Pass impasse

The giant neighbours are more rivals than partners

China and India: Prospects for Peace. By Jonathan Holslag. Columbia University Press; 234 pages; $37.50 and £26.

FOR a book about two countries whose most recent war was five decades ago, “Prospects for Peace” seems a quirky subtitle. Jonathan Holslag, a Brussels-based think-tanker, argues that, since China’s swift and bloody humiliation of India in 1962, the neighbours have “tottered at least five times on the verge of war”. But the last time troops massed on the border was in 1986. Since then the territorial dispute that sparked the war has been “put to one side”. Bilateral trade has boomed, and hundreds of thousands of Indians and Chinese now visit the other country each year, including a succession of senior politicians toasting a beautiful friendship.

As Mr Holslag explains, however, the relationship is still marked as much by unremitting strategic mistrust as by burgeoning co-operation. His contribution to a recent flurry of India-China books attempts to reconcile these contradictory trends. His conclusions are rather unsettling.

Most of the other books on the area concentrate inevitably on the implications of the two countries’ economic rise. The simultaneous emergence into the global economy of two countries containing nearly two-fifths of the world’s people is after all an unprecedented phenomenon. Moreover, China’s dominance of global manufacturing seems matched by India’s arrival as an important provider of information-technology and other services. Mr Holslag quotes Zhu Rongji, a former Chinese prime minister: “You are number one in software. We are number one in hardware…Together we are the world’s number one.” That is India’s misfortune. Hundreds of thousands of Indians work in IT services whereas manufacturing for export provides China with tens of millions of jobs. Mr Holslag predicts that India will challenge China’s role as the world’s manufacturer, but that seems far-fetched.

This complementarity has been accompanied by a number of alliances of convenience, most notably in resisting pressure from the rich world to agree to fixed targets for limiting carbon emissions. There was even an agreement in 2006 to work together to avoid bidding up the prices of energy resources in third countries.

The limited effect of that pact, however, is one reason to believe Mr Holslag’s prognosis of a “fiercer economic rivalry and more aggressive regional diplomacy”. Another is what Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian diplomat, calls “the ghost at the banquet”: China’s increasing diplomatic and military influence in Asia—and India’s fear of it.

As Mr Holslag notes, the defeat in 1962 has left a deep suspicion of China in India’s political, academic and diplomatic circles, which is reflected in public opinion. India claims an area of Chinese-held territory in Kashmir the size of Switzerland, while China claims an area three times larger in what is now Indian Arunachal Pradesh. The border dispute remains unresolved. What had lazily been assumed to be the obvious solution—the status quo, in which each country keeps large swathes of territory claimed by the other—seems, if anything, further away than ever. The political difficulties of selling such a deal in India have long been obvious. But China’s renewed harping on its claim in recent years suggests that it in fact does want more than it already has.

In putting the strategic rivalry at the centre of his analysis, Mr Holslag provides a useful corrective to some of the more starry-eyed visions of a semi-cohesive “Chindia”. He cannot, however, overcome the two biggest difficulties of tackling the subject. One is that both countries are so big and so complex that at times broad-brush simplification of their histories and policies veers into distortion.

The second is that India is full of voluble politicians, academics, diplomats and ordinary people with fiercely held views on China. Across the border, however, fewer Chinese regard India as an issue of immediate importance, and debate on the relationship is far more circumscribed. Cyberspace may be the exception, but it is largely ignored in this account. A consequence of this—and it is something many Indians are painfully aware of—is that Indian policy often appears fragile, contradictory and self-defeating, whereas China’s seems coherent, single-minded and effective. Yet it is hard to imagine that China can have a higher foreign-policy goal in South Asia than keeping relations with India on a fairly even keel. Maybe, for once, it is Chinese policy that is in disarray.


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Back to basics

India and climate-change negotiations

What India has to offer in Copenhagen

Poor, hot and politically constrained

A STEELY lot, India’s negotiators for the Copenhagen climate talks, to be held from December 7th, are still afraid of abandonment by China. India’s position looks formidable, so long as the world’s other and mightier billion-strong developing nation shares its demands: for the sanctity of the principles enshrined in the Kyoto protocol (KP), which exempts developing countries from having to curb (or mitigate) their carbon emissions. India’s champions therefore had a fright last week when China said it would undertake to cut the carbon intensity of its economy—or the amount of carbon dioxide emitted for each unit of GDP—by 40-45% by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. As The Economist went to press, India was rumoured to be following suit, by announcing its own targets for carbon-intensity cuts.

Indian fears of being left high and dry by China had anyway calmed somewhat on November 28th, at a meeting in Beijing of representatives of China, India, South Africa and Brazil, the “Basic Group” of big developing countries. It concluded with a reiteration of their shared “non-negotiable” demands. They insisted on their freedom from mitigation obligations, except when they are sponsored by industrialised countries to undertake them. They also decried a recent proposal to fix the year by which all nations’ carbon emissions should peak. Denmark suggests this idea, tentatively mooting 2025 as the cut-off year, in a draft agreement that it has promulgated in the absence of any workable draft emerging from the two years of pre-summit negotiations.

After the talks in Beijing, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, expressed confidence that China would not “ditch us”. Should industrialised countries seek to override their “non-negotiables”, he added, the four countries would stage a collective exit from Copenhagen. This week Basic Group representatives in Copenhagen presented their own draft agreement listing their demands to envoys from various industrialised countries.

As a tigerish negotiator, India was bound to seek solidarity with China—just as some developed countries were bound to seek more and comparable anti-warming measures from them both. The world’s most populous countries, they are the world’s biggest and fourth-biggest carbon emitters. As the world’s fastest-growing big economies, moreover, their emissions will continue to grow rapidly. In 1990 their combined emissions accounted for 13% of the world’s total; in 2030 the proportion is expected to reach 34%, of which China will account for 29%. The disparity is even more pronounced today. China’s emissions per head—the benchmark for an equitable global carbon-cutting agreement—are around 5.5 tonnes. India’s are 1.7 tonnes, among the lowest outside Africa.

If this disparity is not widely appreciated, as Indian officials claim, the rigid distinction between developed and non-developed countries in the KP, which they so rigorously endorse, must be partly to blame. Mr Ramesh, who was appointed in May, has already tried to make India’s negotiating position more flexible, partly by stressing the measures the country is voluntarily undertaking to curb its emissions: through a proposed $20 billion investment in solar energy; a plan to return a third of its area to forest; and many energy-efficiency measures. His ministry’s calculations, which predate China’s announcement, allegedly show that such emission-curbing steps could reduce the carbon intensity of India’s economy by around 25% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels.

India, however, is unlikely to show more flexibility than this. In a recent leaked letter to the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, Mr Ramesh mulled going further, floating the idea that India should be less bound to its developing-world allies and take bolder mitigation steps. But Indian environmentalists, businessmen and politicians proceeded to slam this notion venomously. The world’s biggest democracy, though already suffering badly from climate change, is in this respect as politically constrained as its richest one. Mr Ramesh, however, seems to have won at least some support for his suggestion that India should appear “pragmatic and constructive, not argumentative and polemical”.


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Growing, Yes, but India Has Reasons to Worry

Military trucks in Arunachal Pradesh, where India has maintained a heavy military presence since its 1962 war with China.

During President Obama’s recent visit to China, many in India speculated that an emerging “G2” would leave their nation out in the cold.

“Obama’s China (credit) card casts shadow on PM’s US visit” ran a headline on The Times of India’s Web site shortly before India’s prime minister left for America and his own meeting last week with Mr. Obama — highlighted by the president’s first state dinner.

The country’s prickly response points to the lingering distrust with which India, which often leaned toward Moscow during the cold war, still views the United States. It is a reminder, also, of the many sensitivities that drive Indian foreign policy — sensitivities that are not always recognized in America.

For all the talk of a new era of Indo-American collaboration, Americans tend to view India through the narrow prisms of two shared concerns — a battle against Islamic extremists, and the benefits of international trade. But India is a complicated country in a complex part of the world — buffeted by internal insurgencies, surrounded by hostile neighbors, marginalized until recently as underdeveloped.

In the last decade, four of India’s neighbors (Pakistan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka) have dealt with rebellions that, to varying degrees, have filtered into India. Since independence in 1947, India has been involved in armed conflicts in at least five nearby lands (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, the Maldives); it has also become a nuclear power.

Pakistan is the most intense flashpoint, and was on many minds in a week that marked the first anniversary of attacks by Muslim extremists, traced by India to Pakistan, that left 163 people dead in Mumbai. But it is only one potential flashpoint.

Another is China, which humiliated India in a border war in 1962. Last summer, after reports surfaced in the Indian media about increased border incursions by China’s army, India began moving aircraft and soldiers closer to China. In October, an editorial in The People’s Daily, a Chinese Communist Party publication, accused India of “recklessness and arrogance.” For Indians, the verbal and military jousting that followed has stirred deep anxiety, now heightened by suspicions that America is playing up to China. When Presidents Obama and Hu issued a joint statement that appeared to open the door to Chinese involvement in South Asia, the Indian press and political establishment responded with fury, born out of a sense of betrayal.

In adddition to its regional challenges, India is entangled in a host of complicated global negotiations — on climate change, trade, nuclear proliferation, intellectual property rights. As the country emerges onto the world stage, it has often had a hard time balancing its parochial interests with its desire to play the role of a responsible global power.

India’s response to all these challenges is complicated by its own difficulty in articulating an overarching strategic doctrine.

Writing in 1992, the late American political scientist George Tanham drew attention to the lack of a broad cohesive vision. Indian foreign policy, he argued, was fragmented; he pointed, for example, to the very different threat perceptions in northern India, which tends to worry about Pakistan and China, and in the south, which is more focused on northern dominance and seaward threats.

It hasn’t always been this way. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, envisioned his nation as a force for global peace and justice. He committed India to policies of nonproliferation and anti-imperialism, and professed nonalignment in the cold war. Arguably, India’s moral high ground was always somewhat shaky; the country has rarely hesitated to use force to protect its interests. (After Indian troops marched into the then-Portuguese colony of Goa in 1961, President John Kennedy was reported to have remarked that maybe now he could be spared India’s lectures about a moral foreign policy.) Nonetheless, India’s expression of a moral foreign policy did provide an element of cohesiveness that has frayed in recent decades.

Today, as India tries to define its role as an emerging superpower, the search for a cohesive foreign policy that could articulate a response to the myriad challenges confronting the country continues.Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an Indian political scientist, says a big question for India is how to handle its new status, and in particular whether it wants to adhere to the notion of a moral foreign policy. “Now that we have in a sense arrived, what do we do?” he asked. “Do we participate in the standard great-power exceptionalism, or do we leverage our power to create a rule-bound system?”

Just as for any great power, that would be an easier question for India to answer were it not for problems in its own backyard. Indeed, Mr. Mehta argues that India is in a sense caught in a “defensive crouch” — tied to its neighbors, forced to react to regional security threats, and held back in its aspirations as a global superpower by the volatility of its neighborhood.

Akash Kapur, New York Times


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India’s Eternal Crisis

ON the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, I hurried through a dark apple orchard to the nearest television in this Himalayan village. My landlord opened his door reluctantly, and then appeared unmoved by the news I had just received by phone. I struggled to explain the enormity of what was happening, the significance of New York, the iconic status of the World Trade Center — to no avail. It was time for his evening prayers; the television could not be turned on.

I did not witness the horrific sights of 9/11 until three days later. Since then, cable television and even broadband Internet have arrived in Mashobra and in my own home. Now the world’s manifold atrocities are always available for brisk inspection on India’s many 24-hour news channels. Indeed, the brutal terrorist assault on Mumbai that killed 163 people a year ago was immediately proclaimed as India’s own 9/11 by the country’s young TV anchors, who seem to model themselves on Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Yet, on the first anniversary of “26/11,” it seems as remote as 9/11 to the inhabitants of this village.

There is no great mystery behind this indifference, which is distinct from callousness. India, where most people still depend on agriculture for a living, has just suffered one of its most serious droughts in decades. The outlook for winter crops is bleak; many farmers have committed suicide in recent months, adding to the epidemic of rural suicides over the last few years.

Politically, too, India has lurched from one crisis to another in the last year. Prudent financial regulation saved India from the worst effects of the worldwide economic recession. But the rage of people who feel themselves not only left behind but victimized by corporate-driven and urban-oriented economic growth has erupted into violence; the Indian government has called for an all-out war against the Maoist insurgent groups that now administer large parts of central India. Anti-India insurgencies in Kashmir and the northeast continue to simmer, exacting a little-reported but high daily toll.

Geopolitically, India’s room to maneuver has shrunk since the Mumbai attacks. Last November, middle-class nationalist fury, though initially directed at inept Indian authorities, settled on Pakistan, where the attacks were partly planned and financed. The writer Shashi Tharoor described “India’s leaders and strategic thinkers” as watching Israel’s assault on Gaza last winter with “empathy,” and wondering “why can’t we do the same?” One hopes Mr. Tharoor, who has since become India’s junior foreign minister, is today more aware of why India can’t do a Gaza or Lebanon on its nuclear-armed neighbor.

As Western anxiety about nuclear-armed Pakistan’s stability deepens, India can barely afford aggressive rhetoric, let alone military retaliation, against its longtime foe. Pakistan remains vital to Western campaigns against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Aware of its strategic importance, Pakistan has been in no hurry to accede to India’s demands to prosecute those it holds responsible for the Mumbai massacre. (One hopes the charges filed against seven radicals on Wednesday mark a real change.) Islamabad has also upped the rhetorical ante by accusing India of backing the violent secessionist movement in Baluchistan, in western Pakistan.

India’s seeming impotence enrages those in the new right-wing news media who are eager to commemorate 26/11, and to make that ersatz shorthand signify India’s unavenged humiliation and shame. Prabhu Chawla, the editor of India Today, the country’s leading newsmagazine, expressed the frustration of many middle-class nationalists: “India, divided by politics, doesn’t know what to do with its enemy or with its much-mauled nationalist soul. We are as clueless as we were on that dreadful November night one year ago.”

That may be true, but in a country where 400 million live without electricity, it isn’t easy to manufacture, or sustain, a national consensus. In any case, things are not as bad as the pundits make out. The lone surviving Mumbai killer is already on trial; his accomplices are being gradually apprehended. There have been no major retaliatory attacks against Muslims. There are stirrings of a civic, even political, consciousness among rich Indians who, until the Mumbai massacre, were largely unaffected by our frequent terrorist bombings.

India may have been passive after the Mumbai attacks. But India has not launched wars against either abstract nouns or actual countries that it has no hope of winning or even disengaging from. Another major terrorist assault on our large and chaotic cities is very probable, but it is unlikely to have the sort of effect that 9/11 had on America.

This is largely because many Indians still live with a sense of permanent crisis, of a world out of joint, where violence can be contained but never fully prevented, and where human action quickly reveals its tragic limits. The fatalism I sense in my village may be the consolation of the weak, of those powerless to shape the world to their ends. But it also provides a built-in check against the arrogance of power — and the hubris that has made America’s response to 9/11 so disastrously counterproductive.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”


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Seeking justice

India and Pakistan

Pakistan charges seven over the Mumbai terrorist attack. Ties with India may improve

ALMOST a year to the day after a spectacular three-day assault by Pakistani terrorists on the Indian city of Mumbai, in which at least 170 people were killed, a court in Pakistan has charged seven men with organising it. The announcement of the prosecution on Wednesday November 25th appears to represent a hopeful step in relations between Pakistan and its old rival India. India withdrew from a promising four-year diplomatic peace process after the Mumbai attack and, in July, its prime minister, Manmohan Singh, reiterated that talks would not restart until suspects within Pakistan were brought to justice.

Thus the trial is an important test of Pakistan’s promises to punish those thought to be responsible for the carnage of November 26th 2008 (dubbed as “26/11” in India). The arrested men have all, reportedly, pleaded not guilty. They are accused of training and equipping the heavily armed gunmen who opened fire in Mumbai at the swanky Taj hotel, a train station, a hospital, a Jewish centre and a café popular with foreigners. Those charged include Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the plot. Nine others have been charged in absentia.

