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Bengal's 'paribartan' politics – The Hindu

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Fierce competition between major players in the State has stirred up political shifts and an ugly campaign

Ideological and political lines are being dizzyingly crossed in West Bengal in the midst of a gruelling eight-phase Assembly election. The Trinamool Congress, which has been at the helm for 10 years, is battling both deep anti-incumbency and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which sniffed power in the State after the 2019 Lok Sabha election and has thrown all its might into the fray. The tactics being used by all — competitive populism, engineering defections, polarisation, carrot-and-threat policy, personal attacks, hyper-nationalism and Bengali pride — have turned the election into an ugly campaign from which Bengal will not emerge unscathed.

In 2011, the Trinamool came to power with the slogan of ‘paribartan’ (change). In 2021, the BJP is pledging ‘asal paribartan’, or ‘real change’. The party says if voted to power, it will announce the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act at its first Cabinet meeting. Silent about CAA in Assam, the BJP came under pressure in Bengal from the Matuas, Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, who live mostly in the North 24 Parganas and Nadia districts, and can influence outcomes of 30-35 Assembly seats.

But will the Matuas agree to the provisions of the CAA which require an applicant for citizenship to disclose that he/she has been an illegal immigrant? There are whispers of discontent in the community. The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool government had passed a resolution against the CAA; the BJP has not specified how it plans to go about implementing the law. There is unease among the Muslim community in the State too, which forms almost 27% of the population. A year ago, the State BJP leadership had said there are one crore Bangladeshi-Muslims in Bengal and that the party was serious about driving them out.

Fickle loyalties

The Trinamool and BJP manifestos are competitive and similar. Both are “doling” out a bonanza, says Prof. Samir Das, who teaches Political Science at Calcutta University. Among other things, the BJP has promised 33% reservation for women in government jobs, free education for girls from kindergarten to postgraduation levels, free public transport for women, and an increase in widow pension from ₹1,000 to ₹3,000, to counter Ms. Banerjee’s successful welfare schemes for girls and women.

The electorate watched helplessly as politicians hopped from party A to party B. Some jumped ship voluntarily from the Trinamool to the BJP, which won 18 out of 42 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and saw its vote share increase from 4% in the 2011 Assembly election to over 40%. Others, after being denied a ticket, changed colour, throwing questions of beliefs to the wind.

Towards the end of the Left Front regime, senior CPI(M) leaders would rue in private about not being able to control “local corruption” and “lumpen elements”. Riding on the wave of two violent anti-land acquisition movements at Nandigram and Singur, the Trinamool Congress stormed into power in 2011, ending three decades of Left rule. Even then, it was evident that the Trinamool, lacking in both ideology and organisation, had broken into Left and Congress ranks to increase its numbers.

Cut to 2021, in one of the most polarised elections in the State, the pattern is chillingly familiar. A “lateral shift” has been taking place both at the ground and leadership levels. Mukul Roy, once a right-hand man to Ms. Banerjee, and Suvendu Adhikari, one of the most well-known faces in the Trinamool, are now with the BJP.

Bengal is redefining the horse-trading phrase ‘aaya ram gaya ram’ of the 1960s, when an MLA from Haryana changed his party thrice in a day, which eventually led to the anti-defection law of 1985. But the law has not been able to stop such switchovers.

What are voters to make of all this? In his speeches, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attacked the Trinamool leadership for corruption and promoting family politics. The BJP has found it difficult to pick candidates from within its ranks, putting a question mark on its bench strength. If 30-35 of the candidates announced by the BJP are from its bitter rival Trinamool, what is changing?

The BJP has picked up the Trinamool poll slogan Khela hobe (game on) and raised a victory cry even before the election is over with Khela shesh (game over). The Left appears to have done a course correction, fielding young, feisty leaders like Meenakshi Mukherjee (Nandigram) and Aishe Ghosh (Jamuria) and using digital media with catchy songs and memes to reach out to the young. But the tie-up with Furfura cleric Abbas Siddique has raised eyebrows, with many fearing it may be counter-productive.

Overall, the campaign has been highly aggressive, and the viciousness ensures that whoever wins, democracy is the loser.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in

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Biden offers tax credits for COVID-19 vaccination and paid time off

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By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) –President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced tax credits for certain businesses that pay employees who take time off to get COVID-19 shots, a new effort to involve corporate America in his vaccination campaign.

“I’m calling on every employer, large and small, in every state to give employees the time off they need with pay to get vaccinated,” the Democratic president said.

The tax credits will apply to businesses with fewer than 500 employees, he said.

In a speech, Biden also said he expects the United States to reach his 100-day goal of getting 200 million coronavirus vaccine shots in arms by the end of the day, even as the nation faces an increase in infections.

“Today we hit 200 million shots,” Biden said. “It’s an incredible achievement for the nation.”

