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24 March 2017 Editorial


24 MARCH 2017

Power of a symbol

In the face of competing claims from the two factions of the AIADMK, the Election Commission did the right thing in denying both the use of the party name and the election symbol. While a majority of its members of Parliament and the Tamil Nadu Assembly have stayed with the group headed by V.K. Sasikala, friend of former Chief Minister and former party general secretary Jayalalithaa, the EC deferred a final decision on this issue, and passed an interim order freezing the ‘Two Leaves' symbol for the purpose of the by-election in the R.K. Nagar constituency in Chennai. In a way, this is a significant victory for the faction led by E. Madhusudhanan andO. Panneerselvam,who have been maintaining that the Sasikala faction does not enjoy the support of party leaders andworkers at different levels of the organisation. The decision, in effect, formalises the split in the party after the death of Jayalalithaa, and provides a level playing field to both factions in the by-election. The order wrote itself: to favour one faction over the other without examining in detail the veracity of the rival claims of support within the organisation across the State would have been unfair.This way, both factions are equally disadvantaged. Strangely, the two parties have been allowed similar names: the Sasikala faction opted for AIADMK (Amma), and the other faction AIADMK (Puratchi Thalaivi Amma). Ideally, to avoid confusion among voters, the names of the respective leaders should have been given to the factions.

The by-election is critical for the future of both factions; in the event they both lose, the one that gets more votes is likely to be legitimised in the public eye as the true AIADMK.Both factions know that they will have to best the other before they can be ready to take on the bigger enemy, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The Sasikala faction raised the stakes by fielding T.T.V. Dhinakaran, a nephewof Ms. Sasikalawhowas nominated the party's deputy general secretary. This high-risk strategy can make or break the Sasikala family's hold on the party. A victory for Mr. Dhinakaran would give him greater moral and political legitimacy within the party, and, maybe, prepare the ground for a shot at the chief ministership. It is no secret that Ms. Sasikala nominated him to lead the party in her absence so that her family could control both the party and the government led by Edappadi K. Palaniswami. A victory forMr. Dhinakaran would be a setback not only to the Panneerselvam faction, but also to the authority ofMr. Palaniswami in the government. The opposition DMK, which made an unseemly bid to thwart the confidence vote moved by Mr. Palaniswami last month, is well-placed in this election despite having little to lose or gain fromit. The focus will be on the AIADMK factions locked in a fight for survival.

Arc toWest Asia

By hosting the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two heavyweights in West Asia that do not have formal diplomatic relations, in consecutive weeks, Beijing has sent yet another signal on its growing appetite to deepen ties with the region. During the visit of King Salman last week, China and Saudi Arabia announced an investment cooperation dealworth $65 billion that will boost partnerships in fields such as energy, finance and aerospace. Days later, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Beijing, where both leaders vowed to strengthen cooperation in the technology and agriculture sectors. Over the years China has built strong economic ties with countries in West Asia, while staying clear of the region's several crises and hostilities. It is one of the top buyers of oil from Saudi Arabia and a key trading partner of Israel.For Iran, Beijing remained a trusted ally even during the time of sanctions. Chinawas one of the few countries that continued to buy oil from Iran when most others, including India, either halted trade or implemented massive cuts in imports under American pressure. China's economic ties with West Asia assumed greater significance after Mr. Xi unveiled the One Belt, One Road initiative. West Asia plays a major role in this Silk Road revival plan,which the Chinese believe will fortify their global standing.

Of late, China has shown a greater interest in expanding its engagement with the region beyond the economic sphere. Its relationship with Iran has already acquired strategic dimensions. It is one of the supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime in civil war-stricken Syria. In the UN Security Council, China, along with Russia, has consistently vetoed U.S.-backed resolutions on Syria, while at the same time offering to broker peace between rival factions.China has also recognised Palestine as a state and offered support for the Palestinians. During his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Xi said peaceful coexistence between Israel and Palestine would be good for both parties and the region. The Chinese have also urged Saudi Arabia and Israel to work together to attain peace.All this indicates that China is ready to end its strategic reluctance in dealing with West Asia and to adopt a gradualist proactive policy that suits its profile as a fast-rising global power. But there are risks as well. Unlike the U.S. and Russia, China has traditionally played a risk-free global role, staying focussed on economic development.It lacks experience in navigating the political, religious, sectarian and tribal tensions in West Asia, both among states and within countries. The three major pillars of China's West Asia policy-Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel-are rival powers. The challenge before Beijing, if it wants to enter the troubled political waters of West Asia, is to maintain a perfect balancing act.

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