India and America want to see evidence that Pakistan is serious about the prosecution. According to officials in Pakistan, the seven men charged this week were linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), a Pakistan-based extremist group that has claimed responsibility for attacks in Indian Kashmir and for bombings elsewhere in India in recent years. The group is thought to have built a network of sleeper cells in India, working with disaffected Indian Muslims who call themselves the Indian Mujahideen. Indian police have said that LET trained 30 militants for more than a year, in three or four camps in Pakistan, for the seaborne assault on Mumbai attack. But they say that only ten, all Pakistani, were used in the end.

LET is an especially important target for India, but Pakistan is not entirely committed to eradicating the group. Many believe that the outfit, which is thought only to launch attacks outside of Pakistan, remains closely linked to the army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency. The ISI denies supporting the group, though it did foster it early on.

Those within Pakistan who are loyal to the extremist group believe that, in the event of a war with India, it could offer a useful means of defence. In addition the government in Islamabad might be reluctant to take on new enemies as it battles the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan.

Outsiders who are critical of Pakistan, however, point to evidence that the government has long been half-hearted in taking on LET. Its founder, Hafiz Saeed, was briefly arrested last year, but was then freed because of a lack of evidence. Similarly, dozens of members of the organisation have been detained, only to be released soon afterwards. Indian officials grumble that LET has planned other assaults since the 26/11 attacks and that Pakistan’s government is pursuing a selective campaign against terrorists. They point to Mr Saeed’s long history of preaching jihad against India, even suggesting that he might have masterminded the Mumbai killings. Mr Saeed denies any involvement.


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In Delhi, doing as we do, not as we say

In the five years I worked as a reporter in India, I sat through many uncomfortable silences during interviews about Pakistani terrorists, the pervasive caste system and Indian Muslims — sensitive issues that, on the face of it, seem more controversial than carbon parts per million. But these subjects rarely stirred up as much ire as India’s stance on climate change. The topic has become a matter of national pride, a symbol of sovereignty and growing global clout. If you want to make an Indian government official really angry, bring up his carbon emissions.

This fall, when I mentioned to the Indian government’s chief economic policymaker that the United States considers India “intransigent” on climate change, the poised, Oxford-educated Montek Singh Ahluwalia looked slightly stunned for a moment. Pursing his lips, he seemed to struggle to suppress anger. “If I were using a cool description, those are either gross misperceptions or deliberate distortions,” he said in clipped British English. “The Indian approach on this has been, ‘Let’s first decide a fair pollution entitlement for different countries.’ “

India’s position on climate change — as the hard-line negotiator standing up for the moral rights of the developing world — is a familiar one. India is the world’s fourth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but for months now, it has come across as an obstinate child, leading the developing world in insisting that industrialized countries bear the brunt of the responsibility for global warming and have no right to dictate reductions to poor countries.

The international climate conference in Copenhagen next month won’t be the showdown it was originally billed as, but the United States and other nations are certainly not going to let up in their insistence that India and China accept hard emissions targets. During Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to India this summer, the country’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, rubbed the United States the wrong way when he had a climate outburst of sorts. Standing beside Clinton, he declared to a bank of reporters, “There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have among the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce emissions.”

In a country where almost half a million children die each year from water-borne diarrhea, providing access to basic services such as clean drinking water is more pressing than cutting emissions. And to do so requires energy. “You cannot say that because there is climate change the developing world shouldn’t grow,” was the outraged response when I asked Chandra Bhushan of the Center for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based research group, to explain why it is unfair to ask India to cut its emissions. “You’re essentially saying, ‘No more electricity to your house, close your factories, go back to the fields.’ “

Even under the spinning ceiling fans in his office, drops of perspiration kept springing onto Bhushan’s forehead as we talked. Like many in India, he draws a bright line between India’s “survival emissions,” from burning energy to produce food, for instance, and American-style “luxury emissions,” from things like SUVs and central air conditioning.

In every conversation I had about climate change in India, the lines were clearly drawn: Americans, who emit 20 times more than the average Indian, are greedy over-consumers refusing to make lifestyle changes that would allow the rest of the world to grow. There was no dissent among the ranks. In a country with a healthy tradition of civic engagement and anti-government protests, I was surprised that no environmentalists were urging India to accept international limits. But high-minded nationalism has a proud history there, too; when officials use phrases such as “climate injustice” and “Gandhian moral authority” to describe India’s position, it rings a bell.

Although India accounts for only about 5 percent of the world’s emissions, that includes a wide range of carbon output. The 800 million people who earn less than $2 a day have a carbon footprint of almost zero. But the tiny fraction of rich Indians who use air conditioners and drive big cars are “eating into the carbon space of millions of poor in India,” in the words of Vinuta Gopal of Greenpeace. The polluting middle class should be forced to pay a kind of carbon tax, she says, just as the industrialized world owes a debt to the developing world for its historical emissions.

Most U.S. officials consider it unhelpful and misleading to assign blame according to the past hundreds of years of emissions, since we did not know then what we know now. But in India, environmentalists often bring up the greenhouse gases the West emitted not only during its decades of industrialization but also in fighting wars. And they aren’t referring just to Iraq and Afghanistan — the world’s carbon waste in 1941 was mentioned in my interviews more than once.

Essentially, the United States wants India to commit to reducing its emissions, and India wants to be able to do so at a pace of its own choosing. But the two countries actually have a remarkably similar position: The international community isn’t going to tell us what to do. This doesn’t bode well for action on global climate change — not next month or in the sessions that are sure to follow in the future, now that world leaders have agreed that there will be no binding agreement at Copenhagen.

India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, will be in Washington this week, and the Obama administration will almost certainly use the visit to try to wheedle India into softening its position. India, for its part, will try to pressure the United States to commit to giving it funding and low-carbon technology transfers, its key demand from Copenhagen. But no one expects any “deliverables” — despite the fact that India has lately assumed a more flexible posture internationally, with Ramesh, the environment minister, making the case in New York and Washington in September that India is a “dealmaker, not a deal-breaker.”

Meanwhile, at home, the government has proposed sweeping laws to help steer a less-polluting path to development. India will tighten fuel-efficiency standards by 2011, set voluntary targets to improve energy efficiency and aggressively promote solar power generation. The domestic initiative is a diplomatic volley at the industrialized world, showing that India doesn’t need an international agreement to do the right thing. It is also a tacit admission that the country needs to mitigate global warming for its own sake. Environmentalists warn that rising sea levels and melting glaciers will hit India especially hard because of its long coastline and its proximity to the Himalayas.

Nevertheless, the question in India now is not whether its emissions will increase, but how, and by how much. Spending time there is a good reminder of how far India has to go. At least half of the population — mostly people in rural areas — have no access to electricity. Even in the capital city of one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, the pretty middle-class enclave where I lived from 2002 to 2007 suffered almost nightly power cuts during the long months of summer. The neighborhood guard would blow his whistle and holler “Light gone!” in Hindi, as though he wanted to make sure no one managed to sleep through it. Without the AC, my room would soon become unbearable, and I would join the rest of the neighborhood in shuffling out to our patios to take advantage of what breeze there was. Each summer, bands of furious city residents decide they’ve had enough of this and storm through the streets to protest their unsteady power supply.

To try to meet their demands, India plans to build more coal-fired power plants; more than 70 percent of India’s power needs are already met by coal — the most carbon-intensive source of power — and that is sure to increase in the coming years. As far as India is concerned, it has no choice but to use dirty power. Now that it has opened up its economy and given its citizens a taste of the good life, it can’t just call it all off and leave half the country behind.

But government policy adviser Ahluwalia promised me that India knows better than to make the mistakes of other nations that rapidly industrialized. “We are willing to guarantee that our per capita emissions will never exceed of those of the industrialized countries,” he said, spreading his hands generously, as though revealing a major dispensation. “If, as a result of technology, self-denial and determination, you were to cut your emissions by 50 percent — the moment you achieve it yourself, we will accept that cap.”

When I pointed out that it was inconceivable that that United States would halve its greenhouse gas emissions anytime soon, he smiled ever so slightly, with just a hint of righteousness, like a man who knows he has played a match fairly — and won.

Miranda Kennedy’s book about women and globalization in India will be published in January 2011. Her latest reporting trip to India was funded by the International Reporting Project.


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Himalayan histrionics

Asia’s two giants still cannot agree where one stops and the other begins

IF THIS is to be Asia’s century, a small prerequisite is that its two rising powers rub along together. Yet recent bonding between China and India has turned to repulsion. Breathless Indian commentary talks of irreconcilable rivalry, even future conflict. As for the Chinese, few had bothered much about India. The superiority of China’s economic and political models was taken as read. That makes an October editorial on the website of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, all the more striking.

The editorial cranked out insults not levelled in decades. India’s superpower dreams, it said, might appear to be justified. But they are mingled “with the thought of hegemony”. This was setting India on the road to “repeated failure”. Damnable, too, was India’s policy of “befriending the far and attacking the near”. Indian hegemony, the editorial decided, was “100% the result of British colonialism”, when the Raj ruled from Pakistan to Burma. Now, the victim was trying to out-empire even the British.

After wondering where all this leaves China—past colonial victim of Jurchen, Mongol, Manchu, Western and Japanese aggression—it suggests the relationship is pretty dire. Yet, although it has its problems, none seems unmanageable. Trade frictions have increased as Chinese goods have penetrated Indian markets. India has lodged more anti-dumping actions against China than has any other country. It also temporarily banned Chinese toys, citing safety concerns. India’s signature last year of a nuclear co-operation pact with the United States has created distrust in China. Many Indians, for their part, see China’s building of roads, ports and pipelines in friendly countries around the Indian Ocean as a “string of pearls” strategy designed to choke India. They even worry about its involvement in Afghanistan. A rabid Indian press is fed by retired military officers and some serving ones. Some scaremongers are out to earn a buck from American defence contractors hunting for business. China seems to accept this. Until recently, it turned a deaf ear to most of the commentary, and Chinese bloggers give as good as they get.

In truth, the real problem remains the two countries’ long, shared border. Disputes over the western and eastern ends have been unresolved since a bloody war in 1962. In the west, India claims Aksai Chin, a high plateau controlled by China, as part of Kashmir. In the east, China disputes the McMahon Line, agreed by British India and a Tibet then under British rather than Chinese sway. The line is in effect the border today, but China claims a large chunk of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls South Tibet. It includes a revered Buddhist monastery at Tawang, near the 17th-century birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama.

In a “good neighbour” policy, China has now resolved every serious land-border dispute, bar this one. A solution had seemed within reach. In 2005 the two sides laid out the approach. Principles would be agreed, then compromises made, and lastly a line drawn. Only marginal adjustments were expected to the present border. But the prospects of such a deal have crumbled as China has hardened its position. Earlier this year Chinese soldiers crossed the presumed line of control in the west and sent a herder family packing. China has blocked a water project in Arunachal Pradesh financed by the Asian Development Bank. In October it grew shrill over an electioneering trip to the state by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. China has also begun issuing different visas for Indians from Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir.

What has changed the equation is restive Tibet. Anti-Chinese riots last year highlighted the vulnerabilities for China of the vague, porous Tibetan lands. The Communist government, borrowing its impulse from the reviled Manchus of the Qing dynasty, wants once and for all to hammer down the borders of its supersized empire. All the ambiguities of borderlands and the people who wander about them must submit to the central will.

China’s urgency is reinforced by the Dalai Lama. His flight from Tibet in 1959, via Tawang, fed into border tensions then and he backs India’s border claims today. He plans to visit Tawang on November 8th. There is even talk that his reincarnation might one day be found there. That would be an excruciating outcome for the Chinese Communists, who demand the right to control Tibetans’ relations with the divine. For they could hardly declare such a reincarnation illegitimate on territorial grounds.

Seize the hour

Hence the People’s Daily’s strong words. China may feel that now is a good time to get a border settlement on its terms. After all, India grows economically stronger by the day. And recent signs of American readiness to appease China will have encouraged China to think that America will not do much to back India. Before his first trip to China as president in mid-November, Barack Obama declined to meet the Dalai Lama in Washington. China’s polemics are also designed to resonate with India’s smaller neighbours, who have their own gripes about its overbearing style. They also enjoy China’s material support. The part of the former kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, for example, is criss-crossed with Chinese infrastructure projects.

In recent days both China and India have called for cool heads and warm hearts. A former Chinese ambassador to India blamed all the two countries’ serious differences on the Indian media. In Thailand on October 24th Mr Singh and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao even made common cause on climate change, before December’s Copenhagen summit. Yet as with earlier alliances over global trade talks, this looks like a tactical marriage in the face of rich-country demands. As for whether India and China can bury the hatchet over the border: that depends as much on China’s understanding of its internal threats as on its robust, sometimes rabid, southern neighbour.

Banyan, The Economist


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Dalai Lama Lesson

India shows the world how to stand firm with China.

As Barack Obama prepares for his trip to Beijing next month, he’d be wise to cast an eye toward New Delhi, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is showing the rest of the world how to deal with Beijing when it gets into a bullying mood.

At issue is the Dalai Lama’s proposed trip next month to visit Tibetan Buddhist believers in Arunachal Pradesh, a province governed by India but claimed by China since the border war in 1962. Chinese spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu said last week the trip “further exposed the anti-China and separatist nature of the Dalai clique.”

But India stood firm. During a regional summit over the weekend Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says he “explained to Premier Wen [Jiabao] that the Dalai Lama is our honored guest; he is a religious leader.” The prime minister went on to imply that the Dalai Lama was free to travel where he pleased, so long as he did not engage in political activities.

Mr. Singh’s stance stands in sharp contrast to Mr. Obama’s decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama earlier this month. His cave-in broke Presidential precedent and emboldened Beijing to step up anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric, particularly in—guess where—India, which has hosted the Tibetan government-in-exile for more than 50 years.

Mr. Singh will face further China tests soon, given the other conflicts with his northern neighbor. China and India still dispute their 2,200-mile long border, and according to the Indian ministry of defense, Chinese incursions into Indian territory are on the rise. The countries are also butting heads in Kashmir, where China supports construction projects in territory claimed by India, and in Nepal, where Chinese influence has increased since the change of government there last year.

Those irritants are more reason for Mr. Singh to stand firm on the principles for which India stands—the very same principles of democracy and freedom that America holds. Therein lies a lesson for Mr. Obama, too.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Bordering on Danger

A Sino-Indian boundary dispute risks flaring up.

It has often been taken for granted that China and India will rise simultaneously and peacefully in the 21st century. But a recent flare-up challenges that view. Thirty-seven years after the two countries fought a border war and 28 years since they opened settlement negotiations, the entire frontier from Kashmir to Burma remains in question. It would be dangerous to ignore this festering sore any longer.

The dispute stretches back to the British Raj, when colonial official Sir Henry McMahon drew the boundary between India and Tibet at the Shimla Convention in 1913. China has never recognized the McMahon Line, and regards the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of its Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Lately the border has been arousing more fervent passions than usual. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the state of Arunachal Pradesh earlier this month, irking Beijing and prompting New Delhi to assert “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India.” Earlier this year, Beijing attempted to block a $1.3 billion loan to India by the Asian Development Bank, part of which was meant for a watershed project in Arunachal Pradesh. The war of words is likely to escalate as the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama plans to visit Arunachal Pradesh next month. Beijing is pressuring India via diplomatic protests and a media campaign to make the Dalai Lama abandon his planned trip.

The causes for the recent deterioration in relations are complex. China perceives India as the weakest link in an evolving anti-China coalition of democratic and maritime powers (the United States, Japan, Australia and India). Viewing India as a pawn in Western designs to encircle and contain China, Chinese leaders worry about the ramifications of India’s power particularly in Tibet, a concern fanned by the March 2008 uprisings there. A common theme in state media this year is the desire to capture the lost lands and crush India for daring to compete with China.

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Before the latest troubles: A handshake in 2006.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s influence in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka—all of whom have relationships with India that range from strained to downright hostile—fuels Indian anxieties. Beijing’s opposition to India’s membership in regional institutions like the East Asia Community and international forums like the United Nations Security Council; China’s attempts to scuttle the U.S.-India nuclear deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group; and Chinese naval forays into the Indian Ocean region all have reinforced Indian suspicions that China seeks to deny India its proper place in the international system.