Biden said the vaccine effort is entering a new phase with everyone over age 16 becoming eligible to be vaccinated. Biden said 80% of all seniors have received at least one shot, leading to a dramatic decline in the deaths of elderly Americans.

“If you’ve been waiting for your turn, wait no longer,” Biden said.

Biden administration officials said the government plans to reimburse businesses for the cost of giving workers as many as 80 hours in paid time off to get their shots or recover from any side effects.

The tax credit is for up to $511 per day for each worker, through September. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees employ roughly half of U.S. private-sector workers. The tax credits were authorized under Democratic-backed COVID-19 pandemic relief legislation passed by Congress and signed by Biden over Republican opposition.

The administration’s chief problem in its response to the pandemic is now shifting from securing enough vaccine supply to persuading enough Americans to seek out the available shots.

More than half of American adults have had at least one vaccine dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A third of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, as well as 26% of the population overall.

The U.S. COVID-19 death toll of more than 568,000 leads the world. The coronavirus is still killing hundreds of Americans daily and many Americans have shown a reluctance to get vaccinated.

Countries around the world with less successful vaccination campaigns than the United States are dealing with a spike in infections.

Biden, who has loaned some unused vaccines to Canada and Mexico and donated funds to a multilateral vaccination effort for poor countries, said the White House is still looking at its options for eventually sending vaccines to Canada, Central America and elsewhere. Biden told reporters after his speech that he spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier on Wednesday.

“We don’t have enough to be confident to send it abroad now, but I expect we’re going to be able to do that,” Biden said.

“We’re looking at what is going to be done with some of the vaccines that we are not using. We’ve got to make sure they are safe to be sent.”

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Steve Holland; Editing by Will Dunham and Jonathan Oatis)

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The Liberal Government rolls out post-pandemic spending plan ahead of likely election

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By Julie Gordon

OTTAWA (Reuters) -Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government on Monday lined up billions in new spending to provide emergency support during a virulent third wave of COVID-19 and to help launch an economic recovery ahead of an election expected later this year.

The budget, the Liberal government’s first in two years because of the pandemic, is aimed squarely at boosting near-term growth and includes a long-promised national daycare plan.

It also follows through on stimulus promised late last year, outlining a C$101.4 billion ($81 billion) “growth plan” over three years, with nearly half of that spending coming in the first year.

“We have to finish the fight against COVID – and that costs a lot of money,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters, adding that hundreds of thousands of Canadians remain out of work because of the pandemic.

Liberal insiders expect Trudeau to seek an election later this year to try to secure a majority in parliament. The Liberals currently need the support of at least one other party to pass legislation, including the budget.

Opposition lawmakers were unimpressed with the budget. But the leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party said he was not prepared to bring down the government over it.

“It is clearly irresponsible to have an election or in any way to trigger an election while we are in the midst of this third wave,” Jagmeet Singh told reporters. “The impact on people would be devastating and we are not going to do that.”

Erin O’Toole, who heads the official opposition Conservatives, said: “This is an election budget and a poor one at that.” His party trailed the Liberals by 37% to 29% in an Abacus Data poll published last week.

Business groups were pleased with the added certainty of finally having a full budget, but remained unsold on the need for a massive stimulus plan with the economy already set to surge later this year as pent-up demand is unleashed.

“There’s a lot of spending in a lot of programs. But the effects of all of those combined together for me is just a bit unsure,” said Robert Asselin, senior vice president of policy at the Business Council of Canada.

The deficit for the fiscal year that started on April 1 will be the second largest in recent decades, with the closely watched debt-to-GDP ratio hitting 51.2%, although Freeland promised a return to restraint as the economy gets back to normal.

“I think the key here is the debt-to-GDP (ratio) is expected to peak this year … and it’s expected to come down in the years ahead,” said Doug Porter, chief economist at BMO Capital Markets. “I think that’s a credible plan if they can stick to it.”

THIRD COVID WAVE

Trudeau’s Liberal government has been buoyed in opinion polls by its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But a third wave of infections is pounding the country’s largest city, Toronto, and its suburbs – a key Ontario region for securing an electoral majority – and the coronavirus vaccine rollout has trailed other wealthy countries like the United States and Britain.

Of the nearly C$50 billion in new spending this year, C$27 billion is set aside to extend pandemic recovery measures like wage and rent subsidies for businesses and for a new program to help transition companies back to hiring.

The budget also aims to create a national childcare program and to make a more aggressive effort to reduce carbon emissions, both measures that polls show are important to Liberal voters.

While Freeland said historically low interest rates allowed significant investment, she also pledged to unwind deficits and reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio over the medium term. A senior government official said, however, that a fiscal anchor should not be seen as a “straitjacket.”

The official also said that the government had run stress tests on the accumulating debt and was confident of its abilities to service that debt even as interest rates rise in the future.

