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Issue 12

An extract from India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present

Chapter 1: page 16-18

“The postmodernists would like us to believe that Indian history is what we make it or are the narratives that we choose to tell ourselves and believe. I beg to differ. History is like a map, an imperfect reflection of a larger objective reality that, over time and with improvements in the historian’s art, becomes clearer and more representative of an objective reality that did exist and certainly seemed to exist to earlier generations in history. That map is important to us in looking at India’s foreign and security policies because we choose, decide, and act on the basis of the map of our own experience, or the history, that we carry in our heads. Perception matters. And when perception does not match objective reality, policy errs or fails.

The problem is that several generations in India have been taught a version of history that ignores that India has for much of its past been well connected to the world and its prosperity and security have waxed and waned in direct proportion to that link. That may be because the regions that undertook these contacts with the rest of the world, what historians call coherent core areas, that is, areas characterized by stable, long-term political and cultural institutions, such as Bengal and Gujarat and the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, have been ignored or downplayed in these historical narratives in favor of the relatively insular Indo-Gangetic plain and the region around Delhi, partly because a version of Indian history written by those loyal to the British empire dominated the field. It is only in the last few years that younger scholars have begun to study these less recognized regions seriously.

The simplistic history written by historians loyal to the British empire legitimized British rule by making Indian history a continuous sequence of alien empires and conquerors. This saga of empires was periodized by religion, and caste was emphasized, disregarding the fact that the ruling elite was always of mixed religious persuasion and origins, and that assimilation and social mobility were both possible and practiced.

It amazes me that some Indians—despite having been shown alternative and more cogent lines of enquiry—persist in this religious characterization and accept the simplified history foisted on us. Certain historians and writers in India still contribute to the misrepresentation of India in history as an autonomous world apart, driven by religion and its own logic, and different from the rest of the world. One has only to look at the practice and the linkages with the world of the Mauryas, Kushanas, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, and Moghuls to see how misleading this representation is. And these entities were carrying on a tradition of engagement stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East, the Roman empire and the Mediterranean Sea, central Asia, China, and southeast Asia inherited from the Indus valley civilization in the third and second millennium BCE. India was not “a world apart,” but a complex civilization involved in myriad exchanges—of goods, ideas, and peoples—with the surrounding world.

But this is only one part of India’s true geopolitical inheritance. Kalidasa described the ideal rulers of the Raghukula as asamudra kshitiesanam, or those whose territories extended to the sea shore. The Satavahanas used the title Trisamudrapati, or Lords of the Three Seas. Including the history of the other regions in our consideration gives us a very different historical legacy that forms an increasingly important element of our strategic culture and driver of our policy choices. If you see Indian history as Delhi-centered, you will make the mistake that many of us make, of believing, as K. M. Panikkar said, that “India has, throughout history, had trouble arousing much interest in the world beyond its borders,” which he contrasted to British attentiveness to developments around the Raj. The coastal tradition in India, on the other hand, has seen outward projections of power, influence, and culture throughout its history.

Once you include southern and western India and Bengal and Orissa, the strength of India’s links with the rest of the world, going back to 2600 BCE, become clear. Ptolemy attests to this in the second century CE, while Pliny in mid-first century CE grumbles about gold and silver draining away to India from the Roman empire for luxury goods, a problem that the British also had in the early days of trading with India, until they discovered the uses of opium.

The reach and extent of the soft and hard power of non-Gangetic regions of India in both mainland and archipelagic southeast Asia are visible to this day in the great ruins of Angkor Wat and Borobudur, on the walls of the Vaikuntha Perumal temple in Kanchipuram and in Hampi, and in the living culture of our countries. The Cholas’ activist external policies and willing militarism enabled them to last from the third century BCE to the thirteenth century CE, longer than any dynasty in the Gangetic valley. Their example was actively followed by the Pandyan (sixth century BCE to twelfth century CE) and Pallava (third to ninth century CE) dynasties. The same is also true of the reach and influence of some Gangetic or Indus valley-based political entities like the Mauryas or Kushanas as the spread of Buddhism overland to the Pacific and the Mediterranean attests. Vijayanagara flourished and grew prosperous on its trade with central, west, and southeast Asia. The Mughals, for their part, played an active role in central Asian politics, too. This is a strong, continuous, and abiding legacy of engagement beyond the subcontinent. As long as the Indian Ocean was an open, competitive space, peninsular India was relatively secure. The Mughals punished the Portuguese for piracy by limiting their activity on land, advantaging their competitors, the English, French, Dutch, and Danes. When Britain managed a relative monopoly on trade in the Indian Ocean following the Carnatic Wars with the French, it became possible for Britain to translate maritime control into predominance on land.”

