21 JANUARY 2016
Polarisation in Malda
On the face of it, the violence unleashed in Malda (WB) on January 3 would appear to point to a dangerous escalation of a communal protest by an obscure group called the Anjuman Ahle Sunnatul Jamaat. The group had organised a rally to protest against remarks against Islam made by a Hindu right-wing leader in Uttar Pradesh nearly a month earlier — a mob burnt a Border Security Force (BSF) vehicle, then attacked and ransacked a police station and burnt vehicles in Kaliachak. However, a deeper inquiry suggests that the violence was the result of a law and order breakdown in the largely backward and under-developed district, which has been convulsed by agrarian distress, poverty and a political system thriving on patronage and crime. The mob had specifically targeted the police and the BSF after a crackdown on poppy cultivation and the circulation of fake currency notes, an illicit economic activity that is rampant in the area. It is clear from ground reports that the protest rally was used as a ruse to unleash violence against the police in the Kaliachak area, with crime records and poppy storage facilities being the primary targets for the looters and arsonists among the mob.
The subsequent attempt by the Bharatiya Janata Party to give a communal colour to the violence is a sinister ploy to foment more trouble in an already troubled district. Malda has for long been a pocket borough of the Congress party. The family of the late A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury continues to wield influence and power through a client-patronage system. The Trinamool Congress had hitherto been unable to breach the Congress stronghold despite establishing hegemony in most other districts. The State government’s business-as-usual reaction to the breakdown in law and order in Malda is possibly on account of the Trinamool Congress’s expectations of deriving some electoral advantage from religious polarisation. Meanwhile, the BJP, which blatantly took recourse to dog-whistle politics in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, managing a decent showing in West Bengal, has been unable to consolidate its position in the subsequent local body elections. With the increasing prospect of a Congress alliance with the Left Front — both the Congress and the CPI(M) leaderships in the State have signalled a preference for an electoral understanding for the coming Assembly elections — it is amply clear that tensions are being deliberately ramped up in order to polarise voters in Malda. This process is being helped by the Trinamool government’s lack of a will to curb criminality and increasing threats to law and order in West Bengal. Communal riots and deterioration of civic relations are products of cynical electoral strategies of communal and narrow-minded political outfits. It is to be hoped that the progressive social forces in Malda will work to resist the political machinations that are under way to create a communal conflagration. That they are the last hope is a searing indictment of the administration in West Bengal.
Dealing with the slowdown
The International Monetary Fund has added to the prevailing economic gloom by cutting the global growth forecast. It now expects the world economy to expand by 3.4 per cent in 2016. This is 0.2 percentage points below its forecast of October last year. The revision has come just as Beijing released numbers that showed China posting the slowest growth yet in 25 years. Though it reported a growth of 6.9 per cent in 2015, the year saw turbulence in the Chinese economy, with heavy capital outflows and stock market volatility. The IMF has kept its growth forecast for China unchanged at 6.3 per cent in 2016, and the fear is that China’s economic slowdown could have a trigger effect on others. Reading the China factor in tandem with weak commodity prices, the Fund has chosen to pare its global growth forecast. The latest IMF growth numbers no doubt reflect the unfavourable ground conditions around the globe. Yet, they also underscore a sense of urgency in putting in place an action plan that would catalyse and hasten the economic recovery process. Not surprisingly, the IMF has emphasised the need for supportive measures in the near term to assist a recovery.
While ringing the slowdown alarm, the IMF, however, finds India better-placed vis-à-vis other large economies. It has kept its growth forecast for India in 2016-17 unchanged at 7.5 per cent. Coming as it does at a time when global political and business leaders make a beeline for Davos, the IMF’s prediction could be seen to be a shot in the arm for Indian leaders to hard sell the country at the World Economic Forum. At best, it could give India a psychological edge over others. But that alone may not be sufficient to pull India to a higher growth orbit. In an inter-connected environment, global headwinds cannot be wished away. Oftentimes, there have been comparisons between India and China in the global investing community. Managing the ‘China factor’ is very crucial for India to stay its course on the growth path. Containing the spillover effects of volatility in Beijing could, however, prove a big challenge for monetary and fiscal planners in India in the coming days. Given that Indian exports have been contracting month after month, the developments on the Chinese currency front are bound to pose fresh worries for the economy. Though India is relatively better-placed, the economic slowdown is as much a concern for the country as it is for others. Even as the IMF forecast provides India a comparative edge in wooing the global investor community, it is essential for the government to coherently address the growing anxiety among domestic consumers and stem, if not fully reverse, the demand slump. The budget will provide the NDA government an opportunity to announce a plan to mitigate economic distress, especially in the farm sector, and show the political will to push job-creation as a central objective. It’s a task the government must not dodge.