Specter of Arctic standoff looms as melting sea ice upsets geostrategic balance 

The Arctic is warming at twice the pace of the rest of the planet, opening up long-frozen sea lanes to commercial traffic. (AFP)
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The Arctic is warming at twice the pace of the rest of the planet, opening up long-frozen sea lanes to commercial traffic. (AFP)
Russian warships at the Arctic base of Severomorsk. The changing geography of the Arctic increases the risk of confrontation between the major powers.  (AFP)
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Russian warships at the Arctic base of Severomorsk. The changing geography of the Arctic increases the risk of confrontation between the major powers. (AFP)
This photo taken on August 17, 2019 shows an iceberg caving with a mass of ice breaking away from the Apusiajik glacier in Sermersooq island in Greenland. (Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP)
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This photo taken on August 17, 2019 shows an iceberg caving with a mass of ice breaking away from the Apusiajik glacier in Sermersooq island in Greenland. (Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP)
A soldier stands near a Russia's Bastion mobile coastal defense missile system on the island of Alexandra Land, part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, on May 17, 2021. (Maxime Popov / AFP)
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A soldier stands near a Russia's Bastion mobile coastal defense missile system on the island of Alexandra Land, part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, on May 17, 2021. (Maxime Popov / AFP)
Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast on March 30, 2017 above Greenland. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
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Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast on March 30, 2017 above Greenland. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
A glacier is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 30, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
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A glacier is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 30, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
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Updated 23 June 2021

Specter of Arctic standoff looms as melting sea ice upsets geostrategic balance 

Specter of Arctic standoff looms as melting sea ice upsets geostrategic balance 
  • Climate change is disrupting the environmental balance of the Arctic with potential global ramifications 
  • Arctic states are jostling for control of shipping lanes, natural resources and strategic advantage as polar ice retreats

BERN, Switzerland: America is back. That was the message Joe Biden wanted to drive home during his first foreign foray as US president — an eight-day Europe tour in June.

The soft-power offensive has been welcomed by America’s European allies after four years of turbulence in transatlantic ties. But it has also brought the West’s long-simmering rivalries with Russia and China to the surface — including the possibility of a nasty confrontation over the Arctic region.

The Arctic is a physical space where geopolitics meets climate change, and where competition over access to natural resources collides with contested commercial and military shipping routes. These are matters that will have serious ramifications well beyond the handful of nations that border the North Pole.

The poles are often described as the Earth’s thermostat, reacting to even the slightest changes in sea temperature. The Arctic has warmed at twice the pace of the rest of the globe and, according to NASA, its sea ice has declined by 13.1 percent during the past decade.

Melting sea ice is contributing to rising sea levels, causing Arctic coastlines to gradually vanish. The process is being accelerated by the thawing of permafrost, which releases long-trapped pockets of carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

The rapid retreat of Arctic ice is opening up long-frozen sea lanes for the first time in millennia, exposing the region’s natural resources and shipping lanes to commercial and military exploitation.

According to Bloomberg, about 30 percent of undiscovered gas reserves and 13 percent of oil reserves are estimated to lie beneath the Arctic region. However, the race to claim these vast riches collides with the emerging global consensus of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Arctic Council deliberated over these issues in late May when its members met in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. The multilateral body of eight member states bordering the Arctic region and 13 observer nations was founded 25 years ago to address such issues as the rights of indigenous groups, climate change, oil and gas development, and shipping. Its mandate does not, however, extend to the realm of defense.

When Iceland passed the two-year rotating presidency of the organization to Russia last month, divergent views and geopolitical tensions came to the fore. The summit coincided with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The latter had stirred the pot by declaring “the Arctic is our land and our waters.




US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, on May 19, 2021. (Saul Loeb / Pool / AFP)

The sentiment is understandable from Lavrov’s perspective, given that Russia extracts about 90 percent of its natural gas, 17 percent of its oil, and 90 percent of its nickel from the Arctic, which also contains the majority of its platinum and palladium reserves.

