20A: Crack the whip to cleanse the den of criminals

By Ameen Izzadeen
As hectic moves are underway to present the 20th Amendment before the impending general election, it does not appear that political parties and stakeholders have paid adequate attention to preventing the criminalisation of politics – one of the negative offshoots of the existing electoral system.
The District-based Proportional Representation system with a preferential voting facility may appear as the most democratic form of election because, in this method, the will of the people is proportionately represented in Parliament and the voters have the choice to elect the candidate they prefer. But the biggest drawback is that this system has opened the doors for corruption and the criminalisation of politics.
Unlike the pre-1978 first-past-the-post system, where candidates did not have to spend a fortune on their campaign within their electorates, the PR system places a heavy financial burden on the candidate because the area to be covered is much larger than the electorate. The candidates contesting under the district-based PR system have to be filthy rich. If not, to sustain their campaign over a month throughout the district, the candidates will have to sell their property, take a loan or find rich sponsors — often unscrupulous businessmen, drug dealers or persons with plenty of ill-gotten wealth — on a quid-pro-quo basis. Once elected, most candidates’ objectives are to earn back not only the money they spent on their elections, but also the money required for their reelection. Such huge amounts of money can only be earned through corrupt activities. Besides, they have to look after the sponsors also. Didn’t we see during the last regime a letter being sent to the Customs from the Prime Minister’s office requesting the release of a container that carried a record haul of heroin?
Besides, campaigning throughout the district requires the support of criminal gangs as it is they who have the capability to carry out a poster war, run party offices and intimidate rival supporters of not only opposition parties but also one’s own party. These gun-toting gangs give their services at a price, thus adding to the financial liabilities of a candidate. Not only that, as the connection between the national level politico and the criminal gangs grows, the gangsters themselves become politicos at local council level with the patronage of the national level politico. It is no secret that many local council chairmen and members have been involved in serious crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, extortion and running illegal breweries or brothels. Starting from the Pradeshiya Sabha level, criminals graduate to the provincial level and eventually to the national level. And, who knows, one of them can even become the president of this country. Simply put, it is the muscle and money power that controls democracy under the PR system — and the situation in Sri Lanka appears to be worse than what prevailed in post-war Italy, where the Mafia colluded with political parties, funding their campaigns in return for protection from prosecution.
To prevent lawmakers becoming lawbreakers, the 20th Amendment must also focus on how to decriminalise politics. Doing away with the preferential voting system will eliminate intra-party rivalry, but it will not close the door to criminals entering politics. A party’s nomination board can still insert a criminal or two into its district or national list.
How can we keep criminals away from politics? On March 12 this year, the People’s Action Front for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) got the main political parties to sign a declaration that calls on them, among other things, not to give nominations to those who have served a jail sentence or a suspended sentence, those who have been found guilty of bribery or corruption, those who are involved in trades such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, casinos and prostitution and those who have abused political power.
Denying nomination to those convicted of a crime is good, but in a country like Sri Lanka, where the politicisation of the judiciary was a major concern, an incumbent government can get opponents sentenced by a court on trumped-up charges and prevent them from standing for election. Notwithstanding such abuse, the PAFFREL declaration is a step in the right direction.
We can also learn a lesson from India on how to decriminalise politics. As far back as 1998, the Elections Commission of India (ECI), which is regarded as one of the robust independent bodies that uphold democracy, called on the government to debar persons facing serious criminal charges from contesting elections. Irked by the government’s lack of action in this regard, a civic action group – the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) – moved the Delhi High Court. In a landmark judgment, the court ordered that the Elections Commissioner must provide voters with information about the criminal antecedents of candidates, and assets possessed by them, among other details, so that voters could make an informed decision.
The government petitioned the Supreme Court against the ruling. But the apex court affirmed the Delhi High Court’s decision. In an apparent attempt to circumvent the SC ruling, the government amended the Election Law of 1951, diluting the strict criteria imposed by the court.
The ADR again petitioned the Supreme Court, contending that the amendment was intended to defeat the disclosure requirements ordered by the SC. In its ruling on March 13, 2003, the court ordered that information on not only past convictions, but also all pending cases, assets, liabilities and educational qualifications had to be furnished by the candidates. (See more on this in ‘Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election’ by S.Y. Quraishi, published by Rainlight/Rupa in 2014.)
In spite of this, according to ADR, a third of the previous parliament were alleged lawbreakers. The ADR’s website says that in the 2014 parliament, more than 80 per cent of MPs are involved in a criminal case. The group says politicians with a criminal record are more likely to be elected than those with a clean slate — because, they have more illicit funds with which to buy votes.