As a result of these rising tensions the potential for armed skirmishes, if not conflict, on disputed borders remains high. Since 2006, Chinese strategic experts, bloggers, retired diplomats and think tanks linked to the People’s Liberation Army have been discussing the possibility of a “partial border war” to “teach India a lesson.” Parallels are being drawn to the pre-1962 situation, when Beijing blamed India for Tibetan uprising and New Delhi provoked China with its “Forward Policy” on the border. China has referred to India’s current troop movements as a “New Forward Policy.” The Indian media, always wary of China, have chimed in by sensationalizing alleged border incursions and by hyping “the China threat.” India’s military has bolstered its presence in areas bordering Tibet. The military forces of both sides are once again pushing into remote and previously (for the most part) unoccupied mountainous frontier regions.

Adding fuel to this fire is mounting confidence on the Chinese side that China would win any conflict and reap broader strategic rewards from doing so. PLA generals believe India’s military remains inferior in combat, logistics and war-fighting capability. Should the PLA succeed in occupying Tawang, a town near the border, and giving India’s military a bloody nose, the Chinese thinking goes, Indian leaders would be much more deferential in dealing with China. A short and swift victory would underscore the need for other countries in Asia, especially U.S. friends and allies, to accommodate China’s growing power by aligning with, rather than against, Beijing.

Though India is no match for China in force-on-force posture, it is no pushover militarily. Unlike the PLA, which has not seen combat since the Vietnam War of 1979, India’s military today is battle-hardened and experienced. If Beijing is determined to gain the lost territory in Arunachal Pradesh, India is equally determined not to see a replay of the 1962 war by losing large chunks of territory. With India embarking upon a massive military modernization plan, a punitive war may well be too costly and its outcome unpredictable.

However, all this misses the fact that China and India are both nuclear-armed nations with enormous stakes in maintaining peace. Burgeoning trade ties and collaboration on issues like climate change have shown both capitals the benefits of cooperation even as border tensions rise. For Beijing, a hardline approach to India could backfire and drive India and its other Asian neighbors into stronger opposition to China and deeper alignment with Washington and Tokyo. The pursuit of aggressive foreign adventures would destroy the benign “peaceful rise” image that China is so assiduously striving to achieve. A conflict will cost India dearly in terms of economic developmental objectives and political ambition of emerging as a great power in a multipolar Asia.

Other countries, particularly the U.S., can play a vital role in preventing escalation. Washington enjoys close ties with both China and India and could exert diplomatic pressure on both sides to reach a settlement. But ultimately this is a border dispute between two large countries, and they alone have it in their combined power to resolve their differences peacefully. It’s in both their interests to do so.

Mr. Malik is professor of Asian Security at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.


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The Delhi-Islamabad Dilemma

Don’t hold your breath for an India-Pakistan deal.

The relationship between India and Pakistan is a high-stakes balancing act, given the two sides harbor historical grievances, dispute a border region and possess nuclear weapons. Now there are again signs that the South Asian neighbors are seeking to engage with each other and at last make peace. But caution is in order, given the significant constraints still faced by each side.

At first blush, recent moves seem significant. In July, the prime ministers met at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt for the first time since last November’s terror attacks in Mumbai and decided to pursue bilateral engagement. Now Pakistan is contemplating appointing a former foreign secretary, Riaz Mohammad Khan, as its special envoy on Indian affairs—the first time Islamabad has placed a person of such seniority solely in charge of relations with India.

Various factors have been pushing India and Pakistan toward dialogue. After the September 11 attacks in New York and the November 26 attacks in Mumbai, there is little or no tolerance in the international community for the use of terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy, as Islamabad effectively has been doing with its support for militants in the disputed Kashmir region. The United States also is cultivating a close relationship with India with an eye toward the containment of rising Chinese power and influence. Pakistan could feel increasingly isolated if it does not make peace with India.

India also realizes that its aspirations to play a larger global role will not bear fruit unless it is able to better manage its relations with Pakistan. For India to be seen as a global power and not merely a South Asian one, it must first resolve its highest-profile border dispute and find a way to peacefully co-exist with its nuclear neighbor.

Yet each side also faces forces pulling it away from negotiations that are as strong or stronger than the urge to hold talks.

Part of the problem from Islamabad’s side is historical. Pakistan, conceived to be a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims, has always derived its identity from opposition to India. Significant sections of the Pakistani military and intelligence services still see themselves in a permanent state of conflict with India and have little incentive to change since that view justifies their pre-eminent position in Pakistani society. At a time when Pakistan’s Islamic identity is under siege because of its cooperation with the U.S. in the war on terror, the need to define itself relative to India remains even stronger.

The peace process also hinges on the ability of Pakistan’s political establishment to control terrorist groups from wreaking havoc in India. There is little evidence of any significant Pakistani effort to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism such as communications, launching pads and training camps on its eastern border with India. Even if it wants to, it is doubtful how much control the civilian government in Islamabad can exert given that various terrorist outfits have vowed to continue their jihad in Kashmir.

Meanwhile, in India, the Congress Party-led government will find it difficult to make any significant concessions on Kashmir, as it faces pressure from the right of the political establishment. This is especially difficult after the Mumbai attacks, as no party wants to be viewed as responsible if there is another attack—a perception that could spring from concluding a deal with Pakistan before another incident. While there is general consensus on smaller steps like opening bus routes or trade with Pakistan, this does not translate into willingness to sign a broader settlement.

Moreover, India lacks clarity in its objectives and consistency in its plans. After first asserting last year that it would not engage with Pakistan unless the Mumbai terror masterminds were brought to justice, New Delhi signaled in July this year that it was willing to talk. Then the government backed off again under domestic political pressure. Although India is now back at the table, there’s no guarantee it will stay there for long if the Mumbai perpetrators remain at large.

The biggest problem, however, is shared between both sides: the very different strategic goals India and Pakistan have in pursuing a peace process. India’s premise largely has been that the process will persuade Pakistan to cease supporting and sending extremists into India and start building good neighborly ties. Pakistan, in contrast, has viewed the process as a means to nudge India to make concessions on Kashmir such as easing of travel restrictions across the India and Pakistan sides of the territory. Yet it is obvious that India would not give up its control over the Kashmir valley. And just as India has had difficulty thinking of what it would offer, Pakistan also has had a hard time articulating what it would be satisfied with short of Kashmir.

Given the current predicament, it is difficult to be optimistic that the peace process will move much beyond initial pleasantries. However, the two sides can aim to maintain the current thaw in their relations. Outsiders, and especially the U.S., can help. Washington should push toward greater internal political and institutional reforms in Pakistan to help the country’s leaders better visualize a future of peaceful co-existence with India. The U.S. meanwhile should reassure India that it will deal strongly with terrorism emanating from Pakistan, whether directed at Afghanistan or at India. Many in India are worried about the lack of concern that the Obama administration has shown toward Indian security interests. It doesn’t help that the administration initially suggested that the resolution of the Kashmir problem would figure prominently in its agenda as a means to cajoling Pakistan to devote more energies to fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Rightly or wrongly, New Delhi interpreted that as a sign Washington would push for greater Indian concessions. By allaying these concerns, Washington could make it politically possible for New Delhi to come to the table.

As ineffective as new talks are likely to be right now, India and Pakistan do not have to be at each other’s throats in perpetuity. But the key to a lasting peace will be to understand why current talks won’t work.

Mr. Pant is a professor of defense studies at King’s College London.


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Farewell to an India I Hardly Knew

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A Calcutta bus reflects confidence among Indians. Much has changed in a generation.

The first thing I ever learned about India was that my parents had chosen to leave it.

The country was lost to us in America, where I was born. It had to be assembled in my mind, from the fragments of anecdotes and regular journeys east.

Now, six years after returning to the country my parents left, as I prepare to depart it myself, the mind goes back to the beginning, to my earliest pictures of it.

India, reflected from afar, was late-night phone calls with the news of death. It was calling back relatives who could not afford to call you. It was Hindu ceremonies with saffron and Kit Kat bars on a silver platter.

India, consumed on our visits back, was being fetched from the airport and cooked a meal even in the dead of night. It was sideways hugs that strove to avoid breast contact. It was the chauvinism of uncles who asked about my dreams and ignored my sister’s.

It was wrong, yet easy, to feel that we did India a favor by coming home. We packed our suitcases with things they couldn’t get for themselves: Jif peanut butter, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Gap khakis. These imports sketched a subtle hierarchy in which they were the wanting relatives and we their benefactors.

My cousins in India would sometimes ask if I was Indian or American. I saw that their self-esteem depended on my answer. “American,” I would say, because it was the truth, and because I felt that to say otherwise would be to accept a lower berth in the world.

What it meant to be American was to be free to invent yourself, to belong to a family and a society in which destiny was believed to be human-made.

I looked around in India and saw everyone in their boxes, not coming fully into their own, replicating lives lived before. If only they came to America, I told myself, so-and-so would be a millionaire entrepreneur; so-and-so would be as confident in her opinions as her husband; so-and-sos’ marriage would be more like my parents’, with verve and swing-dancing lessons and bedtime crossword puzzles; so-and-so would study history and literature, not just bankable practicalities.

I moved to India six years ago in an effort to understand it on my own terms, to render mine what had until then only belonged to my parents.

India was changing when I arrived and has changed dramatically, viscerally, improbably in these 2,000 days: farms giving way to factories; ultra-cheap cars being built; companies buying out rivals abroad. But the greatest change I have witnessed is elsewhere. It is in the mind: Indians now know that they don’t have to leave, as my parents left, to have their personal revolutions.

It took me time to see. At first, my old lenses were still in place — India the frustrating, difficult country — and so I saw only the things I had ever seen.

But as I traveled the land, the data did not fit the framework. The children of the lower castes were hoisting themselves up one diploma and training program at a time. The women were becoming breadwinners through microcredit and decentralized manufacturing. The young people were finding in their cellphones a first zone of individual identity. The couples were ending marriages no matter what “society” thinks, then finding love again. The vegetarians were embracing meat and meat-eaters were turning vegetarian, defining themselves by taste and faith, not caste.

Indians from languorous villages to pulsating cities were making difficult new choices to die other than where they were born, to pursue vocations not their father’s, to live lives imagined within their own skulls. And it was addictive, this improbable rush of hope.

The shift is only just beginning. Most Indians still live impossibly grim lives. Trickle down, here more than most places, is slow. But it is a shift in psychologies, and you rarely meet an Indian untouched by it.

Grabbing hold of their destinies, these Indians became the unlikely cousins of my own immigrant parents in America: restless, ambitious, with dreams vivid only to themselves. But my parents had sought to beat the odds in a bad system, to be statistical flukes that got away.

What has changed since they left is a systemic lifting of the odds for those who stay. It is a milestone in any nation’s life when leaving becomes a choice, not a necessity.

My parents watch me from their perch outside Washington, D.C., and marvel at history’s sense of irony: a son who ended up inventing himself in the country they left, who has written of the self-inventing swagger of a rising generation of Indians, in a country where “self” was once a vulgar word.

At times, my mother wonders if they should have remained, should have waited for their own country’s revolution instead of crashing another’s. And as I leave India now I can only wonder how history would have turned out if the ocean of change had come a generation earlier.

Because it came between their generation and mine, the premise of our family story has been pulled out from beneath us. We are American citizens now, my family, and proudly so. But we must face that we are Americans because of a choice prompted by truths that history has undone. They were true at the choice’s making; in India, I saw their truth boil slowly away.

They don’t crave our mayonnaise and khakis anymore. They no longer angrily berate America, because they are too busy building their own country. Indian accents are now cooler than British ones. No one asks if I feel Indian or American. How delicious to see that unconcern. How fortunate to live in a land you needn’t leave to become your fullest possible self.

And how wondrous, in this time of revolutions, to have had my own here.

I grew up in America defining myself by the soil under my feet, not by the blood in my veins. The soil I shared with everyone else; the blood made me unbearably different. Before I loved India, I loathed it. But that feeling seems now like a relic from a buried past.

I leave now on the journey’s next stretch, with sadness and with joy, humbled by India, grateful to have been at the revolution and to have known the revolutions within.

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Indian Court Overturns Gay Sex Ban

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Activists embraced outside the high court in New Delhi after the court decriminalized consensual gay sex on Thursday.

In a landmark ruling Thursday that could usher in an era of greater freedom for gay men and lesbians in India, New Delhi’s highest court decriminalized homosexuality.

“The inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognizing a role in society for everyone,” judges of the Delhi High Court wrote in a 105-page decision, India’s first to directly address rights for gay men and lesbians. “Those perceived by the majority as ‘deviants’ or ‘different’ are not on that score excluded or ostracized,” the decision said.

Homosexuality has been illegal in India since 1861, when British rulers codified a law prohibiting “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal.” The law, known as Section 377 of India’s penal code, has long been viewed as an archaic holdover from colonialism by its detractors.

“Clearly, we are all thrilled,” said Anjali Gopalan, the executive director and founder of the Naz Foundation, an AIDS awareness group that sued to have Section 377 changed. “It is a first major step,” she said during a news conference in Delhi, but “there are many more battles.”

Thursday’s decision applies only in the territory of India’s capital city, but it is likely to force India’s government either to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, or change the law nationwide, lawyers and advocates said.

Outside the hall where the Naz Foundation news conference was held, dozens of young men and women gathered to celebrate, along with a group of hijras, men who dress and act like women who classify themselves as belonging to neither gender. “It is a victory of human rights, not just of gay rights,” said one 22-year-old man who only identified himself as Manish.

Gay men and women have rarely been prosecuted under Section 377 in India in modern times, but it has been used to harass, blackmail and jail people.

Britain legalized homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967, but many of its former colonies, including Singapore, Zimbabwe and Malaysia, still retain strict laws against same-sex relations.

India’s family-oriented society is generally unwelcoming of homosexuality except in the most cosmopolitan circles. It is not uncommon for gay men and women to marry heterosexuals and have families, while carrying on secret relationships with members of the same sex.

In their decision, Chief Justice A. P. Shah and Justice S. Muralidhar declared Section 377, as it pertains to consensual sex among people above the age of 18, in violation of important parts of India’s Constitution. “Consensual sex amongst adults is legal, which includes even gay sex and sex among the same sexes,” they said.

The old law violates Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees all people “equality before the law;” Article 15, which prohibits discrimination “on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth;” and Article 21, which guarantees “protection of life and personal liberty,” they said.

Acceptance of homosexuality has thawed somewhat in recent years in some urban areas. Gay pride parades in Indian cities last weekend attracted thousands of marchers, and several recent Bollywood movies, like Dostana, have included gay themes and characters, often played by Bollywood’s biggest heterosexual stars.

Still, the decision was condemned from many corners in India. “This is wrong,” said Maulana Abdul Khaliq Madrasi, a vice chancellor of Dar ul-Uloom, the main university for Islamic education in India. The decision bring Western culture to India, he said, will “corrupt Indian boys and girls.”

The High Court decision should be overturned, said Murli Manohar Joshi, the leader of the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. “The High Court can not decide all things,” he said.

The change comes after a decade-long, broad-based campaign organized by gay rights advocates, authors, celebrities, lawyers and AIDS awareness groups from around the world. India has one of the world’s largest populations of people with AIDS, and Section 377 was view by many advocates as a hurdle to education about safer sex.

Now that the High Court has ruled against Section 377, some say the next step is a change in the way that society views gay people. “The real problem is still the stigma attached,” especially outside big cities, said Ritu Dalmia, one of India’s best-known chefs, who lives with her girlfriend in Delhi.

Change particularly needs to happen in rural India, she said in an e-mail interview Thursday afternoon. “I have met women who were forced to sleep with men so that they could be ‘cured’ of homosexuality,” she said.

“Today is a historical moment where at least some tiny steps have been taken, but there is still a very, very long road ahead,” she said.


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Indian Court Decriminalizes Consensual Gay Sex

A top court in the Indian capital of New Dehli on Thursday overturned a colonial-era law banning gay sex between consenting adults in a ruling hailed by activists as a victory for human rights in the world’s biggest democracy.

In a strongly worded statement, New Delhi’s High Court ruled that the 150-year statute prohibiting homosexual acts was discriminatory and therefore a “violation of fundamental rights.”

“It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster dignity of every individual,” the court said in a 105-page judgment.

Quoting India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Justice A.P. Shah said: “Words are magic things often enough, even the magic of words sometimes cannot convey magic of human spirit and of a nation’s passion.”

The ruling applies only to New Delhi and to consensual sex among adults older than 18. But federal government ministers are also in the process of reviewing the law.

Acceptance of homosexuality has grown in India over the past two years, most visibly in Bollywood films and gay pride parades attended by thousands of people, especially youths, who make up 75 percent of the country.

