Developments in Russia and Ukraine
The Russia-Ukraine war continues unabated, with changing balance of power from time-to-time. The key theatres of war remain limited to eastern and southern Ukraine, with frequent Ukrainian counteroffensive operations inside Moscow. The war has rapidly become a war of attrition for Russia. It has resulted in a situation where Russia is neither able to win the war nor clearly lose it or put an end to it. As a result, while Ukraine has had little to lose – with its capabilities being vastly bolstered by constant supply of Western military aid – Russia has systematically diluted its military superiority in this reckless gambit from which it is now unable to escape. This will get worse as the Israel-Hamas war also erupts simultaneously.
The initial Russian hopes to benefit from the Israel situation have now been belied. Russia had hoped for a diversion of international attention from Russia-Ukraine war, and festering of differences between US and Europe. However, these hopes were belied as the US announced new aid to Ukraine, and by Europe’s stronger-than-expected support for Israel. The new developments also portend a worsening of Russia-Israel ties, as Russia undertakes a balancing act, largely in favour of Hamas (few months back, it had even hosted Hamas representatives), develops new military ties with Iran and outsources its influence across Syria and Middle-east to Iran thereby complicating the security dilemmas of Israel.
Diplomatically, besides Iran, its other rare ally, China, has also not lived up to its expectations. This was reflected in the fact that in Putin’s visit to Beijing as the Guest of Honour in mid-October for the Belt and Road Initiative summit, there were hardly any tangible outcomes in favour of Russia, besides the stale rhetoric. They also differ in their view on the Israel-Hamas conflict, even though both have not taken a pro-Israel stand, and largely favour Palestine. While China hopes for a cession of hostility in order to keep global oil markets stable, Russia hopes for escalation of conflict so that shooting up of global oil prices can bring it more energy export revenues.
Developments in Science and Technology
With the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), governments have scrambled to find ways to regulate this technology. The most recent exemplification of this was the first of its kind, global AI Safety Summit hosted by the UK. The summit gave shape to the Bletchley Declaration, agreed to by 28 countries, including heavyweights like the US, UK, and China. The declaration lays out plans for greater transparency from AI developers regarding safety practices and more scientific collaboration on understanding AI’s risks. At the summit, the UK government announced a major £225 million investment into a powerful new supercomputer called Isambard-AI, intended to achieve breakthroughs across healthcare, energy, climate modelling and other fields.
The summit also highlighted some of the other issues associated with AI, such as implications for governance and democracy, and, the existential risks posed by AI in the coming times. Simultaneously with the AI Safety Summit hosted by UK, the US also took a significant step towards AI regulation, as the White House issued an executive order requiring tech firms to submit test results for powerful AI systems to the government before they are released to the public.
This regulatory spree has come up even as the space of AI witnesses rapid changes. The latest debate is on the multimodal dimensions of AI – systems that can possess full cognitive capabilities like human beings. Unlike the present AI systems that can efficiently perform intellectual work, multimodal systems can glean meaning from images, speech, sounds, videos etc., bringing AI a step closer to human likeness. Recently, ChatGPT-3.5 and ChatGPT-4 models have been upgraded in this direction, to be able to study and analyze images and perform speech synthesis, enabling users to have full-fledged conversations with them. ChatGPT parent company, OpenAI, is also working on a new full-fledged multimodal system called Gobi. Similarly, Google is also in the process of releasing a multimodal AI model, Gemini, which can perform all these cognitive tasks.
Supreme Court Judgement on Same Sex Marriages
In a recent ruling, the Supreme Court has finally delivered the judgement on same sex marriages. The court’s five-judge Constitution Bench ruled in a 3:2 verdict against same sex marriages.
First, the key issue before the court was whether there is a right to marry under the Indian Constitution, and if there is, is the prevention of same-sex couples from being able to enjoy this right discriminatory. Both questions were answered firmly and unanimously in the negative by the Court, with the Court upholding that right to marry is not a fundamental constitutional right, but a legal right.
