalties.

But the billions in new proposed American aid, officials acknowledge, could free other money for Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, at a time when Pakistani officials have expressed concern that their nuclear program is facing a budget crunch for the first time, worsened by the global economic downturn. The program employs tens of thousands of Pakistanis, including about 2,000 believed to possess “critical knowledge” about how to produce a weapon.

The dimensions of the Pakistani buildup are not fully understood. “We see them scaling up their centrifuge facilities,” said David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which has been monitoring Pakistan’s continued efforts to buy materials on the black market, and analyzing satellite photographs of two new plutonium reactors less than 100 miles from where Pakistani forces are currently fighting the Taliban.

“The Bush administration turned a blind eye to how this is being ramped up,” he said. “And of course, with enough pressure, all this could be preventable.”

As a matter of diplomacy, however, the buildup presents Mr. Obama with a potential conflict between two national security priorities, some aides concede. One is to win passage of a global agreement to stop the production of fissile material – the uranium or plutonium used to produce weapons. Pakistan has never agreed to any limits and is one of three countries, along with India and Israel, that never signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Yet the other imperative is a huge infusion of financial assistance into Afghanistan and Pakistan, money considered crucial to helping stabilize governments with tenuous holds on power in the face of terrorist and insurgent violence.

Senior members of Congress were already pressing for assurances from Pakistan that the American military assistance would be used to fight the insurgency, and not be siphoned off for more conventional military programs to counter Pakistan’s historic adversary, India. Official confirmation that Pakistan has accelerated expansion of its nuclear program only added to the consternation of those in Congress who were already voicing serious concern about the security of those warheads.

During a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, veered from the budget proposal under debate to ask Admiral Mullen about public reports “that Pakistan is, at the moment, increasing its nuclear program – that it may be actually adding on to weapons systems and warheads. Do you have any evidence of that?”

It was then that Admiral Mullen responded with his one-word confirmation. Mr. Webb said Pakistan’s decision was a matter of “enormous concern,” and he added, “Do we have any type of control factors that would be built in, in terms of where future American money would be going, as it addresses what I just asked about?”

Similar concerns about seeking guarantees that American military assistance to Pakistan would be focused on battling insurgents also were expressed by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee chairman.

“Unless Pakistan’s leaders commit, in deeds and words, their country’s armed forces and security personnel to eliminating the threat from militant extremists, and unless they make it clear that they are doing so, for the sake of their own future, then no amount of assistance will be effective,” Mr. Levin said.

A spokesman for the Pakistani government contacted Friday declined to comment on whether his nation was expanding its nuclear weapons program, but said the government was “maintaining the minimum, credible deterrence capability.” He warned against linking American financial assistance to Pakistan’s actions on its weapons program.

“Conditions or sanctions on this issue did not work in the past, and this will not send a positive message to the people of Pakistan,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his country’s nuclear program is classified.
Source: The New York Times

Ethnic Groups in Myanmar Hope for Peace, but Gird for Fight


LAIZA, Myanmar – The Kachin tribesmen who inhabit the hills along Myanmar’s border with China have a reputation as stealthy jungle warriors, famous for repelling Japanese attacks in the Second World War with booby traps and instilling terror by slicing off ears to tally their kills.

Now, as they have many times in their war-scarred history, the Kachin are hoping for peace but are prepared for battle with Myanmar’s central government.

“Whether or not there will be war again, we have to be ready,” Maj. Zauja Nhkri, the head of an officer’s training school that is part of the Kachin Independence Army, which has around 4,000 men under arms.

“If our army is strong, we can maintain the peace.”

As Myanmar’s military government prepares to adopt a new and disputed Constitution next year, a fragile patchwork of cease-fire agreements between the central government and more than a dozen armed ethnic groups is fraying.

The new Constitution would nominally return the country to civilian rule after four and a half decades of military government and, in theory, could formally end the now dormant civil war that has plagued the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1948. But as a precondition for what they portray as a fresh start, Myanmar’s ruling generals are ordering the Kachin and other groups to disarm and disband their substantial armies.

So far, the answer is no.

“There is no good road map for the future of Burma,” said Gen. Gam Shawng Gunhtang, the chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Army, which has fought the government on and off since its founding in 1961. Myanmar used to be known as Burma.

The ethnic groups control large pockets of territory in the northern and eastern borderland areas, and, if they disarm, they risk losing control over their lucrative trade in timber, jade, gems and, in some cases, heroin and methamphetamines. They are loath to give up their hard-won autonomy to the Myanmar military, which is dominated by the Burman ethnic group they have long resented.

“We ethnic peoples are trying to form a federal union,” Gen. Gam Shawng Gunhtang said. “They don’t want to hear about it.”

The demands to disarm are “not acceptable,” he said.

The volatile and remote northern reaches of Myanmar are rarely reported on in the Western news media because of the difficulty accessing the armed groups. The visit by this reporter to Laiza was the first by a foreign newspaper correspondent in several years.

By the tumultuous standards of Myanmar’s six decades of independence, the country has been relatively peaceful over the past decade and a half, thanks to the cease-fire agreements.

Myanmar captured the world’s attention when the government quashed the uprising of Buddhist monks in September 2007 and when it refused to allow some international assistance after a deadly cyclone last May.

