Archive for December, 2011

What’s next for North Korea?

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

Mint, 21 December 2011

What does the death of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il mean for North Korea and the world? “North Korea, as we know it is over,” a New York Times op-ed page piece has already trumpeted. “Whether it comes apart in the next few weeks or over several months, the regime will not be able to hold together.” Whether that dire prophecy comes true or not, “the Great Successor”, Kim Jong-un, a Switzerland-educated 29-year- old, clearly has a job on his hands.

This, after all, is a country with enough plutonium to build at least six or seven nuclear bombs, and a decades-old food shortage. This is how the late Christopher Hitchens described the food situation on a visit to the country in 2001: “North Korea is a famine state. In the fields, you can see people picking up loose grains of rice and kernels of corn, gleaning every scrap. They look pinched and exhausted. Even… in the few modern hotels [in the capital Pyongyang]…morsels of inexplicable fat or gristle are served as “duck”…[I] found my appetite crucially diminished by the realization that I hadn’t seen a domestic animal, not even the merest cat, in the whole time I was there [In a Pyongyang restaurant, don’t ever ask for a doggy bag].”

The only item in Kim Jong-un’s CV that evokes a little confidence is that he introduced the internet and cellphones to his country, though these were limited to a highly restricted elite. (In 2001, Hitchens found schoolchildren painstakingly learning Morse code).

In the end, the fate of this dark, secretive kingdom that beats most fantasy authors’ imagination on sheer unreality, will rest with China. North Korea has been surviving with China’s patronage, and it is Chinese leaders who will now have to decide what to do with their little neighbour. Beijing has already announced that it is important to preserve the continuity of North Korea’s leadership. But the point is that Kim Jong-il, for all his crackpot eccentricities, provided stability. Will his son be able to maintain his chair with his father’s old guard and a not-too-happy military (Kim Jong-un is a four-star general in the army, though he has never spent a day in the barracks) in a wait-and-watch mood?

What is most likely is that China, through the lure of aid and investment, will draw North Korea even closer into its fold, until it is assimilated into China in all but name. This may not be good news for anyone except the Chinese and the North Koreans, who may perhaps finally get enough to eat some day.

Meanwhile, the Pakistanis also cannot sit silent, given their long association with North Korea’s nuclear programme. Said an editorial in the Pakistani paper Dawn: ”Pakistan’s own linkage with North Korea has exposed Islamabad to charges of nuclear proliferation. But with the help of a common neighbour, China, Pakistan can help North Korea chart a new course for itself to become a responsible member of the international community.” The writer also goes on to suggest that the United States should try to tempt the new leader into pulling his country out of isolation.

Pious and well-meaning sentiments indeed. But how likely is it that China will lend even half an ear to anything the US might have to say about China’s little communist kid?

So I see no good news emanating from the region in the near future. Except that—and that should please anyone, whatever his or her political persuasion—the Chinese might let the average North Korean eat a bit more. In the long run, that’s good for China, and in the very long run, perhaps good for the world. A yearning for democracy can emanate from many diverse and unpredictable historical forces.

Is the ‘Rahul effect’ wearing off?

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

Mint, 20 December 2011

Rahul Gandhi seems to have been spending all his time in Uttar Pradesh, giving the current Lok Sabha session the go-by. But a recent opinion poll conducted by a news channel shows the Congress-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance a distant third behind theSamajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, with the Bharatiya Janata Party neck-and-neck with the Congress.

Rahul has spent nearly five years now trying to shore up the Congress’ fortunes in UP, but is he getting anywhere close to target? In the process, he has kept himself distanced from every controversy or scam that has hogged the national headlines in the last year or so. He has been completely silent on the 2G scam. On the Lokpal fracas, he entered the issue very late, and his contribution ended with a single speech in Parliament. Though he himself called his speech “a game-changer”, the game showed no signs of any change and matters have proceeded as if Rahul never voiced his opinion.

The Congress has a problem. This is hardly the most popular of governments, the economy is showing some alarming signs, and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) seems quite unable to manage its various constituents, whether in parliamentary standing committees, or on the floor of the House. Opportunistic allies like the Trinamool Congress are making hay as long as the sun is still shining, and fiscal responsibility seems to have thrown to the winds. Yet, Rahul Gandhi can be found only in small-town and rural UP, focusing single-mindedly on the state’s electoral arithmetic, while promising paradise on earth in 10 years time.

About two years ago, the weekly magazine I used to work for had commissioned a poll in UP with a fairly large respondent base, trying to actually measure “the Rahul effect” that was on everyone’s lips then. The results were stunning. If elections were held that day in the state, the Congress would have got more than twice the number it had garnered in the last Lok Sabha polls. “The Rahul effect” was staring us in the face. There was no reason to doubt the veracity of the results, because we had also sent out several correspondents all over the state to talk to the average voter—both urban and rural—and check the mood at a deeper level than mere numbers generated through a structured questionnaire could indicate. Our reporters came back with the same story: the voter loved Rahul, his common touch, and they saw in him a harbinger of change.

What has gone wrong since then? How did he lose his sheen? One can sense it in the media coverage too; his statements no longer make the front pages or feature among the lead items of TV news –other than the odd occasion when he comes out in favour of retail FDI. The manner in which he has disassociated himself from the government at the centre may be the right strategy in his opinion, and in the opinion of his advisors, but the clear distinction he is making between party and government may be confusing to the mass electorate.

It is also certain that the Congress will never project Rahul as its No 1 leader unless it is absolutely sure of a Lok Sabha victory—and is in an un-challengeably dominant position in the alliances it forms. Therein lies the dilemma: if Rahul Gandhi is going to be the principal vote-getter in the next elections, he can hardly keep talking in generalities and weaving dreams for the poor while his own party is in power. The distance he has carefully been maintaining from specific issues may have already started to erode his appeal, and even his relevance.

At some point, Rahul Gandhi has to prove that he is not only the big-picture campaigner, but also has what it takes to manage this strange and vast nation. If he continues to wash his hands off the government his party is leading, “the Rahul effect” will only get weaker.