In neighbouring Pakistan, in a bid to prevent criminals from entering politics, a law was passed in 2008 to make only those possessing a university degree qualified to contest the parliamentary elections. But reports say at least 54 candidates in the previous parliament had submitted bogus degree certificates, most of them from religious universities.
A university degree may not be the right solution for Sri Lanka. Besides, such a requirement will block honest people with vision, but without a university degree, from serving the country as lawmakers or heads of state. Some civil society activists call for a code of conduct for elected representatives to keep politics clean. But the code will not prevent criminals from entering politics. Instead, we can try out an entrance exam for candidates to test their knowledge of political theories, democracy, law and economics.
If these measures could also be considered for reforms, Sri Lanka will be well on the road to become not only a model democracy but also a developed economy.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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19A: Without separation of powers, it’s tyranny

By Ameen Izzadeen
The enactment of constitutional amendments in rapid succession could mean either the constitution is woefully incomplete or politicians are manipulating it to achieve personal or political agendas. In a society like the United States, amendments add strength to democracy and shut loopholes for the abuse of power. But in Sri Lanka, the history of constitutional amendments reeks of political skullduggery and deception.
Of the 19 amendments made to the 1978 Constitution so far, eight, including the Second Amendment or the infamous Rajadurai Amendment and the preposterous democracy killer — the 18th Amendment — could be straightaway identified as being politically motivated ones. With the exception of the 17th Amendment and one or two others, the rest fall into a murky area where political agendas mix with national security and judicial or administrative reforms. Such is our march towards greater democracy.
Against this backdrop, victory celebrations in civil society circles over the passing of the 19th Amendment may not be totally out of tune, although what was passed is a watered down version of the original draft, which included several progressive clauses that could have been a good first step towards making Sri Lanka a truly working democracy. But, alas, whatever the justifications the opposition alliance – ironically led by President Maithripala Siriseana, one of the prime movers of 19A – put forward in defence of its demand to dilute certain progressive provisions, the undercurrent indicates destructive motives.
It is high time democracy promotion took centre stage in Sri Lanka’s politics. Our politicians should understand that what prevents them from being statesmen or stateswomen is their lack of commitment to rise above self-centred motives and work for the promotion of democracy which in turn ensures welfare of the people and accountability.
Although the highly devalued 19A was passed overwhelmingly, the debate and the drama behind it show that the urgent need for a quality constitution with a system of checks and balances is lost on the members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led United People’s Freedom Alliance. On the one hand, on the basis of strengthening the authority of parliament, they tried to justify their opposition to the proposed civil-society-dominated Constitutional Council. On the other hand, they opposed the provision that requires the President to act on the advice of the Prime Minister in the appointment of members of the Cabinet though this provision strengthens the supremacy of parliament. But the opposition claimed that it undermined the people’s mandate given to an elected President.
Lacking clarity, the UPFA’s position lacked nobility or virtue. On the contrary, it pointed to a lack of commitment on its part to bring about checks and balances to prevent a democratically elected president from turning into a dictator. The 19th Amendment in spirit seeks to reset the separation of power doctrine in Sri Lanka’s constitution after it was distorted beyond recognition by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 18A and other legislation that led to the concentration of power in the Executive branch of government.
What makes the United States Constitution stand out as the most enlightened document is the commitment of the founding fathers and latter day legislators to introduce, uphold and sustain a proper system of checks and balances to avoid any of the three branches of government becoming a law unto itself. And to date, perhaps with the exception of the George W. Bush presidency — during which the draconian Patriot Act, which eats into the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the people, was introduced — US presidents and lawmakers have been jealously guarding the separation of powers doctrine first promoted as a constitutional theory by French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu.
James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the US, was a strong advocate of Montesquieu’s doctrine. During the drafting stage of the constitution, he declared: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judicial, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
The founding fathers of the United States believed that the Government was a trust and that the accumulation of power by a single person or body of government was the greatest threat to liberty. One hopes those UPFA parliamentarians who raised their hands for the ‘dictator-making’ 18A and last Tuesday took away the checks and balances from 19A, would take a lesson from US history by taking another look at their political science or constitutional law notes or reading a book or two or browsing the net.
Surely, as long serving lawmakers, some of those virulent opponents of 19A should know that modern constitutions embody the separation of powers doctrine – though not in the strictest sense — and the more checks and balances there are, the stronger the democracy will be.
Should not the President, who condemned, in the strongest possible terms, those who scuttled his efforts to introduce a national medicinal drugs policy and anti-tobacco laws, also condemn, in a similar manner, those who diluted 19A and squandered a golden opportunity to strengthen democracy in Sri Lanka?
