Pakistan standoff helps India’s Modi shift focus from jobs

A standoff with nuclear rival Pakistan appears to have given Modi a boost ahead of national elections set to begin in April, 2019. (File/AP)
Updated 15 March 2019
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Pakistan standoff helps India’s Modi shift focus from jobs

  • India’s air force launched a strike on an alleged terrorist training camp inside Pakistan
  • The crisis has helped the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led government to turn attention away from its mixed record on the economy

NEW DELHI: A standoff with nuclear rival Pakistan appears to have given Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, a boost ahead of national elections set to begin in April.
After a suicide bombing killed 40 soldiers in Indian-controlled Kashmir, India’s air force launched a strike on an alleged terrorist training camp inside Pakistan.
Although India has refused to produce evidence of the damage it says was caused by the strike, BJP and Modi supporters immediately branded it a decisive victory.
The crisis managed to turn attention away from Modi’s economic record.
Modi swept 2014 elections promising to reform India’s economy, but his signature demonetization policy, intended to reduce money laundering, choke terrorist financing and boost digital payments, has been largely deemed a failure.
And a small scandal erupted earlier this year when a respected financial newspaper reported that the government was suppressing jobs data that showed India’s unemployment rate at its highest level in 45 years.
But Modi, 68, seems to have regained ground after taking a tough stance in brinkmanship with Pakistan, even though violence and massive protests continue to rock Indian-controlled Kashmir, where insurgent groups have been fighting for independence or a merger with Pakistan since 1989.
Making the most of the confrontation with Pakistan and his party’s efforts to project him as a strong leader, Modi has been crisscrossing India addressing rallies and claiming that his government’s response to the suicide bombing shows that a “New India” is emerging.
Boasting of his “muscular” policy, Modi said at one recent rally that India “will go and hit people inside their homes who try to harm” the country.
At rallies, he has been comparing his policies with those of earlier governments, denouncing the Congress party-led government for not retaliating after attacks in Mumbai in 2008. India blamed a Pakistan-based militant group for the attacks that killed 166 people.
His fiery speeches are a clear indication that national security will be a key issue in his campaign and that the BJP believes it will help swing enough votes to win him a second term.
His supporters are using social media and several television news channels to fan nationalist sentiment and label anyone who questions Modi as unpatriotic, particularly during television debates where hysteria reigns.
The inflammatory rhetoric is brushing aside key economic issues that affect the nearly 70 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people who live in rural areas.
“I wouldn’t say the BJP leaders will completely abandon economic issues. But they definitely are going for a mix of Hindu nationalism, terrorism and a very strong pitch against Pakistan. What was missing was so far was a national threat to bind the BJP campaign,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst who has written a biography of Modi.
Modi became prime minister in 2014 promising inclusive economic development, the creation of 10 million jobs every year, double-digit economic growth, and an end to farmers’ distress caused by low prices for their produce.
But the opportunity was missed owing to the demonetization and the haphazard implementation of a Goods and Services Tax. To make matters worse, the unemployment rate hit a 45-year high of 6.1 percent in the last fiscal year.
Modi’s party suffered defeats in three major state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December at the hands of the Congress party, led by 48-year-old Rahul Gandhi.
Buoyed by these wins, Gandhi’s style became more aggressive. His criticisms of Modi over farmers’ continued distress and unemployment were gaining some traction before tensions broke out with Pakistan. He also had been making efforts to rally various opposition parties into a united anti-Modi front.
The Congress party is in no position to win the election on its own. Polls suggest Gandhi’s party can hope to win seats in between eight and 10 out of India’s 29 states. In the others, it will have to depend on the support of regional groups.
But things changed after India’s strike into Pakistan territory. Modi’s claims of victory allowed him to take back control of the narrative from Gandhi, leaving the latter and other opposition leaders slightly uncertain about how to deal with Modi.
First they supported the government action against Pakistan and praised the actions of security forces.
Within days, however, they started criticizing Modi for not calling an all-party meeting to discuss security issues. Soon, conflicting government accounts of the damage caused in Pakistan by the Indian strike gave them more ammunition to attack Modi.
But Modi used their doubts about the strike to polish his own “strongman” credentials.
While his current position looks quite strong, the latest surveys say he might have to settle for a thinner majority this time. A survey by C-Voter predicts that Modi and his allies could win 265 seats, just seven short of the halfway mark, while an India TV-CNX survey gives them a clear majority with 285 seats.


