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Venezuela ‘ready for aid,’ says Maduro after Red Cross meeting

NEW DELHI: India’s prime minister is rallying his nationalist base as the world’s biggest democracy begins a general election on Thursday, but it has become tighter than anticipated, thanks to dwindling incomes for farmers and scarce jobs.Polls predict Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) alliance will just win a parliamentary majority, a sharp drop from…

Venezuela ‘ready for aid,’ says Maduro after Red Cross meeting

NEW DELHI: India’s prime minister is rallying his nationalist base as the world’s biggest democracy begins a general election on Thursday, but it has become tighter than anticipated, thanks to dwindling incomes for farmers and scarce jobs.Polls predict Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) alliance will just win a parliamentary majority, a sharp drop from his commanding mandate five years ago, when he vowed to turn India into an economic and military power.But his government’s inability to create a million jobs every month, and ease farmers’ distress over low product prices, has taken the shine off what is still the world’s fastest growing major economy.From sugar farmers in northern Uttar Pradesh going unpaid for produce, to small businesses in the south shut because they are unable to meet the requirements of a new, unifying national tax, discontent has brewed for months.“The election has become a lot closer than we think, sitting in Delhi,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of a Modi biography and books on Hindu nationalist groups. “There is anger and disillusionment in the countryside.”In December, alarm bells rang for Modi’s Hindu nationalists after it lost three key states to the main opposition Congress and its allies, led by Rahul Gandhi.But a surge in tension with traditional foe Pakistan in February has pushed Modi ahead, as he projects himself as a defender of national security and paints his rivals as weak-kneed, sometimes even questioning their patriotism.“People were very unhappy, angry that Modi makes tall promises and doesn’t deliver,” said Shiv Chandra Rai, an Uber driver in the commercial capital of Mumbai.“Everyone said there are no jobs, everywhere farmers are struggling. But on this issue of Pakistan we are confused now. Some people feel we have to vote for Modi on this issue, it is a national problem.”Modi ordered air strikes on a suspected camp of a militant group in Pakistan after it claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing in Indian Kashmir, launching the first such raid since the neighbors’ last war in 1971.The nuclear-armed foes engaged in a dogfight after Pakistan sent warplanes into India the next day. They also threatened each other with missile strikes, before Western powers, led by the United States, pulled them back.Modi claimed victory, vowing more similar action if militant attacks continue in Kashmir. He dismissed concerns over the effectiveness of the strikes and the risk of stirring tension with Pakistan.“Why do these people get so disturbed when India acts strongly against the forces of terror?” he asked tens of thousands of cheering supporters wearing saffron headbands at a rally this week in western India, referring to the opposition.A regional leader of a Hindu group linked to the BJP and his bodyguard were killed by gunmen who burst into a hospital in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir on Tuesday, police said, underscoring the BJP’s concern over security in the region.Militants fighting Indian rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir have warned people not to vote on Thursday.The BJP was also targeted in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, when a bomb set off by left-wing militants killed a regional party legislator and four people with him.The Congress, led by Gandhi, and his charismatic sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who took up a party post in January, wants to steer the campaign back to Modi’s broken promises on the economy.Gandhi has pledged a monthly payment of 6,000 rupees for the poorest families, about 250 million of a population of 1.3 billion, in a bid to stamp out poverty.“Congress is trying to pitch in the election with regard to farm distress, rural crisis, unemployment,” said Sanjay Kumar of new Delhi think tank the Center for the Study of Developing Societies.About 900 million people are eligible to vote in the election, spread over seven phases into next month so that security forces can ensure a free and fair ballot at about a million polling stations.Results will follow vote-counting on May 23.Congress has said Modi’s party presents a threat to every opposition group by pursuing its vision of a Hindu-first India, stoking fear among the Muslim minority, a bias the BJP denies.

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UN counterterrorism chief makes controversial trip to Xinjiang

NEW DELHI: India’s recent national election delivered a historic victory to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, but also exposed the influence of money, power and questionable morality on the world’s largest democracy.Nearly 43% of the new members of the lower house of Parliament that convenes Monday for the first time since the election…

