National elections in India have often been referred to as the biggest celebration of democracy in the world. However, the carnival of 2014 polls promises to be more than a joyous occasion for Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Gandhi family which controls the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) party. His bete noire, Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the main Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), too, has tense months ahead of him as an unlikely late entrant, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supremo Arvind Kejriwal, has stepped in to queer the pitch.
While Rahul Gandhi’s immediate challenge is to firefight a massive wave of anti-incumbency that has seen his party getting wiped out in the Delhi state elections, the enormity of the task has been magnified by serial uncovering of scams and financial irregularities perpetrated by people in positions of power in the coalition government led by the INC. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, portrayed as a symbol of probity by the party, failed to stem the rot, leading to the Opposition branding him a “weak” (ineffectual) leader. Neither has his acumen and scholarship in economics worked as the country’s growth rate dropped from near-double digit figures to barely five per cent. With increased spending behind public schemes widening the fiscal deficit and current account deficit rising to unhealthy proportions, inflation is high and prices are skyrocketing a few months before the elections: not good signs for the INC and Gandhi at all.
But Gandhi has one advantage that none of his rivals do. The INC is possibly the only national party which has a truly pan-Indian presence. If the Congress number crunchers can play the volume game right, and given the party’s unique ability to take along anyone and everyone in any coalition, anything is possible.
Narendra Modi, the Gujarat chief minister who is credited by his supporters for turning his state into an economic powerhouse, hopes to fish in the troubled waters. With a social media campaign that can rival that of global corporate giants in its magnitude and scale, he has won over a substantial number of young voters who were looking for a “can do, will deliver” man. However, his detractors have cited human development index (HDI) indicators and growth rate figures which do not paint a rosy picture of Gujarat at all.
A deeply divisive figure in the country and even within his own party, he is accused by quite a few of his colleagues (especially those allied with senior party patriarch L.K. Advani) of putting himself above the party organisation.
Modi polarises Indians. A sizeable number are opposed to the prospect of their country being ruled by a man who is not exactly known for taking all fragments of the society together. They feel there is substantial evidence of his administration having tacitly supported the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the 2002 Gujarat riots. And quite a few feel that the role of his government in the riots was not so tacit. This perception is so strong that even a stellar show by Modi-led BJP may go to waste for the want of coalition partners. Many former BJP allies have distanced themselves, following the announcement of Modi’s PM candidature.
But in spite of all these and the bloopers he has made while delivering his rabble-rousing speeches, Modi has a pan-India appeal, an appeal that is only excaberated by the inapproachability of Gandhi.
Modi could have run away with the game. He made promises to turn India into a brow-beating superpower. But his momentum has been arrested by the AAP’s amazing performance in the Delhi elections.
No political pundit had given the AAP any chance in electoral politics. But an astute team of prominent social, political and legal activists, led by Arvind Kejriwal, had certain other ideas. They swept the Delhi elections and, with support from the Congress, formed the state government.
AAP wants to cleanse Indian politics and has started delivering on quite a few of its electoral promises (like halving power tariffs) just within days of coming to power. More than 500,000 Indians have joined the party in the last one month and prominent entrepreneurs and business executives are joining the party. On January 2, on a single day, the party raised about $70,000 through online donations.
SPLIT WIDE OPEN
Bangladesh, often buffeted by political unrest and natural disasters, has had some success stories to tell. This South Asian nation of 160 million people has reduced poverty levels, increased food grain production and has seen a significant increase in the number of children attending schools.
According to World Bank, the percentage of people living on less than $2 a day has declined from about 49 in 2000 to about 32 in 2012. A remarkable turnaround has take place in the electricity sector in this power-starved nation. Much of the credit should go to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government. When Hasina took office in 2008, Bangladesh produced just 4,000 MW of power in a day. In 2013, it has more than doubled, helping the economy to grow at a steady annual rate of six per cent.
This overcrowded nation has been able to produce enough food grains to feed its people. Today, nearly all the children in Bangladesh get enrolled in primary schools with about 74 per cent of them completing all the years.
Yet, Bangladesh remains a country of deadly political unrest, taking a huge toll on its people and economy. With the country going to national polls on January 5, Hasina finds herself as an embattled leader in a country with a history of military coups and political upheavals.
Weeks of general strikes and blockades of highways and railroads by followers of Hasina’s arch-rival Begum Khaleda Zia, a two-time former premier and leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have hit the country’s factories, industrial production, export, transportation, schools and colleges.
At the centre of the dispute has been the opposition’s demand for Hasina to step down and transfer power to a neutral non-partisan caretaker administration to oversee the upcoming polls. Rejecting the opposition’s demand, Hasina instead offered some ministries to Begum Zia’s party which the latter turned down.
