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14 March 2017 Editorial


14 MARCH 2017

U.P. and away

In the post-Mandal era, Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous State that is made up of diverse regions, has rarely witnessed a landslide, leave alone of such dimensions, in an Assembly election. As the State went to the polls, there was a clutch of arguments marshalled by sundry political commentators on why the BJP could not repeat its huge sweep in the 2014 Lok Sabha election — the magnitude of which had surprised the party itself as much as its rivals. It was pointed out, for instance, that this was a State election, the implication being that a totally different political dynamic would be at play. Other factors such as the effect of demonetisation, the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, and the fading appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi were thrown into the mix. As it turned out, none of this seemed to matter much as the results of the two elections were eerily similar — both in terms of the geographical spread of the victory and vote percentages. The BJP managed to effectively tap into segments among the Other Backward Classes and Dalits, besides its upper-caste vote base. The popularity of Mr. Modi contributed in no small measure to the election result, but the party succeeded by also feeding into the disgruntlement over the narrow social alliances forged by the SP and the BSP.

The SP and the BSP, following their 2014 debacle, chose to make two tactical changes. By revolting against his father and party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, incumbent Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav presented himself and his party as agents of development. But he was unable to convince the electorate that the party had moved away from caste and, more specifically, Yadav led patronage. Despite the alliance with a weak Congress party, the SP’s support remained limited to its core traditional vote. The BSP tried a newer tactic, an abstract Dalit-Muslim alliance, and ran on the hope that fielding candidates based on identity would break the coalition of forces that had supported the BJP in 2014. But the expediency of this strategy based on caste and community failed, partly because of perceptions that BSP leader Mayawati was ambivalent about who she would join hands with in the event of a hung Assembly. U.P. is a communally sensitive State and the BJP —which failed to field a single Muslim candidate — must not interpret the scale of the victory as an endorsement of majoritarianism or an excuse to raise the political pitch on divisive issues such as the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Going into the 2019 general election, Mr. Modi and his party will be closely monitored on how much they adhere to his promise of taking everyone along. The last thing that a “new India” needs is an escalation of denominational politics that raises unnecessary passions and subverts the developmental agenda.


End of a chapter

The removal of a sitting President in South Korea brings to a close one phase in the months-long popular mobilisation to enforce accountability among the high and mighty. This verdict by South Korea’s highest court, upholding Parliament’s vote to impeach Park Geun-hye, could well herald a new era in a land where it has for long been unthinkable to get the powerful to face justice even for serious crimes. Significantly, Parliament’s move in December to unseat Ms. Park by an overwhelming vote had been backed even by legislators from her conservative Saenuri party. Stripped of presidential immunity, Ms. Park could now face criminal proceedings on allegations that she was complicit in nefarious activities involving her close confidante. The chief accusation is that they solicited contributions to promote dodgy non-profit organisations in return for clearing questionable corporate deals. The protests last year by hundreds of thousands who sought action in the influence-peddling scandal, as well as violent clashes that followed 10 March 2017 judicial verdict, are an indication of how polarising a figure Ms. Park has been through her tenure since 2013. Her autocratic and whimsical rule was marked by fierce attacks on labour unions, smear campaigns against critics, and efforts to rewrite history textbooks. The most provocative foreign policy move was the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, an American missile defence system, escalating regional tensions. China retaliated with calls for the boycott of South Korean imports.

The divisions among her followers and detractors are as much ideological as they are intergenerational. A number of Ms. Park’s party supporters continue to harbour sympathies for the daughter of South Korea’s moderniser, the military dictator Park Chung-hee. But younger generations see the severing of all links with this authoritarian past as a necessary guarantee for the consolidation of democracy, three decades after return to civilian rule. The chaebols — South Korea’s highly influential family-owned conglomerates — may have had economic motivations to lean heavily on political patronage during the country’s industrial ascendency and integration into the global market. But such cosy arrangements are proving to be untenable when exceptions of the past are sought to be institutionalised. The task of public cleansing in South Korea is far from over, as is evident from the ongoing criminal proceedings involving tycoons from its best-known corporations. The recent assertion of the independence of the judiciary from political interference and the capacity of legislators to uphold their authority are notable. It would be no surprise, therefore, if South Korea’s example becomes a model worthy of emulation elsewhere in the region. South Koreans are due to elect their next President by May — and by all indications, they are seeking to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions.




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