UN counterterrorism chief makes controversial trip to Xinjiang

NEW DELHI: India’s recent national election delivered a historic victory to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, but also exposed the influence of money, power and questionable morality on the world’s largest democracy.Nearly 43% of the new members of the lower house of Parliament that convenes Monday for the first time since the election won despite facing criminal charges. More than a quarter of those relate to rape, murder or attempted murder, according to a report by the civic group Association of Democratic Reforms.The loophole that allows them to take office is that they have not been convicted — in part because the Indian legal system has a huge backlog of an estimated 30 million cases and trials often last decades. When asked about the charges against them, they invariably accuse a political rival of framing them.Since such rivalries often lead to false accusations, the main political parties say it would be unfair to bar people from contesting elections unless they have been convicted by court.Under existing laws, only those who have been sentenced to prison for two years or more can be barred from elections.Members of Parliament with criminal backgrounds is not a new phenomenon in India, but despite Modi’s campaign vow in 2014 to clean up corruption and the influence of money in politics, the problem appears to be only growing worse.In the 2004 national election, the percentage of candidates with pending criminal cases was 24%, which rose to 33% in 2009, 34% in 2014 and 43% this year, said Shahabuddin Y. Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner.The Association of Democratic Reforms found that 116 of the 303 lawmakers from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party elected last month face criminal charges, including one for alleged terrorism.Pragya Singh Thakur, who won a seat from Bhopal in central India, is awaiting trial in connection with a 2008 explosion in Malegaon in western India that killed seven people.Twenty-nine of the opposition Congress party’s 52 lawmakers face serious charges.“This trend has been growing in India, leaving no political party untouched. We need to educate voters not to elect these people,” said Jagdeep S. Chhokar, ADR’s founder.“What the Indian state has been unable to provide, strongmen promise to deliver to people in their area of influence, using gun and money power,” said Lennin Rasghuvanshi, a coordinator with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.Starting in the 1960s and ‘70s, some Indian politicians began turning to the criminal underworld for cash to win votes.“In due course, the criminals started thinking that these politicians were winning because of their money or crimes so why shouldn’t they become lawmakers themselves? If they are people running from the police, they know that when they became lawmakers, the same police will protect them,” Quraishi said.In Uttar Pradesh state in northern Indian, former mafia don Mukhtar Ansari has been elected to the state assembly five times despite more than 40 criminal cases pending against him, including murder.Another don-turned-politician, Hari Shankar Tiwari, also of Uttar Pradesh, has been a member of the legislative assembly for 23 years, even winning an election while being detained on murder charges.During the campaign, Election Commission officials and government agencies seized mountains of cash, alcohol, gold and silver, saris and expensive watches in the offices of political parties that were intended as gifts in exchange for votes.The total value of the seized goods was $500 million, including $120 million in cash — nearly three times what was found in the 2014 general election, according to the Election Commission.Analysts say that political parties seem to prize electability over ethics.“They think that people with criminal backgrounds have more chances to win because of their money and muscle power,” Qureshi said.In the days of paper ballots before electronic voting machines were introduced, gangs would use brute force to take over polling stations to rig the vote.One reason for the increasing number of criminal suspects going into politics is the sheer cost of elections. In the general election that concluded in May, political parties and candidates are estimated to have spent about $8.65 billion. That’s double the amount in the 2014 election, according to a report by the Center for Media Studies in New Delhi.The report said the Bharatiya Janata Party was the biggest spender, accounting for about 45% of the total. The Congress party accounted for between 15% and 20%.Analysts say a key cause of corruption is the way political parties are funded in India. Parties are permitted to receive foreign funds, any company can donate any amount of money to any political party, and any individual, group or company can donate money anonymously through electoral bonds.Donors do not need to disclose the party they have donated to, nor does the party have to reveal the source of its money.Quraishi is calling for more transparency in campaign funding as well as a cap on election spending.“The people want transparency, the donor wants secrecy. Whose wish should prevail?” he said.

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Indian election reveals role of money, questionable morality

NEW DELHI: India’s recent national election delivered a historic victory to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, but also exposed the influence of money, power and questionable morality on the world’s largest democracy.Nearly 43% of the new members of the lower house of Parliament that convenes Monday for the first time since the election…