Shivshankar Menon is an Indian diplomat, who has served as the National Security Advisor to the Indian Prime Minister from January 2010 to May 2014. He has previously served as the Foreign Secretary of India (2006-09), High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka (1997-2000), and Pakistan (2003-06) as well as Ambassador of India to Israel (1995-97), and China (2000-2003). He is the author of “Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy” (2016), and “India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present” (2021). He is currently a Visiting Professor at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 12

Armed with Phones and Spreadsheets, How These Teenagers Took on the Second Wave

It’s 5 am and the DMs in Dasnoor Anand’s inbox are overflowing — requests for ICU beds in Pune, an enquiry about Remdesivir in Mumbai, search for oxygen cylinders in Lucknow, and many more such please for help. Anand tries her best to reply to everyone. She has only three hours to sleep before it’s time to wake up for online lectures.

This is what April and May 2021 looked like for several teenagers part of student organisation ‘Silence The Violence (STV)’.

With the second wave of COVID-19 slamming into India with an unexpected ferocity, the members of STV have been saving lives while simultaneously attending lectures and preparing for exams. The group consists of girls from all over India, ranging from those in Class 11 to those in first year of university.

In their bid to help out, STV (@stvorg) amplified the availability of resources like hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen, and even tiffin services on its Instagram account. The team gathered information through Twitter handles, personal contacts and other youth organisations, and grouped resources by city or state. They called each hospital and oxygen supplier personally to verify details before posting it. On a backup account (@stvorg_backup), a colour-coded list of resources was regularly updated – green for hospital beds, grey for ambulance services, yellow for food and blue for oxygen.

The motivation behind this venture? Nandini Nimodiya, 17, a member of the Crisis Team answered, “We are all students stuck at home. Social media is the only power we have.”

The team started with two-hour shifts but had to dial it up to five-eight hours due to the number of requests. Each day, STV got approximately 100 leads for different resources from all over the country. Out of these, half got exhausted by the time they called to verify. But of the remaining 50, STV was passing on 15-20 resources to people messaging for help.

“Even if we’re able to save one life at the end of the day, it makes everything worth it,” said Anand, 19, founder of STV, adding that they managed to help roughly 15 people daily.

The group made use of the latest ‘guide’ feature on Instagram, creating city-wise guides for all essential services. A guide is a collection of posts from various accounts that have information about a particular city’s resources. Followers of STV found this specific and timely. Shreya Joshi, 22, a resident of Pune says, “I wanted to find an oxygen concentrator for my father.  All the contacts I had were busy or switched off. That’s when I found  STV’s ‘Pune Guide’ on Instagram. It directed me to verified suppliers, and I got what I needed.”

STV started making city-wise guides when they realised that residents of small towns did not know whom to contact for resources. They started with major cities like Pune and Delhi but have compiled 12-city guides so far. They have even expanded to state level guides, with over 15 state guides in place, including Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand.

STV’s expansive list of resources has helped make it a fast-growing account on Instagram. Over the course of five days, the number of followers shot up from 1,200 to 10,000. Currently, they’re reaching 11,100 people via social media.

Since the number of SOS calls has decreased, STV is now devoting time to spreading awareness about COVID-19. This is a major part of its threefold mission statement ‘Action-Advocacy-Awareness’. The volunteers are making informative posts on topics like ‘Covid and pregnancy’ or ‘mental health in Covid’. STV held its first online mental health event ‘Horizon’, where it partnered with certified psychologists to provide three days of free counselling sessions, seminars and workshops. This was followed by an online concert where young artists came together to unwind.

The team consists of 45 members between the ages of 16 and 20. Of the 45, 20 members have been completely devoted to the Covid crisis. Fifty additional volunteers were also roped in to help. Most of the members are from Mumbai and Pune, followed by a few in Andhra Pradesh and the Northeast. Over the past few weeks, STV has also managed to recruit volunteers from Karnataka and Kerala too.

Around 85% of the team is made up of women, with an all-girls core team. A point of grievance for these young girls is that they are often misgendered by people who contact them. They are addressed as ‘sir’ or ‘bhaiyya’. “We tell them we are women led, and that they can call us ‘ma’am’ or ‘didi‘,” says Nimodiya.

Project S.A.F.E (@project_s.a.f.e) is another all-girls organisation that has been amplifying Covid resources, specifically in Pune. This team consists of five girls from the Pimpri-Chinchwad College of Engineering. The girls spent all day finding resources – except from 3 pm-5 pm, as that’s when they were writing their exams! These engineering students collaborated with their friends interning at medical colleges to provide people with accurate information about availability of beds and medicine.