In a democracy, amendments to the constitution are made or new constitutions introduced when constitutional inadequacies lead to a deadlock or abuse of power. The 1978 Constitution brought in the provision for referenda and made fundamental rights justiciable because the 1972 Constitution was lacking such key features and the 1970-77 regime had arbitrarily extended the life of parliament. Similarly, 17A was introduced because despite constitutional guarantees, the independence of the public service, the judiciary, the police and the elections commissioner, had been compromised or undermined. The 19th Amendment was also a product of this rectification process.
In other words, the constitution making process or law making process is one of learning from mistakes. With the focus now being shifted to the 20th Amendment or electoral reforms, we hope our legislators will learn lessons from the past mistakes and act with responsibility to uphold inclusive democracy. If the 20th Amendment turns out to be disadvantageous to small and minority parties, the legislators will only be dragging the country towards a civil war. The JVP insurrections in 1971 and 1988-90 and the 30-year Tamil separatist war were the outcome of the then governments’ short-sighted policies that failed to make democracy inclusive – or failed to give every segment of society a say in the policy making or in the nation building process.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Racism in US: How many more Baltimores?

By Ameen Izzadeen
More whites die in police custody than blacks in the United States. According to data gathered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 4,813 people died while in police custody between 2003 and 2009 and 61 percent of those deaths were homicides. Of the victims, 42 percent were whites, 32 per cent blacks and 20 percent Hispanics. (Pardon me for using politically and morally incorrect terms – blacks, whites, etc.)
Yet, when an Afro-American (the politically and morally correct term) dies in police custody, it becomes news. Of late, such deaths have been triggering protests by blacks and civil rights activists indicating that there is much more to be done in the long march to freedom and equality in the United States, touted as the land of freedom and opportunity.
Freddie Gray will not be the last Afro-American to die in police custody. And his death last week after he was arrested by the police in Baltimore, Maryland — 68 km from Washington DC –raises the question: How many Afro-Americans will have to die before the United States — as Martin Luther King Jr. hoped in his ‘I have a dream’ speech — rises up and lives out the true meaning of its creed: “All men are created equal.”
In the past 12 months, a number of Afro-American men and boys have been killed by the police and white supremacists across the United States, sparking protests and sometimes riots. Among the victims was a 12-year-old boy who was carrying a toy gun. In almost all these cases, the police have used excessive force and in most cases, a grand jury has acquitted the officer responsible for the deaths. Exactly 23 years ago this month, race riots erupted in Los Angeles after the acquittal of four police officers who mercilessly beat Rodney King, an Afro-American, even though video evidence showed that the policemen had used excessive force. Some 53 people died in the weeklong riots that began on April 29, 1992.
Although the government cannot be held responsible for the actions of a few ‘white’ (or Euro-American) policemen, the riots point to the failure of successive US governments to adequately and meaningfully address the race issue.
This week’s eruption of mass anger in Baltimore, where 2,000 National Guard troops have been deployed to bring the situation under control, indicates that the blacks in the United States have to walk a long distance to reach King’s ideal state.
But race-based prejudices – like old habits — die hard. This is all the more reason why governments should step up efforts to eliminate all forms of discrimination.
Multi-ethnic Singapore, for example, has adopted meritocracy and ethnic harmony as key state principles to create an equal society.
True, the United States has an Afro-American president and many top government posts are held by Afro-Americans. Yet it can take a lesson from Singapore if it is keen to avoid being called a cauldron of social discontent or a country that needs to do much more to eliminate institutional racism which is defined by sociologists as racism perpetrated by government entities such as schools, the courts and police.
Last year, following protests over the acquittal of the police officers responsible for the deaths of Afro-Americans in Ferguson and New York, a visibly agitated President Barack Obama said that more should be done to make all Americans feel that they were equal before the law. “When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that is a problem, and it’s my job as president to help solve it,” he said.
In another remark, the United States’ first Afro-American President said, “…. there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in a discriminatory fashion.”
On Tuesday, as Freddie Gray was being buried in Baltimore, Obama said: “I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching. I think there’re some communities that have to do some soul searching. But I think we as a country have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It’s been going on for decades.”
Though he reminded the Americans once again that they have more work to do to bridge the racial divide and carry on the civil rights struggle of Martin Luther King Jr, he announced no new initiative.
In the absence of a well-focused programme to bring about social equality, the cries of protesters are not empty slogans. Neither are the riots a futile exercise. None other than the United Nations body dealing with racism has slammed the US for persistent racial and ethnic discrimination and failure to meet its treaty obligations under a key convention that seeks to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.
The United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in a report last year, said minority communities in the US were disproportionately disadvantaged in all areas of life, including education, criminal justice, voting, housing and access to health care.
One CERD investigator noted that despite several decades of affirmative action, race-based segregation in US schools was worse today than it was in the 1970s.