Indian election reveals role of money, questionable morality

NEW DELHI: India’s recent national election delivered a historic victory to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, but also exposed the influence of money, power and questionable morality on the world’s largest democracy.Nearly 43% of the new members of the lower house of Parliament that convenes Monday for the first time since the election won despite facing criminal charges. More than a quarter of those relate to rape, murder or attempted murder, according to a report by the civic group Association of Democratic Reforms.The loophole that allows them to take office is that they have not been convicted — in part because the Indian legal system has a huge backlog of an estimated 30 million cases and trials often last decades. When asked about the charges against them, they invariably accuse a political rival of framing them.Since such rivalries often lead to false accusations, the main political parties say it would be unfair to bar people from contesting elections unless they have been convicted by court.Under existing laws, only those who have been sentenced to prison for two years or more can be barred from elections.Members of Parliament with criminal backgrounds is not a new phenomenon in India, but despite Modi’s campaign vow in 2014 to clean up corruption and the influence of money in politics, the problem appears to be only growing worse.In the 2004 national election, the percentage of candidates with pending criminal cases was 24%, which rose to 33% in 2009, 34% in 2014 and 43% this year, said Shahabuddin Y. Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner.The Association of Democratic Reforms found that 116 of the 303 lawmakers from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party elected last month face criminal charges, including one for alleged terrorism.Pragya Singh Thakur, who won a seat from Bhopal in central India, is awaiting trial in connection with a 2008 explosion in Malegaon in western India that killed seven people.Twenty-nine of the opposition Congress party’s 52 lawmakers face serious charges.“This trend has been growing in India, leaving no political party untouched. We need to educate voters not to elect these people,” said Jagdeep S. Chhokar, ADR’s founder.“What the Indian state has been unable to provide, strongmen promise to deliver to people in their area of influence, using gun and money power,” said Lennin Rasghuvanshi, a coordinator with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties.Starting in the 1960s and ‘70s, some Indian politicians began turning to the criminal underworld for cash to win votes.“In due course, the criminals started thinking that these politicians were winning because of their money or crimes so why shouldn’t they become lawmakers themselves? If they are people running from the police, they know that when they became lawmakers, the same police will protect them,” Quraishi said.In Uttar Pradesh state in northern Indian, former mafia don Mukhtar Ansari has been elected to the state assembly five times despite more than 40 criminal cases pending against him, including murder.Another don-turned-politician, Hari Shankar Tiwari, also of Uttar Pradesh, has been a member of the legislative assembly for 23 years, even winning an election while being detained on murder charges.During the campaign, Election Commission officials and government agencies seized mountains of cash, alcohol, gold and silver, saris and expensive watches in the offices of political parties that were intended as gifts in exchange for votes.The total value of the seized goods was $500 million, including $120 million in cash — nearly three times what was found in the 2014 general election, according to the Election Commission.Analysts say that political parties seem to prize electability over ethics.“They think that people with criminal backgrounds have more chances to win because of their money and muscle power,” Qureshi said.In the days of paper ballots before electronic voting machines were introduced, gangs would use brute force to take over polling stations to rig the vote.One reason for the increasing number of criminal suspects going into politics is the sheer cost of elections. In the general election that concluded in May, political parties and candidates are estimated to have spent about $8.65 billion. That’s double the amount in the 2014 election, according to a report by the Center for Media Studies in New Delhi.The report said the Bharatiya Janata Party was the biggest spender, accounting for about 45% of the total. The Congress party accounted for between 15% and 20%.Analysts say a key cause of corruption is the way political parties are funded in India. Parties are permitted to receive foreign funds, any company can donate any amount of money to any political party, and any individual, group or company can donate money anonymously through electoral bonds.Donors do not need to disclose the party they have donated to, nor does the party have to reveal the source of its money.Quraishi is calling for more transparency in campaign funding as well as a cap on election spending.“The people want transparency, the donor wants secrecy. Whose wish should prevail?” he said.

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Mediterranean countries ramp up efforts to find missing migrants

THE HAGUE: Mediterranean countries say they have taken a key step toward finding out the fate of thousands of migrants — many fleeing Syria’s war — who have gone missing while trying to reach Europe.At a meeting of the International Commission for Missing Persons in The Hague this week, Cyprus, Greece and Malta pledged to…

Mediterranean countries ramp up efforts to find missing migrants

THE HAGUE: Mediterranean countries say they have taken a key step toward finding out the fate of thousands of migrants — many fleeing Syria’s war — who have gone missing while trying to reach Europe.At a meeting of the International Commission for Missing Persons in The Hague this week, Cyprus, Greece and Malta pledged to coordinate and beef up their efforts to trace nearly 18,500 migrants who have disappeared since 2014 while making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.Italy — which has taken a hard line on migrants under its populist government and interior minister Matteo Salvini — did not sign up to that new joint statement due to what the ICMP described as internal government issuesThe four countries are the main point of entry to Europe for many of the migrants fleeing the war in Syria and other regions.Finding out what happened to those missing — whether they are eventually found alive or whether they have been confirmed dead and their remains found — provides crucial closure for families.“We are starting a process that is extremely important,” Queen Noor of Jordan, one of the ICMP’s longest-serving commissioners, told AFP in an interview.“Helping the families and communities that have lost their members in conflict can create a path to truth, justice and reconciliation — and where possible, accountability,” said the Jordanian royal.Born out of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and set up in 1996 in Sarajevo by then US president Bill Clinton, the ICMP uses increasingly sophisticated DNA technology to trace missing persons.It has already succeeded in identifying around 70 percent of the 40,000 people who went missing in the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s, including around 90 percent of the nearly 8,000 killed in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.But it is now turning its attention to one of the biggest human catastrophes of recent times — the migration crisis that has hit the Middle East, North Africa and Europe since 2014.The plan to better locate and identify missing migrants fleeing conflict and economic hardship in the Middle East and Africa was launched in Rome last year.But this week’s meeting of the southern European states was key to pushing the process forward.Top ICMP representatives nevertheless called for more to be done to help find the missing migrants, particularly those from Syria’s war where the fate is of an estimated 85,000 people is not known.“What we are implicitly saying to states is that they have a responsibility to deal with this, but that it is also in their interest to deal with it,” former Dutch foreign minister Bert Koenders told AFP.The ICMP also wants to obtain permission from Syria’s neighbors to start mapping the thousands of refugees fleeing the bitter eight-year war — in a move that could one day help identify war crimes, Queen Noor said.Collecting and having access to data about these refugees will make it easier in future to identify “where crimes may have occurred, where mass graves exist — and where families and relatives may be,” she said.But the longer-term aim is to bring millions of displaced people back to their homes.“I can see in a future that is hopefully not too far off that we can set in motion steps that will provide greater hope for many of the migrants and refugees to Europe.”“To give them hope that they can return home,” she said.

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