With 20 requests daily, at least 15 patients were guided to the required resources. Devika Chopdar, 20, founder of Project S.A.F.E says, “I didn’t know social media could have such a huge impact. So far, my profile has only been about myself. Seeing people receive life-saving facilities through it is a new experience.”

These local Covid helpers received a request for a ventilator bed at 1 am one night. None of the hospitals were answering their phones. Project S.A.F.E then circulated the request on social media. Within the next one hour, the Pune online community procured a ventilator and passed this information on to the critical patient.

Student communities across the country stepped up to fight the second wave. Delhi University’s Miranda House created a Covid helpline to assist residents of Delhi with quick updates on resources. A group of 22 student artists and poets from all over India came together for a night of music and poetry titled, ‘In The Dark Times There Will be Singing’, and raised Rs 1,47,000. All funds were donated to communities hardest hit by the second wave of COVID-19. Generating finances, even from outside the country. US-based Princeton alumnus Shreyas Lakhtakia and Julu Beth Katticaran, offered career counselling sessions to raise money for Covid charities in India.

The Indian student community that aided the country in its hour of need is here to stay and is only growing stronger. Even the girls of STV are planning more posts, events, and community building in the months to come. All while preparing for the upcoming Class 12 board exams, of course!

Featured image credit: antiopabg/Pixabay; Editing: LiveWire

This article has been republished from LiveWire with permission of the author.

Aditi Dindorkar is a second-year student at Ashoka University. She is pursuing a major in English and Creative Writing, and a minor in Media Studies. This report is written as part of her course, Introduction to Newswriting and Reporting.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 12

Delineating the Consumption of Luxury Goods in a COVID-hit World

For its 100th  year celebration in 2021, GUCCI under the creative direction of Alessandro Michele, rolled out its ‘Beloved’ campaign, strategically designed to strengthen the sales of their bags. Initiated on 22nd April 2021, the campaign featured four of GUCCI’s globally beloved bags namely Dionysus, the GG Marmont, Jackie 1961 and the GUCCI Horsebit 1955. The campaign, designed in the form of a late night talk show, had a star-studded lineup which included James Cordon, Dakota Johnson, Harry Styles, Awkwafina, Serena Williams, Sienna Miller and Diane Keaton. The campaign creates a nostalgic talk-show feeling of the 90s where the stars of the show were GUCCI’s four all-time iconic bags themselves.

Luxury brands like Yves Saint Laurent, Cartier, IWC, GUCCI saw a staggering fall in their sales, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus first hit China, spreading to Italy and other European nations (home to many luxury labels). This resulted in a steep fall in the sales of luxury goods, due to Chinese customers accounting for a 35%  share in luxury purchases globally. With the pandemic hitting the luxury goods industry all around the world, the impact is expected to be long lasting.

The sales for GUCCI specifically were amongst the worst hit by the virus outbreak due to closure of stores, since China serves as a big market for the luxury brand. In the first quarter of the outbreak in 2020, the sales for the fashion label fell by 23.2%, which makes up for the major revenue for Kering, causing a total fall in its overall sales by 15.4%. However, with its strategic launch of the ‘Beloved’ campaign at the time of ‘unlock’ in Europe, the fashion label is looking to rebound its sales in 2021. 

The year 2021 was expected to bring many more opportunities for these luxury labels in terms of rebounding their sales and launching limited seasonal collections. However, the national lockdowns in the UK and other European nations like Germany, Italy and France during the Spring/Easter season, which brings in a plethora of customers for these luxury brands, continued to create anxiety around the sales of goods. Compared to 2020, these luxury brands were better braced to tackle the 2021 lockdown, due to sales and purchases moving to digital platforms. The lockdown also cut down tourist shoppers that contributed massively towards the sales revenue. Moreover, as per VOGUE Business, these international tourists are not expected to return before mid 2022, and the latest lockdowns do not show any improvements in these forecasts. 

Empty Via Montenapoleone (Milan’s largest luxury shopping street) in Italy
Image Courtesy: Bloomberg Quint

Since the outset of the pandemic last year, there have also been dramatic and accelerating changes in consumer behaviour and consumption in regards to luxury shopping. Simultaneously, as a result, fashion labels have had to customize products and campaigns to keep up with the market trends and consumer behavior catering to the needs of their loyal clientele.

More and more shoppers have been turning to online shopping in place of in-person visits to physical stores, given the perturbations of contracting the virus. Moreover, according to the Boston Consulting Group, the pandemic has made apparent the deep economic and social inequalities that exist within the society, making less people comfortable with the show of conspicuous affluence and resources, thereby altering their shopping patterns and habits.

