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14 February 2017 Editorials


14 FEBRUARY 2017

Rebel factor, minority choices

Uttarakhand goes to the polls for its fourth Assembly elections since its formation after it was carved out from Uttar Pradesh in 2000. The electoral fight here has always been between the Congress and the BJP, but this time around the bipolar contest has been muddied with rebels from both parties expected to act as spoilers. By virtue of how the two national parties have conducted their campaigns, the election is billed as a contest between Chief Minister Harish Rawat of the Congress and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP. The Congress has sought to make the polls a referendum on the performance and image of Mr. Rawat. The Chief Minister lost his post temporarily last year with the imposition of President’s Rule, before a Supreme Court verdict returned him to power. The BJP has projected Mr. Modi as the face of its campaign, and focussed its attack on Mr. Rawat. This personality-centric strategy has meant that issues such as flood and disaster relief and reconstruction, protection of the environment and declining farm productivity in the hills have been pushed to the margins. Instead, the OROP issue, demonetisation — the effects of which are more pronounced in the plains than in the hills — and abstract promises on employment-centred development and promotion of tourism have found more air, as they were the calling cards of Mr. Modi and Mr. Rawat during the campaign. The two parties have relied on contrasting strategies, with the BJP undertaking a door-to-door, grassroots effort in the hills and the Congress fielding its campaign strategist Prashant Kishor to up its social media pitch. As has all along been the case in Uttarakhand, the contest is expected to be close.

The second phase of polling in U.P., in Rohilkhand, covers constituencies that have a relatively higher proportion of Muslim voters. Expectedly, the Samajwadi Party-Congress combine and the Bahujan Samaj Party have sought to consolidate minority support, which is reflected in the selection of candidates. However, reducing the contest in these seats in northwestern U.P. to merely the question of which party is more secular would be a disservice to the voters, who make up 17% of the State’s population and who live in a region with abysmal socio-economic indicators. While many of those engaged in the small-scale and unorganised sector have been severely affected by demonetisation, better agricultural productivity in the last year has helped farmers raise income levels. These developments are expected to have an impact on electoral choices, continuing the trend of unpredictability in the U.P. elections this year.


North Korea lobs a missile challenge

On the face of it, the launch of a medium-range ballistic missile by North Korea is yet another reckless provocation by its leader Kim Jong-un. Last year, the Kim regime tested at least a dozen missiles and even vowed to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit the U.S. Each time the tests have triggered angry and anxious responses from world leaders, particularly from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. The UN Security Council has already imposed a host of sanctions on the country. But neither sanctions nor warnings issued by other powers have had any impact on North Korea’s bellicose behaviour. There is a method in Pyongyang’s madness; a hidden pattern behind the aggressive posturing and frequent violation of international law. The latest missile test, the first after Donald Trump became the U.S. President, comes at a time when he was hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This is not the first time North Korea is challenging a new U.S. President with a weapons test. In 2009, a few months after Barack Obama took office, Pyongyang conducted an underground nuclear blast. Mr. Obama saw it as a provocation and responded with the tightening of international sanctions on the country.

Mr. Obama’s hardline approach, however, did little to alter North Korea’s aggressive weapons programme. Mr. Trump is now facing his Obama moment. North Korea was not one of his top priority areas. But it has now stormed into the President’s first set of foreign policy challenges. His immediate reaction was marked by measured restraint, in sharp contrast to his response to the recent missile test by Iran, which has been “put on notice” by his administration. That may be because Mr. Trump knows that the stakes are higher as North Korea is a nuclear power. As in the case of his predecessors, he doesn’t have many options to address the Pyongyang challenge. Sanctions are already in place. The regime is already isolated. War is out of the question as North Korea could directly target America’s allies in East Asia with nuclear weapons. One less explored and apparently feasible idea is to get China, which still has some leverage over Pyongyang, on board and engage the Kim regime diplomatically, without removing the sanctions. However erratic a regime’s actions may seem, the first lesson in international diplomacy is to deal with nation states as rational actors. Sanctions are effective only when they are used in carrot-and-stick mode. Responding to North Korea’s provocative posturing with counter-provocations will yield hardly any diplomatic dividend.

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