November 20, 2018 @ 11:45 am

20 NOVEMBER 2018

Maldivian reprieve

Ibrahim Solih must hit the ground running to stabilise the economy

After five years of rule by a government that strong-armed political dissent domestically, the Maldives has put a pro-people administration in power, swearing in Ibrahim Solih, representing the Maldivian Democratic Party, as President on November 17. He has announced a slew of populist policies, and vowed to end an era of “large-scale embezzlement and corruption”. The last is an allusion to the untold millions allegedly paid to officials as kickbacks for various mega-construction projects. The Solih government came to power on the back of a coalition of unlikely bedfellows. The MDP, the party of former President Mohamed Nasheed, has joined hands with the Jumhooree Party of business tycoon Qasim Ibrahim, the Islamic-based Adhaalath Party, and the support base of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. They will have to ensure that ideological differences do not cause the coalition to split at the seams, and unravel the consequences of previous President Abdulla Yameen flinging open the doors to Chinese investment, allowing a cascade of financing that caused the national debt to balloon to nearly a quarter of GDP. But a strategic return to India and its underlying democratic values could back-stop the economic pummelling that Male is sure to face if creditors in Beijing start calling in their dues.

The new government is being cautious, but professedly firm, in unravelling this web of debt. The leadership has promised that what is owed will be paid, and not a penny more; and that wherever opacity cloaked the grant of land, lease rights, construction projects and more, the honouring of debts would be linked to whether a transparent and fair process was followed in the first place. Yet, there is little doubt that China is there to stay in the Maldives, and a balancing agreement will have to emerge through the plethora of commercial contracts the new government would ideally like to renegotiate. In this mission, the renewed bonhomie with India, reflected in the respect accorded to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian delegation at the inaugural ceremony, will play a crucial role. Innumerable Indians work across the hospitality, education, and health-care sectors of the Maldives economy, and India contributes everything from helicopters to medical visas to Maldivians. The greatest threat to stability comes less from geo-strategic denouements than from within the fabric of its polity. Certain elements that backed the anti-democratic 2012 ‘coup’ that unseated Mr. Nasheed and supported the dramatically centralised power of the previous presidency still abide within the ruling combine. There is only one option for the fledgling coalition government: to strengthen Maldivian institutions and, by extension, democracy.

Quota math

Maharashtra’s proposal on reservation for Marathas is bound to invite judicial scrutiny

After months of protests, the Maratha community has secured yet another promise of reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. The proposal has been cleared by the Maharashtra Cabinet, but is yet to be passed in the State Assembly. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis defended this saying it is in line with the recommendations of a State Backward Class Commission (SBCC) report, yet to be made public, mandating reservations for Marathas under a new, separate Socially and Educationally Backward Class category. Mr. Fadnavis said it was the report’s assessment that Marathas are socially and educationally backward, with minuscule representation in government services, and the State is liable to take action considering the “extraordinary and exceptional conditions”. As any move to include Marathas among Other Backward Classes will cause a backlash, the BJP-Shiv Sena government has sought to provide the reservations under a separate category. But when the previous Maharashtra government, of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party coalition, in 2014 moved to reserve 16% of seats in government jobs and educational institutions, it was stayed by the Bombay High Court. Creating a separate category now would increase the overall quota beyond the 50% limit the Supreme Court has set.

The Cabinet’s nod is in any case born of political exigency, not socio-economic reasons. The SBCC’s reported findings that a significant proportion of Marathas constitute a socially and educationally backward class do not square with available data. As with Jats in Rajasthan and Patels in Gujarat, they enjoy a socio-economic status closer to that of the forward classes (and castes) in Maharashtra. Three previous SBCC assessments have indicated as much. Besides, there is no reason to argue that Marathas face any social stigma that calls for affirmative action. The demand for reservations in this case is therefore less an acknowledgement of social backwardness from a politically powerful community and more a call for the accrual of welfare benefits to less well-off sections among the community. The assertions of backwardness by sections of dominant communities such as Marathas, Patels and Jats have largely been due to perceptions about the relative inability to move up the economic ladder, and the lack of adequate employment opportunities amid a sluggish agrarian economy. Faced with violent protests, the Fadnavis government had to accept this demand, especially after the SBCC gave its stamp of approval, but there is little to suggest any substantial change since 2014 to justify it. As judicial scrutiny is bound to be brought to bear on the government’s decision, it will be well-advised to look at measures to alleviate the State’s prolonged agrarian distress and the lack of adequate jobs, problems that affect all sections of society.

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