The Russian economy is highly dependent on mineral extraction. In 2019 the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment estimated that oil, gas, mining and raw materials amount to about 60 percent to Russia’s gross domestic product.

Moscow and Washington have differing visions on matters concerning the Arctic, among them the fine balance between energy production, natural-resource extraction and the quest to halt climate change.

At the start of his term, Biden suspended the oil-drilling rights north of the Arctic circle that his predecessor, Donald Trump, had granted. The Kremlin, however, intends to expand its drilling operations.




A soldier stands near a Russia's Bastion mobile coastal defense missile system on the island of Alexandra Land, part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, on May 17, 2021. (Maxime Popov / AFP)

Novatek’s LNG (liquefied natural gas) project on the Arctic Yamal peninsula is producing at 114 percent of capacity on its four trains. In March the company approved external financing for the $11 billion Arctic LNG 2 project, which will start production in 2023. The project is expected to reach a production level of 20 million tons by 2026. Fundraising efforts will take place in Russia, China, Japan and Europe.

Energy is where China enters the fray. Saudi Arabia and Russia alternate as Beijing’s largest oil supplier. In 2020, China received 16.8 percent of its crude oil from the Kingdom and 15.3 percent from Russia.

CLIMATEFACTS

Sea ice keeps polar regions cool, helps moderate global climate.

Ice surface reflects back into space 80% of the sunlight that hits it.

As sea ice melts in the summer, it exposes the dark ocean surface.

Temperatures rise as the ocean absorbs 90% of sunlight and heats up.

The poles are the regions of the Earth most sensitive to climate change.

Owing to an especially cold winter, China’s pipeline imports of natural gas via Russia’s eastern (Siberian) route reached 28.8 million cubic meters a day in early 2021 — double the 2020 contract, according to S&P Global Platts. In 2020, Russia was the sixth-largest LNG supplier to China after Australia, Qatar, the US, Malaysia and Indonesia, according to Argus.

China has become an important financier of major energy-infrastructure projects in Russia’s Arctic region and Siberia. One reason for this is that US sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 coincided with China’s growing thirst for energy and rising affluence.

However, some Russian experts are concerned about the growing dependence on Chinese money to fund the Arctic expansion, an undertaking of vital national importance to Moscow. Arctic Council members and observers are therefore watching the Sino-Russian relationship very closely.




Russian warships at the Arctic base of Severomorsk. The changing geography of the Arctic increases the risk of confrontation between the major powers.  (AFP)

The valuable resources beneath the seafloor are not the only prize at stake in this polar scramble. The Arctic shipping route, from the Bering Strait to the Barents Sea, stretches for 5,550 kilometers and constitutes the shortest possible route between Asia and Europe.

The Northern Sea Route used to be open to ships for only 80 days of the year, frozen over for the remaining 285. Now it allows passage for 120 to 150 days, courtesy of the melting ice caps. Researchers at Kyoto University expect this time window will widen to 225 days.

The Northern Sea Route shortens the passage from China to Europe by 10 to 12 days, compared with the sea journey via the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. Although the route is relatively shallow, limiting the size of vessels able to traverse it, control of it has obvious strategic and commercial benefits.

 

 

During his European tour, among engagements designed to shore up Western solidarity, Biden attended the UK-hosted G7 summit in Cornwall, met with NATO chiefs in Brussels and held his first tete-a-tete with his Russian counterpart in Geneva. Relations between Vladimir Putin-led Russia and the West are currently too frosty to patch up without addressing the many underlying differences.