“I am so proud of India. The ruling was made in the most exquisite terms of equality, of dignity, of privacy and of respect for all human rights,” said Sumith Baudh, a member of Voices Against 377, a coalition of advocacy groups. “We know this will translate for the lives of many Indians into creating more tolerance, fighting harassment, isolation and depression they have long suffered.”

But Indian society is deeply religious and bound by centuries-old traditions, and Hindu, Muslim and Christian leaders were quick to denounce the court’s decision as harmful to the Indian family and traditional values.

Kamal Farooqi of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board called the ruling “a sad day for civilized society.”

“They are spoiling the future generations,” Farooqi said. “It’s un-Indian.”

Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said in a statement that “while respecting the judgment of the court, we still hold that homosexuality is not an acceptable behavior in society.”

Others have argued that the law was a holdover from the British times and that Hindu scripture includes flattering references to gay and lesbian sex as one of the natural joys of human experience.

“Most of the world’s sodomy laws are relics of colonialism,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “As the world’s largest democracy, India has shown the way for other countries to rid themselves of these repressive burdens.”

Countries that still retain versions of this British sodomy law include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigera, Sudan and Sierra Leone. Governments that inherited the same British law but have abolished it since include Australia, Fiji, Hong Kong and New Zealand.

The petitioners to the High Court were backed by a swell of overseas support. The United Nations argued that the law was a barrier to combating the spread of HIV/AIDS in a country that has an estimated 2.5 million people living with HIV. The U.S. consulate in the southern city of Chennai recently held a photo exhibit highlighting gay rights in the United States.


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Congress victory in Indian election as BJP concedes defeat

Rahul Gandhi led India’s ruling Congress party to a convincing victory in the biggest democratic election in history, after their Hindu nationalist rivals, the Bharatiya Janata Party, conceded defeat.

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Congress Party supporters celebrated on Saturday in Jammu, India.

As results poured in, Congress appeared to have taken the majority of seats in several key states against all earlier predictions. They made sweeping gains in Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, West Bengal and looked set to win 190 seats to become the largest single party in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, or lower house, by a wide margin.

By early lunchtime, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance had won or was leading in 254 seats, compared with the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance tally of 162.

If these early trends are confirmed by the actual results later this afternoon, it will be a stunning personal victory for Mr Gandhi and a vindication of his high-risk election strategy. The scion of India’s Gandi dynasty had rejected seat-sharing deals with former allies in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and opted instead to field Congress candidates to rebuild the party’s support base.

He also played a key role in ousting old campaigners and replacing them with younger candidates to appeal to India’s vast youth vote.

Senior leaders of both main parties had voiced concerns at the power small regional and caste-based parties were likely to wield in coalition negotiations following the count. They had expected a narrow margin between Congress and the BJP and that both parties would be held to ransom, but according to the early trends, Mayawati’s “untouchable” BSP in Uttar Pradesh and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) appeared to have suffered heavy defeats.

In Uttar Pradesh, where Congress had been wiped off the map in recent elections by caste-based parties, it looked set to win in 21 seats, almost double its previous tally. In West Bengal, where the Communists have held power for three decades, Congress and its allies were on course to win 23 seats, with the Communists slumping from 28 to just 13. In Kerala, Congress and its allies routed the Communists to win 16 of the state’s 20 seats. The Communists won just four.

Prakash Karat, the CPI (M) leader, said his party had suffered a “setback” in the election. “This necessitates a serious examination of the reasons for the party’s poor performance,” he said.

Arun Jaitley of the BJP conceded defeat and said his party would review its decline from its 2004 vote and take stock. “We have somewhat come down below our 2004 performance. We’ll have to look into several factors,” he said.

One key factor in the BJP defeat appears to have been the aged profile of the party’s leadership – its prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani is 82 – compared with the youthful profile of the Congress party’s rising stars.

The scale of the Congress victory sparked immediate speculation over whether Rahul Gandhi would replace Dr Manmohan Singh as prime minister.

One of Mr Gandhi’s key supporters, Jyotiraditya Scindia, said “Rahul Gandhi’s focus on youth and development and bringing the marginalised into the mainstream in India” had been the decisive factor in its performance.


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India’s Ruling Party Set for Decisive Victory

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Farooq Abdullah, right, patron of the National Conference party, won a seat in India’s parliamentary elections.

The ruling Indian National Congress was poised Saturday to soar to a surprisingly decisive victory in India’s parliamentary elections, sidelining small, regional party bosses and potentially diminishing the power of communists who had been largely responsible for blocking economic reforms over the last five years.

With the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party conceding defeat by early afternoon, the apparent Congress landslide signals the possibility of a stable and strong government in the face of stiff challenges: a sharp slowdown in economic growth, abiding poverty and instability in the region, including in Pakistan.

By midafternoon, the Congress-led coalition was projected to be leading in 248 of 543 parliamentary seats, according to the state-owned television broadcaster, Doordarshan, with 162 for the coalition headed by the opposition B.J.P. A third alliance, launched by a collection of communist parties, reported a lead in only 60 seats. Final results were due later in the day.

“We have got the numbers now to form a stable government,” Prithviraj Chavan, a Congress minister, declared on television. A smaller vote share would have led to protracted and difficult political horse-trading with necessary allies and engendered a potentially weak and ineffectual government — a prospect that had worried political observers at home and analysts and investors abroad.

The incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was expected to continue in office. Not since the country’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has an incumbent prime minister finished a full five year term in office and been returned to power.

Congress’s appeals to the rural poor paid off, including a massive public jobs program in the countryside, higher government prices for staple grains, and a costly loan waiver program for indebted farmers. A host of regional and caste-based parties, whose leaders had openly declared their ambitions to rule India, trailed. And in the massive, politically influential state of Uttar Pradesh, with a population equivalent to that of Brazil, Congress posted its best performance in over 20 years.

For this, Congress leaders showered praise on Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the inevitable party leader; he and his sister, Priyanka Vadra, known for her quick political wit, campaigned heavily across the state.

The apparent margin of victory surprised even party officials.

“It exceeded our wildest expectations,” Jairam Ramesh, a key Congress party strategist, said in an interview in the party headquarters, as party workers beat drums and set of firecrackers in the sizzling midday heat.

Shortly thereafter, at a somber and largely empty B.J.P. office, Arun Jaitley, a party leader, accepted defeat. “Something certainly did go wrong,” he told reporters. “We will analyze the reasons.”

Congress will still need a few outside partners to seize a majority of parliament, and none among its leaders were ready to announce their choice of allies. Last time, the Congress-led coalition, known as the United Progressive Alliance, relied on several Communist parties to stay in power, and the government was frequently bogged down by the competing demands of its partners, putting a slate of reforms on hold, from fixing the bureaucracy to privatizing more state-owned companies. The Communists withdrew their support over the contentious and path-breathing nuclear deal with the United States last October.

This time, the Communists seem to have got a drubbing in their longtime stronghold state of West Bengal — paradoxically, over the way its investor-friendly leaders tried to forcibly acquire farmland for industry.

For Congress, this stands to bring sweet relief. “The Left will not have a stranglehold,” said Mr. Ramesh. “There will be better cohesion on economic policy. Right now, the priority is to restore high economic growth.”

The B.J.P.’s appeals to national security did not yield political dividends. Its bête noire, Varun Gandhi, jailed for making hate speeches, was projected to win.

The election results defied several commonplace assumptions. Several professional commentators rued the absence of ideas and ideology in these polls, and yet Indians went to the polls in droves in the scorching summer heat: At nearly 60 percent, election turnout was higher than in 2004. There were widespread fears about small, regional parties upstaging the national parties — or demanding influential government portfolios in exchange for their support. But they remained small and regional, and some of them approached defeat.

For Rahul Gandhi, these elections were a crucial test of credibility. Mr. Gandhi became his party’s star campaigner, averaging four campaign rallies a day for over a month straight. His mother, the party chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, had renounced the prime minister’s post last time, when the Congress clinched a surprise victory. This time, too, she faces an act of renunciation: whether to stick to Mr. Singh, whom she has repeatedly described as the party’s choice for the post, or rewarding her son.


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Varun Gandhi restrictions lifted

Varun Gandhi

Mr Gandhi denied making sppeches that insulted Muslims

The Supreme Court in the Indian capital, Delhi, has revoked stringent restrictions imposed upon the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Varun Gandhi.

Mr Gandhi, a grandson of former PM Indira Gandhi, was on bail after being detained under the National Security Act for inciting religious tension.

The restrictions meant he was banned from making “provocative speeches”.

The government of the state of Uttar Pradesh says that it will appeal against the court’s decision.

Mr Gandhi is standing as a parliamentary candidate for the BJP in India’s general elections.


The court’s decision has been welcomed by members of Mr Gandhi’s family.

“Varun has always maintained he had full faith in the judiciary and that has been once again vindicated today,” his aunt, Ambika Shukla, said.

“As you can imagine it has been a very difficult time… he spent 20 days in jail unfairly at a time when every other candidate was free to campaign.

“So it has been a difficult time especially aggravated by the timing of his detention and the circumstances and the vindictiveness of this campaign which has targeted him,” she said.

Mr Gandhi was released from jail in Uttar Pradesh on 16 April after he gave a fresh undertaking to the Supreme Court that he would not make any inflammatory speeches.

His arrest was marked by violent protests by his supporters. Under the National Security Act, a person can be detained for up to one year without bail.

Mr Gandhi is the son of Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s younger son who was killed in a plane crash.

Although he is a descendant of the influential Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Mr Gandhi belongs to a side of the family that they have disowned.


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Indian Court Orders Charges Dropped Against Varun Gandhi

India’s top court Thursday ordered charges dropped against Varun Gandhi, an estranged member of the Nehru-Gandhi political clan, for inciting religious hatred while election campaigning.

Gandhi, 29, had been on parole for a month following his arrest under the stringent National Security Act by the Uttar Pradesh state government in March.

He was taken into custody after being filmed telling supporters at an election rally that he would “cut the heads of Muslims.”

“The state government shall forthwith withdraw the detention order against Varun Gandhi under the NSA (National Security Act),” ruled a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

The court had initially ordered Gandhi’s release on April 16 on the condition he refrain from making any speeches that could inflame communal tensions in Hindu-majority India.

A great-grandson of India’s first premier Jawaharlal Nehru, Varun Gandhi has broken with the “first family” of Indian politics by joining the opposition Hindu nationalists, rather than the secular-minded Congress Party that the Nehru-Gandhi lineage has dominated since independence.

Gandhi was one of the candidates seeking election Wednesday on a Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, ticket in the last phase of India’s five-stage national polls.

Exit polls suggested the incumbent Congress coalition was narrowly ahead of the Hindu nationalist alliance but the final results of the general elections will only be announced Saturday.

The Supreme Court’s decision came after the Uttar Pradesh state advisory board said the charges laid against Gandhi under the National Security Act – normally used against dangerous criminals – should be dropped.

The board said it didn’t find “convincing” grounds for the act to be invoked against Gandhi while the BJP called the charges “politically motivated.”

Under the act, an accused can be detained up to one year without bail.

Gandhi had said the recording of his speech, widely aired on Indian TV, had been doctored but India’s Election Commission said it found no evidence of tampering.


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India’s Path to Economic Reform Reaches a Fork in Vote

India may 13 1

Indians waited to vote in the village of Viswasapuram on Wednesday, the fifth round in elections to choose a new national government.

In one of the many slick campaign commercials that are airing during this country’s monthlong election, an actor reels off the signature achievements of the governing Congress Party over the last 60 years: independence, land reform, a green revolution and bank nationalization.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition, is championing subsidies for a struggling diamond industry and promising to protect farmland against “dubious industrial projects.” One regional party said it would reduce the use of computers in the government to increase employment.

India’s rise as an economic power has captivated many people in the West, but talk of economic openness and dynamism leaves many Indians cold. This year, the global financial crisis has made appeals to India’s traditional socialist-style self-sufficiency even more popular. Policies that seemed increasingly outdated during the fast growth of the past 15 years are getting a fresh hearing, partly because they are seen as insulating much of India from the worldwide slump.

No matter which coalition of parties comes to power in voting that ended on Wednesday — none is expected to win a majority in Parliament — the next stage of Indian reforms will be deeply contentious. After nearly a decade of high-growth and rising prosperity, many in the political class are skeptical that India needs more openness to investment, fewer state-owned firms, or greater deregulation of the private sector.

Take banks. The government is the majority shareholder in about 70 percent of banks by deposits. Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party, has said that the nationalization of banks in the 1960s by her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, has “given our economy the stability and resilience we are now witnessing in the face of the economic slowdown.” In its manifesto, Congress promises that the government will retain a majority stake in state-owned companies.

Congress, which started India on the path to economic openness in the early 1990s, now says it has saved the country from freewheeling capitalism. Many of its rivals claim they would do more. A Communist Party leader, Prakash Karat, who is hoping to form a “Third Front” government in partnership with regional parties, has said that the left, which is often criticized for holding India back, has in fact “protected our economy, national sovereignty and the interests of the people.”

Even L. K. Advani, the leader of the B.J.P., the opposition Hindu nationalist party that has generally been more supportive of free markets, has described the financial crisis as a “clear warning to India” not to emulate Western ways. “India cannot attain prosperity by boosting speculative instincts,” he said late last year according to the Press Trust of India.

Economists and political analysts who favor deeper reforms in India say they are worried by the tone of vindication among those who opposed the country’s fitful embrace of foreign trade and competition in recent years. These people say that Indian politicians seem to have forgotten the high price the country paid in terms of slow growth and unshakable poverty when the government kept the country insulated from the outside world during the cold war.

Many people “don’t quite remember how bad it was in the ’80s when we had tremendous amount of rationing, when it took years to get a car, when it took years to get a phone,” said Raghuram G. Rajan, a prominent economist who recently led a government-appointed panel that proposed financial reforms, including a gradual privatization of state-owned banks.

Mr. Rajan, who issued early warnings about the fragility of the American financial system, added that India could pursue reforms without risking the stability of its economy.

“Markets need regulations and regulators, and regulators need to do their job,” said Mr. Rajan, a finance professor at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.

After several decades of state-led economic planning, a Congress-led government started opening up the economy in the early 1990s when a financial crisis forced policymakers to seek help from the International Monetary Fund. Since then, efforts to further liberalize the economy have come unpredictably, depending on the makeup of governing coalitions in New Delhi and the differing inclinations of regional leaders. Though India’s strong growth in recent years has won the country’s leaders a measure of respect in the rest of the world, the departing Congress-led government had been slowing down reform anyway. It put off deregulation of financial services and the privatization of state-owned businesses to appease the regional, left-leaning parties it needed to stay in power.

Since the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States set off a global downturn, however, the antipathy toward capitalist excess has only grown. Now, smaller parties that respond more readily to populist demands seem poised to stall liberalization and perhaps even roll back measures, like more openness to foreign investors, if they gain seats in Parliament.

“This crisis provides cover for the Indian politicians to say we were right to be cautious,” said Razeen Sally, director of the European Center for International Political Economy who has been critical of the current government’s record. “It’s not only a danger in India, but across the world.”

But the Indian business establishment appears to be less worried, at least as long as the next government is led by Congress or the B.J.P. and not a coalition made up entirely of leftist parties.

Chandrajit Banerjee, the executive director of the Confederation of Indian Industry, said the populist talk would dissipate once a new government confronted economic realities of slowing growth and falling foreign investment. His group is advocating greater infrastructure spending, changing labor laws to allow businesses to hire and fire workers more easily, lifting restrictions on foreign investment, and streamlining licensing requirements.

“Rhetoric is part of elections,” Mr. Banerjee said. Once elections are over “what one would see is a very, very strong practical approach.”

Still, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an independent member of the upper house of Parliament and an entrepreneur, said he was worried that the country would not undertake the next series of reforms until it faced a new crisis.

“The real issue is the leadership of the political parties, and the positions that they take are so stark that they don’t allow for a meeting of minds,” he said. “Sometimes the answer may be that you just have to allow the crisis to develop and use it to push through reforms.”


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Coming of age of Rahul Gandhi

gandhi may 10

Mr Gandhi’s news conference has put the spotlight on his political acumen

One of the more significant developments of the ongoing Indian elections is the coming of age of Rahul Gandhi – the governing Congress party’s heir apparent and the fourth generation scion of the famous Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

As campaigning for the Indian elections has gradually peaked, Mr Gandhi has come to occupy the centre stage.