Lauren Carasik, a clinical professor of law and the director of the international human rights clinic at the Western New England University School of Law, in an article to Aljazeera America, says African-American children are deeply disadvantaged in accessing educational opportunities. Minority students are not provided with equal facilities, many attend single-race classrooms, and their limited access to rigorous curriculums contributes to disparate levels of academic achievement and access to jobs.
The CERD report was a serious indictment of the Obama administration. When Obama won the 2008 presidential election, many thought there would be no more racism in the land where slavery — which is regarded as a crime against humanity today — was once an institutionalised reality, with people stolen from Africa and brought to America being stripped of their humanity and dignity and forced to work like dogs in the white man’s plantations and mansions.
Obama was not merely the 44th President of the United States. When he was first elected in 2008, he symbolised black empowerment. He was the hope of those who were hoping for a world without racism. He cannot just dismiss the Baltimore riots as the work of criminals and thugs. He must recognize that the riots are the product of institutional, social injustice and come up with a plan to bring about an equal society. Then he will go down in history as another Abraham Lincoln, the US president who first abolished slavery.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Reviving the Bandung spirit of 1955

By Ameen Izzadeen
Some 70 world leaders, including China’s President Xi Jinping and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, gathered in Indonesia yesterday and the day before for a conference to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Afro-Asian solidarity summit in the resort town of Bandung.
Sixty years ago this month, leaders of 29 Afro-Asian states discussed how they could help one another in achieving social and economic well-being for their large and impoverished populations. They displayed determination and dedication, honesty and hard work and astuteness and aspirations to create a world free of colonialism in all its forms. They were so firm in their resolve that they called for the redrafting of the UN Charter and international treaties, pointing out that they were not party to these agreements when they were adopted.
It is said that a country’s foreign policy is an extension of its domestic policy. But during this period the domestic policy appeared an extension of the Afro-Asian-solidarity-centred foreign policy. The Non-Aligned Movement which came into being following the Bandung summit became a third force during the four decades of the cold-war-ridden bipolar world order. To say that the NAM became irrelevant or defunct with the end of the Cold War is a misinterpretation. A more accurate statement would be that many NAM nations became subservient to the United States and, of late, to China, an emerging superpower.
It is disheartening to note that the NAM solidarity that bound the developing nations together in one political unit is buried today the under self-centred and amoral policies of many developing countries, some of whom were once leading lights in the NAM.
Take, for instance, India. It has virtually veered away from non-alignment, although India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the founders of the Afro-Asian solidarity movement and the NAM. The term “non-alignment” was reinvented by him during a speech he made in Colombo in 1954.
Nehru in an address to India’s parliament in 1958 said non-alignment was inherent in the “past thinking of India, inherent in the whole mental outlook of India, inherent in the conditioning of the Indian mind.”
But today, India is seen to be aligned heavily with the United States in the context of an emerging cold war against China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote to Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo saying that due to Budget sessions in parliament and prior travel arrangements he was unable to attend the conference. So much for India’s commitment to the NAM principles!
Then take Egypt. Its then President, Gamal Abdul Nasser, was also one of the co-founders of the NAM. Today Egypt is virtually a stooge of the United States and often seen as working against the Palestinian cause. Yugoslavia was another country that championed the movement with its leader Josip Broz Tito being a revered founding father of NAM. Today, none-of the breakaway countries of the former Yugoslavia is adhering to non-alignment.
Of the 29 countries that attended Bandung 1955, China, is today a budding superpower whose global ambitions have drawn charges that it is pursuing a neo-colonialist agenda, especially in Africa. These allegations smear China’s historic role at Bandung 1955 and cast a cloud over its fresh commitment to revive the Bandung spirit. It is worthwhile to recall how China’s then Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, undertook the visit to Bandung despite intelligence warning that there would be an attempt to assassinate him. The plane he was to take from Hong Kong crashed following an explosion. Zhou escaped because he changed his travel plan at the last moment and took another plane.
Why criticise others? Sri Lanka’s own post-Cold-War NAM record is equally negative.
Sri Lanka’s post-Cold War foreign policy prior to the new government took office on January 8 was stark testimony to its abandonment of non-alignment. At the Cancun World Trade Organisation conference in 2003, Sri Lanka ditched the NAM camp and supported the United States. Another instance of Sri Lanka distancing itself from a NAM cause was when our envoy left the United Nations General Assembly chamber during a vote on the Palestinian crisis in 2006.
Although the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena has pledged to return to non-alignment, Sri Lanka’s under-participation at this week’s Bandung conference belies the claim. Shouldn’t we have sent at least our foreign minister? After all, Sri Lanka was one of the five countries that organised Bandung 1955 (the others being India, Pakistan, Burma and the host nation Indonesia).