“It’s hard for us to draw a conclusion that we’re out over our skis. We don’t believe we are. We think we’re in very solid terrain,” the official told reporters.

Surging growth should also increase revenues, with 5.8% growth forecast for this year, after a 5.4% contraction in 2020.

The deficit in the current year is projected to hit C$154.7 billion, less than half that of the previous fiscal year, with total national debt soaring to C$1.23 trillion this year, up from C$1.08 trillion in the previous year.

The Canadian dollar steadied at about 1.2530 to the greenback, or 79.81 U.S. cents, after the budget was released. Canada‘s 30-year yield extended its rise, up 7.5 basis points at 2.060%.

($1 = 1.2526 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Julie Gordon; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren, Steve Scherer, Fergal Smith and Moira Warburton; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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Beijing huddles with friends, seeks to fracture U.S.-led ‘clique’

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By Gabriel Crossley and Yew Lun Tian

BEIJING (Reuters) – China is shoring up ties with autocratic partners like Russia and Iran, as well as economically dependent regional countries, while using sanctions and threats to try to fracture the alliances the United States is building against it.

Worryingly for Beijing, diplomats and analysts say, the Biden administration has got other democracies to toughen up to a rising, more globally assertive China on human rights and regional security issues like the disputed South China Sea.

“China has always resolutely opposed the U.S. side engaging in bloc politics along ideological lines, and ganging up to form anti-China cliques,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement to Reuters.

“We hope relevant countries see clearly their own interests…and are not reduced to being anti-China tools of the U.S.”

After last month’s stormy talks between top U.S. and Chinese diplomats in Anchorage, Beijing also appeared to engage more urgently with countries like Russia, Iran and North Korea, which are also on the wrong end of U.S.-led sanctions.

COLD COMFORT

“China is very worried about U.S. alliance diplomacy,” said Li Mingjiang, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, pointing to what he calls attempts to “huddle for warmth” with governments shunned by the West.

Days after the Alaska meeting, the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, received Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who called for Moscow and Beijing to push back against what he called the West’s ideological agenda.

A week later, Wang flew to Iran and signed a 25-year economic pact, which Renmin University professor Shi Yinhong said “effectively exposes every Chinese company participating to direct or indirect U.S. sanctions.”

President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, exchanged messages with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling for a deeper partnership with another country whose ambitions for nuclear arms has drawn sanctions.

China is also wooing its economically dependent neighbours. Wang hosted foreign ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and South Korea in China’s southeastern Fujian province in recent weeks.

Li said Beijing will be holding out promises to help these countries revive their economies after the COVID-19 pandemic, making them think twice about siding with the United States.

After Philippines diplomats and generals accused China of sending militia-manned vessels into their waters, President Rodrigo Duterte said he was not going to let territorial disputes in the South China Sea get in the way of working with China on vaccines and economic recovery.

BUILDING BLOCS

Biden has continued to pressure Beijing on many of the same issues the Trump administration did, but with a more alliance-focused strategy.

At a meeting between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday, the two countries presented a united front against China’s assertiveness, on issues ranging from the disputed East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, to rights issues in China’s Hong Kong and Xinjiang region.

Last month, the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada imposed coordinated sanctions over reports of forced labour in China’s western Xinjiang region, while over a dozen countries jointly accused China of withholding information from an investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and France all recently joined the United States in sending warships through the disputed South China Sea, or announced plans to do so.

Washington also said it wants a “coordinated approach” with allies on whether to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, amid concerns over human rights violations, particularly related to the treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

BREAKING THE ‘CLIQUE’

China has responded angrily to shows of unity by Washington’s allies, with its diplomats dubbing Japan a “vassal” and Canada‘s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a “running dog” of the United States.

China’s strategy to weaken this unity revolves around encouraging U.S. allies to engage independently with Beijing, and put the economic benefits first, while punishing them if they engage in joint-action against China.

Beijing responded to the EU’s sanctions of Chinese officials over Xinjiang with disproportionately harsh counter-sanctions, analysts said, potentially torpedoing a long-awaited investment agreement.

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes Beijing is prepared to sacrifice economic benefits for core interests if they are threatened by the U.S.-EU alliance.

Xi drove home the message in a recent phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, telling her that he hoped “the EU will make a correct judgment on its independence”.

But China still needs European technology and investment, said Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China.

“They still talk to us, despite the sanctions, business keeps going, and that’s very reassuring.”

Beijing has not given up persuading Washington that cooperation is better than competition, as demonstrated last week when it assured U.S. climate envoy John Kerry of support for Biden’s virtual climate summit this week.

“China hopes Washington can appreciate that it is in U.S. interests to have China as a friend rather than as a foe,” said Wang Wen, a professor at the Chongyang Institute of the Renmin University of China.

 

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Yew Lun Tian; Editing by Tony Munroe & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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