May 26, 2018 @ 2:00 am

26 MAY 2018

Unified field theory

On non-BJP alliance

Opposition parties need to agree on a political agenda and a tactical alliance to defeat the BJP

A string of defeats is the common thread holding the Opposition parties together against the Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Ideological divides have been papered over and tactics reworked in the quest to stop the BJP from getting a second consecutive term. The post-poll alliance stitched together by the Congress with the Janata Dal (Secular), which allowed for the swearing-in of JD(S) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy as Chief Minister, provided the occasion for a show of hands in unity in Bengaluru. But more significant than winning over the JD(S) was the presence of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati on the front stage. Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, still the most respected leader in her party, seemed to share a special moment on the dais with Ms. Mayawati. Of course, the ground for the coming together of the Congress and the BSP was set much earlier, when the BSP announced support for the Samajwadi Party in the Lok Sabha by-elections in Gorakhpur and Phulpur constituencies. If the success in the two by-elections presented a rational argument for a larger pre-poll alliance, the BSP’s loss in the Rajya Sabha election following the cross-voting engineered by the BJP gave an emotional edge to Ms. Mayawati’s determination to stop the BJP in the next election. An SP-BSP-Congress-RLD alliance will have the look of a mahajot in Uttar Pradesh, and galvanise Opposition parties elsewhere to make the most of any anti-BJP sentiment.

But the real test for a Congress-led Opposition is to generate an agreed policy programme that will have the support of all the disparate groups. Some of these parties share nothing more than an antipathy to the BJP, while others have allied with the BJP in the past. In many cases, electoral rivalry, and not ideological dissimilitude with the BJP, is the reason for fighting it. Crucially, parties such as the Trinamool Congress and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi are not yet ready to accept the leadership of the Congress in a broad coalition of anti-BJP parties. The TRS has the Congress as its main rival in Telangana, and the Trinamool could possibly be arrayed against an alliance of the Left and the Congress in the next general election. Even the newly formed alliance of the Congress and the JD(S) could run into difficulties on seat-sharing as the two parties are the principal rivals in the southern parts of Karnataka. And the Left will be fighting the Congress in Kerala even if it is amenable to seat adjustments with it in other States. Thus, building a viable alternative to the BJP is far more difficult than coming together for a swearing-in ceremony and raising hands in unison. The Congress will need to show leadership as also a willingness to step back and accommodate smaller, regional players in yoking together an alliance of this nature.

Missed opportunity

On cancellation of Trump-Kim summit

A series of avoidable mis-steps led to the unravelling of the Trump-Kim summit

American President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to call off his planned June 12 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore has not only dashed hopes of a breakthrough but also heightened risks of a confrontation on the Korean peninsula. It brings a very unusual spell of diplomacy full circle. Unlike the standard practice of announcing landmark summits after working out an understanding on the agenda through quiet diplomacy, Mr. Trump accepted Mr. Kim’s invitation in March and let it be known to the public immediately. That was surprising given the acrimony in both Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Kim’s public utterances over the past year. Once Mr. Trump had cleared the summit proposal, North Korea also moved fast, making a series of gestures meant to smoothen the path for the meeting. In end-April, there was a summit between Mr. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a border village in the demilitarised zone. The North pledged to halt nuclear and missile tests, and released three Korean-Americans. And, hours before Mr. Trump cancelled the summit on Thursday, it dismantled its Punggye-ri nuclear test site — critics say it was already inoperable, but that was a symbolic gesture nonetheless.

The United States should have taken into account these steps by the North rather than harp on the rhetoric. It could also have made some goodwill gestures to lighten the air, such as cancelling a joint military exercise with South Korea. But it went ahead with the military drill, with Pyongyang slamming both Washington and Seoul even as preparations for the summit were under way. Besides, Mr. Trump’s new National Security Adviser, John Bolton, angered the North Koreans by suggesting that Mr. Kim could follow the 2003 Libyan disarmament model. This was followed by Vice President Mike Pence’s threat that Mr. Kim could meet the same fate as Muammar Qadhafi — who was killed by rebels after a NATO-led invasion in 2011 — if he failed to reach a deal with the U.S. This triggered the unravelling of the summit, with the North once again warning the U.S. of a nuclear showdown. Despite the setback, hopes for an eventual one-to-one meeting still exist. In a letter to Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump said the North was welcome to return to talks if it changed its attitude towards the U.S. Pyongyang also issued a conciliatory response, saying that it hoped the U.S. President would reconsider his decision to “unilaterally” cancel the summit. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim should keep in mind the larger goal of de-escalation of tension, if not outright denuclearisation, on the peninsula and work to reschedule the summit. The only sound way to address the Korean nuclear crisis is diplomacy.

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