Perhaps, the slip is worse than that of Prime Minister John Kotelawala, whose criticism of the Soviet Union at the 1955 Bandung conference earned him the sobriquet ‘Bandung Booruwa’ or the Bandung Ass from the then opposition leaders.
Kotelawala, in his speech, urged Afro-Asian nations to condemn not only colonialism of the West but also the expansionist policies of the Soviet Union. His comments hit the front pages of US newspapers. Headlines hailed tiny Ceylon for slamming Soviet expansionism.
These anecdotes apart, Bandung 1955 should be remembered for its 10-point declaration which is more relevant today when the world is embroiled in more wars and foreign interventions than it was 60 years ago.
It is heartening to note that 60 years after Bandung 1955, there was an attempt to revive the Bandung spirit. It appears that at least some world leaders take the Bandung principles seriously. Hats off to Indonesia, for hosting this conference!
The declaration among other things called for respect for fundamental human rights, the recognition of the equality of all races and all nations large and small, abstention from interference in the internal affairs of another country, settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means in conformity with the United Nations charter, and avoidance of the use of collective defence arrangements to serve the interests of major powers.
The declaration that was adopted against a backdrop of a deepening cold war, wars of independence, the victory of Communism in China, the adoption of Japan’s peace constitution, the CIA-engineered coup in Iran, the French defeat in Vietnam and the growing crisis in the Middle East, is worth being readopted not only at Bandung 2015 but also at the UN General Assembly sessions this year.
Resurrecting the Bandung 1955 principles could be one small but potent effort at solving the current conflicts and defusing situations that threaten to explode into all-out wars. In this light, the participation of China and Japan at Bandung 2015 was significant. They should make Bandung 2015 an opportunity to solve the territorial disputes between them in the East China Sea. In keeping with the spirit of Bandung 2015, they should also take the leadership to solve other world conflicts such as the Palestinian problem, the Indo-Pakistan dispute, the Syrian crisis and the latest war in Yemen. Then in 40 years’ time when Bandung marks its 100th anniversary, the two countries would be remembered for their peacemaking role.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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For forms of elections let fools contest

How India conducts its elections is a tale of courage and hope – and a lesson for Sri Lanka
Book review
By Ameen Izzadeen
Man is nasty, society is chaotic and politics is nothing but a struggle for power. What turns disorder into order is democracy complete with the rule of law and a bill of rights, although it is said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
Democracy is nothing without universal adult franchise or elections. But like all forms of democracy, all forms of elections are fraught with flaws. Hence the never-ending debate over the best form of elections — whether it is the first-past-the-post system or the proportional representation system or a mix of the two in various ratios. For forms of elections let fools contest, whatever is best administered is best.
If this is the criterion, India’s election machinery is amazing and those who administer the elections stand out for their commitment and integrity. India’s elections may not have tourism value like the Taj Mahal, although moves are now underway to promote election tourism. Yet they can easily be described as one of the world’s wonders. How the Elections Commission of India (ECI) conducts elections offers valuable lessons to politicians and political science students, academics and activists, democracy lovers and dictators, lawmakers and lawbreakers, and, above all, to elections commissioners worldwide and their staff.
All systems go
Described by many observers as The Greatest Show on Earth, India’s elections mean all systems go: Even bulls, mules, camels and elephants and trains, buses, tractors and aircraft are brought into service when the world’s largest democracy with a voting population of more than 850 million goes to poll. Also put into service are more than 1.4 million electronic voting machines, 11 million polls staff, nearly 850,000 polling stations countrywide, 2.5 million security personnel, nearly 150,000 observers and 75,000 videographers carrying some 40,000 digital cameras. All this is part of the gigantic effort by the ECI to ensure that the people’s right to elect their government is upheld.
It is indeed a title befitting the subject matter when S.Y. Quraishi, easily one of India’s most remarkable Elections Commissioners, calls his book “An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election” – which is the subject of this review.
I have little doubt that readers would thank him for producing a brilliant book in simple yet scholarly language and helping them to marvel at the Himalayan task — the working of India’s elections machinery — and the challenges the ECI and its staff encounter. Theirs is an all-out war to ensure that every voter exercises his or her franchise and that every vote is counted. They plan and war-game moves to defeat attempts by insurgents and Naxalites in troubled regions to disrupt the elections — and also attempts by moneyed, corrupt and power-hungry politicians to distort the will of the people.