“We have witnessed tremendous development and economic growth over the last five years, thanks to Sheikh Hasina’s strong leadership,” says Hassan Shahriar, senior analyst. “It’s an irony that the same leader is facing so much of political unrest.”
In highlighting Hasina’s plight, Shahriar points out that not a single ballot will be cast in over half of the country’s 300 parliamentary constituencies as there are no rival contestants. Hasina’s win is just a matter of formality in the January 5 polls as BNP is boycotting the elections.
“What we see unfolding is not good for democracy,” laments Shahriar. “Sheikh Hasina could have done much better on the political front.”
It was Hasina’s government which, in 2011, dropped a constitutional provision that required every national election in Bangladesh to be overseen by a neutral non-partisan administration. The change was made after the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the provision conflicts with the spirit of the Constitution that the country would be governed only by elected representatives of the people. The opposition says it is a ploy to keep Hasina in power so that her party can manipulate the polls.
Clashes on the streets and the ongoing violence, that have claimed more than 100 lives since late November,have overshadowed some of the steps taken by the government in dealing with Islamic fundamentalists, especially those who helped Pakistani soldiers in their brutal crackdown on the people that led to mass killings and rapes during the nation’s 1971 War of Independence that was backed by neighbouring India.
Over a dozen politicians from the country’s largest Islamic party, the Jamaat-e-islami, and Begum Zia’s BNP have been put on trial for committing crimes against humanity during the nine-month liberation struggle. Nine of them have been found guilty and have been sentenced either to death or life term in prison.
Abdul Quader Mollah, a senior Jamaat leader convicted for mass killings and rape, was executed early this month with Bangladeshis hailing Hasina as a leader with courage and commitment to confront the war criminals, mostly belonging to Jamaat, a BNP ally. Jamaat had opposed Bangladesh’s liberation struggle and formed a number of auxiliary forces to help Pakistani forces in what many people have called a ‘genocide’. According to various reports, more than 3 million people perished, more than 200,000 women were raped and 10 million fled to India as refugees as a reign of terror was unleashed by the Pakistan Army.
To many Bangladeshis, the war crimes trial is one of the big success stories of Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangladesh’s slain founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
“For this act of freeing the nation from a long-held sense of guilt, Hasina has engraved her name in the hearts of Bangladeshis which will never be erased,” says Kamrul Hasan Khan, a leader of Peshajibi Somonay Parishad, a body of professional groups.
Yet, Hasina has detractors who point to her treatment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Muhammad Yunus who founded the Grameen Bank, pulling millions of poor women out of poverty. In 2011, Hasina’s government removed Yunus from the post of managing director of the globally acclaimed microfinance institution, citing violation of a law relating to age limit to hold the position. Yunus alleged that the move was part of the government’s design to take control of the bank. Yunus’s stand has found support among some Bangladeshis.
“Yunus is a Nobel Laureate. He is our pride. He is helping poor women to come out of poverty. Hasina should have left him alone,” says Jahangir Hossain, a youth. Sohel Anwar, a university student in Dhaka, echoes Hossain’s feelings. “I’m sure Sheikh Hasina will pay the price for mistreating a person like Yunus,” he adds.
Hasina, thus, has had a polarising effect on the people. While some laud her for her anti-Islamist steps, others find folly in her treatment of a celebrated economist. Hasina would like to believe that her side of the divide is larger than the other.
SINGAPORE’S SIMMERING DIVIDE
Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, inherited a booming economy whose foundation was laid by his father and Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore is globalisation’s child. In 2012, it emerged as the top US destination for cumulative investments over a period of one decade. But, widening inequality and escalation in social tension is posing a grave danger to its image as the hub of global investment.
Singapore’s thriving economy is driven by its migrant workforce which forms nearly a quarter of its population. Xenophobia is on the rise in this city-state, which has seen a huge influx of migrant workers from India, Bangladesh and mainland China. The recent strife in the Little India district is a symptom of a much larger malaise that threatens to disturb the tranquility the island nation is known for.
In December last year, Singapore witnessed a rare riot in which scores of people were injured, property vandalized and vehicles torched. The riots were triggered by an accident involving a Singaporean bus driver crushing to death an Indian migrant worker. This led to massive backlash from the residents of the Little India district comprising mostly foreign labourers from India and Bangladesh.
The People’s Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore as a oneparty state since 1959, has been finding it hard to strike a social chord between the local residents and the increasing foreign labour force in the country.
But there is a palpable discontent among the local Singaporeans over the rising migrant population. They are seen as poachers who take away jobs meant for citizens.
In 2012, 171 workers from China, went on a strike protesting against poor pay and living conditions.