Take Arctic freight traffic. Putin wants to expand its volume by 2.5 times to 80 million tons by 2024. This “Polar Silk Road” would have serious ramifications far beyond the Arctic circle, placing it in direct competition with the Suez Canal and major ports from the Mediterranean and the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

There is also a defense dimension to the changing geography of the Arctic. Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, famously called the Arctic a peaceful place. The great powers and their armed forces had little choice but to avoid creating conflict there, given the inhospitable climate and impassable sheets of ice




Russian icebreaker ships and LNG transport vessels cruise in the Arctic. (REUTERS/Olesya Astakhova)

Not so now. With sea lanes open much longer than ever before and competition over natural resources in full swing, the potential for a confrontation between the big powers, and their air and naval forces, is growing ever more likely.

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, recently voiced such concerns over the mounting Russian and Chinese military presence in the region at the same time as US forces are shifting strategic emphasis toward the Arctic.

To sum up, climate change is upsetting both the environmental and strategic balance of the Arctic, with far-reaching ramifications for the hydrocarbon economy, maritime trade — and perhaps even peaceful coexistence.

_________

Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources

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After close vote, Germany on tricky path to form government

After close vote, Germany on tricky path to form government
Updated 27 September 2021

After close vote, Germany on tricky path to form government

After close vote, Germany on tricky path to form government
  • Olaf Scholz and others were keen to dispel concerns that lengthy haggling and a new, multiparty government would mean unstable leadership in Europe’s biggest economy

BERLIN: The party that narrowly beat outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc pushed Monday for a quick agreement on a coalition government amid concerns that Europe’s biggest economy could be in for weeks of uncertainty after an election that failed to set a clear direction.

Olaf Scholz, the candidate of the center-left Social Democrats, called for Merkel’s center-right Union bloc to go into opposition after it saw its worst-ever result in a national election. Both finished with well under 30 percent  of the vote, and that appeared to put the keys to power in the hands of two opposition parties — raising questions over the stability of a future government.

During her 16 years in office, Merkel was seen abroad not just as Germany’s leader but in many ways as the leader of Europe, helping steer the European Union through a series of financial and political crises.

The unclear result combined with an upcoming French presidential election in April creates uncertainty — at least for now — in the two economic and political powers at the center of the EU, just as the bloc faces a resurgent Russia and increasing questions about its future from populist leaders in eastern countries.

Both outgoing finance minister and Vice Chancellor Scholz and Armin Laschet, the Union’s candidate and governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state, staked a claim to leading the new government on Sunday night. Scholz, who pulled his party out of a long poll slump, sounded confident on Monday.

But the kingmakers are likely to be two prospective junior partners in any coalition, the environmentalist Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats. The Greens traditionally lean toward the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats toward the Union, but neither ruled out going the other way on Sunday night.

“Voters have spoken very clearly,” Scholz said Monday. “They strengthened three parties — the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats — so this is the visible mandate the citizens of this country have given: These three parties should lead the next government.”

The only other option that would have a parliamentary majority is a repeat of the outgoing “grand coalition” of the Union and Social Democrats. That is the combination that has run Germany for 12 years of Merkel’s 16-year tenure, though this time it would be under Scholz’s leadership with Merkel’s bloc as junior partner. But that coalition has often been marred by squabbling, and there is little appetite for it.

Scholz and others were keen to dispel concerns that lengthy haggling and a new, multiparty government would mean unstable leadership in Europe’s biggest economy.

“My idea is that we will be very fast in getting a result for this government, and it should be before Christmas if possible,” Scholz told reporters in Berlin. “Germany always has coalition governments and it was always stable.”

Scholz, an experienced and pragmatic politician whose calm, no-frills style is in some ways reminiscent of Merkel’s, pointed to continuity in foreign policy. He said a priority will be “to form a stronger and more sovereign European Union.”

“But doing so means also to work very hard on the good relationship between ... the European Union and the United States,” he added. “The trans-Atlantic partnership is of (the) essence for us in Germany ... and so you can rely on continuity in this question.”

The Greens made significant gains in the election to finish third but fell far short of their original aim of taking the chancellery, while the Free Democrats improved slightly on a good result from 2017.

Merkel’s outgoing government will remain in office until a successor is sworn in, a process that can take weeks or even months. Merkel announced in 2018 that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term.