Though the pandemic has affected the sales of all luxury brands, certain categories of goods have not seen any decline but rather a spike in their sales. The classic and signature timepieces from luxury labels have been continuing to sell out. This can also be attested by the fact that GUCCI decided to dedicate an entire star-studded campaign to advertise its four all-time classic handbags, that have contributed massively to the label’s revenue. 

The increased sales in signature and classic goods can also be credited to the surge in digital shopping which has made these goods accessible to people globally without having to travel. Moreover, these goods are also perceived as great profitable economic investments, with specific products like Hermes Birkin Bags having a 34% Return on Investment as of 2020. Consumers of luxury products are now buying them more with the purpose of investment than mere consumption. 

To ensure rebound in sales, luxury brands like Dior, GUCCI, Chanel, YSL have also launched makeup and skincare lines, especially for Spring 2021. This is because makeup and skincare are the two categories of products that have a consistent demand all throughout the year and are more than often remain uninfluenced by seasons and/or holidays.

Looking at the volatile nature of the market given the pandemic, luxury brands will have to globally revamp and strategise the products they plan to release. The few trends that companies will have to look into are sustainable and vegan products, subtle and simple designer wear with less emphasis on gaudy embellishments and logos, inculcating more culturally inclusive and diverse designs and designers in their products as well as in the workforce respectively. 

The pandemic, in many ways, has shook luxury brands from their comfort zones, breaking their bubble of consistent revenue and loyal clientele. It has not only challenged them economically but also culturally and socially to produce and create goods by keeping up with the trends in time. Although the pandemic in 2020 might have impacted these luxury brands negatively – especially their revenue and financial stability, it has also pushed them to create more and more culturally inclusive products. 

Image Courtesy: GUCCI

Muskaan Kanodia is a junior at Ashoka University, double majoring in English and Sociology. When she is not drowning in books, you can find her drawing and smiling at strangers on the ghats of Benaras.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

Bombay Begums

What made me watch Alankrita Shrivastava’s six-episode Netflix series Bombay Begums was its title itself – laden with royalty. Watching the trailer, one could possibly ask, why call the lives of five women located in the city of dreams ‘begums?’ Each episode delves into the anxieties of these women’s private yet socially relevant lives. Their engagement with the ‘social’ reveals concealed realities of their ‘personal.’ Rani Irani, Fatima Warsi, Lakshmi Gondhali, Ayesha and Shai, with all their vulnerabilities in a man’s world “mend the pieces and move on, until it happens again.”  

“We are all part of the problem, Fatima …” aptly puts across our attitude towards preserving power while discrediting the powerless. The characters depict complexities accompanying the notions of power, freedom, dignity, sexuality, and integrity within a queen’s realm. It leaves one with thoughts that the world is too hesitant to express. The dialogues, narration, and the plot does not miss out on any opportunity to critique ways in which the patriarchal world fails each time it tries to understand women’s language of desire, power and respect. The series is flawed in its own ways, and that’s exactly how the lives of these women play out. Flawed. Yet unapologetic. 

These women are artists – with art fading at every possible turn of their lives, but their firm determination towards striking their brush once more, on that empty canvas, speaks for itself.  Their strength to assert their power in an oppressive world is what makes them the begums.

Another interesting aspect of the series – five out of the six episodes are named after books by eminent women writers who have aspired to live through all the lows and highs in their own, independent journeys. The plot of these episodes stays inseparable from their names, depicting relevant connections between women’s stories from a foreign land in a city closer to home.

“Our wounds can heal, and our souls blossom. And the jagged and sparkling dreams of women can find both earth and sky,” summarises the series at its best. With all the critiques and applauds that the series has received a month into its release, Bombay Begums is a must-watch for all.

Picture Credits: Tribune India

Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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Issue 11

bestdressed

Film student, feminist and fashion enthusiast Ashley creates intricate and artistic portraits of her life as a young adult, trying to make it in a big city. 

Some of her most popular videos are her style guides, apartment makeovers and thrift shopping hauls + thrift flips. Thrift flips involve altering or ‘flipping’ clothing items bought from a secondhand or thrift store. The concept has become increasingly popular in the DIY and fashion circles of youtube, as vintage clothing (that can only be bought cheaply in thrift stores) became a huge trend. 

Her film background and editing prowess (she worked as a freelance video editor before creating her own channel) shines through, making every video uniquely memorable. Bestdressed also has the occasional video discussing politics, sexuality and mental health with refreshing candour, based on research and her own experiences. 

All in all, this is a great channel to watch for relaxation, upliftment, life advice, or all of the above. 