As Jeremy Warner writes in The Telegraph- “At the bottom of the pile, the infux of cheap, low-skilled foreign labour is widely blamed for depressing wages and for overloading the country’s infrastructure.Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, highly paid American and European workers, attracted by the country’s low taxes and open economy, are greatly adding to the pressure on house prices, health-care costs and other living expenses.
” The challenge before PAP is to restore a sense of harmony. It has already suffered a loss of seats in the 2011 elections. This has increased the pressure on the party, and Loong in particular, to bring in political reforms. The political opposition, which does not have a say in the formulation of policies, has found its voice.
As the legendary American investor, Jim Rogers, once put it, “If you were smart in 1807, you moved to London; if you were smart in 1907, you moved to New York City; and if you are smart in 2007, you move to Asia.” Lee Hsien Loong’s job is to address the issue of rising influx of migrant labourers while not disturbing the regulatory framework which has brought global talent over decades to this tiny island nation and made it prosper.
LUCKLESS IN THAILAND
It was in 2011 that Yingluck Shinawatra came into prominence in Thai politics. As she became the nominee of Pheu Thai party for the position of Prime Minister, the only thing that worked in her favour was her last name. Her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, now in self-imposed exile in Dubai, had dominated the tumultuous world of Thai politics for years and is one of the most polarising figures in Thailand. Yingluck cruised to power trouncing her opponents – the Democrat Party backed by the military, announcing the return of the Shinawatra regime.
Fast forward 2013 and history seems to be repeating itself. The ongoing political crisis is a repeat of the 2010 mayhem when scores of red-shirt protesters, seen as close to Thaksin, were killed by the military for opposing the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led Democrat Party government. It was installed in 2006 after Thaksin was deposed in a coup by the Thai army. The events are more or else the same but the roles have reversed. Now, the protests are dominated by the Yellow Shirts, close to the army. They demand the incumbent step down and make way for someone appointed by the army.
When Yingluck was chosen the prime ministerial candidate of the party, many believed that she would bring stability to the shaky politics of Thailand. It was a challenge before the hitherto inexperienced Yingluck to step out of the shadow of her brother.
Thaksin Shinawatra was elected Thailand’s Prime Minister in 2001. His popularity in the rural areas was a result of populist policies that strengthened his party’s base in north and north-east Thailand. The 2010 protests saw this support base come out demanding the ouster of the Vejjajiva regime.
The elites, mostly comprising the middle and the affluent class, form the other half who are out on the streets today, demanding Yingluck‘s ouster. They are seen as opposed to representative democracy. The politics of Thailand is torn between these two opposing sides.
But moves like bringing the Amnesty Bill, apparently to extend pardon to the leader-in-exile, have revived the sentiment that Yingluck is acting on her brother’s behalf and that Thaksin is running the government by proxy.
Political unrest has become a staple of Thai Politics since Thaksin’s ouster. But its resilient economy, dubbed as “Teflon Thailand”, has weathered these storms bravely. However, third quarter economic growth in 2013 waned and infrastructure spending slowed down because of regulatory hurdles owing to political instability.
Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has put the blame on Yingluck for not being able to protect the Thai economy from external and internal shocks. The fears of tapering of foreign flows look real in the wake of US Federal Reserve’s winding down of the Quantitative Easing. A hostile political atmosphere will exacerbate the process. Speaking to Reuters, Rahul Bajoria, senior economist at Barclays Capital, said, “If there’s an escalation or snap election called, it would create uncertainty that would certainly make people edgy for a while.”
The challenges are immense for Yingluck, especially after she dissolved the Parliament and ordered fresh elections. The opposition forces have asked for postponing of elections and the takeover by a council of “morally righteous” people.
Her attempts to facilitate a return of her brother through the Amnesty Bill was defeated by the Senate. Amid growing fears that recurring political unrest is taking its toll on tourism and harming the Thai economy, Yingluck Shinawatra has her task cut out.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
Just a few decades ago, they were just sandy deserts. Today, the tale of these two cities is cited as models for emulation. Dubai and Doha have truly come a long way. They have gone on to replace the historical trading cities of Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus among others as prime business centres of the Middle East. The prevailing motto in Dubai and Doha is “business sense is common sense!” Nothing else matters.
Like every grand mission has its flip side, Dubai and Doha have theirs too. Both cities and the administration have drawn criticism on their rights record related to migrant workers. Nevertheless, the two cities keep leaping forward.
The founding fathers of the cities had unambiguous foresight. For example, Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who was responsible for the transformation of Dubai from a small cluster of settlements into a commercial hub, often used to say: “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel.” He could foretell that Dubai’s oil reserves would run out within a few generations.
The vibrancy of present-day Dubai, one of the seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which has Doha as the capital, is attributed to the progressive policies of the UAE Vice- President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruling Emir of Qatar from 1995 to 2013, respectively. Sheikh Hamad recently handed over power to his son, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.
