A series of reversals forces India’s newest chief minister from office

LITTLE did B.S. Yeddyurappa know when he was sworn in as chief minister of the Indian state of Karnataka on May 17th, but his tenure was destined to be brief. Two days later he resigned. The reversal was a humiliation for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose local branch he heads but which also runs India’s central government. For beleaguered opposition parties, it was a rare moment of hope.

The drama began on May 15th, when the results of the recent state election were declared. Three competing parties had each won a sizeable share of seats in the assembly, leaving a hung parliament. The BJP emerged as the biggest single party, with 104 seats, but fell short of the 113 needed for a majority. The party’s only national rival, Congress, which came in second place, immediately locked arms with the third force, a regional outfit called the Janata Dal-Secular (JDS). Together they commanded 116 seats. The pairing of Congress and JDS thus claimed the right to form the state’s next government, with the son of the founder of JDS to replace the incumbent from Congress as chief minister.

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The BJP, however, declared that it should have the right to form a government, as the biggest individual party. Its bosses secured an appointment with the state’s governor, whose job it is to designate the chief minister, half an hour before the Congress-JDS crew were due to show up. Few saw this fortuitous timing as a coincidence. The governor, Vajubhai Vala, although nominally above party politics, is a former member of the RSS, a sister organisation of the BJP, and an associate of its leader, Narendra Modi, the prime minister.

Mr Vala decided that the BJP should indeed have the first go at proving a majority in the state assembly, despite the apparently insuperable arithmetic. What is more, he gave the BJP 15 days to come up with the goods—an invitation, Congress and JDS argued, for the BJP to attempt to suborn their newly elected legislators.

Congress and JDS rushed to the Supreme Court in Delhi, where their lawyers argued at a special hearing lasting till 5am on the morning of May 17th, that Mr Yeddyurappa’s swearing-in, scheduled for 9am, must be called off. Meanwhile, the caucuses of Congress and JDS were being shuttled from one locked-down luxury resort to another. Eventually they were ferried by coach to the neighbouring state of Telangana, the better to protect them from bribery and threats that might persuade them to defect to the BJP. Two Congress members, missing in action, were reputed to have been kidnapped by the BJP and held in yet another luxury hotel.

In theory, “horse-trading”, as the Indian press politely terms efforts to build a legislative majority by hook or crook, is illegal. Congress and JDS both released audio recordings that purported to capture allies of Mr Yeddyurappa offering places in his cabinet or even cash to his adversaries in exchange for their support in a floor vote. (The BJP say these were faked.) What is more, Mr Vala’s decision to give the BJP a shot at forming a government looked biased given that, at recent elections in other states, Congress had been in the BJP’s position but had not got a look-in.

In the end, the Supreme Court allowed the swearing-in to go ahead, but gave Mr Yeddyurappa just two days to prove his majority. When he could not, he was left with no choice but to announce his own resignation. The son of the JDS leader, H.D. Kumaraswamy, will take his place on May 21st; Congress will appoint a deputy chief minister.

There are at least two lessons from this saga for next year’s national election. The first is that Congress and the regional parties are ready for alliance—and that alliances can win. In Karnataka, as in India as a whole, the BJP tends to command a reliable 30-35% of the popular vote. India’s first-past-the-post electoral system can easily turn such a plurality into a big majority, if the opposition is divided. Sizeable regional parties, having digested this lesson, are queuing up to strike pacts with Congress.

The focus of attention is India’s supposedly neutral institutions, which have come under tremendous pressure as Mr Modi’s dominion over politics has grown. Just weeks ago Congress moved to impeach the chief justice of the Supreme Court, convinced that he was skewing the judiciary in favour of the BJP. There have also been complaints about the attorney-general, the federal police and other supposedly neutral agencies.

Arun Shourie, a disaffected former minister from the BJP, accuses Mr Modi of pursuing the “Indirafication” of politics, a reference to Indira Gandhi, a former prime minister who awarded herself sweeping emergency powers. The fact that the Supreme Court overruled Mr Vala has provided a degree of reassurance. But his decision suggests there is reason to worry. The to-do in Karnataka, in short, is probably just a taste of the excitement to come.