Mr. Quraishi’s book, an insider’s account, is a must-read for Sri Lankans especially at a time when the country is set on a good-governance mode and when moves are underway to provide constitutional guarantees to the independence of the Elections Commission through the 19th Amendment. The people of Sri Lanka have witnessed how helpless our elections commissioners have been in carrying out their duties. Often our elections commissioners had or are alleged to have succumbed to pressure from powerful politicians of the party in power. Perhaps the exception is the incumbent Elections Commissioner, Mahinda Deshapriya, who with limited powers and resources withstood political pressure and ensured a relatively fair election that changed the history of this country. The cause for Mr. Deshapriya’s triumph, perhaps, lies in his commitment to ensure that the will of the people was not thwarted by the scheming of dishonest politicians. He emerged like his counterparts in India — the Quraishis and the T.N. Sheshans. Incidentally, Mr. Quraishi, who was India’s Chief Elections Commissioner from 2006 to 2012, was in Sri Lanka during the January 8 election as head of the Asian Elections Authorities on a monitoring mission.
Running through his 448-page book and binding the chapters and ideas together is the good intention with which India’s elections commissioners work as the custodians of democracy and the guardians of the sovereignty of the people. Its chapters deal with the evolution of the good intention – the process of learning from mistakes, the nuts and bolts of electoral operations to money power and the role of the media, and the role of the youth, to name a few topics. Every chapter gives readers a wealth of knowledge not only about elections but many aspects of political life from voter behaviour to political skullduggery, from ancient forms of Indian democracy — the Buddha’s discourse and the tenth century Tamil Nadu democracy — to modern reforms. There are interesting anecdotes and tidbits aplenty. They together with other useful techniques remove reader fatigue associated with books on serious subjects.
But his is a book that makes one read, think and act. The book, which tells the reader many things about the first Indian general election in 1951-52, the last general election in 2014 and many polls before and in between, notes that most politicians are thieves but asks: “Can democracy exist without politicians?” This is where the ECI steps in to conduct a free and fair election, the credibility of which rests on four pillars – the independence or the fearlessness of the elections commission (leaving no room for incumbency advantage), transparency, neutrality and professionalism.
Mr. Quraishi’s erudite analysis identifies four major trends in Indian politics – the decline of a dominant pan-national party, the emergence of regional parties in a national role, multi-party coalition politics and the ethnicisation of political culture with each party claiming and surviving on sectarian support. He also notes the increasingly assertive role being played by civil society in strengthening India’s democracy.
Money politics and media
The book deals extensively with the ECI’s battles to deal with the role of money in subverting elections. Targeted are not only power-hungry politicians – but also Corporate India. An electoral democracy cannot function without political finance, which comes with strings attached and quid-pro-quo deals. Money power at elections makes voters a commodity, undermining the essence of democracy. The unscrupulous politician knows how to bypass laws and heap freebies on the voter. While more regulation is called for, civil society action can again play a major role to defeat money power. The chapter on ‘Engaging Youth’, to a great extent, offers a solution to the problem of money in politics. This chapter relates the story of a university student who travelled more than 5,500 kms – 3,200 of this distance on foot — to empower India’s poverty-stricken voters. Abdul Mujeeb Khan asks them what things are like. They tell him life is difficult and the government is not doing enough for them. He then asks how they usually choose who they are going to vote for. Most times, the answer is whichever candidate gives them the largest handout, money, or liquor. Mujeeb Khan then asks: “If you vote for somebody because of the money he pays you, then do you really expect the politician to not make money in return? After all, he has to recoup his investment.”
The chapter on the media makes interesting reading and Mr. Quraishi’s views on regulation of the media during election time are relevant to Sri Lanka since the 19th Amendment provisions on the Elections Commissioner’s powers to appoint a competent authority to govern ‘unruly’ media organisations have created some controversy.
“Whereas much of the mass media in India covered the elections in a non-partisan manner, there were sections that compromised their independence for commercial interests. …. We in the Commission were clear that while there should be no move to curtail the freedom and independence of the media, and that self-regulation is ideally the best form of regulation, effective steps to prevent the misuse of the media by vested interests are indeed required,” he says.
He also sees the media as the eyes and ears of the ECI during elections time and the foot soldiers of the commission have been told to take every report in the media seriously and follow them up with necessary action.
Adding value to the book is the foreword written by Gopalkrishna Gandhi. He says Quraishi, a development thinker, “has not just given us information and knowledge, but confidence and pride.”
When reading this book, a tale of courage and hope, a Sri Lankan reader may ask: “When will we see systems that will make us proud again.”
Book facts
Title: An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election
Author: S.Y. Quraishi
Publisher: Rainlight/Rupa, New Delhi
(This book review first appeared in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka)

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Obama: From Bay of Pigs to peace-prize diplomacy

By Ameen Izzadeen
The United States President Barack Obama is on a diplomatic drive to turn foes into friends. Apart from ending combat operations by US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been mending fences with Iran and Cuba, countries considered to be archenemies of the United States.
