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21 March 2017 Editorial

 

21 MARCH 2017

Mandate for renewal

Heading into Assembly elections in Uttarakhand, the Bharatiya Janata Party had a clear edge after months of political turmoil in the State, that included a spell of President’s Rule and the Supreme Court’s intervention. Chief Minister Harish Rawat had sought to turn the elections into a referendum over the tribulations that his government was subjected to by both the BJP and its government at the Centre. At the same time, his government had struggled to defend itself against allegations of graft. In the event, the BJP managed to repeat its performance of the Lok Sabha election in 2014, when it won in all five parliamentary constituencies and led in 63 out of 70 Assembly segments. By winning 57 seats in the Assembly elections, the BJP has for the first time managed a decisive majority in a State that has traditionally returned close verdicts. By all indications, it reaped the benefit of anti-incumbency due to issues such as migration from the hills to the plains and out of Uttarakhand as well, lack of adequate employment opportunities and infrastructure, and persisting problems relating to the 2013 floods. In 2014, the BJP’s pitch on “development” received significant support and it has now promised to focus on the issue. Conversely, the Congress’s lament that it did not receive adequate Central support in both lood relief and reconstruction apart from developmental work in the State clearly found few takers among the voters, who simply chose the party in power at the Centre.

The Congress also made the mistake of limiting the election campaign to a personality contest centred on Mr. Rawat. Stung by the defection of many leaders to the BJP, especially from the Garhwal region, and faced with the formidable challenge of overcoming the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the party came up short. The success of the BJP must also take into account the fact that 11 of its 57 MLAs are defectors from the Congress. By appointing Trivendra Singh Rawat as the Chief Minister instead of its hopeful former Chief Ministers, the BJP has sought to empower a loyal RSS hand who is close to party president Amit Shah and Mr. Modi. Despite the overwhelming majority for the party which should allow the new Chief Minister to concentrate on administrative tasks instead of constantly managing MLAs to defend narrow majorities in the House, he faces an uphill battle. Since the separation from Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand saw high economic growth till around 2012-13, justifying the bifurcation. But the floods had a devastating impact on its economy, and the long-time decline of the agrarian economy in the hills and the consequent migration of people to the plains have deepened the challenges facing the State. It will take a concerted effort to overcome them.

 

Pakistan’s headcount

Pakistan’s decision to launch a national census, after much delay, is a welcome step that would allow it to formulate realistic policies to address the challenges it faces. The data are critical as key federal decisions such as resource allocation for provinces and delimitation of electoral constituencies are taken based on demographic numbers. This would be the first census in 19 years. The government is supposed to do it every 10 years, but Pakistani authorities, under pressure from political parties and ethnic groups, have delayed the process. The Nawaz Sharif government actually moved into action after a Supreme Court order set a March deadline to start the process. The army has provided 200,000 personnel for security for the 70-day campaign. It is not difficult to see why traditional political parties and ethnic leaders oppose the data-gathering. Since the last census was conducted in 1998 by the second Sharif government, Pakistan has undergone major changes. There has been a massive influx of people into Sindh, while the population growth in Punjab is slowing down. But political parties in Sindh say many Sindhis in rural Sindh may not be counted as they do not have national identity cards. Punjabis fear the current edge they have in Pakistan’s politics on the strength of demographics may be diminished. In Balochistan, local political groups had demanded that the process be delayed till hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are returned to Afghanistan. The refugees have been excluded from the process following a ruling by the Baloch High Court. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, tribal groups have opposed the census citing reverse migration of locals and influx of Afghan refugees.

But such challenges will always be there, given the influence of ethnic groups and provincial satraps in Pakistani politics. What is more important for Islamabad is to not give in to pressure to delay critical administrative decisions. The census is not merely an exercise of counting heads. It provides information on key indicators such as population density, gender ratio, literacy rate, financial conditions and employment numbers. As the 19-year-old census data are obsolete, it is crucial for the government to obtain an updated picture of the country’s socio-economic composition to make the right policy choices. The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with the census, even if under pressure from the court, also suggests an increasing sense of confidence in Islamabad. Pakistan is going through a relatively stable phase, economically and politically. The Sharif government doesn’t face any existential challenge and is set to become the second elected government in Pakistan’s history to finish its full term next year. Economic growth has also picked up. This allows Mr. Sharif to take some risks for long term reforms. He should stay the course towards working out a realistic reallocation of resources and parliamentary seats to the provinces based on the new census data.

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