Developments in Russia and Ukraine
Even as the Russia-Ukraine war rages on, the International Criminal Court (ICC), passed a significant order indicting Russian President, Mr. Putin, for war crimes in Ukraine, thereby making him an international pariah and liable to arrest. Despite this, Putin continued to be defiant as he visited parts of occupied Ukraine. Further providing diplomatic cover to Putin was China’s Xi Jinping, who became the first high-level leader to visit Putin in Russia, thereby indicating the Chinese disregard for the ICC order. Indeed, China publicly spoke out against the ICC order by saying that ICC should avoid politicization and double standards. Even though speculations are rife that China may help to broker peace between the two warring countries – especially in the context of China’s 12-point peace plan for the conflict – yet the refusal by Jinping to publicly mention Ukraine, even as both Russia and China emphasized on their close ties, does not give much hope in this regard. Indeed, despite Zelensky’s request, the much-anticipated phone call between Xi and Zelensky never happened.
That is, perhaps, why for the first time, a senior Ukrainian Minister is planning to visit New Delhi to convince the latter to be a part of resolution of the conflict and send a ‘direct message’ to Putin. China’s mediating role in this regard continues to be under a cloud, as it is seen to shift more and more in the Russian corner, despite exhortations and attempts to the contrary by other western countries like Germany and France.
Indeed, Xi’s visit to Russia carried forward the official cornerstone of Russia-China policy conceived in the Sino-Russian Joint Statement of February 4th 2022, based on ‘no-limits partnership’ and ‘no forbidden areas of cooperation.’ This was reaffirmed by a clip which recorded Putin bidding adieu to Xi at the end of the present visit, where Xi is heard saying to Putin, “Change is coming that hasn’t happened in a hundred years. And we are driving this change together.” To this, Putin replies, “I agree” (Saran, 2023). Even the extent to which China is supposedly restraining Russia is debatable. Within a week of Xi’s visit, Putin announced plans to station nuclear weapons in Belarus, to which China gave no reaction.
Even the relations between Russia and China have expanded since the Ukraine invasion. With US sanctions firmly in place, Russia is relying heavily on Chinese imports of critical semiconductor products to sustain their power sector and economy, even as China is relying on an alternate Yamal gas pipeline through which supply from Russia to China can be made possible and building a railway project in Russia’s natural-resource-rich Sakha region in the Far East, which Moscow itself could not afford. Such projects will further strengthen Russia’s dependence on China and enable the latter to control the natural resources of the country.
China has also, significantly, signed an ‘all-weather’ comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with Belarus’s Lukashenko, who recently had a summit with China’s Xi Jinping. This makes Belarus the only country, other than Pakistan, to have such an understanding with China. These Chinese moves with respect to Russia and Belarus have further alarmed the West with respect to Chinese intent. Belarus’s Lukashenko’s recent Beijing visit was accompanied by consistent condemnation by the US and allegations by the West that China maybe planning to supply weapons to Russia. This is correct. Presently, even though China is not openly supplying weapons to Russia, it has still been supplying drones and other strategic items.
This has raised questions about Russia increasingly becoming a Chinese vassal state. But it is not just China to which Russia is beholden. Moscow is increasingly becoming subservient to Iran as well. Up until now, Russia has been a superior trade partner and investor in Iran. Now roles are being reversed. Iranian investments in Russia are expected to hugely transcend Russian ones in Iran. More delicately, Iranian investments and direct infrastructural and security connections are increasing with Russia’s predominantly Muslim-populated provinces. The security threat posed by potential Iranian radicalization in these provinces cannot be emphasized enough. For, Iran has had a history of cultivating radical religious alliances with domestic lobbies based on foreign soil to advance its security interests by the means of proxies. Further, the growing closeness between China-Iran-Russia axis and the attempts of this axis to accommodate other players across Central Asia and Middle-east are set to vastly change the security calculus in the entire non-Western world. This will further accelerate in what is perceived by many to be a sunset period of the US and Europe. In that sense, perhaps, Xi was not wrong in commenting to Putin that a ‘major change is coming’ which Russia-China axis is driving together.
In this context, India is a powerful dark horse which each side continues to attempt to sway. That is why it is hardly surprising that Russia’s newly released national security outlook emphasizes on major foreign policy outreach towards India – a position that China immediately heartily endorsed.
Interestingly, not just China and Iran, but even Japan’s position is complex with regard to Russia. It has recently come to light that Japan is continuing to buy Russian crude at prices above the G7-imposed price cap of $60 per barrel, thereby indicating that it is becoming difficult in adhering to the Western sanctions-regime. Incidentally, Japan had already secured a waiver for importing natural gas from Russian through the Sakhalin-2 pipeline prior to the start of the price cap sanctions.
Despite these diplomatic changes, Russia continues to struggle in the war. In terms of war offensive, Ukraine has been consistently receiving support from the West and is planning to mount a major offensive against Russia in May. It is believed that the goal of the Ukrainian planned offensive would be to either drive a wedge through Russian-occupied territory along the southern coasts of the Black and Azov Seas, or, to seek a humiliating Russian turnabout in the fighting in the eastern Donbas region — or both.
