BJP sweeps four states, Congress in the dust?
The highly anticipated results for the assembly elections in five Indian states were announced on Sunday and the verdict was a unanimous loss for the Indian National Congress. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a majority in four states (Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh,and Rajasthan) and captured 70 percent of the 589 contested seats (Economic Times). While the BJP has always enjoyed a competitive advantage in these states, the results suggest an anti-Congress wave will threaten its electoral performance in the upcoming 2014 national elections. A breakdown of the results by state is below, with numbers from NDTV's Election Watch page:
Delhi: 70 seats
BJP: 32 seats (+9 seats)
AAP: 28 seats (+28 seats)
Congress: 8 seats (-35 seats)
While the BJP won a majority, new entrant Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP's) spectacular success has been the leading story about Delhi's elections. However, no party has been able to secure the 36 seats needed to form a government and with no party willing to ally with the other, re-elections are likely. The AAP's corruption free image and large army of volunteers have been credited with its success. The party ran several first-time candidates, including Surender Singh, a commando who was injured during the Mumbai terror attack in 2008 (Hindustan Times).
Madhya Pradesh: 230 seats
BJP: 165 seats (+22 seats)
Congress: 58 seats (-13 seats)
Others: 7 seats (-9 seats)
Current Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan will form a BJP-led government for the third time in the state. Some have noted that a steady rise in his numbers could make him a possible counterweight to Narendra Modi, the chief minister in Gujarat, in the upcoming national elections. His humble party worker image and pro-poor welfare schemes saw the BJP through the polls, despite accusations of corruption within the government (Hindustan Times).
Rajasthan: 199 seats
BJP: 162 seats (+84 seats)
Congress: 21 seats (-74 seats)
Others: 16 seats (-10 seats)
Former Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhra Raje will form the new government after securing over two-thirds majority in the state. The Congress Party's loss in popularity in the state has been attributed to corruption scandals, communal riots, price rise and campaign efforts by Modi. Raje reportedly said of her rival, "there is anti-incumbencyness and super anti-incumbencyness" (Zee News).
Chhattisgarh: 99 seats
BJP: 49 seats (-1 seats)
Congress: 39 seats (+1 seats)
Others: 2 seats (no change)
Raman Singh becomes the third chief minister from the BJP to win a third term in Chhattisgarh. Singh's clean image and widely popular welfare programs, which distributed cheap rice, free salt and health care to the poor, have been attributed to his success in the state. The BJP's win comes despite public accusations of corruption from bureaucrats and criticism for his programs to tackle Maoism in the state (Hindustan Times).
Mizoram: 40 seats
Congress: 28 seats (-2 seats)
Mizo National Front: 6 (+2 seats)
BJP: 1 (+1 seat)
Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla is set to form the government for the fifth time in Mizoram, the only state to record a Congress win. Speaking to NDTV, he said: "I attribute this win to good governance and no corruption. We had flagship programmes for the weaker sections of the people....I am very happy with the win" (NDTV).
The strong showing of the BJP has also been seen as an endorsement of Modi, its prime ministerial candidate (Business Standard, Economic Times). The Indian stock markets soared with the party's wins, with the Bombay Stock Exchange's Sensex recording 96 stocks that reached 52-week highs a day after election results were announced (Economic Times). Meanwhile, the Congress Party has said it will not call for early national elections. Some allies have begun publicly criticizing Congress's defeat, saying country does not like "weak rulers" (CNBC Moneycontrol).
India wins compromise in historic WTO deal
The World Trade Organization (WTO) announced on Saturday its first global trade agreement since it was set up in 1995, a landmark deal with the potential to add $1 trillion to the global economy by easing controls on the global flow of goods (Guardian, Hindustan Times, Independent Online, Indian Express). The draft agreement lets India and other developing nations continue to subsidize their crops to bolster food security, so long as the practice does not distort trade. If subsidized goods are sold in global markets and depress prices or harm competitors, other WTO members will retain the right to file a complaint. Talks were on the brink of collapse late last week, after India declared its food security policies "non-negotiable" and a Latin America bloc led by Cuba objected to the removal of a reference to the decades-long U.S. trade embargo against the country. In April, U.S. WTO Ambassador Michael Punke criticized India's extensive agricultural subsidies as distorting prices, failing to help the poor, and damaging the fortunes of farmers in the region (Post).
Monsoon rains cool onion prices, inflation
India may see stubborn wholesale price inflation subside as early as December, according to new reports (Times of India, WSJ). Prices of onions, tomatoes, and other vegetables have fallen by more than 50 percent from their peak levels in November, when heavy rain damaged crops and pushed up prices, the Wall Street Journal reported. This year's monsoon has continued past its normal close in mid-September, leading to a later harvest. Public outrage over high food prices was one of the main reasons why the Congress Party was decimated in recent state elections, the report said. The Indian government imported more than 8,000 tons of onions between September 1 and November 13 this year in an effort to dampen rising food prices, Food Minister K. V. Thomas told the parliament on Dec. 9 (Economic Times).
Out of competition
The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) agreed to amend its constitution on Sunday to bar officials with criminal charges from its organization, after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) threatened to kick the country out of the Olympics (BBC). In response to the rule changes, the IOA's secretary general and president agreed to leave their posts. IOC President Thomas Bach told the Associated Press in an interview on Saturday that the organization was prepared to withdraw its recognition of the association if it failed to comply with "rules of good governance," which demand that the Indian organization bar officials who have been charged with a crime (AP, Times of India). The move would have been the first time a country was kicked out of the Olympics since South Africa was expelled because of apartheid more than 40 years ago. A year ago, the IOC suspended the IOA because of government interference in its election process.
