11 APRIL 2016
Downscaling for success
Sometimes, success depends on the scaling down of ambition. Efforts at reuniting the secular parties with roots in the Janata Party of the 1970s have been under way ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party won a majority of its own in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. But a mega-merger was never going to be easy as the Janata Parivar parties, with varying strengths, spread across different regions, and united only by a common opponent, could not have easily agreed on the modalities of coming together. The Janata Dal (United) under Nitish Kumar is going ahead with the merger plan, but without three of the major parties — the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar and the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka. The Janata Party was an artificial union of parties fighting the Congress during a difficult period in the country’s history; it suffered more than one split over ideological differences and conflicting pulls and pressures. Given this, re-unification can only be just as unnatural, prompted by nothing more than shifting political expediencies. Rather than wait endlessly for the mega-merger, Mr. Kumar chose to bring together what was possible in the circumstances — the Rashtriya Lok Dal of Ajit Singh, the Samajwadi Janata Party of Kamal Morarka, and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha of Babulal Marandi.
What must be disquieting for Mr. Kumar is that the RJD, a partner in his government in Bihar, chose not to be part of the merger plan for the present. Given that the two parties had fought and won the State Assembly election last year without any major hiccup, a merger would have been a logical step. The reluctance of the RJD to commit on a merger highlights the post-poll tensions within the alliance. Also, there is the possibility that the RJD is seeking to expand its base at the expense of the JD (U) sooner or later. Given their different spheres of influence, the parties that are currently part of the merger plan, the JD (U), the RLD, the SJP and the JVM, are not political rivals; for the same reason, they would not be able to greatly add to one another’s vote share and increase winning chances in specific constituencies. Any merger would only be in name. The original rationale for the reunification of the Janata Parivar, to present a national-level alternative to the BJP, is no longer relevant. When the SP was involved in talks, the post-merger entity was meant to be an alternative to both the BJP and the Congress. But the JD (U), as well as the RJD, needs the Congress in Bihar. Therefore, as a national-level alternative, the Janata Parivar experiment was doomed to failure from the very outset. By scaling down the merger plans, Mr. Kumar appears to have sacrificed his ambition to play a bigger national role at the altar of pragmatism.
Giving peace a chance in Yemen
A United Nations-backed ceasefire between the Saudi-allied forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and Shia Houthi rebels took effect in Yemen on Sunday, raising hopes that the warring factions may purposefully work towards a negotiated solution. It is not clear how long the truce will hold, given the complexity of the conflict and past experience. Three previous attempts to reach a ceasefire had collapsed. This time around, the rebels and the Saudi-backed forces have announced that they will respect the truce. Saudi Arabia and its allies started bombing Yemen in March 2015 with the obvious goal of reinstating the ousted government of President Hadi and weakening the Shia Houthi rebels who had captured the capital Sanaa. But after a year of relentless bombing by Riyadh, the Houthis still hold the capital city and control much of western Yemen. In fact, if anyone has secured a strategic advantage out of the Yemeni war, it is al-Qaeda. The stateless chaos amid a disastrous war has helped al-Qaeda expand its footprint steadily in the country, and it now runs a mini state from southeastern Yemen. On the other side, the war has turned Yemen into a humanitarian catastrophe. More than 6,000 people, half of them civilians, have been killed since the Saudi bombing started, and about two million have been displaced. An estimated 80 per cent of the population needs humanitarian assistance, while millions of children face malnutrition. If the war is allowed to rage on, its humanitarian and strategic costs would be much graver.
But there may be no easy way out. The real reason for the conflict lies in the complex geopolitics of the region. Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as a front for Iran and does not want a Shia-dominated government in its backyard. Western countries, particularly the U.S. and the U.K., have continued to supply weapons to Riyadh and turned their eyes away from the brazen violation of human rights for fear of further antagonising Saudi Arabia, their key West Asian ally that is already piqued by the Iran nuclear deal. This has given the Saudis a free hand in Yemen. And as things stand, they have messed it up. The ceasefire, however, is a starting point. But for it to succeed, the regional powers should set aside their geopolitical games and come together to address the humanitarian problem pragmatically. The Saudis should realise that they cannot forcibly keep away from power the Houthis, who claim to represent the country’s Shia community that makes up between 30 and 45 per cent of the total population. The Houthis and their Iranian backers should also understand that they cannot just take over the whole country. Any practical solution will require an end to external military intervention and a cessation of violence, followed by the formation of a government of national unity. These cannot be achieved unless Iran and Saudi Arabia cooperate, and in a manner that puts their selfish interests aside. Whether they have the vision to do this is uncertain, but a failure to put the region before narrow geopolitical interests would result in this ceasefire meeting the fate of previous ones.