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Issue 11

Issue XI: Editors’ Note

The past year saw COVID-19 and lockdowns as the only issues one extensively engaged with, both in their personal and professional lives. The question, “how has the pandemic been treating you?” slipped into every catch-up conversation with peers, friends, family and colleagues. With the current surge of cases in India once again, it is safe to say that even with the vaccine, the pandemic still continues to dominate a major part of our lives. We are constantly reminded of it every time we have to step outside our homes or log in to an online meeting or a Zoom birthday call. 

With this issue, we aim to provide our readers with a ‘pandemic-break’ and delve into stories that are equally important but may have been sidelined with constant COVID updates from newsrooms. 

To begin with, Madhulika Agarwal addresses an essential question revolving around what makes an event ‘newsworthy’ in the first place? And who has the authority on prioritising which news is worth the consumers’ attention? With Amazon’s Twitter antics having grabbed the attention of the media, Samyukta Prabhu and Rohan Pai use this opportunity to highlight the gig workers’ rights that have been sidelined by tech giants such as Amazon, specifically during the course of the pandemic. 

Akanksha Mishra covers the consequences of the Afghanistan peace deal on the country’s population, revealing a critical understanding of the negotiations between three stakeholders – the Taliban, the Afghan government and the United States. Speaking of the United States, Karantaj Singh analyses 100 days of Biden administration by critiquing as well as applauding his contribution towards restoring America’s identity in the global community. With New Zealand’s recently passed miscarriages bereavement leave law, Advaita Singh captures the reader’s attention by examining the relationship between workplaces, the economy and personal grief.

Closer to home, Saaransh Mishra confronts the structure of quasi-federalism in India and its exploitation by the ruling central government in implementing controversial laws such as the recent GNCTD Bill. Furthermore, Muskaan Kanodia explores the vote-bank anxieties behind the intense dedication of political parties towards temple beautification, which appears to complement the rise of religious politics in the country. Ridhima Manocha analyses the ruling government’s contradictory campaign attitudes towards CAA-NRC when contesting the current Assam Assembly elections. Meanwhile, Vaibhav Parik questions India’s Election Commission’s decision to hold the ongoing Assembly elections in multiple phases in the state of West Bengal.

Aarohi Sharma brings back the essential climate change debate and delves into why individuals continue to deny its existence and widespread impact. For our sports enthusiasts, Kavya Satish explores the possible reasons for the increasing loss of viewership and sponsorship in F1 and what it means for the future of the sport. 

To emphasise the immense strain that Coivd-19 has placed on our global healthcare systems, Saman Fatima explores how this has resulted in the marginalisation of treatments of other prevalent diseases among several populations. 

While other stories may continue to struggle to win the fight for our attention with the intensity of the pandemic, we hope our readers are able to take a step back and keep themselves updated with events beyond rising Covid-19 cases and vaccinations. 

-Ariba, Ashana Mathur, Harshita Bedi, Rujuta Singh

Picture Credits: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

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Issue 11

The Cost Of Peace in Afghanistan

For over three years, there have been substantive efforts by the U.S., its allies and the Afghan government to negotiate peace deals and end the war in Afghanistan. What began in 2001 as a U.S. operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan, soon spiralled into a protracted war involving regional as well as international actors. The war in Afghanistan was largely against the Taliban – an extremist Islamist militant group that controls large parts of the country and has links with local and international terror outfits such as the Al Qaeda and Daesh. Since the beginning, the justification that the U.S. provides for waging the Afghan War is that it is a part of their Global War on Terror – the Taliban was harbouring terror groups and it needed to be stopped at all costs. 

As the war progressed, however, so did the U.S.’s perception of terror and their ability to counter it. For a long time, the goal was to drive the Taliban out of power in the regions that it controlled, and ensure it does not provide a base for terror outfits in Afghanistan. However, over the past decade, there has been a decided shift in America and its allies’ response to the Taliban – instead of total defeat, there have been attempts to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the Taliban. Currently, there is a conditional peace deal with the Taliban that was signed in February 2020 announcing that U.S. troops would be out by 1st May, and talks are scheduled in Turkey this month involving regional actors to finalise the peace process. While there is no doubt that both the Taliban and the U.S. want to hasten the end of the war, the power dynamics in the country after the troops leave remain worrisome. Power-sharing with the Taliban essentially depends on the moderation of its ideology, and a firm agreement ensuring peace in the region. The rising violence by the Taliban in the past few weeks raises pertinent questions about its moderation and commitment to peace, as well as the U.S.’s priorities in Afghanistan. Should the U.S., in its haste to end the war, agree to a deal that will leave Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban, it would be detrimental to all actors involved. 