Interestingly, there has been a quiet but effective infusion of younger blood in the decision-making process at both the places. At 33, Tamim is the world’s youngest reigning monarch. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who turned 31 this month, helps his father run the affairs of Dubai. The younger leaders have been groomed with clear goals.
Known for his penchant for sports and poetry, Hamdan has proved his leadership qualities as the Chairman of Dubai Executive Council. A video of the Crown Prince of Dubai playing with a rare white tiger cub recently became a huge hit on social media. Sheikh Hamdan posted the footage himself, on Instagram, a rare insight into his private life. He has a large following on various social media sites and each of his Instagram posts elicits thousands of likes. He adores horses and plays football. On his vision for Dubai, he has stated in media interviews that he wants to continue fostering a “spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, supporting the development of the best ideas at home and welcoming to our city the best minds from around the world.”
The goal, according to him, is to build Dubai as a knowledge-based centre of global excellence. If Dubai has reached the level of vying for Expo 2020, it reflects the successful blend of the elderly wisdom of Sheikh Mohammed and the youthful aspirations of Sheikh Hamdan.
Qatar tells a similar story. Even as the Middle East was gripped by the Arab Spring tension, Tamim managed to balance international relations and managed the affairs well. He worked for closer relations with the big player in the region, Saudi Arabia.
In 2005, he founded Qatar Sport Investments, which owns Paris Saint- Germain F.C. In 2006, he chaired the organising committee of the 15th Asian Games in Doha. Under his leadership, all member countries attended the event for the first time in its history.
It is under his guidance that Qatar won the rights to host the 2014 FINA Swimming World Championships and the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Tamim is a member of the International Olympic Committee and the National Olympic Committee chairman. He personally oversaw Doha’s bid for the 2020 Olympic Games.
On the economic front, Dubai’s predicament is a lot different from that of Qatar; the former does not have much oil. “Dubai always sought to diversify and develop a vibrant non-oil economy. Doha, on the other hand, has sought to diversify despite abundant gas resources, which is a new model of economic growth in itself,” explains Dr N. Janardhan, a UAE-based political analyst and honorary fellow of the University of Exeter.
“Dubai experimented with a liberal social milieu and encouragement of efficiency, which has not only made it a United Nations of sorts with about 200 nationalities living in the emirate but also facilitated a thriving business culture,” elaborates Dr Janardhan.
On the other hand, in pursuit of niche diplomacy, Doha sought to use its gas revenue to position itself as a champion of business enterprise, as a media hub through setting up of the Al Jazeera network, as a centre of learning through building the Education City, and as a sports city through hosting the Asian Games and winning the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
But complaints related to poor treatment of migrant workers have been Doha’s bee in the bonnet. According to Human Rights Watch, thousands of mostly South Asian migrant construction workers in Qatar risk serious exploitation and abuse, sometimes amounting to forced labour.
The Guardian reported recently that dozens of Nepalese migrant labourers have died in Qatar in recent months and thousands more are enduring appalling labour abuses, raising questions about Qatar’s preparations to host the 2022 World Cup.
Interestingly, the UAE has one of the strongest human rights records in the region. In November 2012, it was elected to the UN Human Rights Council for a three-year term.
The Norway-based Global Network for Rights and Development ranked the UAE as first among Arab countries and 14th globally for respecting human rights.
Dubai’s gross domestic product as of 2011 was $83.4 billion. Its oil reserves have diminished significantly and are expected to be exhausted in 20 years. The emirate’s property market experienced a major downturn in 2008. By 2009, the situation worsened with recession taking a heavy toll on property values.
But the emirate learnt from its mistakes. New regulations from the Dubai Land Department aim at curbing speculation while new supply is helping keep values down.
That Dubai and Doha dazzle will be an understatement. For those who are looking for a stronger dose of optimism, Sheikh Mohammed’s own words offer a soothing balm: “Be hopeful because we all overcame a lot of challenges in the past, because our present is full of achievements and because our future is promising.”
Speaking in Davos, Myanmar’s pro-democracy National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi said she wishes to run for president in 2015 elections. But the road to presidency is laid with many obstacles she would have to hurdle.
Myanmar’s current constitution, amended in 2008 by its former military regime, was not only meant to ensure the military’s primacy in Parliament but also keep Suu Kyi from running for president. Amending the constitution, that debars a parliamentarian whose spouse or children are of foreign origin from assuming presidency, is quite a task. It requires consent of more than 75 per cent of lawmakers. With NLD holding less than eight per cent of total seats in Parliament, amendment without support from military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the military that occupies 25 per cent of the seats is impossible.
Carrying Myanmar down the path of reforms in the face of ongoing ethnic conflicts, years of economic draught and a history of media censorship is a tall order as well.
TALE OF TWO CITIES