Scholz was clear that her party should bow out of government. He said the Union “received the message from citizens that they should no longer be in government, but go into opposition.”

Amid concern about rising nationalism and populism, the Europeans will be reassured that mainstream parties will form the next government. Sunday’s election saw weaker results for the far-right Alternative for Germany and, at the other end of the spectrum, the Left Party. The strong showing by the Greens could also help ease passage of the EU’s landmark “Fit for 55” climate change package aimed at making the 27-nation bloc carbon neutral within 30 years.


Taliban threatening families of Afghan students in UK

Taliban threatening families of Afghan students in UK
Updated 27 September 2021

Taliban threatening families of Afghan students in UK

Taliban threatening families of Afghan students in UK
  • Under British Foreign Office rules, students could only be accompanied by “immediate family” such as spouses or children under the age of 18

LONDON:  The families of Afghans studying in the UK are being threatened by the Taliban, a British politician has claimed.

Five students evacuated from Afghanistan when the group recently regained control the country, and who are due to start at the University of Sussex on Chevening scholarships, had not been allowed to bring their families with them to the UK, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said.

Under British Foreign Office rules, students could only be accompanied by “immediate family” such as spouses or children under the age of 18, the Guardian reported.

The students told Lucas that they had received WhatsApp messages from the Taliban threatening the lives of their elderly dependents and dependent siblings still in Afghanistan.

Lucas said: “(The five students) are absolutely desperate about their families’ safety with their anguish heightened by the knowledge that their families are at risk precisely because of their decision to take up their Chevening placements – placements which mark them out as collaborators with the UK.”

She added that the fathers of two of the students had been murdered by the Taliban two years ago, and one claimed to have heard reports that the group had put pressure on a relative of school age.

The former Green Party leader said she had raised the issue with the Foreign Office, Home Office, and the Chevening secretariat but had received only “a deafening silence” in response.

She has accused the British government of failing to offer any clear assurances to people attempting to leave Afghanistan, after it pledged to take 5,000 refugees in the first 12 months and up to 20,000 over a five-year period. The scheme is yet to start.

In a letter to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Lucas said the government had told Parliament that individuals needed to wait for the scheme to open but had given no indication of when that would be.

And she pointed out that given the number of British nationals from Afghanistan living in her constituency who were seeking help, the scheme would be oversubscribed.

Her letter added: “My estimate based on my caseload is that there could be more than 33,000 family members alone that meet the scheme’s criteria, let alone those in the specified at-risk groups, so even 20,000 places over five years falls shamefully short.

“The government does not appear to know how many of the 5,000 places on the scheme will need to be allocated in the first instance to eligible Afghans already in the UK, such as 500 who were evacuated on Operation Pitting (UK military initiative to evacuate British nationals and eligible Afghans from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover) flights but did not qualify for Arap (the Afghan relocations and assistance policy), or to those that have crossed the border and are in refugee camps.

“The government is also directing people toward a visa process that, by its own admission, is impossible to fulfil and, when it does get up and running, will incur all the usual charges and minimum income criteria,” she said.

Lucas also highlighted the difficulty for Afghans to provide the required biometrics for a visa, which are not available in Afghanistan, and demanded a waiver of visa requirements for family members of British nationals still stuck in the country.

The British Home Office said: “There will be many more people seeking to come to the UK under the scheme than there are places.” It added that it was taking a “considered approach, working with international partners and non-governmental organizations to identify those most eligible.”


Academic accused of Islamophobia invited to Cambridge University

Academic accused of Islamophobia invited to Cambridge University
Updated 27 September 2021

Academic accused of Islamophobia invited to Cambridge University

Academic accused of Islamophobia invited to Cambridge University
  • Jordan Peterson was banned by the university following accusations of Islamophobia in 2019

LONDON: Jordan Peterson, a controversial academic who has been accused of Islamophobia, has said he will attend a series of seminars at the University of Cambridge in November, The Times reported on Monday.