There are three main reasons why the current peace treaty to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1st would likely provide an edge to the Taliban to take over the country. The first reason is the history behind the treaty itself, which was signed in February 2020. Under President Donald Trump, the focus was on ‘bringing back the troops from America’s 18-year long war.’ The negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S. government began with demands for power-sharing between the Taliban and the Afghan Government, an end to the Taliban’s support for terrorist organisations, a cease-fire declaration by the Taliban and the withdrawal of American troops. However, the final peace treaty that was signed just required the Taliban’s guarantee that it would not allow terrorist groups against the U.S. “on Afghan soil.” The number of concessions given to the Taliban displayed U.S.’s impatience with the war. The second reason has to do with the role of the Afghan government. The first treaty in February 2020 did not involve Kabul or President Ashraf Ghani in any way. While talks were held later in September that year involving the civilian government, the government and the Taliban still hold differing views on fundamental issues. Unless the talks between Kabul and the Taliban are conclusive, U.S. withdrawal of troops will only add to the chaos. The Afghan government needs the military backing of the U.S. if it is to exercise any sort of leverage against the Taliban, or it could potentially lose power the minute troops are withdrawn. The third and most important reason why the Taliban would likely have an edge in Afghanistan once U.S. troops leave is because of its understanding of its position. Experts and scholars both agree that there has been “little to no change” in the Taliban’s extremism, even after ceasefires and peace talks with other actors. The Taliban is aware that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would leave Kabul unprepared to take on its attacks. After the February 2020 deal with the U.S., the Taliban visibly reduced its attacks on U.S. troops. At the same time, it increased the number of attacks on the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, according to a report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The relentless nature of the Taliban in dealing with the Afghan government is a fairly clear indicator of their strive for total control. 

The three-way negotiations between the U.S., Taliban and the Afghan government make it highly unlikely for peace to emerge in the region anytime soon. The Biden government’s actions in these crucial months before the May 1st withdrawal need to reflect not just the U.S.’s counterterrorism priorities but also the larger stability and prosperity of the region. Any narrative of the Taliban’s moderation falls short of living up to the ground reality in Afghanistan, and the U.S. needs to consider the same. The role of international and regional stakeholders also comes in here. For sustainable peace, diplomatic talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government need to be moderated by countries that are invested both in the internal security of Afghanistan and the region in general. China, India, Russia and Pakistan are all key players in the conflict and have vested interests in Afghanistan. If the U.S. prioritises ending the war over safeguarding Afghanistan for the future, other players should be brought in to mediate and bring about conclusive peace in the region. 

Akanksha Mishra is a student of political science and international relations at Ashoka University. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

The Frailty of Quasi-Federalism in India

The Rajya Sabha reverberated with staunch opposition to the approval of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021 (GNCTD Bill) on 24 March, 2021 . The Bill contains amendments that would bolster the powers of the Lieutenant Governor (LG) of Delhi and further limit the administrative powers of Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP government.

In stark contrast to the earlier-vested powers of the elected government to take independent decisions on most administrative matters, the bill  mandates  LG’s approval prior to every executive action. CM Arvind Kejriwal called it a “sad day for democracy,” while Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi called the bill “the most pernicious and the most unconstitutional bill the Rajya Sabha has ever received.”  Having received Presidential assent amidst opposition walkouts in the Rajya Sabha, it has yet again resurrected debates on the current government’s commitment to federalism in India. This is not the first time that the government has come under scrutiny for passing heavily opposed legislations jeopardizing constitutional federalism. The recent GNCTD Bill, along with certain other highly controversial moves like the stance on “one nation one election”, the abrogation of Article 370, the CAA & NRC and the passage of the farm bills, all in the face of incessant criticism and opposition within and outside the Parliament, has brought the BJP under question. So, how do these contentious bills get passed despite such strong opposition? One could consider the role of India’s “quasi-federal” structure and its compatibility with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s longstanding agenda of attaining a unitary state with an overly dominant Centre. The larger debate that these legislations highlight is the inadequate checks that India’s quasi-federal structure presents to a government with a parliamentary majority. 

“Federalism” refers to the constitutionally allocated distribution of powers between two or more levels of government; one at the national level, other at the provincial, state or local levels. The principal feature of federalism is that the various levels of governments operate within their own constitutionally-defined jurisdictions with substantial independence from each other. A key tenet of the federal concept is the voluntary compact between several independent states that agree to become a part of a nation and are required to submit an integral part of their power to the Centre.

However, in most federal countries, the difference in power between the central and state governments is not as substantial as it is in the case of India. The herculean challenges faced by postcolonial India in terms of cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity have contributed extensive powers to the Centre. The disunity and secessionist tendencies that postcolonial India witnessed in the form of linguistic nationalism in the South, accession of the Princely States, the Kashmir conflict, and regional rivalry with Pakistan, among others, led the members of the Constituent Assembly to advocate for a strong Union government. This was deemed necessary to ensure  political stability  for India’s survival as a unified nation-state amidst enormous cultural heterogeneity and national security threats. 