France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

Updated 19 May 2019
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France’s Macron forced to curb his ambitions for Europe

  • His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent
  • In his country, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as Europe’s savior and next week’s European Parliament elections as a make-or-break moment for the beleaguered European Union.
But Macron is no longer the fresh-faced force who marched into a surprising presidential victory to the rousing EU anthem two years ago. His pro-Europe vision has collided with populists and national interests across the continent. And at home, his political vision has given rise to France’s raucous yellow vest uprising over his government’s pro-business policies.
Macron wanted the May 23-26 European Parliament elections to be the key moment that he could push his ambitions for a stronger Europe — but instead, nationalists and populists who criticized the 28-nation bloc could achieve unprecedented success.
They argue that EU leaders have failed to manage migration into the continent and remain out of touch with ordinary workers’ concerns.
“We have a crisis of the European Union. This is a matter of fact. Everywhere in Europe, when you look at the past five to six years, in our country but in a lot of countries, all the extremes, extreme-rights, are increasing,” Macron said Thursday, making an unexpected appeal for European unity on the sidelines of a technology trade show.
“On currency, on digital, on climate action, we need more Europe,” he said. “I want the EU to be more protective of our borders regarding migration, terrorism and so on, but I think if you fragment Europe, there is no chance you have a stronger Europe.”
In person, the 41-year-old Macron comes across as strikingly, sincerely European. A political centrist, he’s at ease quoting Greek playwrights, German thinkers or British economists. France’s youngest president grew up with the EU and has been using the shared European euro currency his whole adult life, and sees it as Europe’s only chance to stay in the global economic game.
Macron has already visited 20 of the EU’s 28 countries in his two years in office, and while he acknowledges the EU’s problems, he wants to fix the bloc — not disassemble it.
Macron won the 2017 presidential election over France’s far-right, anti-immigration party leader Marine Le Pen on a pledge to make Europe stronger to face global competition against the Unites States and China. Since then, he’s had to make compromises with other EU leaders — and clashed with some nations where populist parties govern, from Poland to neighboring Italy.
Four months after his election, Macron outlined his vision for Europe in a sweeping speech at Paris’ Sorbonne university, calling for a joint EU budget, shared military forces and harmonized taxes.
But with Brexit looming and nationalism rising, Macron has had to reconsider his ambitions. He called his political tactics with other EU leaders a “productive confrontation.”
“In Europe, what is expected from France is to clearly say what it wants, its goals, its ambitions, and then be able to build a compromise with Germany to move forward” with other European countries, Macron said last week.
Macron stressed that despite her initial reluctance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed last year to create a eurozone budget they hope will boost investment and provide a safety mechanism for the 19 nations using the euro currency.
In March, Macron sought to draw support for a Europe of “freedom, protection and progress” with a written call to voters in 28 countries to reject nationalist parties that “offer nothing.”
And he proposed to define a roadmap for the EU by the end of this year in a discussion with all member nations and a panel of European citizens.
“There will be disagreement, but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different paces, and that is open to all?” he asked.
France and Germany are the two heavyweights in Europe, and Macron can also count on cooperation from pro-European governments of Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and others.
He has made a point, however, of not yet visiting Hungary or Poland, two nations led by populist leaders whom Macron accused last year of “lying” to their people about the EU.
France has also been entangled in a serious diplomatic crisis with Italy over migration into Europe. Italy’s anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly criticized Macron and is backing his rival Le Pen’s National Rally party in the election this week that aims to fill the European parliament’s 751 seats.
Macron has little chance to repeat Europe-wide what he did in France: rip up the political map by building a powerful centrist movement that weakened the traditional left and right.
The campaign for Macron’s Republic on the Move party is being led by former European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau under a banner called “Renaissance.” The party wants to associate with the pro-market ALDE alliance to create new centrist group at the European Parliament.
But across the continent, the centrists are not expected to come out remotely on top but rank third or even lower behind the parliament’s traditional two biggest groups, the right-wing European People’s Party and the left-wing Socialists and Democrats group.
Even at home, Macron is far from certain of being able to claim victory in the European vote. Polls suggest his party will be among France’s top two vote-getters in the election, which takes place in France on May 26.
But its main rival, the far-right National Rally party, is determined to take revenge on Macron beating Le Pen so decisively in 2017.
Macron’s political opponents across the spectrum are calling on French voters to seize the European vote to reject his government’s policies.
While he won 64% of the presidential vote in 2017, French polls show that Macron’s popularity has been around half that for the past year.
It reached record lows when France’s yellow vest movement broke out last fall, demanding relief from high taxes and stagnant wages for French workers, then slightly rose as extensive violence during yellow vest protests, especially in Paris, dampened support for the movement’s cause.
Still, the yellow vests are not going away. New protests against Macron and his government are planned for the EU election day.