According to the reasoning of the Court, marriage is an institution set up under law – and same-sex couples do not have a right to participate in it unless the law permits them to do so. The fact that it does not permit them at this moment is not unconstitutional.
Further, the Special Marriage Act, 1954 – a legislation that was enacted to enable inter-faith marriages – was by the Court upheld in its current form, i.e., permitting marriages only between a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’.
Second, another issue before the Court was whether same sex couples have the right to enter a ‘civil union’ – a marriage-like setup where the couple enjoys a specific of legal rights and protections. Again, the Court answered in the negative. Here, the Court found that only an elected legislature is competent to make such interventions. This is because granting same-sex couples the right to marry or enter a union will involve changes to a vast range of “legislative architectures” and policies, such as those involving, among others, insurance, banking, adoption, succession, pension, healthcare, etc.
Third, a key issue before the Court was inability of same sex couples to adopt children – a benefit that flows only from marriage. Initially, since the Juvenile Justice Act 2015 permits a single person to adopt a child, same-sex couples were able to adopt children by designating one of the partners as the legal parent. In 2022, however, the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) ended this arrangement by issuing the Adoption Regulations, which require a couple to be in a two-year stable marital relationship to be eligible for adoption. Over and above this, a circular was also issued prohibiting a person from adopting a child if that person was in a live-in relationship. Consequently, same sex couples became ineligible to adopt.
In its decision on this issue, the Court, in a majority, found the judiciary ill-equipped to consider the potential impact of extending the right to jointly adopt children to same-sex couples.
Thus, the overall judgement of the Court firmly puts the issue in the basket of the Union government and the Parliament, even as it made sympathetic observations for same-sex couples during the hearings.
Bihar Caste Survey
The political gimmick in the form of the Bihar caste census appears to be following the law of diminishing returns. The census was held in two phases. The first phase involved the counting of households and the second phase collected information on all castes, religions, and economic backgrounds. The survey results show that extremely backward classes (EBCs) and other backward classes (OBCs) together add up to nearly 63% of the 13-crore population, making it the largest caste group in the State. The “unreserved” category of so-called “forward” castes is about 15.5%.
The findings are being largely politicized. Interestingly, the survey only revealed the caste numbers and the Bihar government did not release the supplementary data on socio-economic position of these various castes. For, the release of such data might create internal divisions and prevent caste-based mobilization.
The Opposition seems to have united around this survey and is now demanding an all-India caste census. Even the Congress has reversed its prolonged opposition to such a survey. The implication might be that the 50% ceiling on reservation put by the Supreme Court in the Indira Sawhney judgement of 1992 may be revised on the basis of the principle of reservation according to share in population. The Opposition is also hoping to revive the 1990s Mandal era politics through which it had undertaken backward class mobilization. This might be a misguided strategy for several reasons:
First, the Opposition has put all its eggs in this basket – at least at a major level. It is unable to focus on other issues and has gone back to the plank of identity politics. This hope of going back to a two-decade old past might grandly backfire, as caste identities are not as radical as they were in the past. While caste is still strong, constructing an umbrella of disparate caste groups – from powerful OBCs like Yadavs to downtrodden Dalits – may fail, as the main oppressor of Dalits are dominant OBCs themselves.
Second, the Opposition hopes to bring about a renewed confrontation between the Mandir focus of BJP (especially around Ram mandir) and Mandal focus of caste-based parties. This may again backfire as it does not take into account the recent phenomenon of nationalistic and religious revival among the majority Hindus at a national level. Politics has changed significantly since 2014 and its collective psychological impact cannot be underestimated.
Third, through the gambit of caste divisions, the Opposition – especially Congress – is likely to alienate the upper castes significantly and will not be able to curry any major favour with the lower castes either.
Finally, the caste survey, instead of resulting in a breach of 50% reservation limit, may end up in a subcategorization of OBCs – quota within quota – as was recommended by Justice Rohini Commission set up by the government in 2017. Initially, this idea was pioneered by Karpoori Thakur in Bihar – to woo the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) – during the 1970s.