But those events only served to underline the firm grip that the generals have over the low-lying parts of the country, where the majority Burman population is concentrated.

It is a very different picture in the upland regions, where the government’s control has always been tenuous. A resumption of civil war in the north and east is by no means a foregone conclusion – the generals could back down from their demands to disarm, or the ethnic groups might relent and decide to fully adopt the new Constitution.

But if the conflicts re-ignite, which some analysts say is likely, it could resonate well beyond Myanmar’s borders, resulting in outflows of refugees into neighboring countries like Thailand and China and a resurgence of the heroin business, which in the past has thrived under the cover of war.

“I think you will hear a lot of gunfire next year,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former soldier in the now defunct Burmese Communist Party who is in contact with leaders of the ethnic groups. “The Burmese government is unwilling to give autonomy.”

The largest borderland groups, drawn from ethnic groups like the Wa, Shan and Kokang, are united in their bitterness over their historical domination by the Burman.

During the Cold War, China, Thailand and the United States supplied arms and other assistance to some borderland groups. Now commercial interests, including many shady businesses, have replaced ideological ones.

The Kachin hills are home to the world’s most lucrative jade mines. The area inhabited by the Shan has the largest and best-quality rubies found anywhere. All the territory controlled by the ethnic groups has prized varieties of tropical hardwood.

And drug syndicates, many of them with ties to the ethnic groups, profit handsomely from the trafficking of both illegal and counterfeit drugs.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, Myanmar, by the nature of its location between India and China, is now the focus of a geopolitical contest for influence by the region’s big powers increasingly hungry for natural resources.

Chinese companies are building a series of hydroelectric dams on northern tributaries of the Irrawaddy River (despite Kachin objections) and have helped finance and build roads inside Myanmar, facilitating both the sale of Chinese electronics and clothing in Myanmar and the export of timber and other commodities into China.

China recently beat India in securing a 30-year concession on natural gas from Myanmar, and construction will reportedly start soon on twin pipelines crossing Myanmar from the Bay of Bengal and connecting to the southern Chinese city of Kunming.

In March, China and Myanmar signed a “cooperation agreement” on the oil and gas pipelines, but key details are vague.

The strategic objective for China is access to the Bay of Bengal, thus avoiding having to ship oil through the Strait of Malacca, a costly detour and a security threat if that choke point is ever blocked. But the project is seen by many as a risky venture.

“Burma is not a stable place when you get out into these remote areas that the pipeline is going to have to traverse,” said Priscilla A. Clapp, a former American diplomat who spent three years as the chief of the U.S. mission in Myanmar. “It’s going to have to go over mountains and through remote areas of the country that are barely controlled by the military. It could very easily be blown up, and then you’re out of luck.”

Gam Shawng Gunhtang, the Kachin general, is worried that the pipeline will marginalize the borderland ethnic groups and give the upper hand to Myanmar’s junta, also known as the State Peace and Development Council, or S.P.D.C.

“The S.P.D.C. is trying to convince the Chinese government that the borderland armed groups are not political groups – just insurgents or terrorists,” the general said. “The pipeline will be a tool and an opportunity for the S.P.D.C. to eliminate the armed groups.”

The Constitution, which Myanmar’s generals say was adopted by more than 90 percent of voters in a referendum last year and will take effect after elections next year, prescribes “genuine multi-party democracy” and recognizes what it calls “self-administered” areas. But ethnic leaders say this falls short of the autonomy they want.

They also point out that the document preserves a dominant role for the military, including the right of the commander in chief of the armed forces to appoint a quarter of the Parliament and to remove the president.

And because the Constitution mandates that only the national armed forces provide defense and security, the junta is demanding that all other groups disarm.

The most heavily armed group along the Chinese border is the United Wa State Army, which has about 20,000 soldiers and new armaments including field artillery and anti-tank missiles, according to Bertil Lintner, an expert on Myanmar’s ethnic groups and co-author of the book “Merchants of Madness,” which deals with the drug trade among ethnic groups.

Very few of the armed groups will accede to the government’s demands to disarm, Mr. Lintner believes.

“Some of the smaller groups might hand in their weapons, but they don’t matter anyway,” he said.

In Laiza, it is easy to see why the Kachin want to maintain their autonomy.

Residents escape many of the deprivations so common in other parts of Myanmar, one of the world’s poorest countries: Electricity from a nearby hydroelectric dam is reliable, cellphone service provided by Chinese communications towers across the border is cheap (obtaining a cellphone number inside Myanmar typically costs $2,000), and the local administration even stamps out its own vehicle license plates, skirting Myanmar’s highly restrictive car ownership policies.

In addition to its own army, the Kachin have a police force, schools, a teacher’s training college and their own customs agents, who monitor the border crossing with China.

Laiza is no Shangri-La – the town struggles with drug addiction and other social ills common to many border areas – but it feels more free than the military-controlled areas in Myanmar, where dissidents are repeatedly rounded up and sentenced to long jail terms.

“The S.P.D.C. has one last chance to win the hearts of the people,” said Thar Kyaw, a jade dealer now based in the southern Chinese city of Ruili. “But we are not very hopeful.”

Source: The New York Times