As the new poster boy of the party and its principal campaigner, he has addressed more public meetings than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress President Sonia Gandhi put together.

The signs have been unmistakable these past few weeks.

A generation shift is taking place in the nearly 125-year-old Congress party, with Mrs Gandhi looking increasingly comfortable with her son assuming a bigger role.

His word was final in forging pre-election alliances. It is well known that the party’s decision to go it alone in the politically crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – which together account for 120 of the 543 parliamentary seats – was taken on Mr Gandhi’s insistence.

He will most certainly play a decisive role once the results are declared.

Depending on how many seats the Congress gets, the final call on whether the party makes an effort to rustle up the required numbers or sits in opposition will be taken by Mr Gandhi.

‘Man in command’

At a news conference in Delhi earlier this week – his first in the national capital – Mr Gandhi gave the impression of a man in command, exuding a mix of authority and charm (a Mumbai-based writer and socialite referred to him as the “dimpled darling” in a newspaper article!)

Supporters of Rahul Gandhi

Mr Gandhi is popular among India’s younger voters

H now looks like someone who is comfortable discussing politics and taking decisions.

It is a far cry from 2004 when he made his debut from Amethi, the Gandhi family parliamentary constituency in north India from where he is now an MP.

He was introduced to the people of Amethi by his charismatic sister, Priyanka.

I was there along with some other journalists. As we watched an unsure, somewhat hesitant and uncomfortable Rahul, our collective verdict was swift and severe.

A political greenhorn, shy and introverted. We found him well mannered and sincere but thought that was hardly good enough to succeed in the rough and tumble of Indian politics.

He also failed to impress as a public speaker and looked distinctly uncomfortable with large crowds. But there was a refreshing ring of honesty about him which was noticed by everyone.

Family ties

But that was five years ago and it is obvious he has evolved since then. He is more assured, relaxed and gives the impression of being comfortable donning the mantle of a politician.

He also comes across as someone with definite ideas about right and wrong and what is the best way forward for the Congress.

He demonstrated his faith in the young by taking charge of the youth wing of the party. He then extended crucial support to the youthful Omar Abdullah for the post of Jammu and Kashmir chief minister.

He has also repeatedly said during the last couple of years that in his view one of the most important tasks before him is to democratise the Congress and hold internal elections.

A Congress party rally

Mr Gandhi has addressed more rallies than the PM and Mrs Gandhi together

This idea of internal democracy does sound a bit odd coming from someone whose only claim to fame is his family name.

Mr Gandhi – or anyone else in his family since the days of his great grandfather and independent India’s first prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru – has really not had to work their way up in the Congress.

Their critics dub them the last of the Moguls; they say the Gandhi family think they have some divine right to rule.

But for the tens of millions of supporters of the family – both within and outside the Congress party – there is no looking beyond a Gandhi in their search for a national leader.

It is not an easy debate to settle, especially in South Asia where political dynasties seem to flourish.

Those who defend the Gandhis also talk about political families in the opposition. The example of Kennedys, Bushs and the Clintons is also given to buttress the point of political families thriving even in the US.

Mr Gandhi himself admits to the advantage he enjoys because of his family name.

“But just because I am an outcome of a system does not mean that I cannot change it,” he said when quizzed on his attempts to democratise the Congress.

‘Straight talking’

But following his news conference this week – where he praised some prominent opposition leaders – another debate has now started about whether Mr Gandhi is still a little wet behind the ears, and how long it will take for him to mature into a seasoned politician.

Mr Gandhi’s remarks were seen by some of his party’s allies as needless and untimely merit certificates handed to opposition leaders in the thick of an electoral battle.

Priyanka Gandhi

Mr Gandhi was introduced in Amethi by his charismatic sister Priyanka

A large section of the Indian media, as well as opposition leaders, have described Mr Gandhi’s remarks as politically naive, serving only to confuse his friends and give more ammunition to his critics.

But a few more charitably inclined analysts are reading a political masterstroke in the remarks. They say the young Gandhi has succeeded in sowing seeds of confusion in the opposition cadres by “very carefully calibrated comments”.

Nothing can be farther from the truth in my opinion. If anyone is really confused, then they have to be those friends of the Congress party who are working flat out to oppose some of those opposition leaders Mr Gandhi praised.

Though to be fair to him, I do believe that some of his comments were rather exaggerated and misinterpreted in the Indian media. But then that comes from being a public figure.

There is another interpretation which is being put forward by those who know Mr Gandhi well.

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit said people should not read too much politics into candid remarks made by a young politician.

The former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and a friend of the Gandhi family, Farooq Abdullah, was more forthright.

“Thank God there are some straight-talking people like him in politics. Otherwise most politicians in this country are dubious and dishonest.”

Mr Abdullah has a point. For too long Indians have been exposed to politicians they do not really trust or like. But at the same time, they have also come to expect a certain kind of behaviour from them.

Candour, sincerity and a freshness of approach are not the attributes one associates with Indian politicians.

Maybe Mr Gandhi really represents that whiff of fresh air his supporters discern in his approach towards politics.

Whichever side – his critics or supporters – is right, I am sure Mr Gandhi will have learnt his own lesson from the press conference.

In public life – especially if you are a Gandhi in India – your every word will be dissected and analysed.

Whatever one’s intentions, in the highly-charged Indian political environment there is a very thin dividing line between “speaking from the heart” and “shooting from the hip”.


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Gandhi’s Generational Gamble

Back to Bihar

It’s 1987 and I am to leave Bihar; the place where I was born in 1981. It’s the bleakest state in a country with more poverty than anywhere else. Before my departure my tearyfaced grandfather squeezes my shoulders and tells me never to forget my roots. I turn around and go, hoping never to look back.

We settled in Manhattan, where there were three degrees of punishment for bad behavior. “No more TV” and “go to your room” were acceptable. But the third left cold terror in my heart. It was the threat to be sent back to Bihar. Old visions would fill my head — of potholed roads teeming with animals, of pus oozing from the sores on my legs from dozens of mosquito bites.

I knew even then that Bihar was a place meant to be deserted — a place to acknowledge only when absolutely compelled.

Nearly two decades later, in a classroom at the London School of Economics, I watched a British economist present slides of growth trajectories of India’s states. All showed positive growth — all but one, Bihar. The economist dwelled on Bihar’s lack of development. He told stories of a place of such hopelessness that my classmates laughed in disbelief. I joined in, but the laughter stuck in my throat.

He asked if anyone had visited India. I raised a timid hand and said that I was from Bihar. He raised his eyebrows and said, “Well, it’s a good thing you know very little of the place.”

The truth stung. Bihar, like India, had become a stranger to me despite my grandfather’s warning. Something deeper than pride stirred. I knew it was time to return to India and experience the country for myself.

My family was incredulous. Why punish yourself, they asked.

I ended up in Delhi working in the field of development. Eventually my work took me to Bihar. I arrived in the guise of an expert in socio-economic makeovers, not as a daughter of the soil. But something had changed.

Distance and circumstance had given me new lenses. The frequent power outages were no longer a reason to play on the roof, but a sign that growth was being stifled. Seeing pedestrians being splashed on the flooded streets no longer amused me; instead it was evidence of choked drainage systems that had flooded the region. I learned that millions of the poorest had lost their homes. Given little choice, they left, pouring into the other states in search of work.

These facts stoked feelings of ownership and detachment in equal measure. I felt guilty for escaping, and thankful that I had escaped.

I came to Bihar again some days ago, on the eve of India’s elections. I imagined I would witness the processes of democracy unfold. I expected hard questions to be asked of politicians and solutions demanded. Instead, I discovered acceptance and desperation: The rich not voting, the poor in revolt. Rule by the people has significance only when the people have enough to fulfill basic needs.

India moves forward; Bihar falls back. And I fear that there is nothing I can do. My voice means nothing here. Like the flood victims, the landless laborers and the educated elite, I left — left so that I would not be snared by the immemorial Bihari fate: a life of resignation and silence.

The consequence weighs heavy on my mind. I saved myself, and so became yet another person who cannot not save Bihar.

Ranu Sinha is a water specialist at an international development organization.


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India, Suddenly Starved for Investment


Construction cables await the return of financing and workers to continue development of this mall site in Gurgaon.

Sumit Sapra is a member of that ambitious, impatient generation of young Indians who rode the crest of the global economy. In five years, he changed jobs three times, quadrupling his salary along the way. Even when satisfied with his position, he kept his résumé posted on job sites, in case better offers came along. And he splurged. In three years, he bought three cars, moving up a notch in luxury each time. For weekend jaunts, he bought a motorcycle.

Mr. Sapra’s last and best-paying job was at the Indian headquarters of the financial services arm of General Electric, investing western money in Indian energy projects. But last December, foreign money dried up and Mr. Sapra, with a prestigious degree, was laid off.

“Earlier it was money chasing a few projects,” Mr. Sapra, 30, said of the change that seemed to come virtually overnight. “Now it’s the other way around.”

Not long ago, Indian leaders confidently predicted this country would emerge largely unscathed from the global economic crisis. It is now becoming clear that that view was too optimistic, nowhere more so than in this city south of New Delhi that was once the symbol of India’s economic boom.

A few short years ago, construction sites here buzzed 24 hours a day, crews working through the night, cramming down food from onsite trucks during breaks in the twilight. Now real estate sites lie fallow. The once-booming art market has slowed to a crawl. And charmed professionals with coveted degrees, like Sumit Sapra, are unemployed or taking pay cuts to hold on to their jobs.

India’s phenomenal growth of the last five years was powered in large part by huge injections of cash and investment. Investment accounted for about 39 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in fiscal year 2008, up from 25 percent five years ago. At its peak, more than a third of investment came from abroad, according to Credit Suisse. But in the last three months of last year, foreign loans and direct investment fell by nearly a third, to their lowest level in more than two years.

In a recent report, the International Monetary Fund said Indian companies were among the world’s most vulnerable, after American firms, because they borrowed aggressively during the boom. Using data from Moody’s, the credit rating firm, the I.M.F. estimated in a recent report that defaults among nonfinancial South Asian firms could climb to 20 percent in the coming year, up from an expectation of 4.2 percent a year earlier. (American firms are expected to default on loans at a rate of 23 percent.)

The decline in foreign investment has taken a big toll on sectors like real estate, manufacturing, infrastructure and even art, which was bolstered by demand from globalization’s nouveau riche here and abroad. In the last quarter of 2008, the economy’s growth rate plummeted to about 5.3 percent, the lowest in five years. While consumer demand, particularly in the countryside, has kept the economy growing, the sudden slowing in the flow of foreign funds will make it harder for the country to grow fast enough to pull hundreds of millions of people out of stifling poverty.

“If India wants to go back to the 8 to 9 percent growth rate, private investment and low cost of capital is essential,” said Jahangir Aziz, the chief economist for India at JPMorgan Chase.

Indian policy makers say they believe the country will grow at 6 percent in the coming year, but the I.M.F. forecasts growth of 4.5 percent.

To help fill the gap left by foreign investment, the government is spending more on infrastructure and social programs. The Reserve Bank of India, India’s central bank, has slashed its benchmark interest rates, but the cost of private loans has not fallen by as much.

After a wrenching 58 percent drop in the Indian stock market last year, the market is up 42 percent since its March low and some foreign money has started to flow into equities. But economists like Mr. Aziz say the government needs to do a lot more, though few expect bigger interventions until the current elections end and a new government takes power in late May or early June.

In the meantime, activity here in Gurgaon has slowed radically. Just off the highway from New Delhi, a giant hole in the ground sits where the country’s largest developer, DLF, had planned to build the nation’s biggest mall, aptly named the Mall of India.

DLF officials say that they may reduce the size of the mall and add office space to replace planned retail space.

In the boom, DLF built many of the earliest projects that transformed Gurgaon from a sleepy village into an expansive city that has become home to companies like Ericsson and I.B.M.

DLF turned to foreign lenders and investors like D. E. Shaw, the New York-based investment firm, because they provided money “at lower rates of interest and in larger amounts,” said Rajeev Talwar, an executive director at New Delhi-based DLF. “Today, you have no choice but to go to the Indian banks.”

But domestic lenders have become more reluctant to extend credit, and the interest rates they offer have made projects unfeasible. Last week, DLF reported that its profits fell 92 percent in the first three months of the year.

A subcontractor, Sunil Kumar Verma, who lays marble floors for builders in Gurgaon, said that business was so bad that half of his 40 workers had returned to their homes in Bihar, a poor eastern state where there was also little work for them.

“All they can do is sit, eat and sleep,” Mr. Verma said.

The art market reflects the collapse of the investment boom at the other end of the wealth spectrum.

Over the last years, gallery owners had no need to cultivate buyers. Money was no object. Many artists cranked out works at a furious pace. Not only did veteran collectors snap up the big-ticket items (a painting by M. F. Husain, for instance, or V. S. Gaitonde) but midlevel works in the range of $100,000 drew plenty of buyers, as well.

“There were queues. Shows were sold out prior to opening. We were all on a high,” said Arun Vadehra, who owns two galleries devoted to modern and contemporary art in Delhi and a third in London.

In industry, export companies have been hit hard — diamond polishing units and knitwear factories, for instance, are running at a fraction of their capacity.

The job market is another casualty. Not so long ago, as a lot of money chased a small pool of skilled professionals, salaries skyrocketed. Now, it’s the other way around, as Mr. Sapra, the former G.E. employee, said.

He has looked for work for several months and only last month heard back from a few potential employers. Like many of his peers, he says he will most likely have to settle for less money than he was making earlier — despite his master’s degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management.

In the good old days, he invested some of his money in property. Now, he would rather not look at how his assets are doing. He said it would just depress him.

Mr. Sapra is not the only one casting his gaze elsewhere. With the exception of a handful of issues, like food prices, politicians have not spent much time talking about the economy this election season.

Ajay Shah, an economist and columnist, said the next government’s challenge would be to reawaken the “animal spirits” of the private sector by removing restrictions on investment, loosening financial regulations and putting money into infrastructure.

But in India’s chaotic coalition politics, it is hard enough to predict who will come to power, let alone what they will do once they are there.


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Selling Democracy (and Tea) in India



ON Thursday morning, my neighbors and I joined an orderly line in front of the election desk at the end of our street. We did what the public-service ads had been urging us to do for weeks: “Give them the finger.” The polling officer didn’t even raise her head. After dipping a plastic straw into a bottle of purple ink, she drew a blotchy line down the middle finger of my left hand. Then I stepped up to the voting machine to press a button in India’s 15th general election.

The scene was repeating itself across Mumbai. At another polling station, I saw Bollywood B-listers happily show off their ink-smeared digits to TV cameras. A practice that had originally been instituted to ward off electoral scams like ballot-box stuffing (we call it “booth capturing”) was transformed into a proud reaffirmation of faith in Indian democracy.

In the weeks leading up to this election, the ink smearing became a source of inspiration for a barrage of pun-studded campaigns aimed at getting normally apathetic middle-class Indians to fulfill their civic responsibility. The election — with more than 714 million voters — was also a fantastic advertising opportunity. An automobile parts company ran an ad of a finger imprinted with an ink mark in the shape of a car battery. “Vote for a trouble-free five-year term,” was its message. A purveyor of tea, India’s pick-me-up, declared: “If you continue sleeping, so will our politicians. Wake up and vote!”

On Thursday, many Indians ignored that advice. Turnout was sluggish across the city, but the figures were especially disappointing in affluent South Mumbai, which had been a particular focus of the get-out-the-vote effort. Only 43.3 percent of eligible voters in the area exercised their franchise, but that wasn’t much of a surprise. Rich Indians have long known that they command more powerful means to influence politicians than votes.

This contradicts India’s perception of itself as a deeply rooted democracy. Democracy is the superior virtue we claim as we smugly survey the chaos that military dictators have visited upon Pakistan. Democracy is our defense against China’s superior record of alleviating poverty and raising standards of health and literacy.

And yet our inability to protect religious minorities is obvious to the thousands of Muslim victims of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Our most famous painter, M. F. Husain, who lives in exile under threats from extremists for daring to paint Hindu deities in the nude, knows that we have yet to secure the right to free expression. And the brutality against ethnic separatist movements in the northeast and Kashmir demonstrates our unwillingness to make pragmatic compromises.

