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23 March 2016 Editorial


23 MARCH 2016 

Wise counsel needed in Uttarakhand 

The political crisis in Uttarakhand finally, and inevitably, reached Rashtrapati Bhavan on Monday, with Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party delegations separately seeking President Pranab Mukherjee’s attention. The BJP has demanded the dismissal of the Congress’ Harish Rawat government, arguing that it has lost its majority, and questioning the role of Speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal in refusing a division of the vote on the State Budget. The party claims it now has the support of 36 MLAs in the 70-member Assembly, including of nine rebel Congress MLAs. The Congress party, in turn, charged the BJP with using “unconstitutional means”, and expressed apprehensions about the Centre imposing President’s Rule in the State. As the timeline holds, Mr. Rawat has to prove his majority in the House by March 28. Meanwhile, the Speaker has given the nine rebel MLAs time till March 26 to reply to notices asking them to show cause why they should not lose their membership of the Assembly under the Anti-Defection Act. The Congress has also expelled its former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna’s son, who is leading the revolt. The spark for the rebellion is linked to the spoils of office. Mr. Bahuguna reportedly wanted ministerial posts for his loyalists, portfolios that are currently held by members of the Progressive Democratic Front, which has a total of six seats in the House and supports the Congress. 

With this, Uttarakhand unfortunately faces a new phase of political uncertainty. It was created out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000 after a long grass-roots level struggle for statehood to meet the unique administrative needs of the Himalayan region. The State’s composite character demands genuine, responsive politics to bind the 13 districts into an organic whole. Indeed, party politics, as contrasted with the social coalition that won the statehood, is still a work in progress in crafting the balance and depth to keep the different regions and constituencies on board. Both the BJP and the Congress, during their respective stints in power, have struggled to paper over intra-party rivalries. In the case of the Congress, it has finally spilled over into outright rebellion. Mr. Rawat had been seen to be the front runner for the chief ministership after the 2012 Assembly elections, when the Congress high command airdropped Mr. Bahuguna, perceived to be a Gandhi family loyalist. Two years later, he was replaced by Mr. Rawat. Now, the ambit of the Anti-Defection Act is being tested in ways that could influence — and nastily so — the campaign for the next Assembly elections, due by early 2017. It is important that lessons in propriety from the recent experience in Arunachal Pradesh be learnt and the sanctity of the office of Governor be protected. It is not clear how much of the Uttarakhand rebellion has been extraneously engineered and how much of it draws from the Congress’ lax political management. Either way, the Centre needs to handle the situation with a light touch, and it must wait out the vote of confidence sought by the Governor. 

A pivotal shift to Cuba 

American President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba is a remarkable moment in global diplomacy for various reasons. Till a few years ago, a U.S. President walking down the streets of Old Havana with his family, meeting the Cuban leader at the Palace of Revolution and even saying that the U.S. should face up to criticism by Cuba — all would have looked beyond imagination. The two countries, bitter foes during the Cold War era, remained hostile towards each other even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, till President Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro — who succeeded his brother and leader of the Cuban revolution Fidel Castro in 2008 — began a process of rapprochement in December 2014. Over the past several months, Washington took a number of steps, including removing Cuba from its list of nations charged with sponsoring terrorism, to restore confidence in bilateral relations. Havana reciprocated by reopening its embassy in Washington. Mr. Obama’s visit, the first by a U.S. President since 1928, is the symbolic culmination of this diplomatic engagement. It confirms the view that Washington’s traditional Cuba policy, rooted in Cold War animosity, is way past its use-by date. In July 2015, after both countries announced that they would restore diplomatic relations, Mr. Obama said the U.S. had been “clinging to a policy that was not working”. Despite U.S. efforts to weaken the Communist Party’s rule, Cuba stood tall in Latin America. Even those who expected Cuba to fall after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, as the country was largely dependent on aid from Moscow, were proved wrong. A new wave of socialist forces in the continent actually strengthened Cuba’s standing in the region. The blunted opposition of the Cuban American community towards Havana, as well as the demand from American capitalist sections, especially big farming, for new markets, may also have influenced Mr. Obama’s thinking. Cuba’s positive responses to U.S. overtures, mainly driven by economic imperatives, set the stage for a grand deal.

But the road ahead may not be all that smooth. The hour-long joint media conference in Havana, despite all its hype, also exposed old grievances. President Castro demanded that the embargo be lifted and Guantánamo returned to Cuba for full normalisation of relations. President Obama said he had pressed the Cuban leader over his country’s treatment of dissidents. All this indicates that full normalisation of ties will take time. The removal of sanctions needs Congressional approval, which, given the opposition to the rapprochement from Conservative Republicans, is unlikely to come in the near future. Also, it has to be seen what the next U.S. President’s Cuba policy will be. On the other side, Cuba is unlikely to radically overhaul its approach towards dissent. Nor does the Communist Party have any plan to end its monopoly over power. But future challenges should not cloud the significance of this week’s breakthrough. Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro have created a historic momentum in bilateral ties, and it is up to the next generation of leaders to build on it.

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