19 January 2017
More than symbolic
Mulayam Singh Yadav can certainly tell friends from foes. In the Samajwadi Party dispute that was before the Election Commission of India, the important thing for him was to ensure that the party symbol, the bicycle, did not get frozen. That would have helped neither him nor his son, Akhilesh Yadav, who is leading the split in the SP; worse, it would have paved the way for his principal rival, the BJP, to return to power given the serious disadvantages of fighting an election with a symbol that is unfamiliar to the electorate. By not battling hard for the bicycle symbol, and not submitting before the ECI any affidavit to show his support among elected representatives and party office-bearers, he may be perceived as letting down his own faction in the party. But his first priority was not winning the battle inside his extended family, but beating his political opponents in the larger war. The surrender of the symbol would have effectively ended the SP’s fight in the election. Both father and son knew this, and carefully averted such an eventuality. Mr. Akhilesh Yadav responded to his father’s gesture by seeking his blessings, and Mr. Mulayam Singh sent his son a list of his faction’s candidates who needed to be accommodated. The SP is not in self-destruct mode. Both factions are playing their cards on the basis of cold calculations, not hot-headed impulse.
The split, and the retention of the election symbol, appear to have compensated in some measure for the party’s failings on the governance front over the last five years. Mr. Akhilesh Yadav is now able to seek a fresh mandate on his own terms; moreover, he can, with some degree of credibility, blame the shortcomings on the party’s old guard. Also, an alliance with the Congress is now very much within the realm of possibility. Mr. Mulayam Singh was averse to a tie-up, but Mr. Akhilesh Yadav seems to enjoy a better rapport with the Congress leadership. The SP only gained from the split, and it might have lost nothing at all in terms of organisational muscle. After giving up the fight for the symbol, Mr. Mulayam Singh does not seem too eager to take the fight with his son to the polling booths, so long as his loyalists got their share of seats. In a State known for strategic voting, where voter polarisation with the BJP at one extreme is now a reality, the SP might have benefited by merely pushing itself ahead of the BSP as a principal contender. That much Mr. Akhilesh Yadav appears to have done for himself and the party. But the question is whether he can bank entirely on his promise for the future, and erase public memory of his past performance.
The hard road to Brexit
Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech on her government’s plans for Britain’s exit from the EU was many things at once — a declaration of intent, a warning, a motivational talk and a balancing act with several contradictions. She painted the first stroke on the negotiation canvas: Britain had chosen a “hard Brexit”. It would leave the single market and with it gain more control over its borders and its laws, some of which are currently under the oversight of the European Courts of Justice. This, Ms. May said, is what the people had chosen. At the same time, the U.K. would seek to negotiate a deal that would give it as much access to the single market without being a part of it. It would seek a modified customs union membership to be able to negotiate its own trade treaties with non-EU countries, and build what the Prime Minister called a “truly global Britain”. This vision had been built up by Ms. May since the June 2016 referendum, and her speech reiterated it was the alternative, and better, future that awaited Britain. The Prime Minister pushed and pulled at the EU, with praise and warning. Ms. May spoke of her country’s good intentions for the continent and her optimism for a good deal with Europe, but said she would accept a no-deal over a bad one. She warned that it would be “calamitously” harmful to Europe if it penalised the U.K. for leaving. She spoke of wanting to strike a trade deal with the EU but hinted that if it did not get a good deal the U.K. had the rest of the world to trade with, and the option to offer tax incentives to attract “the best companies and the biggest investors”.
Ms. May, who was herself a “Remainer”, is trying to make the most of the referendum results for the U.K., and this is her job. It is in this context that her speech must be seen. Neither the British government nor those who supported the move to leave the EU should harbour any illusions that some of the goals outlined in the speech will be difficult to achieve. The EU, which according to recent data accounts for approximately half the U.K.’s imports and exports, is likely to be overwhelmingly important to it after the exit. It is not just the EU that will experience great harm from a bad deal. Trade deals with non-EU countries such as India are likely to involve greater movement of people across borders and this is bound to raise difficult immigration issues again. The Scottish Parliament has now reiterated its resolve to discuss with Downing Street Scotland’s continuation in the single market, and a second referendum for Scottish independence is now more likely. Nobody said it would be easy.