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8 March 2017 Editorial


8 MARCH 2017

State of signiicance

With the seventh and last phase of voting for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, a potentially transformative election draws to a close. Ever since voting started in the State on February 11, the three main political parties in the fray, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party, threw everything into their respective bids for power, with the constant campaign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving the election a national resonance. India has rarely witnessed a campaign blitz of the order witnessed in the last two phases of the poll, on March 4 and 8. Mr. Modi spent three days in and around Varanasi alone, seeking to both retain the votes that accrued to him in his Lok Sabha constituency in 2014, and throw his voice longer in the election’s home stretch. Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, with their SP and Congress in an alliance that has reversed the history of suspicion between the two parties, also focussed on Varanasi, given its significance in eastern U.P. The BSP’s Mayawati, as always, was the least splashy, staying away from the battleground and choosing to monitor everything from her base in Lucknow. The last constituency, in Ambedkar Nagar, will vote on March 9, in an election deferred on account of the death of a candidate. But it is anybody’s guess how the results will pan out on counting day on March 11.

It has been a campaign in which the Prime Minister has chosen to be the face of local aspirations, repeatedly pushing the envelope to take the battle to regional leaders with provocative statements. The BSP has demonstrably gone back to its roots, abandoning its grand social coalition of 2012 for a targeted pitch for the Muslim and Dalit vote. The new-look SP, in alliance with a Congress party jettisoning its longstanding go-it-alone resolve, has sought to position itself as a softer version of its earlier self, while defending its record with the slogan kaam bolta hai (work speaks for itself ). For all three, it could be a defining moment: for the BJP to consolidate itself as the primary pole in national politics, for the BSP to retain its electoral salience, and for the SP-Congress to demonstrate the power of an unlikely alliance. Yet, there is an arithmetic that the results will be analysed  against.Will the BJP manage to make 2014 the new baseline, with its lead then in 328 Assembly segments (with a 40% vote share in more than 250 of them)? Or will its opponents succeed in pulling back that baseline closer to the Assembly elections of the past? For instance, 2012, when the BJP won just 47 seats and the SP took 224, eclipsing the BSP which had lost less than 5% of its vote share from its victorious 2007 sweep. Either way, it would reset the equations not just in the State but also at the Centre.


Sparks in a tinderbox

North Korea’s provocative action of launching four missiles into the Sea of Japan a few hundred kilometres from the Japanese coastline has triggered fears of renewed tension between nuclear armed powers. The launch seems timed to test the strategic fortitude and tactical capabilities of new relationships in the broader power balance that reins in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. The first test would be of the strength of bilateral U.S.-Japan ties on the watch of U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un had already given these two leaders a wake-up call when his regime fired a medium-range missile last month. Mr. Trump has assured both Mr. Abe and South Korea’s acting President, Hwang Kyo-Ahn, of his ironclad commitment to stand by them through this crisis. Yet it is likely that Mr. Kim was, in fact, trying to get a measure of Mr. Trump, who had tweeted shortly before assuming office in January, “it won’t happen!”, on the North being close to testing an ICBM. Experts seem to concur that the missiles launched now did not appear to be of intercontinental range. Yet, the prospect looms of the North miniaturising nuclear warheads to the point where even shorter-range weapons could, if they were nuclear-tipped, pose unprecedented risk to South Korea, Japan and the U.S. military assets in the vicinity.

The continuous belligerence of North Korea is only one side of the story. The other is that the international community, led by the U.S. and nations within striking distance of the North’s aggression, has hardly managed the conflict consistently. The commendable effort of the Six Party Talks to invest diplomatic currency in bringing Pyongyang back to the negotiating table got derailed early on in President Barack Obama’s first term. The cycle of sanctions and international isolation fuelling further bravado by the Kim regime then dominated the denouement, as indeed it has since 1992. This time the conflict seems to be following a distinctly more unstable trajectory as Mr. Trump has authorised the deployment in South Korea of the first elements of the U.S.’s advanced anti-missile system, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), disregarding the possibility that it may be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the presumed retaliatory move of THAAD deployment glosses over the fact that in the past week the U.S. and South Korea had conducted military drills in the region, war games that Pyongyang views as overt hostility. On the other, Washington has clearly decided to ignore the justifiable fears of Beijing and Moscow that THAAD’s nuclear umbrella threatens their interests in the region too, not North Korea’s alone. Unless de-escalation becomes a priority for all parties involved, the Korean Peninsula region will remain a flashpoint

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