The Canadian psychology professor was banned by the university following accusations of Islamophobia in 2019.

His proposed visiting fellowship offer was canceled by administrators after he was photographed with a man wearing an Islamophobic T-shirt.

When the photographs went viral, Prof. Stephen Toope, the university’s vice chancellor, said Peterson’s “casual endorsement” through association was “antithetical” to the efforts of the divinity faculty.

Peterson has faced opposition for his writing and talks on gender, politics, religion in general and Islam in particular.

His latest invitation to Cambridge was sent out by Dr. James Orr, also from the divinity faculty, who said Peterson will be spending between 10 days and two weeks at the university, where he will attend seminars, talks and other engagements.


South Korea to vaccinate 12 to 17 year-olds, give boosters to elderly

South Korea to vaccinate 12 to 17 year-olds, give boosters to elderly
Updated 27 September 2021

South Korea to vaccinate 12 to 17 year-olds, give boosters to elderly

South Korea to vaccinate 12 to 17 year-olds, give boosters to elderly
  • South Korea scrambled over the weekend to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases
  • Over 91 percent of the people aged 60 and above have so far received at least one dose

SEOUL: South Korea said on Monday it would begin inoculations next month for children aged 12 to 17 and offer COVID-19 vaccine booster shots to those 75 years and above as the country starts to transition to normalcy by the end of October.
South Korea, which has been battling a fourth wave of infections since early July, scrambled over the weekend to contain a surge in cases. Infections topped 3,000 for the first time fueled by last week’s public holidays.
The vaccination advisory committee of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) has ruled that the benefits outweigh the risks in vaccinating children. However, parents who have healthy children, such as those who do not have underlying conditions, are advised to weigh the relative benefits in making their decision, KDCA Director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a news conference on Monday.
While approving vaccinations for 12 to 17 year-olds, who will be given Pfizer shots, the panel and the government had not mandated that all children should take the shot.
The United States had by August vaccinated 50 percent of 12-17 year-olds and some European and Asian countries, including Germany and the Philippines have also been recommending vaccines for the age group.
Jeong said the initial booster doses from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna will go to those with weakened immune systems or deemed to be at high risk — the elderly, nursing home patients and staff.
The country aims to boost vaccination and fully immunize 90 percent of those aged 60 and older, and 80 percent of 18 to 59 years-old by the end of October.
Over 91 percent of the people aged 60 and above have so far received at least one dose, and vaccinations are under way for those 18 and above, 86.3 percent of whom have already had the first shot.
South Korea has reported 2,383 new coronavirus cases for Sunday, bringing total infections to 303,553, with 2,456 deaths.
Despite the high daily case numbers, the country has kept its mortality rate and severe COVID-19 cases relatively low and steady at 0.81 percent and 319, respectively, as of Sunday.
Some 74.2 percent of its 52 million population have had at least one dose of a vaccine through Sunday, and more than 45 percent are fully vaccinated.


India at a standstill as thousands hold nationwide strike against farm laws

India at a standstill as thousands hold nationwide strike against farm laws
Updated 27 September 2021

India at a standstill as thousands hold nationwide strike against farm laws

India at a standstill as thousands hold nationwide strike against farm laws
  • Farmers to continue resistance until year-old legislations repealed; govt cries ‘vested interests’

NEW DELHI: Hundreds of thousands of farmers gathered across India on Monday as part of a nationwide strike to press Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to repeal three controversial agricultural laws introduced a year ago.

The government says that the new measures introduced last September will help farmers to fetch better prices for their produce as they will be able to sell directly to private buyers, outside government-regulated wholesale markets.

But farmers say that the legislation will leave the sector, which employs more than 50 percent of the country’s population, with little bargaining power and at the mercy of private industrial players.

The tussle has prompted nearly ten months of farmer protests against the government, leading to the third nationwide strike on Monday, paralysing traffic and daily life in different parts of the country of 1.36 billion people.