Our experiment with democracy has been far more successful than some others, but despite regular elections, it has failed many Indians. After all, in South Mumbai the government responds to its residents — whether they stand in the sun for that purple streak or not.

Naresh Fernandes is the editor of Time Out India.


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Communists’ Land Plan Could Backfire in India


A hammer and sickle sign in Calcutta reflects the Communists’ dominance in West Bengal State.

Promising land to the landless, the Communists won Abdul Bakir Shah’s heart decades ago. Under an ambitious land reform drive, Mr. Shah, a sharecropper all his life, got title to nearly one fertile acre. His village and others like it have voted Communist since, keeping the party in power for an uninterrupted 32 years here in West Bengal State.

But things went topsy-turvy two years ago. As Bengal belatedly joined India’s slow but inexorable march to capitalism, the Communist-run state government sought to scoop up this entire cluster of mud-and-thatch hamlets to make way for the construction of a multinational chemical industrial complex. The Communists, under whose leadership factory after factory had been shuttered across this state, said it was time to bring private industry and jobs back to Bengal.

“Reform or perish,” became their rallying cry.

That is when the Communists lost Mr. Shah’s trust.

“We don’t have any faith in them anymore,” he said.

Now, in the parliamentary elections under way, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) faces one of the toughest political fights of its long history. It is a party divided between the pull of industrial capitalism — not unlike in China — and its tradition of championing the rural poor. That struggle reflects much of the conflict that has bedeviled India in recent years, and bitter discord over land acquisition has broken out in many parts of the country.

How the Communists perform here in their stronghold of West Bengal will, to a large extent, determine how much influence they have over the next government of India, and by extension, over the nation’s economic and foreign policy.

Even though the Communists here are unabashedly capitalist, at the level of the central government they hew to more traditional ideology, blocking a slew of economic reforms and raising a ruckus over India’s deepening friendship with the United States.

In the past five years, controlling one in 10 seats in India’s 543-member Parliament, they have been particularly influential. This time, they may not be, having been made vulnerable by the turn away from their old core principles. The fight for the hearts of men like Mr. Shah is at the heart of their challenge.

“Our basic constituency is the rural poor,” insisted Mohammad Salim, a veteran member of Parliament in the party. “Their thought processes were hijacked by a powerful coterie, by big noise.”

Much of that “big noise” has come, on the one side, from the feisty political opposition leader, Mamata Banerjee, who has usurped the Communist Party rhetoric and cast herself as the savior of the rural poor.

On the other side, Maoist guerrillas have begun gaining ground, particularly among indigenous people in remote, destitute corners of the state. The other day, wielding bows and arrows, hundreds of them blocked traffic in the center of the state capital, Calcutta.

As Bengal’s voters went to the polls on Thursday, suspected Maoists planted bombs, ambushed a car, killing three election workers and imposed a fairly successful boycott call in pockets of the state.

Acquiring the land of folks who know no other life is difficult any way. But here in Bengal, the fury is even greater than elsewhere. The land is fertile and exceptionally crowded — with an average of 904 people in each square kilometer — and, as Mr. Salim acknowledged, all the more coveted by those who were landless for so long.

Ms. Banerjee has seized on that anxiety, and has succeeded in blocking several industrial projects that the Communists sought.

A factory to build the world’s cheapest car, the Tata Nano, was forced to move out of the state. Plans for a nuclear power plant have been scrapped. The same has happened to the would-be chemical plant, which the state proposed relocating near the Sunderbans delta; that, too, has faced protests. A steel plant farther east is a target of Maoist attacks.

Ms. Banerjee, for her part, once aligned with the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party, has turned herself into a friend of the have-nots. “You used to say, ‘Long live Karl Marx,’ ” she said of the Communists while on the campaign stump the other day. “Now you say, ‘Long live Tata, Karl Marx, you go.’ ”

She promises reopening factories shuttered under the Communists. She pledges more money for those who lose land. She accuses the Communists of intimidating voters. Ms. Banerjee is often seen on television scuffling with the police at street protests.

“Today they will take your vote, tomorrow they will take your land, the third day they will ask for your daughter, your son,” she warned darkly. “This fight is for your survival.”

Her critics call her an opportunist. A Communist Party campaign billboard, in the center of Calcutta, shows a young man with a briefcase and his head hung low, and a slogan that blames Ms. Banerjee for driving jobs out of the state.

Another, a cartoon, shows a portly Ms. Banerjee, holding a begging bowl and placards that read: “No Industry,” “No Progress,” “No Roads.”

Each party accuses the other’s cadres of murder and mayhem. Their campaign posters contain graphic images of maimed, charred bodies.

Part of the problem is that Bengal, after more than 30 years of leftist leadership, remains among the country’s most destitute and dysfunctional states. It has one of the highest school drop-out rates. Nearly half the poor do not have access to public food subsidies, as they are supposed to. Land reform slowed to a crawl in the last decade.

In Nandigram, discontent had piled up against the government. It exploded over its bid for the land. In the spring of 2007, at the height of the troubles, at least 14 people died in clashes between Communist Party supporters and opponents.

A year later, Ms. Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress Party swept the local village council elections for the first time in more than three decades. So tense does it remain that in one hamlet, a conversation with visiting journalists nearly brought supporters of the two rival parties to blows.

The people of Mr. Shah’s hamlet were all once Communists. Now, the few Communist holdouts cluster together on one side of the main road. They say they are forbidden from the tea shop on the main road. They are afraid to vote. They seethe at Ms. Banerjee for having driven a potential factory from their area.

“She just wants the poor to stay poor,” said Zahidul Mullick, who guessed his age to be around 18. He said he dropped out of school after the fifth grade and worked as a tailor, as most of the men in the hamlet do.

“Look, we are not educated,” said Halima Begum, 22, balancing a baby on her hips. “We couldn’t work in the factory. But we could clean the houses of the people who come to work there.”

Across the street, Mr. Shah said he was immediately suspicious of the proposed chemical complex. He was terrified of being displaced. For the first time in more than 30 years, he and his neighbors turned against the Communists.

“They thought the party was so strong we would do whatever they say,” said one of his neighbors, Atibul Shah, 22.

His family, he said, had voted Communist for three generations. This time, he had ridden the train for two days from Mumbai, where he works in a garment factory, for the chance to vote the Communists out.


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Gandhi’s Generational Gamble

India Elections

Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi addresses an election rally in Ghaziabad, India, Thursday, April 30, 2009.

Under a scalding April sun, Rahul Gandhi tried on an orange turban and held aloft a ceremonial curved sword. But such props are routine in Indian elections. What was really unusual about this campaign stop was the age of Mr. Gandhi and the other politicians on stage.

They were young. “Ask people to vote for change. Vote for the youth!” the 38-year-old Mr. Gandhi exhorted followers in the northern Indian state of Punjab.

India is run by graying politicians, although about 70% of its 1.1 billion population is under 40. Now Mr. Gandhi, scion of the country’s most powerful political dynasty, is campaigning on the theme of generational revolution — a strategy that also could pave his own path to power.

The Indian National Congress has run the country with his father, grandmother and great-grandfather at the helm. To rejuvenate the left-leaning party, Mr. Gandhi is trying to signal a break with the past. He has plucked candidates for Parliament from the party’s youth wing, which he heads. Five hopefuls from Punjab, in their 30s or early 40s, represent Mr. Gandhi’s strategy to flush out his party’s elderly cadre, rebuild the ranks of its foot soldiers and catch up with a demographic shift that’s reshaping Indian politics.

The push reflects both idealism and cold calculation as the world’s largest democracy chooses its next government. Mr. Gandhi’s ruling party and the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, are vying for the same bulging youth vote. They see the young as the swing factor in India’s dizzyingly divided electorate of religious, ethnic and caste groups. So do a host of scrappy regional parties. Results for the month-long elections are expected May 16.

The rejuvenation pitch is partially undermined by the fact that India’s prime minister, and the Congress candidate for the post in the elections, is 76-year-old Manmohan Singh. His rival in the right-of-center BJP is 81-year-old L.K. Advani.

The push by younger players into politics could prove to be a turning point for India. Put off by rampant corruption, many of the country’s young and talented have steered clear of political careers. The state has fallen short of its promises to deliver better health, education and living standards. The theory put forth by the champions of generational change is that bringing educated and business-savvy young people into politics will revolutionize governance.

The elections come as India navigates big obstacles. The global financial crisis has significantly slowed its economy. The Mumbai terror attacks of last year that left more than 170 dead sparked tensions with Pakistan that haven’t cooled much.

Mr. Gandhi bats away speculation about his own future. For the next two years, he says, his mission is to introduce direct elections for the Youth Congress, the party wing for members 35 and under, so local chapters choose their leaders.

“The Rahul Gandhi of today has a very clear focus: the democratization of the Youth Congress,” he said in a recent interview with a group of reporters. “It’s very important that the Congress party is strengthened.”

That mission is accompanied, opponents say, by a rich irony: The reformer is the heir to the party helm by virtue of his family’s lasting hold over Congress, a spell even more powerful than that cast in America by the Kennedy and Bush clans. Mr. Gandhi is widely seen as being groomed as a future prime minister by his Italian-born mother, Sonia, who heads the Congress Party.

Mr. Gandhi emerged from a cloistered childhood, after the assassinations of his grandmother Indira in 1984 and father Rajiv in 1991. He earned a graduate degree from Cambridge University and worked as a consultant. In 2004, he won his father’s old constituency in Uttar Pradesh state, and later became one of the Congress party’s top officials.

Today, Mr. Gandhi is considered one of India’s most eligible bachelors. But off the campaign trail, he shies from the spotlight and is rarely photographed at parties. A fellow politician and friend says Mr. Gandhi enjoys early morning motorcycle rides, but with a helmet to ensure his protection and privacy.

Rivals liken Mr. Gandhi’s youth strategy to a tummy tuck for a party that remains flabby and old. And his drive has been marred by party infighting — and at least one fistfight.

“They are talking as if they discovered the young. It’s ridiculous,” says D. Raja, a senior leader in the Communist Party of India, which has long drawn young followers.

Mr. Gandhi is betting the electoral math will work in favor of the party that introduces a critical mass of younger politicos. The average age of India’s lower parliament, called the Lok Sabha, is 56. Of India’s elected parliamentarians, 11% are under 40.

Whether young people will vote for younger politicians just because of their age remains to be seen. Like their parents, India’s younger generation may favor politicians who share similar backgrounds, regardless of age, says Ramachandra Guha, a historian of modern India. “Ultimately the DNA of India is caste, kinship and religion,” he says.

In the past four elections, voters between 18 and 25 lagged the national average; in 2004, the youth turnout was 55%, compared to 58% overall, according to the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi think tank.

Mr. Gandhi has set a goal that 30% of his party’s parliamentary candidates should be young. Such talk helped fuel the Congress party’s youth recruitment, but provoked an outcry among those who touted their experience and years waiting their turn for a shot to run.

Beginning late last year, the Youth Congress held elections for local leaders in some regions for the first time; previously, leaders were appointed by the party. From this group, Mr. Gandhi selected a handful of candidates for this year’s parliamentary elections.

One of the early battle grounds for Mr. Gandhi’s strategy is in Gujarat, a BJP stronghold in western India. Gujarat held elections Thursday, though results aren’t yet known.

Mr. Gandhi’s strategy there has been to rely heavily on the Youth Congress to supply campaign workers for the parliamentary elections. In a three-week recruitment drive in February, the Youth Congress expanded to 700,000 members from 150,000, according to party officials. The goal is to cut into the 14 of 26 parliamentary seats that the BJP controls from Gujarat.

Not all has gone according to plan.

When the Youth Congress held elections to pick leaders in March, fistfights broke out between poll workers and voters who claimed their names didn’t appear on electoral rolls. In another district, ballot papers were burned. The selection of a Youth Congress veteran as a parliamentary candidate enraged rivals in the party who had been waiting their turn for the seat, prompting at least one defection to the BJP.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to Mr. Gandhi’s drive in Gujarat has been the state’s popular chief minister, a man who many mention as Mr. Gandhi’s future opponent for prime minister: Narendra Modi of the BJP, who leads the state of 51 million people.

During Mr. Modi’s seven-year tenure, the state’s economy has averaged 10.2% growth a year. In 2008, he drew in investment of $15 billion, tops among Indian states. He’s overseen building of roads and ports and, last year, wooed the high-profile Tata Nano auto factory to Gujarat from West Bengal.

But Mr. Modi’s hard-line championing of Hinduism also makes him a controversial figure in this religiously diverse country. Under his tenure in 2002, riots ripped apart the state — leaving dead 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Mr. Modi, 58, has frequently outwitted his Congress party critics. When Mr. Modi called Congress a “budhiya” party (meaning “old woman” in Hindi), his aides sent a text message relaying the jab to nearly one million Gujarati voters.

The next day, 37-year-old Priyanka Gandhi, Mr. Gandhi’s sister, asked publicly if she or her brother looked old. Mr. Modi said he changed his mind: He said Congress was actually a “gudiya” party (meaning “baby” in Hindi). Another million-person text message went out.

The barbs came from a BJP digital-technology group targeting young, urban voters. The team not only sends out the chief minister’s quips, but has created pages for Mr. Modi on YouTube and Google’s social-networking site Orkut. It even makes ring tones from his speeches.

“Narendra Modi is the brand in Gujarat,” says Shashi Ranjan Yadava, who heads the BJP digital technology wing. “Our job is to market him.”

Indeed, with Mr. Modi in power, the odds for the Congress party in Gujarat appear long — even among the sort of voters the Congress party is wooing.

“Rahul Gandhi has young blood, but he doesn’t have the experience,” says Jack Prajapati, a 20-year-old Gujarati business student and first-time voter. “Narendra Modi is a powerful person who has shown he can take decisions.”

Many running on a BJP ticket against Congress opponents in Gujarat are successfully riding the chief minister’s coattails. In the university town of Vadodara, BJP candidate Balkrishna Shukla has been mayor for nine months. But young voters still credit him with improving the city’s economic prospects.

Mr. Shukla’s opponent, former Youth Congress President Satyajitsinh Gaekwad, has had a bumpier ride, hinting at troubles that may lie ahead for Mr. Gandhi’s plans.

In 1996, when he was 34, Mr. Gaekwad was nominated for Parliament from his home district in Vadodara, and eked out Congress’s first win there in seven years. In office, Vadodara voters say, he had trouble bringing back money for development because of his young age. He lost the following election.

Mr. Gaekwad, now 47, says he is getting more smiles and fewer stiff stares than he did in previous years. “People are getting tired of the BJP,” he said, as he waved from the back of a pick-up truck to slum-dwellers. “They want a change.”

Mr. Gandhi’s search for young parliamentary candidates yielded five for Punjab. It also fueled a recruitment drive that more than doubled the Punjab Youth Congress ranks to 340,000, according to Vijay Inder Singla, the 37-year-old former president of the Youth Congress and now also a candidate for parliament.

But Mr. Gandhi’s backers admit the parliamentary selection process hasn’t been unblemished democracy. Even to some of the candidates, it wasn’t clear how and why they were chosen to run for parliament.

“I assume Rahul decided,” said Mr. Singla.

Dalbir Singh, a senior Congress party official in New Delhi, said the youth wing chief did make the final decisions. In Punjab, he adds, family was a factor.

As the group of aspiring parliamentarians huddled around him after his speech in Punjab, Mr. Gandhi offered a longer view of his youth experiment. “If you are going to be democratic,” he says, “you have to leave the outcome to the people who vote.”

Before jumping on to a helicopter in another campaign stop for this election, he added: “Democracy is an attitude and an idea. We are pushing the attitude, the idea and the process. It takes time.”


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Shadows of Violence Cling to Indian Politician


Mr. Modi campaigning last week in Gujarat State. He was chief minister during a deadly episode of Hindu-Muslim violence in 2002.

Narendra Modi, India’s most incendiary politician, is trying to cast himself as the vanguard of India’s modern industrial future. The ghosts of this city’s savage past, though, are refusing to leave his side.

Mr. Modi, 59, is the thrice-elected chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. On his watch, this city witnessed one of the worst episodes of Hindu-Muslim violence in the history of independent India: in the spring of 2002, mostly over three days, 1,180 people were killed across the state. Most were Muslims. Mr. Modi’s administration was accused of doing little to stop the fury and on occasion, abetting it.