Only a few ultra-optimists would have thought a decade ago that a day will dawn when the US Secretary of State will shake hands with his or her Iranian counterpart. Who would have imagined a decade ago that the Presidents of the United States and Iran would have a friendly telephone conversation?
Now President Obama is on a fast track to normalise relations with Cuba. Why shouldn’t he? After all, he is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won in 2009 even before he had taken any concrete steps to end wars or bring peace.
With just 20 months remaining of his presidency, he apparently wants to end it on a note of peace or on a claim that the world is safer now than it was when he took over in 2009, although the scale of violence in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East may belie the claim. But one cannot put the blame only on the US for the new crises in the Middle East. Israel, Saudi Arabia and European nations such as France and Britain should also share the blame for the violence in Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Yemen and extrajudicial regime changes in Libya and Egypt. In most of these conflicts, the Obama administration’s role is one of cooperative rather than causative and it got involved in these conflicts at the behest of its allies.
That the Obama administration has managed to play a controlled role in the Middle East conflicts and strike a nuclear deal with Iran while taking measures to normalise relations with Cuba despite pressure from various lobbies, neoconservative critics and hardline Republicans is indeed an achievement. Perhaps, Obama is like the character Nancy in Oliver Twist – a good soul, despite her complicity in the crimes of Fagin and his gang.
Like Nancy during her last days, Obama is on a redeeming exercise. After more than five decades of declared enmity, his administration is now on a path to normalise ties with Communist Cuba, although most of the US allies have long done so. Since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly has been passing an annual resolution titled “Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial and Financial Embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba”. As years passed by, the number of countries which voted with the US dwindled. In October last year, when the resolution was taken up for voting, 188 countries in the 193-nation General Assembly, voted for it. The only countries that voted against were the United States and Israel, with three US puppet states in the Pacific island — Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia — abstaining.
The resolution may be non-binding, but it has exposed the moral nakedness of the US. Even its NATO allies are not in favour of the unjust, repressive and punitive sanctions on a country that has many achievements to share with the rest of the world in areas such as health, education and culture.
The steps taken by the Obama administration since December last year indicate that the General Assembly will not see this resolution during this year’s annual sessions. By September there could be embassies operating in each other’s capitals. The steps taken by the Obama administration include the relaxation of travel restrictions, the release of the Cuban Five political prisoners, and of course last week’s handshake and the one-on-one talks in Panama between President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, brother of the legendary Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
On Tuesday, the White House announced that President Obama would remove Cuba from the list of states, which in the US eyes, are sponsors of terrorism. Cuba was included in the list in 1982 after Washington accused Havana of supporting rebel groups that tried to topple pro-US regimes in Latin America. But Cuba’s foreign policy has undergone much change in tune with political realism after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its chief ally during the Cold War days.
Officially, the delisting of Cuba will take place 45 days after the notification to Congress. The notification was sent on Tuesday with a message from Obama.
In his message to Congress, Obama said the government of Cuba “has not provided any support for international terrorism” over the last six months and Cuba “has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”
Analysts say Obama is determined to use his veto power if the Republican-dominated Congress votes against the move.
But much work needs to be done and much history needs to be forgotten or frozen before the formalisation of the thaw. Part of this history shows an ugly side of the US foreign policy, which it has still not forsaken – supporting regimes regardless of their human rights violations. Washington was propping up Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista with economic and military aid in the late 1950s while people movements led by Fidel Castro and the legendary revolutionist, Che Guevera, were fighting to oust him.
Another part of the history – the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 — brought the world dangerously close to a nuclear holocaust. Also to be forgotten and forgiven are the numerous attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to assassinate Fidel Castro and the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, which ended in a disaster for the US. Another page of the history book records the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 because Cuba was building an airport in that country.
Besides erasing these hostilities, the US should close down the Guantanamo Bay naval base and let Cuba take back its territory. It was ceded to the United States under the 1903 Cuban-American Treaty in recognition of the US’s positive role in Cuba’s War of Independence (1895–1898). The return of the Guantanamo Bay territory is one of the demands of Cuba for the normalisation of ties.
With the Republicans slamming the Obama foreign policy as a failed policy, one has to wait and see how the Obama administration’s moves aimed at normalising relations with Cuba are going shape the Democrats’ battle to retain the White House in 2016.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Protect this historic nuclear deal

By Ameen Izzadeen
Finally a win-win situation for Iran and the P5+1, said reports last Thursday from the Swiss holiday city of Lausanne after a decade of haggling and eight days of painstaking bargaining during the last round of talks which went beyond the March 31 deadline.