“Through the all-India strike, I want to tell the government that not only farmers but all sections of society are with us,” Jagmohan Singh, leader of the Indian Farmers Union based in the northern state of Punjab, told Arab News.

“The government is hell-bent on selling this nation to the corporate sector, and we are not going to let this happen,” he said.

Thousands of protesters spilled onto the streets of the capital New Delhi on Monday, occupying roads and causing massive traffic jams with vehicles stuck for hours on the outskirts of the city as police officers kept guard on streets leading to the protest sites.

Neighbouring Rajasthan, too, saw life come to a standstill, with several farmers’ representatives saying that they would not back down until the laws were repealed.

“We want to tell the government — be it farmers, traders or common people — everyone is not happy with the government,” Himmat Singh Gurjar, leader of the Kisan Morcha (Farmers’ Front), told Arab News.

“We want to tell Prime Minister Modi that the whole nation is with us, and the attempt to divide farmers is not going to succeed,” he said.

Farmers fear that the laws will usher in the privatization of traditional agricultural markets, leading to market-driven pricing of products and the elimination of minimum support prices, which the government sets for certain produce every year.

“We want to tell an authoritarian government that this is not only a farmers’ agitation but a movement where common people are the stakeholders,” Suresh Koth, who heads the Bhartiya Kisan Mazdoor Union (Indian Farmers and Workers Union) in the northern state of Haryana, told Arab News.

He added that farm unions would “continue to campaign” against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government in the upcoming regional polls.

Key elections will be held in the five crucial states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Gujarat and Goa next year. Protesters said that their rallies were a warning to Modi, whose BJP governs all states except Punjab.

“The government cannot rent out the fate of the masses to corporate houses who will enslave common people. That’s why we have called for a nationwide protest,” Koth said.

Meanwhile, the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, a conglomeration of at least 40 farm unions leading the nationwide protests, said in a statement on Monday that a “complete shutdown” had been reported in several places with “extensive support” from other states in India.

“This response nails the lie of the government’s propaganda and shows how solidly the people of India stand with the farmers in their historic struggle,” it said.

The BJP, however, said that “vested interests” were at play in leading the protests.

“The agitation is being carried on by vested interests, and by weaving false narratives and creating fear they are able to garner some support,” BJP spokesperson Sudesh Verma told Arab News. “The government is not taking away anything from farmers but giving them an alternative route.”

Meanwhile, leader of the main opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, said on Monday that the “farmers’ nonviolent resistance is still resolute, but the exploitative government does not like this, and that is why an India shutdown has been called.”

The government has held ten rounds of talks with farmers and offered to postpone the implementation of the new laws for 15 months to reach an agreement. However, the protesters have rejected the offer and continued to demand that the laws be revoked.

On Sunday, the authorities reiterated their willingness to talk with farmers, asking them “not to protest.”

“I urge farmers to adopt the path of discussion by leaving the path of protests,” Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told the media on Sunday.

“Central government is ready to discuss any issues raised by farmers,” he said.

Political experts said that while the farmers’ agitation was initially launched to repeal the agricultural laws, it had, in turn, unified people.

“I think this is the first mass movement of farmers since India’s independence in 1947 . . . which is the longest and sustained,” Urmilesh Singh, a Delhi-based senior journalist and political analyst, told Arab News.

“The rallies are uniting people and bringing them on a single platform, thereby parting religious faultlines that the BJP tried to accentuate through its politics,” he said.

The BJP government has often been accused of causing a rise in polarization across the country by introducing discriminatory laws for non-Hindus, mainly Muslims, since assuming power in 2014.

Singh said that the farmers’ protests could impact the BJP in the upcoming polls in Uttar Pradesh, which is electorally and politically crucial for its survival, sending 80 out of 543  lawmakers to the lower house of parliament.

“I cannot say with certainty, but the agitation might impact the BJP in western Uttar Pradesh, the hub of the farmers’ movement,” Singh said.