On Monday, India’s Supreme Court, in its strongest move yet, ordered a special police team to investigate Mr. Modi’s role in the alleged conspiracy to attack Muslims.

With national elections under way, Mr. Modi is the biggest crowd-puller for India’s main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. And while party hierarchy means he is not the B.J.P.’s candidate for prime minister this year, he is positioning himself for the top slot in the next race.

On the campaign trail, he is sardonic, often churlish, always theatrical. At one rally, he compared the ruling Indian National Congress, the nation’s oldest party, to an aging woman. At another, he assailed the incumbent prime minister, Manmohan Singh of Congress, as so “weak” that he ought to get a medical check-up; Mr. Singh had recently recovered from heart bypass surgery.

At a third, stabbing the air with his finger, he taunted Mr. Singh for turning to the United States for support in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November, which India said were the work of a Pakistan-based militant group.

“O-baaaa-maaa,” he whined, referring to President Obama. “O-baaa-maaa. Our neighbor has come and attacked us. Do something!” The crowd lapped it up, hollering, clapping and imitating his cry of “O-baaa-maa.”

Mr. Modi’s success offers a window into the B.J.P.’s delicate balancing act: It has to hold on to its radical Hindu support base even as it pitches itself as a force of prosperity and security. His rise also suggests a turning point in Indian politics, in which voters weigh what matters more: identity issues, like faith and caste, or practical issues, like electricity, water and roads. Opinion polls show that Hindutva, or Hinduness, has diminishing appeal.

With a national profile clearly in mind, Mr. Modi has assiduously sought to reinvent himself from a scruffy mascot of Hindu nationalism to a decisive corporate-style administrator. His talking points these days are Gujarat’s double-digit economic growth, private seaports and round-the-clock electricity in Ahmedabad, a booming western city that Gandhi once called home. He wears business suits to business meetings, instead of homespun tunics. He still lampoons the urban, English-speaking elite, but he is also honing his English skills.

His biggest coup has involved the Tata Nano, the world’s least expensive car. Last fall, Mr. Modi persuaded Tata Motors to relocate its Nano factory to government-owned land not far from here. The company had been buffeted by protests over land acquisition in another state.

Soon afterward, several of India’s most prominent industrialists gathered in Gujarat for a meeting and declared Mr. Modi, a former tea shop manager, fit to be a future prime minister.

Swapan Dasgupta, a columnist who advises the B.J.P. on strategy, described him as India’s “aggressive modernizer.”

The B.J.P “promises growth, good governance, development and security.” But it also returns to the party’s original ideological pillars, from pledging to build a Hindu temple on the site of a razed 16th-century mosque to resurrecting a preventive detention law that Muslims said had been unfairly applied to them.

Rarely does Mr. Modi make overt appeals to faith. He does not have to.

“Modi has learned that you have to do development to get re-elected, you have to have a secular image if you want to be prime minister,” said Ajay Umat, editor of a Gujarati-language daily newspaper, Divya Bhaskar, who has known Mr. Modi for more than 20 years.

Mr. Modi has also learned, Mr. Umat said, that his core Hindu supporters will not easily forget his original incarnation as their “protector.”

That image was sealed in 2002, after a train ferrying Hindus was set on fire by Muslims in a town called Godhra, killing 59 people on board and prompting Hindu mob attacks on Muslims across the state. The mobs stabbed, raped and set their victims on fire; they burned homes and businesses. Mr. Modi has never apologized for what happened. (His office did not respond to numerous requests for an interview with The New York Times.)

His admirers say he has moved on. They credit him for removing red tape for business, improving the state’s road networks, and cracking down on lawlessness and petty corruption. His detractors call him an autocrat. (Sonia Gandhi, the president of Congress, once called him “a merchant of death.”)

If and when Mr. Modi becomes the standard-bearer for his party, Indian voters will have to decide whether they can overlook what is called the “2002 stigma” in favor of the “aggressive modernizer.” His critics hope they will not.

“This man can’t represent India, either as a civilization or as a nation,” said Shiv Visvanathan, a sociology professor and one of Mr. Modi’s critics. “He can represent a part. He can never represent the whole. That is the sanity of Indian democracy.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Modi, the past has been hard to cast off. A police team appointed by the Supreme Court has begun to pry open several cases from 2002, making fresh arrests.

Maya Kodnani, Mr. Modi’s former minister for women and child development, was arrested on charges of helping a Hindu mob attack two nearby Muslim enclaves. She is awaiting trial on accusations of arming the mob with kerosene cans, which were then used to set people on fire. All told, the mob killed 106 people on a single day, including seven members of Abdul Majid Mohammed Usman Sheikh’s family.

Mr. Sheikh, 56, who came to the courthouse on the morning of the arrest in late March, called it the beginning of justice for the dead. Among them were his pregnant wife, three sons and three daughters. He carried their pictures in a plastic shopping bag. He said he felt “a little satisfied.”

Somini Sengupta, New York Times


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How to reassure India

LEADERS HERE can’t get enough of the American president. He’s “the best president vis-à-vis India in the past 50 years,” said a former diplomat. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told him, “the people of India deeply love you.” Another nation in the throes of Obamania?

In fact, the president beloved by the Indian elite is George W. Bush, credited with “de-hyphenating” Washington’s longtime “India-Pakistan” policy and championing last year’s landmark US-India civilian nuclear deal. Indeed, this may be one capital where Barack Obama finds George Bush a hard act to follow.

Obama has pledged that deepening ties with India is a priority, and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said he was confident “that we’ll take this relationship forward rapidly.”

But behind the platitudes, New Delhi is nervous. Discussions with political, security, and business leaders here confirm widespread worries that, in the words of Saurabh Shukla, senior diplomatic editor of India Today, “while it is unlikely that [the] Obama administration will consciously reverse the policy of greater engagement with India, it has certainly raised doubts about the US as a dependable strategic ally.”

Though welcoming Obama’s regional approach to Afghanistan, many here worry that the administration is going too far by including disputed Kashmir, claimed by both India and Pakistan. Indians recall Obama’s campaign comments that Pakistan would be “less likely” to cooperate with terrorists if it could look east “with confidence” toward India. And though his portfolio no longer includes India, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for the region, has spent two visits here trying to reassure officials that Washington won’t pressure India on Kashmir.

Still, “India sees a re-hyphenation of US policy towards India and Pakistan,” Patwant Singh, a historian, told me. “New Delhi is very concerned by the administration bringing up Kashmir, which has little to do with Afghanistan.”

In fact, many Indians see Obama’s strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan as a threat to India. While welcoming Obama’s pledge that US aid to Pakistan won’t be a “blank check,” Indians fear that US military hardware in Pakistani hands will be aimed at India.

Obama’s openness to reconciliation with supposedly moderate elements of the Taliban has unnerved Indians, who object to what they call a false distinction between “good” and “bad” Taliban. “India has a Muslim population of 150 million,” says a former Indian diplomat, “and if even 10 percent get swayed by the Taliban’s perverted form of Islam, we would be in dire straits.”

Likewise, some wonder about America’s deepening economic dependence on China, which maintains claims on Indian territory and, some fear, plans to encircle India with military facilities across the Indian Ocean. It did not go unnoticed here that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her maiden Asia trip to Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, and Jakarta. But not New Delhi.

Moreover, the president’s nonproliferation agenda is likely to put new pressure on India to curtail its nuclear ambitions.

The bottom line? Shyam Saran, the prime minister’s special envoy, recently declared that, given America’s “diminished predominance” in the world, New Delhi should pursue “hedging strategies,” including partnerships with multiple countries. In diplomatic speak, that’s a warning shot.

Obama should move quickly to shore up a relationship that is vital to so many US goals. As soon as possible, he should dispatch Clinton to New Delhi to reaffirm America’s strategic partnership with India, separate from Pakistan. She must make clear that US aid to the Pakistani military depends on an end to its support – overt and covert – for terrorist groups that target India.

Following November’s murderous attacks in Mumbai and last month’s attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan, Indians know that nothing, not even their beloved cricket, can be taken for granted. Unless Washington moves quickly, Indians will be feeling the same about their once-beloved American partner.

Stanley A. Weiss is founding chairman of the Washington-based group Business Executives for National Security. A version of this piece appeared in the International Herald Tribune.


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India Rejects Calls For Emission Cuts

Officials Say Growth Will Be Compromised

Days after the Obama administration unveiled a push to combat climate change, Indian officials said it was unlikely to prompt them to agree to binding emission cuts, a position among emerging economies that many say derails effective action.

“If the question is whether India will take on binding emission reduction commitments, the answer is no. It is morally wrong for us to agree to reduce when 40 percent of Indians do not have access to electricity,” said a member of the Indian delegation to the recently concluded U.N. conference in Bonn, Germany, which is a prelude to a Copenhagen summit in December on climate change. “Of course, everybody wants to go solar, but costs are very, very high.”

India’s position goes to the heart of the vexing international debate over how quickly nations should try to phase out carbon-spewing fuels such as coal and switch to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. In India, the debate has been cast as a choice between pursuing urgently needed economic growth to reduce poverty and addressing climate change.

More than 60 percent of India’s power is generated from coal. As India rapidly climbs the list of global polluters, analysts say coal will continue to fuel the economic demands of the country’s 1.1 billion people for two decades. But India has repeatedly said that it will not compromise on growth by committing to emission reduction goals set by developed nations, which it deems bigger culprits when it comes to pollution.

President Obama’s promise of a leading U.S. role in combating climate change is a clear departure from the stance of his predecessor, George W. Bush. A climate bill recently introduced by Democrats in the House calls for a 20 percent cut in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2020, along with a substantial increase in renewable-energy use.

“I am reasonably optimistic. But it is not entirely upon President Obama. He has to carry the Congress and the Senate with him,” said Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He added that India is “very unlikely” to change its official position.

In a policy document released in January, India calls for industrialized countries to commit to significant emission reduction targets while aiding sustainable development in developing nations with funds and technology.

“But it was informally made very clear to us by the developed countries that there will be no money available for developing countries because of the global economic slump,” said the Indian delegate to the Bonn meeting. About 2.5 percent of India’s gross domestic product is spent on measures to address climate change, including introduction of cleaner technologies, energy-efficient consumer products and renewable energy.

Indian officials say it is unfair to group their country with the major emitters because, per capita, India’s emissions are a tenth of those in the United States. Last week, India’s special envoy on climate change, Shyam Saran, told reporters in Bonn that he opposed any attempt by the European Union and the United States to impose “carbon tariffs” on exports of Indian goods produced in energy-intensive industries such as steel, aluminum, cement and fertilizer.

Another issue raised was the controversial carbon capture and storage technology, or CCS. The expensive, unproven and environmentally contentious technique is intended to help combat climate change by injecting carbon dioxide emissions into deep underground reservoirs. The United States recently committed money to the technology in its economic stimulus package, and more funding may be proposed in the climate bill expected to be debated later this year. In January, India joined a handful of nations gingerly experimenting with CCS.

Scientists at India’s National Geophysical Research Institute released preliminary findings from ongoing government-funded research that seeks to inject carbon dioxide into the basalt rock formation called the Deccan Traps, which is about 60 million years old. S. Nirmal Charan, a senior scientist at the institute, said researchers wanted to determine whether carbon dioxide can be trapped for tens of thousands of years within the basalt. He said more simulated laboratory tests are underway, but initial results show the process to be “environmentally benign.”

Critics say it is a gimmick that allows carbon-spewing industries to carry on with business as usual.

“The idea of CCS allows our addiction to coal to remain. It ensures that we keep burning coal,” said Chandra Bhushan, associate director of the Center for Science and Environment. “Who will monitor whether there are carbon dioxide leaks from underground storage?”

Norway and Canada have begun implementing various carbon-storage initiatives. Last week, Germany approved a draft law to develop the technology, and China has identified two sites for storage.

India has not formally committed to conducting CCS field experiments. But an official in the Power Ministry said it has the “potential to be an extremely important technology.”

“But we are unsure about how it will work,” the official said. “Let the world first demonstrate. We will learn from them.”


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India’s vote is one too chaotic to call


Trinamool Congress party activists walk in an election rally wearing masks of their leader and candidate Mamata Banerjee in Calcutta, India, Sunday, April 12, 2009.


There are 714 million votes potentially in play as Indians go to the polls this week – the first phase in a staggered, month-long national election – and the outcome is less certain that at any point in this country’s storied electoral history.

Neither of India’s two largest parties will come close to having a majority and the coalitions they have led in the past are in disarray. A profusion of new parties – regional and caste- or issue-based – has sprung up, and they are feverishly forming and dissolving alliances. As a consequence, analysts across the political spectrum have deemed this vote too chaotic to call.

Despite having presided over five years of comparatively stable government and economic growth that averaged 9 per cent a year, the governing United Progressive Alliance, a coalition led by the Congress Party and including many left-wing parties, is looking lacklustre and has lost some of its key allies. The Bharatiya Janata Party, meanwhile, has not managed to broaden its core base of Hindu nationalist supporters and has also lost regional allies.

The leftist parties, including the influential Communist Party of India (Marxist), have banded with some regional parties and small caste-and-issues-based parties to form a Third Front – although it already has trouble keeping its members together. Where in the past the small parties looked to prop up either Congress or the BJP in a coalition, their numbers are such this time around that many observers are predicting they may try to form the government without either of the two historic governing parties.

The vote is an awesome spectacle, beginning Thursday and ending May 13 with the votes from more than 800,000 polling stations. The action at the polls seems certain to be dwarfed by the drama that will follow the vote count on May 16.

“The outcome of the 2009 election will be determined by the ‘sixth phase’ of polling after May 16,” Yogendra Yadav said, speaking of the inevitable post-election haggling to form a government. Mr. Yadav is the director of Lokniti: Programme for Comparative Democracy, a think tank in the capital.

“The problem with post-poll alliances is that they leave the people out. Pre-poll alliances give voters a chance to reject or endorse them. But with post-poll alliances, the ball is in the court of middlemen. In a democracy, sub-optimal alliances are always a sub-optimal option for the people.”

If leaders of either Congress or the BJP think they may be able to cobble together a coalition, they will have to make deals in which they parcel off the high-value ministries to small allies.

“India is doomed to have weak, multiparty coalitions, marked by instability and placating of different constituents … with very little policy reform or governance,” predicted Ramachandra Guha, a Bangalore-based political analyst and author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy.

“If Indian economic growth is to be made more inclusive and sustainable, three areas of policy have to be addressed – health, education and the environment – and you can be sure that they’re not going to get attention. A fourth is foreign policy: India is in an increasingly fragile neighbourhood, but no one’s talking about sensible foreign policy. Everywhere it will be local factors, peculiar to that region or state.”

And yet, he noted, the profusion of new parties is not entirely a negative development. “The breakdown of major parties and emergence of smaller ones can be seen as the deepening of Indian democracy, with the rise to power of regional and caste groups who were not previously included,” he said.

An emerging power-broker is the Bahujan Samaj Party, which began as a movement for Dalits, or so-called untouchables, at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. Today it is making vigorous efforts to appeal to Muslims and other marginalized groups. Its prime ministerial candidate will likely be the current Chief Minister of the vast and impoverished state of Uttar Pradesh, who goes by the name Mayawati. She is one of the most polarizing and intriguing figures in Indian politics today: Shunned for her caste as a child, she rose from a family of 11 in a Delhi slum to become the charismatic leader of Dalits while acquiring a reputation for elaborate self-glorification, corruption and relentless settling of scores. The BSP is contesting the election alone, but could be a key ally for either the Third Front or another coalition.

The Congress-led coalition that has governed – by most estimates competently – for the past five years is now being undermined primarily by the loss of allies who think their chances for power may be greater with the Third Front as well as by voter concerns about the stalling economy, rising consumer prices and national security.

While India is nowhere near recession, there has been a real slow-down here in the past six months and at least 1.5 million jobs have been shed. The brazen attacks in Mumbai last fall, carried out by Pakistan Islamist militants, have allowed opposition parties to attack Congress for both failed national-security policies and for taking too soft a line with Pakistan, the historic enemy over the border.

The Congress pitch to voters emphasizes the growth rate engineered by the 76-year-old Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and something called the National Rural Employment Guarantee, which promises each poor household 100 days of work a year, earning 100 rupees ($2.50 Canadian) a day. The party calls it the world’s largest such poverty-alleviation scheme.

But Mahesh Rangarajan, a historian who teaches at Delhi University, says that in today’s India, that constituency isn’t enough.