Reading the fine print of the four-page document, one wonders why such a deal could not have been reached years ago. The answer is that on the one hand, the United States had not realised the strategic importance of Iran, and, on the other, Israel and Saudi Arabia had resorted to covert moves aimed at scuttling any deal. Many were the occasions when the P5+1 and Iran were close to a deal, but due to reasons now understood to be political, the negotiators came back to square one on the snakes-and-ladders board.
Throughout, Iran, a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has been saying it has no intention to build nuclear weapons. Even the intelligence outfits of the United States and Israel have said there is no evidence to indicate that Iran is building a bomb. But the West kept on adding pressure on Iran and shifted the goalposts when Iran fulfilled its obligations while Saudi Arabia and Israel called for military action and tougher sanctions which they thought would weaken Teheran’s economy and trigger a regime change when the hungry people become angry. They also believed that economic sanctions would kill Iran’s ambitions to emerge as the most powerful country in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and Israel became more alarmed after Iran’s involvement in the 2006 Lebanon war. Iran-made weapons supplied to Hezbollah took Israel by surprise. Israel’s death toll was 122 soldiers and 44 civilians – a high casualty figure in Israel’s reckoning. Israel accepted a ceasefire and withdrew from South Lebanon, prompting Hezbollah to claim a moral victory. Iran was economically strong then owing to the high oil prices. It granted more than one billion US dollars towards the rebuilding of the war-ravaged South Lebanon and became popular on the Arab street.
Ever since, weakening Iran’s economy became a top priority for Saudi Arabia and Israel. This they achieved by projecting Iran as a terrorist state and promoting economic sanctions. Not stopping at that, Saudi Arabia resorted to other desperate measures as Iran’s influence grew in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria. Its decision to bomb Houthi rebel positions in Yemen was probably one such measure. Another measure it took brought down drastically the world oil prices. Iran which depends on oil exports suffered heavily.
But the US looked at Iran from a different angle. Washington knew that military action against Iran would only lead to a region wide war, sending oil prices soaring and the world’s economy into recession. The Barack Obama administration has apparently realised that a deal with Iran is in the best interest of the United States. Washington believes that the nuclear agreement could avert Iran’s bid to join an informal alliance with China and Russia — an alliance that could deal a blow to the US’s pivot to Asia policy aimed at containing China. Moreover, the US sees that it shares many goals with Iran, especially with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan. The common goals range from defeating ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and preventing the Taliban from capturing power in Afghanistan to finding solutions to the Syrian crisis, the conflict in Yemen and the unrest in Bahrain, home to the US’ Fifth Fleet.
So, much to the chagrin of Israel and Saudi Arabia, Washington pushed for a win-win deal at the Lausanne talks between Iran and six world powers — the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
Israel’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the agreement claiming that the deal would legitimise Iran’s nuclear programme, bolster Iran’s economy, and increase Iran’s aggression and terror throughout the Middle East and beyond.
But President Obama, for whom Netanyahu is more a problem than an ally, has given hardly any ear to his grievances. Instead, Obama has welcomed the deal describing it as an historic understanding that would make the world safer.
There is still more time for Israel and Saudi Arabia to scuttle the agreement which is to be formally signed only on June 30. If the final agreement is signed, it will indicate a significant shift in US-Iran relations. Though the leaders of the two countries resort to rhetoric for public consumption, there have been many positive signs to indicate that ties between the two countries have been improving since the election of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran in 2013, with telephone calls at president-to-president level and meetings at official level.
The agreement has been shaped in such a way that it can be sold to the sceptics in the United States, especially the Republicans. Giving room for further fine-tuning if the Obama administration faces difficulty in obtaining the support of Congress for the deal, the first paragraph of the agreement says, “Important implementation details are still subject to negotiation, and nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon.”
Polls show that a third of the Republicans support the deal while about 40 per cent say they are undecided. This gives an indication that the deal may find passage in the Republican-controlled Congress despite pressure from Israel. But can it be sold to the hardliners in Iran?
Under the agreement, Iran is required to open the doors of all its nuclear facilities for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agncy while it will curtail its capacity to enrich uranium and slash its existing stockpile. Iran has agreed to operate only 5,060 of its 19,000 centrifuges for the next ten years. These moves will delay a bomb-making effort by one year, if Iran ever wishes to do so.
In return, the sanctions that have halved Iran’s oil exports and kept Iran out of the international banking system would be suspended but resumed if Iran fails to honour its pledges.
In Teheran, the people came out in their thousands to celebrate the deal with Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif receiving a hero’s welcome at the Mehrabad airport when he returned from Lausanne.
President Rouhani yesterday noted that the deal was a triumph for Iran because the US had now realised that Iran would not surrender to bullying, sanctions and threats while spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there was “no guarantee” of a final deal with world powers.
Rhetoric apart, the biggest challenge to both Iran and the United States is to protect the hard-fought deal from those planning to sabotage it.

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