Unlike other federal countries such as the US, the Parliament in India has the power to admit new states, create new states, alter boundaries and their names, in addition to establishing unity between states or dividing them. Further, there are various provisions in the Constitution that allow the Centre to override the powers of the states; the power to make laws within fields that have not been specified within the Constitution lies solely with the Centre. Additionally, on fiscal matters, states have limited capabilities and are quite heavily dependent on the Centre. Thus, the Constitution of India was drafted with strong centralizing tendencies that confer maximum powers to the central government and is thus referred to as “quasi-federal.”

BJP leaders have been pushing for the idea of “one nation one election” in various public platforms ever since the agenda reserved its space in the party’s 2014 election manifesto. In fact, as recently as in December 2020, BJP conducted roughly 25 webinars propagating the idea. . This agenda will further affect the limited autonomy of  regional parties that contest to form  state governments across India. This centralized control of state legislatures and state governments adds to the longstanding goals of the BJP to attain a unitary state. Further, advancing the abrogation of Article 370 that granted a special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir bypassed the citizens of the state. Moreover, on 12th December 2019, the Parliament passed the heavily contentious “Citizenship Amendment Act,” which is widely considered an “anti-muslim” law. And the farm bills of 2020, which continue to see protests, received Presidential assent to become a law in September 2020.

Despite opposition parties protesting against these anti-federal legislations, the BJP has been able to enforce them majorly due to their absolute majority in the Lok Sabha and a substantial standing in the Rajya Sabha. The BJP has 305 legislators in the Lok Sabha, which is more than enough to pass any bill without the support of allies. In the Rajya Sabha, the BJP has 82 members (38 short of the simple majority of 120), but it’s allies  take the  tally to 107. Additionally, various regional parties such as the BJD, Shiv Sena, the YSRCP, the TRS and the NPF (total of 19 members) registering their votes  in BJP’s favour, gives them the required number – above 120.

Complementing such  a majority, the powers vested in the Centre under Article 256, 365 and 356 allow the BJP to enforce any law that would strengthen its hold over the states. Article 256 says that all states are obligated to enact laws passed by the Parliament, whereas Article 365 states that if the States do not comply, then the President may hold that a situation has arisen in which the government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the Constitution. Resultantly, Article 356 authorizes the President to remove State Governments and dissolve state assemblies if they cannot run in accordance with the Constitution.

As political scientist Philip Mahwood argues, culturally diverse and developing countries like India require federalism not just for administrative requirements, but for the very survival of the nation. However, the centralized structure of federalism adopted by India to tackle post-independence challenges appears to be compatible with the unitary agenda of the Central government. Additionally, the BJP’s majority forming the Centre and their recurrent tendencies to bypass state governments and its citizens pose an extreme danger to federalism, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution and must be protected at all costs. 

Picture Credits: Ipleaders

Saaransh Mishra is a graduate of Political Science and International Affairs. He is deeply fascinated by geopolitics, human rights, the media and wishes to pursue a career in the confluence of these fields. In his spare time, he watches, plays, discusses sports and loves listening to Indian classical fusion music.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

The Curious Case of the Electoral Calendar

When the Election Commission of India first announced dates for elections to four major state assemblies in February 2021, the announcement caused quite the stir. While every other state went for a single-phase polling, West Bengal’s electoral contest was staggered into 8 phases, spanning 23 days. Moreover, several districts have been split into blocks, with voting occurring over multiple phases in the same district. 

Several political leaders decried this decision. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee immediately came out to say that the ECI is trying to convert the state of West Bengal into a football ground, and it is a deliberate attempt to “upset communal harmony” and polarise the electorate. 

Yet sidestepping the allegations of overt politicisation, there lies the question of what this means from the perspective of organising elections. For many years, the ECI has been heralded for its adeptness in the swift conduct of arguably the largest democratic exercise in the world. They have definitely come a long way – from the several months it took to conduct the first general election in 1951-52, to wrapping them up in a month. The 2019 general elections with more than 900 million voters, for instance, were held in 7 phases and took roughly close to a month. Moreover, even the 2017 state elections in much larger Uttar Pradesh were wrapped up in 7 phases. 

What is also interesting is not just that larger and equally sensitive states wrapped up elections quicker, but also that the previous election in West Bengal itself needed only 6 phases. Therefore, the fact that the state of West Bengal requires 8 phases in the ongoing election begs the question: did the ECI not have the capability to complete the West Bengal elections in a shorter time frame? 