“Congress in the past was the party of the big idea – it was the one party that united rich and poor, and it did it by having a big idea, but today it is a party that looks intellectually tired,” he said. “They keep putting up new faces, but it’s not whose mouth it is, it’s what the mouth has to say.”

The BJP candidate for prime minister is Lal Krishna Advani, 81 – the age of these leaders is something of a hot issue these days, given that a quarter of Indian voters are under age 25. The party is trying to shift attention off its usual Hindu-nationalist staples, and focusing on what it says are the current government’s massive failures on national security. But a recent outbreak of episodes of Hindu vigilantism in different areas of the country have eroded some BJP support.

Lysa John, campaign co-ordinator for Wada Na Todo (Break No Promises), a civic watchdog group, said she feels a coalition dominated by neither the BJP nor Congress would offer exciting new opportunities. But her group’s analysis of the platforms of all parties shows that none are making priorities of universal access to health care or education, or protection of the environment – even though these were the recurring demands of voters in vast surveys the group has done across 365 constituencies.

“No one is talking about land for marginalized groups, no one is talking about national irrigation, no one is talking about guaranteeing urban employment and no one has a macro plan for investing in infrastructure.”


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Indian meal starter lasts 50 years

Lijjat Papad celebrates 50 years on 15 March

Eighty-year-old Jaswantiben Jamnadas Popat defies her age.

She seems more agile and active than her grandchildren.

“I don’t want to stop working,” she says with youthful determination.

Mrs Popat is the only survivor of a group of semi-literate Gujarati housewives who founded Lijjat Papad 50 years ago.

She will be celebrating the Lijjat golden jubilee on 15 March with 45,000 other women who are part of the women-only co-operative.

Mrs Popat cannot believe that what started as a desperate move to “supplement the family income” 50 years ago has come so far.

She says after taking a deep breadth: “I feel I am living in a dream world. When we started our business it was not meant to become so big.”

‘Seven sisters’

It is indeed a big business today, with an annual turnover of nearly $100m and a flourishing exports account to boot.

Jaswantiben Jamnadas Popat
‘I feel I am living in a dream world,’ says Mrs Popat

Papads, or poppadoms, are the traditional restaurant starter and go with dips and chutneys. They are a thin wafer of lentil, chickpeas, black gram, salt and oil. Various types of seasonings are added.

The Lijjat trade began when seven Gujarati housewives decided to exploit the only skill they knew – cooking.

Mrs Popat says: “We were semi-literate which restricted our chances to get jobs. But we realised our papad-making expertise could be used to earn small amounts of money to help our husbands reduce their financial responsibility.”

On 15 March 1959, they gathered on the terrace of an old building in a crowded South Mumbai locality and rolled out four packets of papads to sell.

The “seven sisters”, as they are fondly remembered, started production with the princely sum of 80 rupees (now $1.50), borrowed from a good Samaritan, Chaganlal Karamsi Parekh, a social worker with entrepreneurial brains.

Lijjat office
The business has expanded from poverty-stricken shanty towns

Mrs Popat pays handsome tribute to Mr Parekh’s contribution to their success story.

“He advised us that if we wanted to experience success, never accept donations. We have never ignored his advice.”

Soon the entrepreneurship expanded in Mumbai’s overcrowded and poverty-stricken shanty towns.

Three months later the business had 25 women. Word quickly spread about the quality and taste of the poppadoms.

The trade began to expand as a co-operative. In a few years they had branches all over Mumbai and in subsequent years all across India.

Foreign dignitaries visited their factories. The women received one award after another. Exports flourished. They were on a roll – from poppadoms they branched out into soaps, savouries, chutneys and pickles.

Sustainable model

But apart from following the advice of Mr Parekh, what is the secret of Lijjat’s success? After all there are other poppadom makers all across the country.

Jyoti Naik
These women work here to help raise their children and be financially independent
Jyoti Naik, Lajjit head office

Mumbai-based businessman and entrepreneur Sushil Jwarijka explains: “Lijjat papads are a perfect example of how a sustainable business can be built, providing large-scale employment to rural women, who are illiterate but skilled.

“And when such skills are given an organisational structure on a co-operative basis a long term sustainable model assures success.”

Jyoti Naik, who runs Lijjat’s head office in a Mumbai suburb, joined the co-operative 40 years ago.

She says it is the women’s sense of financial independence that has made a small enterprise into a big business.

“These women work here to help raise their children and be financially independent,” Ms Naik says.

Priyanka Redkar, 35, was just nine when she began rolling out poppadoms alongside her mother.

A deeply family-oriented mother of two children, Priyanka exudes the confidence of a woman who knows her place in society.

“Today I can say I am financially independent. If my husband doesn’t give me any money I can support myself and children. I don’t need to beg and borrow.”

Ranjana Khandare was born into the Lijjat family. Hardships and extreme poverty meant she began helping her mother when she was barely a few years old.

Lajjit production
Financial independence for the women translates into empowerment

She has no regrets: “All my life I have worked here. I know no other skills. But papad-making has made me independent. I pay tuition fees for my three children and my husband runs the kitchen.”

Financial independence for these women translates into empowerment.

Most of the 45,000-strong female workforce live in slums or one-room hutments, with communal bathrooms and toilets.

They are still part of what is known as the working class. But working for Lijjat Papads gives them financial security.

They are now capable of taking decisions, sending their children to schools and keeping their men on the straight and narrow.

Mr Jwarijka says it has done their self-esteem the world of good.

Indeed the Lijjat women seem to have proved that success does not necessarily need money and infrastructure, as long as there is determination.


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Stripped and assaulted Assam woman in poll bid

Laxmi Oraon (Pictures: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee)
Laxmi Oraon says her humiliation did not end with her stripping and beating

A tribal woman who was stripped and assaulted in India’s north-eastern state of Assam is to contest the parliamentary elections.

Laxmi Oraon has been nominated by the regional Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF).

She was stripped by locals when she took part in a rally in 2007 demanding better tribal rights.

Pictures of Ms Oraon running naked across a market in Assam’s capital Guwahati caused outrage in India.

Ms Oraon had joined the rally in November 2007 along with thousands of Adivasi tribespeople, who mostly work as labourers in Assam’s 800 tea gardens.

The rally turned violent and the Adivasis started vandalising shops and beating up policemen and locals before they were overwhelmed by a huge number of local people.

Ms Oraon was stripped and beaten before an Assamese man took off his T-shirt, covered her and dragged her to safety.

‘Taunted and teased’

Nearly 16 months later, Ms Oraon has been offered a ticket to contest the Tezpur parliamentary constituency.

“She is a symbol of Adivasi exploitation, of minority exploitation in Assam. We want her to contest the parliament polls on our ticket and she has agreed,” AUDF general secretary Hafiz Rashid Choudhury said.

Laxmi Oraon (left) with her family (Pictures: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee)
Outrage over Assam woman assault

Ms Oraon said while accepting the nomination: “I may not win but I want to make a point. That the Adivasis will no longer take the exploitation lying down.”

The AUDF is a Muslim-dominated party but claims to represent other minorities in Assam – among them the Adivasis, whose ancestors were brought from central India to work in Assam’s tea estates by the former British rulers.

Assam’s ruling Congress party claims to represent minorities fairly, but the AUDF has increasingly sliced into the Congress area of influence among the minorities, especially the state’s 30% Muslim population.

“Our party has been set up to represent the interest of all minorities, so we cannot ignore the exploitation of the Adivasis,” Mr Choudhury says.

“And Laxmi is a living symbol of this exploitation.”

After her humiliation, Ms Oraon has often appeared in the media – particularly in the state of Jharkhand, where her ancestors came from.

She was an honoured guest at the launch of a book by the leader of the Jharkhand Disom party, Salkhan Murmu, in Jharkhand’s capital Ranchi last April.

Ms Oraon also finished her school leaving examinations last year.

“My humiliation did not end with the stripping and beating. It followed me to the examination centre, where I was taunted and teased,” she told journalists.

Ms Oraon and her family have accused the ruling party of trying to “bribe” her to stay quiet after the stripping episode. Congress firmly denied the charge.

It says it handled the issue fairly, setting up a judicial inquiry commission to identify the culprits and punish them.

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Desperate mothers fuel India’s ‘baby factories’


Ritu Kaushal, 34, smiles after learning she is pregnant after eight years. The resident of Britain travelled to Dr. Anoop Gupta’s clinic.

Anoop Gupta slumps in his swivel chair and surveys what the day has brought his Delhi fertility clinic: a rich housewife who wants to check on the pregnancy of her 21-year-old peasant surrogate; a rural farming couple, both past middle age and seeking an heir after their son was killed in an accident, who need an egg donor; a mother of a developmentally delayed teenager shepherding the surrogate carrying the quadruplets that will maximize her chance for a “normal boy;” a British IT consultant who needs a hormone injection as part of in-vitro fertilization that would cost five times more back home; a Montreal woman who wants profiles of egg donors; and a Toronto mother of two toddler girls who wants a male embryo implanted.

It’s a regular day in his packed and humming clinic, where poor women in bright saris and tribal jewellery wait beside women whose vast Louis Vuitton handbags spill over the sides of their chairs.

When 60-year-old Ranjit Hayer gave birth to twins in Calgary two weeks ago – babies conceived with donor eggs collected, fertilized and implanted in India – the news caused an uproar in Canada.

A woman of Ms. Hayer’s age would not be treated at a Canadian assisted-reproduction facility; she suffered potentially life-threatening pregnancy complications linked with her age, and her children were seven weeks premature.

Canadians may have been caught off guard by Ms. Hayer’s imported embryos, but in the global community of infertility, India is the salvation destination, the country where an unregulated reproductive-technology sector makes anything possible. Mr. Gupta’s practice is just one of an estimated 150 clinics across India offering assisted reproduction.

“Total madness is prevailing,” said Imrana Qadeer, a professor of public health at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a campaigner for regulated assisted reproduction. “It is a totally unregulated thing … in India the doctors get away with a lot of things because people trust them and also there is lot of ignorance about technologies. … Women are vulnerable, they can be pressured, and it’s spreading like wildfire.”

The surrogacy business is worth an estimated $500-million a year. And while the private clinics in India do not provide any figures on the number of other procedures they perform or the income they generate, no one disputes that the baby-making business is enormously lucrative. Behind the counter at Dr. Gupta’s Delhi IVF & Fertility Research Centre, a staff member sits counting huge bricks of rupees; the lineup to pay for drugs or scans or embryos snakes all the way down the staircase.

Dr. Gupta, a genial workaholic with a zealot’s admiration for the possibilities of assisted reproduction, considers himself a sort of Santa Claus figure. He promises the endless stream of anxious women that his success rate is about 50 per cent, that they too will have babies. “I feel very happy, very satisfied – if you see so many happy patients who are blessed – they cannot forget you in a lifetime.”

But with the babies come a passel of ethical questions. How old a mother is too old? Who looks out for the rights of surrogates, who are usually poor women, often unable to read the contracts they sign with a thumbprint? Where is the line between commissioning an embryo to avoid passing on hereditary disease, and eugenics?

Patients are drawn to Dr. Gupta’s clinic, in an upscale quarter of the capital city, because they have heard he has the best success rates. But if he turns them away – too old, too poor – there are plenty of alternatives.

Patients report hearing of other clinics where the doctor will inseminate a woman who is 65, will let a woman carry triplets, will find a surrogate they can afford.

Dr. Gupta said 10 per cent of his clients are foreign; most are like Ms. Hayer, people of Indian origin now living abroad. His clinic has policies, as all are supposed to, under a non-binding directive from the Medical Council of India: he said his cut-off age for women bearing children is 50.

But minutes later he happily reported on the case of a 59-year-old woman in whom he implanted embryos the day before; he made her walk 10 kilometres a day for a month to prove she was fit enough. “You could not say she is 59 from looking at her, her system is immaculate.”

Does he have qualms about creating a mother that old – who may not even live to see her child into adulthood? “These days, children want to leave their parents by the time they are 15 anyway,” he chirped. “I considered turning that couple away but I thought it would be giving them stress rather than happiness, so that’s why I did it.”

Dr. Gupta, who works with his wife, Alka Gupta, the clinic’s “chief embryologist,” is particularly excited about the chance to offer donor egg embryos or surrogacy to women whose first-born children have some sort of congenital problem. “All these people with abnormal babies – thalassemia [a blood disorder], juvenile diabetes, a Mongol child [Down syndrome],” he enthused. “We can help them.”

Surrogacy for foreign parents attracts the most attention in India; the practice was pioneered by a Gujarat doctor named Nayna Patel in 2003. Her clinic in the small town of Anand has an adjacent hostel where dozens of village women, many seeking a way to pay to educate their own children, wait out their pregnancies, hot and bored, before they deliver babies for North Americans and Europeans. The total cost is about $10,000, compared with $50,000 to $70,000 in the United States. (Commercial surrogacy is illegal in Canada).

“These surrogate mothers are just being kept there like baby factories,” said Nandita Rao, a lawyer pushing for regulation of the fertility industry. “The women are just sitting there producing that child with no rights on that child and no rights on their health – the contract says if you don’t produce the child, you don’t get the money – so they go on with a pregnancy no matter what [the risk] and there is no maximum number on the times they can do this. In India, which is so fiercely patriarchal, many families are using their daughters-in-law as baby-churning factories.”

Many of the best-known Indian fertility clinics offer a roster of surrogate profiles from which to choose. Better educated women command a higher price – perhaps a $7,000 fee, compared to $3,000 for a village woman in Gujarat. The buyer also pays medical and living costs.

One of Dr. Gupta’s clients, Anita, a Delhi private-school teacher who didn’t want her surname published, found her surrogate through an ad in a women’s magazine. At 38, she had failed at IVF herself and sought a young woman to carry a baby made with donor eggs and her husband’s sperm. The ad was placed by the surrogate’s husband; the woman, Puja, 21, said quietly that she didn’t like the idea and it took her three months to agree, that she gave in because her father-in-law has left the family with debts that they must pay.

She has two small children of her own. Anita comes to hover over her ultrasounds; asked how Puja felt about carrying the twins developing in her womb, Anita replied blithely, “Oh, we haven’t told her yet.”

A year ago, Anita had another surrogate pregnancy under way with a woman she brought to stay at her home, but six months in, Anita began to suspect the surrogate was stealing. “We lost confidence in her, so we terminated that pregnancy,” she said calmly. It is part of the standard Gupta clinic surrogacy contract that a surrogate must terminate a pregnancy if the doctor directs her to do so. “We were more careful choosing someone this time,” Anita added.

Yet if surrogacy is getting the most attention, much more of the other forms of assisted reproduction are going on here – for example, egg donation has shot up with the economic downturn, Dr. Gupta said.

Dr. Gupta won’t allow clients to select the gender of their babies, but there are few other requests he will turn down. “Everyone can afford surrogacy,” he said; many of his clients are rural farmers or the urban poor, people who have borrowed money or sold land to pursue IVF. “They feel they are nothing without a child,” he said. “I ask, ‘Can you sell [an acre]?’ Invariably the reply is yes. ‘Then you can get a baby.’ “

The Satyanarayans had no qualms. They are seeking a son to replace their teenage boy who died last year. “We have land and we want someone to have it when we go,” Satyabati Satyanarayan said a few minutes after Dr. Gupta assessed her readiness for the donor eggs they will pay $6,500 to have fertilized and implanted.

While a Canadian IVF clinic will not implant more than two embryos in a woman under 37 for fear of creating a multiple-gestation pregnancy, Dr. Gupta’s policy is less strict. “You can get a 40-50 per cent success by implanting three or four, and if they are multiple, we reduce the number – if more than two is [not desired],” he said. “Except with Muslims – they make a fuss [about aborting some of the embryos].”

He said that while he has created only four sets of triplets, his clients have given birth to more than 1,000 sets of twins. “It’s a two-for-one bonus,” he said with a grin.

Dr. Gupta sees 100 patients each day; counselling for assisted reproduction consists of a few minutes of chat with women about their options to maximize the chances of pregnancy. Upstairs, his wife merges the eggs he harvests in the early morning with sperm collected from sheepish men emerging from a room with a selection of DVDs. In her spotless lab, the only quiet place in the teeming three-storey clinic, dozens of embryos grow each day.

Downstairs, her husband decides who will get them. “There is no regulation, so you do the most ethical thing you can,” he said.

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