Russia is also facing a delicate internal situation. While discontent against Putin’s regime is growing, latest reports suggest that nowhere is this more evident and precarious than amongst the Cossacks – a community that Russia, since the Soviet era, has regarded as being, both, an opportunity and a danger. It appears that in the wake of Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine, Cossacks are rallying not only towards separatist regionalism, but towards full-fledged national consciousness. If the Cossacks succeed in breaking away from the Russian nation, it would mean that Russia will lose another seven million members and 5 percent of the country’s population. Alarmingly for Russia, an increasing number of Cossacks believe that, in the wake of the war in Ukraine, the Cossacks will have the chance to form their own state in alliance with Kyiv and the West – thus achieving what they failed to do after 1917 and 1991. Some have even begun speaking of Cossackia as an “unrecognized” state rather than a long-term goal.
This will further strengthen regionalism in Russia and create instability. Already Moscow’s failed attempts to homogenize Cossacks are antagonizing other non-Russian speaking people as well.
Technology Update – Musk’s Warning and the Unstoppable AI
The march of automated technologies continues with leaps and bounds. Powerful chatbots like ChatGPT, Anthropic’s Claude, Google’s Bard and PaLM, and Microsoft’s Bing, besides thousands of other AI applications, are being deployed in everyday lives speedily. Already an advanced version of ChatGPT, namely ChatGPT-4, is available. It is a big move over the earlier ChatGPT. GPT-4 is more conversational and creative and can understand human emotions. It can write full exam papers and can do a lot of white-collar work, such as programming and writing. It can accept text and image inputs simultaneously, and, unlike the previous version, can take inputs of up to 25000 words. For example, if given a picture of food ingredients and asked what dishes can be made from these ingredients, the software will immediately furnish a list of recipes.
Such developments may not make it to the headlines, yet what is happening in this domain is, perhaps, more significant than all the political and economic developments we see around us. For, unbeknownst to us, technology is changing our lives in a subtle yet irreversible way.
A clear acknowledgement of this fact came in the form of a joint statement by more than a thousand prominent technology leaders, developers and researchers across the world. Prominent leaders include Tesla and Space-X boss, Elon Musk, Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, Andrew Yang, Rachel Bronson, among others.
The statement urged artificial intelligence labs to ‘pause’ the development of most advanced AI systems, emphasizing that the current level of unchecked AI growth presents “profound risks to society and humanity.” The statement said that AI labs are “locked in an out-of-control race to develop and deploy ever more powerful digital minds that no one – not even their creators – can understand, predict or reliably control.” The warning comes at an opportune time.
Global Banking Failures
The debates about the safety of the global banking systems have been raised yet again, as the banking contagion spreads from US to Europe. The genesis lay with the US’s Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) – a major lender to high-risk, high-growth technology start-ups. During 2020 and 2021, the bank’s deposit base rose by $90 billion, thanks to deposits by well-performing technology start-ups in an era of low interest rates. SVB invested around $88 billion – nearly all its major holdings – in mortgage-backed bonds in 2021. As the Fed increased interest rates, the value of these bonds collapsed, eroding SVB’s capital base and leading to inability to pay. This coincided with the drying up of tech start-up funding and demands to withdraw money, which SVB could not service. To honour the withdrawal requests of its clients, SVB was forced to sell some of its investments at a time when their value had declined, losing almost $2 billion in the process.
SVB’s collapse led to the failure of Signature Bank, worsening the banking turmoil in the US. However, the crisis was prevented from taking on the hues of something akin to the 2008 global financial crisis, as the US government had swung into early action. US’s Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) decided to insure bank accounts containing more than $250,000. Further, a bailout would have been extremely unpopular, therefore, the Fed announced it would make available additional loans to eligible depository institutions to help assure that banks have the ability to meet the needs of all their depositors.
A new entity called the Bank Term Funding Program (BTFP) will offer loans of up to one year to banks, savings associations, credit unions, and other eligible institutions. Those taking advantage of the facility will be asked to pledge high-quality collateral such as Treasuries, agency debt, and mortgage-backed securities.
However, the echoes of the banking crisis were felt across the Atlantic, as one of the world’s premier and Switzerland’s largest bank, Credit Suisse, saw its shares plunging 24% and requiring immediate intervention by the Swiss government in the form of a take-over by the country’s National Bank. The global episodes, while not precipitating in a full-fledged financial crisis, have again raised questions over the nature and accountability of the present banking system, including the safety of depositors’ money therein. Many have raised questions on the sustainability of fractional reserve banking that underpins the banking system by allowing institutions to hold some of depositors’ money in liquid assets and lend out the rest.
Rahul Gandhi’s Disqualification
After the failure of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi seems to be back in the news for the wrong reasons. This time he was indicted for defamation under IPC Sections 499 and 500, by a Surat Sessions Court, and granted bail for 30 days to allow him to appeal in a higher court. These sections of IPC conceive of defamation as being a criminal offence punishable by up to two years of jail. The case was filed by a BJP MLA, namely Purnesh Modi, based on Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 speech in which he is seen to be targeting the ‘Modi’ community in general, calling them thieves.