Organisational Capabilities and Ambition

Several efforts are required to be undertaken to ensure the smooth conduct of the democratic process. From security deployments to requiring officers for managing booths in remote areas, the task is quite uphill. As Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora pointed out in his press conference, they had to accommodate not just for adequate force deployments, but also had to take into account the festival season and the COVID-19 pandemic, while scheduling the electoral calendar. 

While these extra efforts do highlight the ECI’s commitment to peaceful and stable polls, there are questions to be raised. For one, as Indian Express points out, several districts, especially in South Bengal, have been split across phases – something that has never happened before. This implies that the sealing of inter-district borders (to prevent miscreants from other districts to disturb poll-bound districts) will be tough to execute. Even the fact that the polling dates in several Muslim-dominated districts coincide with Ramzan will prove to be a challenge for voters and polling officials in these areas. Moreover, parties are effectively required to campaign for longer because of the electoral schedule. Given the en-masse flouting of any sense of social distancing in political rallies, the increasing exposure of such a large congregation can be a genuine health hazard for the entire populace. 

Even beyond the larger logistical challenges of this election alone, there is a larger principled challenge – that of the current government’s ambition to realise a vision of simultaneous elections in states and the centre (titled “one-nation, one-election”). Fundamentally, if the aim of the one-nation, one-election, as Prime Minister Modi says, is to reduce the amount of monetary and human resources spent on holding several elections, then such a prolonged contest goes precisely against the idea. Moreover, if one agrees to the logic that such a large election would need security force deployment to shift regions quickly with phases, then the staggered nature of the electoral contest as demonstrated by West Bengal (with the same district split across phases in some cases) is incompatible with realising this vision.  

It is paradoxical to, therefore, try and advocate for “one-nation, one-election,” but at the same time consider the constraints of resource deployment as an explanation for prolonging elections. The fact that the ECI has conducted swifter elections in much larger states with equally (if not more) complicated situations, should refute any claims that they are not capable enough or do not possess the required resources. The fundamental question then is not that of the ECI’s capability, but of its prerogative.

Ultimately, it is the political parties, who are the main players spending their energy on the campaign trail. For some, this issue of electoral dates may just be parties crying foul when they are disadvantaged. There are, for instance, certain democracies such as the United Kingdom that formally gave the Prime Minister some form of power over calling for elections, until the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed in 2011. On the other end of the spectrum is the United States, where general election dates are constitutionally pre-determined. India however, has always sought a balance by reposing its faith in its Election Commission to conduct elections in consultation with all key political players. 

It is in this light that accountability becomes necessary, and it is worth asking that despite its capability to conduct these elections swiftly, why would the Election Commission choose to have a prolonged election in West Bengal? Even if the answer is ensuring security and stability, the fact that several major parties, especially Trinamool, decried the ECI’s decisions so vociferously, makes one wonder whether a neutral body such as the ECI perceives a tradeoff between achieving security and stability and having a multi-party consensus? One wonders what that would mean for democracy.

Picture Credits: scroll.in

Vaibhav Parik is a fourth-year student at Ashoka University, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Economics. His interests range from electoral politics and foreign affairs to tennis and aviation. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

The New Abnormal by The Strokes

The latest album by New York-based rock band The Strokes generated a lot of buzz and excitement, both among fans and critics. After a gap of almost seven years, The New Abnormal was released on April 10, 2020, through Cult and RCA Records. Critical appreciation for the album peaked when it won the 2021 Grammy Award for the Best Rock Album of the Year. Like most of The Strokes’ discography, the album falls in an indie rock or alternative rock genre. Singer-songwriter Julius Casablancas received a lot of critical appreciation for the development of his lyrics, as well as his singing style, with a special improvement in his falsetto as we see in a number of songs in the album. The reason The New Abnormal should be on your list is because it is both a classic form of The Strokes’ music as well as packed with new elements that make it stand out amongst other indie rock albums. The singles “The Adults Are Talking” and “Eternal Summer” received praise for the mature lyrics addressing issues such as the generation gap in American society, and forest fires in light of global warming. The music is quintessential to the band, with duelling guitar riffs and an 80s-rock vibe throughout the album. Through the seven-year hiatus, fans witnessed Casablancas and other band members pursue individual projects that they seemed more invested in. However, the band finally got together for The New Abnormal and were even credited for sounding “more in cohesion”. With last year’s unprecedented turn of events due to the global pandemic, The New Abnormal is apt for listening not just because of the relevance of its name but also because of its ability to capture the uncertainty of our times. 

Picture Credits: Twitter

Akanksha Mishra is a student of political science and international relations at Ashoka University.