-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson
U.S Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in Afghanistan on Saturday and Sunday, meeting with top Afghan security officials and U.S. troops still in the country, but he "consciously chose not to see" Afghan President Hamid Karzai (NYT). According to the Washington Post, the "rare break with protocol seemed to signal a new strategy" by the administration to end the current impasse over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the two countries - one that ignores Karzai instead of "continuing to beg him to ink the deal" (Post).
In discussing the decision not to meet with Karzai, Hagel said he never asked for a meeting with the Afghan president, nor did he receive an invitation to meet with him (AP). He added that he didn't think more U.S. pressure on Karzai to sign the BSA would be helpful (Guardian). But Hagel did met with Bismillah Mohammadi Khan, his Afghan counterpart, who he said expressed enthusiastic support for the security pact between the two countries and predicted it would be "signed in a very timely manner" (CNN, LAT, RFE/RL, VOA). While Khan gave no further indication of when the BSA would be signed, Hagel suggested that a NATO meeting in February could become a new deadline as many alliance countries with troops in Afghanistan are waiting for the BSA to be finalized before making their own post-2014 commitments (Reuters).
Meanwhile, the Washington Post also reported that the Afghan "Pentagon" the United States was building in Kabul has run out of money (Post). Intended to be a symbol of American generosity, the U.S. government has already spent about $107 million on the five-story headquarters for the Ministry of Defense, double the initial estimate, and the NATO coalition is now appealing to Hagel for an additional $24 million. While audits and inspector general reports have long noted financial mismanagement in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Michael E. Wehr, the deputy chief of staff engineers for the International Security Assistance Force, says that this is one building that has to get done right.
Close to Iran deal
As Hagel left Afghanistan on Sunday, Karzai met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran to discuss a bilateral agreement with Iran. According to Aimal Faizi, Karzai's spokesman, the two countries will soon sign a "long-term partnership" agreement that focuses on economic, political, and security cooperation (RFE/RL, VOA). Faizi did not provide further details about what that cooperation would entail.
Afghan women's rights stalled
A new report released on Sunday by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan criticizes Afghan authorities for poorly implementing the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women Law (AJAM, AP, VOA). Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the law's implementation has been "slow and uneven," with only seven percent of the 1,670 registered incidents of violence against women in 16 Afghan provinces going through a judicial process using the law (RFE/RL). And as parts of the law have been challenged or restricted - like prohibiting the use of relatives' testimony in criminal cases - there are increasing concerns that the continuing withdrawal of international assistance and staff will leave Afghan women particularly vulnerable when the majority of coalition troops withdraw at the end of next year (NYT). The landmark law criminalizes child marriage, forced marriage, forced self-immolation, rape, and other acts of violence against women.
After his trip to Afghanistan, Hagel headed to Pakistan to meet with Sharif and new Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif (no relation) on Monday to discuss security threats and the ongoing blockade against NATO supply trucks moving through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (AP, BBC, NYT, RFE/RL, VOA). It was the first visit to Pakistan by the top Pentagon official in nearly four years, and was "in recognition of the tremendous support that Pakistan has provided in the war on terror" (Dawn). According to their governments' respective statements about the visit, Prime Minister Sharif reaffirmed Pakistan's support for the Afghan peace process and reiterated its stance that U.S. drone strikes in the country's tribal regions were counterproductive, Hagel focused on the tense relationship between the two countries, regional stability, and U.S. military assistance to Pakistan (AFP).
Hagel's visit came as his deputies withdrew an earlier statement that said NATO shipments out of Afghanistan would resume since the anti-drone protests led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party seemed to have ended (ET). But on Sunday, a group of armed men attacked two trucks carrying NATO supplies in Balochistan (ET). According to local officials, the containers were heading from Karachi to Afghanistan when the gunmen opened fire on the vehicles, torching one and partially damaging the other. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack and concern for the safety of the drivers prompted U.S. officials traveling with Hagel to keep the suspension in place.
Pakistan's Express Tribune reported on Monday that, while the reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban appear to be stalled, secret negotiations between the parties are ongoing, with help from Islamabad and Washington (ET). Officials familiar with the talks told the newspaper that: "there has been considerable progress since Mullah Muhammad Omar authorized his former deputy Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar to initiate dialogue on behalf of the militia." Baradar, a former Taliban commander who had been in Pakistani custody, was released in September, and Kabul has long hoped he would play a role in restarting the negotiations. Officials from Afghanistan's High Peace Council recently met with Baradar and a senior Pakistani official said more meetings between the parties were expected in the coming weeks. The Taliban has not commented publicly on the report.
From guns to flip-flops
After visiting a shoe manufacturing facility in Kabul in 2009 that made military boots, Matthew Griffin, a former U.S. special operations soldier, decided to create Combat Flip-Flops, a footwear business currently based in Washington state (BBC). According to Griffin, he "realized that flip-flops were as popular in Afghanistan as they are in the U.S.," and thought, "Why not start a business making flip-flops in Kabul" that can then be sold in the United States and around the world. After a few missteps in Afghanistan, the shoes are currently being manufactured in a factory near Seattle, but Griffin is hoping to move production back to Afghanistan next year.
-- Bailey Cahall