Interestingly, this case of criminal defamation led to Gandhi’s immediate disqualification as an MP. Despite the hue and cry raised by the Congress, this was in technical accordance with the prevailing law dealing with ‘Article 102 (1)(e) of the Constitution of India read with Section 8 of the Representation of People Act,1951.’ Article 102 deals with disqualification of MPs from the Parliament, which includes a provision stating that an MP may be disqualified on the basis of a law made by the Parliament. The law under which he has been disqualified is the Representation of People Act, 1951, whose Section 8(3) stipulates that a person sentenced to at least a two-year imprisonment for any offence will be disqualified. The disqualification can be reversed if a higher court grants a stay on the conviction (and not merely suspension of sentence) or decides the appeal in favour of the convicted lawmaker.
Under controversy was whether Rahul Gandhi should have been ‘immediately’ disqualified as soon as the Surat court judgement came. While originally Section 8(4) of the Representation of People Act stated that the disqualification takes effect only “after three months have elapsed” from the date of conviction, yet the Supreme Court in a 2013 ruling in ‘Lily Thomas VS. Union of India’ struck down Section 8(4) of the RPA as unconstitutional. This made Gandhi eligible for immediate disqualification.
Significantly, in 2013, the then Manmohan Singh government had attempted to bring an ordinance to nullify the effect of the 2013 judgement. However, as the public would recall, Rahul Gandhi famously tore that ordinance at a public event, in a great humiliation to the Manmohan Singh government. This action allowed the 2013 judgement to remain operative. Now it is under this that Gandhi stands disqualified.
Interestingly, instead of immediately appealing the Surat judgement in a higher court, Gandhi and the Congress party chose to play the politics of victimhood over it. They even organized a protest in Wayanad, Kerala (from where Gandhi was the MP). In an embarrassment, the protest turned out to be a failure, with barely any attendees.
Elections in North-east
Elections held in the states of Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya yielded unsurprising victories for the BJP and further erosion of the Congress party. While in Tripura and Nagaland, the BJP won directly, in Meghalaya Conrad Sangma’s NPP emerged as the single largest party and BJP pledged to give it support.
In Tripura, BJP and its alliance partner, Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) scored a decisive victory, despite the opportunistic alliance between the Congress and the Left.
|Change from 2018
|Change from 2018 (%)
The results highlight that while the BJP-led alliance won comfortably and was ahead of its competitors in terms of, both, seat-share and vote-share, its performance relative to 2018 was dented. Relative to 2018, it lost 11 seats and its vote-share dipped by nearly 11 percent. Much of it may have gone to the newly formed TIPRA Motha, led by royal family scion, Mr. Debbarama, who campaigned on the basis of carving out an autonomous tribal state called the Greater Tipraland, and sought to amplify the divisions between the Hindu Bengalis and the tribals. In that respect, TIPRA Motha did manage to corner a significant chunk of the results pie and poses a threat to the BJP in the future.
|Hindu upper caste
As can further be seen from the community-wise voting patterns, the main polarization was in two blocs viz. Muslims and Scheduled Tribes. While Muslims voted entirely for the Congress-Left alliance, STs voted fully for the TIPRA Motha, showing that the latter’s polarization bid and appeal among the tribals has worked.
In Meghalaya, not BJP, but Conrad Sangma’s NPP emerged as the single largest party. But due to BJP’s support, even BJP is part of the government, although the party’s tally of 2 seats in the past and present elections remained unimproved. Even United Democratic Party (UDP) eventually became a part of the government. Thus, INC, with 5 seats, is the only key Opposition in the state. Trinamool Congress (TMC) opened its account with 4 seats.
|Seats won (2023)
|Seats won (2018)
|Vote (%) 2023
|Vote (%) 2018
The results in Meghalaya indicate that BJP has a long way to go, but has managed its alliances well.
In Nagaland, BJP scored a victory, thanks to its pre-poll alliance with established Nagaland parties. The alliance won with a comfortable majority and a 51% vote-share. The BJP too increased its seat tally to 12 seats and its vote share to 19%. As a result, the NPF was reduced to 2 seats in the 2023 election. The Congress, which ruled the state for a decade between 1992 and 2003, could not win a single seat.
|Seats won (2023)
|Seats won (2018)
|Vote (%) 2023
|Vote (%) 2018
The victory in Nagaland is significant, as it is prefaced by a delicate security situation and the even more delicate issue of deadlock over the Naga Framework Agreement with militant Naga nationalists [viz. NSCN (I-M)].
Overall, the results of the state elections in the north-east indicate that BJP is progressively gaining firmer ground. Its independent performance in states like Tripura and Nagaland has been noteworthy. The fact that Congress is staring at a complete wipe-out, especially immediately in the wake of the much-publicized and ostentatious Bharat Jodo Yatra, is also important, reflecting on Congress’s failure among the people and the exposure of its anti-national politics.