Islamists in Indonesia deploy their own children in suicide attacks

ALL terrorist attacks are sickening, but some more so than others. On May 13th a family of suicide bombers killed 13 people and wounded more than 40 others in attacks on Christian churches in the city of Surabaya in eastern Java. The father drove a car packed with explosives into one Sunday service. His two sons, aged 16 and 18, struck a second. The mother and two daughters, aged just 9 and 12, blew themselves up at a third. It was Indonesia’s deadliest terrorist attack since 2005 and the first to involve women or child bombers.

Later that day another family apparently plotting a similar attack accidentally killed themselves at their home near Surabaya. The next day a third family wounded 10 people when they blew themselves up at the gates of Surabaya’s police headquarters. The father, mother and two sons were killed but an eight-year-old daughter survived. CCTV images showed her stumbling around after the blasts. And on May 16th an assailant ran over a policeman in Sumatra. Four sword-wielding accomplices were shot dead.

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Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, condemned the attacks as barbaric. They have heightened fears of a resurgence of Islamist terrorism in Indonesia. Police say the father involved in the Surabaya church bombings was the local head of Jemaah Ansharut Daulah, or JAD, a loosely organised militant network that supports Islamic State. He led a religious study group attended by all three families where he showed gruesome jihadi videos. IS claimed to be behind the attacks, although contrary to initial reports, none of the bombers had trained with it in Syria.

The authorities are now racing to reassure the world that the country is safe ahead of the Asian Games in August in the cities of Jakarta and Palembang, and the annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank in October on the island of Bali. The bombings came less than a week after Islamist militants at a high-security prison outside Jakarta killed five guards during a 36-hour uprising, for which IS also claimed responsibility. Police have arrested or killed at least 20 suspected JAD terrorists in an ongoing sweep.

Sidney Jones of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a think-tank in Jakarta, says that the Surabaya attacks underline the need for improved surveillance. She describes existing programmes to rehabilitate IS sympathisers, including some 500 Indonesians Turkey has sent home on suspicion of seeking to cross into IS-controlled parts of Syria, as “rudimentary”. Analysts warn that returnees could bring back more deadly methods of terror.

That would be a reversal after Indonesia’s success in crushing the network responsible for a horrific bombing in Bali in 2002, in which 202 people were killed. Recent attacks have appeared amateurish by comparison, although the latest ones attest to a degree of co-ordination and planning not seen for more than a decade. The home-made explosives used in them were also more powerful than those used in other recent bombings.

Jokowi, as the president is universally known, has pledged to strengthen the country’s terrorism laws by decree if parliament does not do so by June. Revisions were proposed shortly after a terrorist attack in Jakarta in 2016 but have languished in the legislature ever since. Critics say the vaguely worded revisions, including ones that could allow a larger counter-terrorism role for the military, would be counterproductive. Ms Jones says efforts to prevent terrorism need to target areas where militants are known to be active, and aimed at women and teenagers as well as men: “The danger is that, after the initial shock, the public slips back into believing that the problem is over,” she says.

Myanmar’s government sits by while the army goes on the offensive

AFTER fighting flared in April between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an insurgent force controlling much of Myanmar’s northern extremes, thousands of civilians fled into the jungle. Some trekked for weeks before reaching Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, where they have taken refuge in a local church. Plenty more are still trapped in the hills. According to the Red Cross, almost 7,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes since the beginning of April, to add to 100,000 already displaced.

Violence is nothing new in this part of Myanmar. The war in Kachin state has rumbled on since a ceasefire broke down between the Burmese army and the KIA in 2011. Dozens of similar guerrilla groups representing downtrodden ethnic minorities have been fighting the central government for decades, demanding greater autonomy. Many agreed to a nationwide ceasefire in 2015, but the KIA, with at least 10,000 troops, has not.

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It is hard to identify the trigger for the latest violence. The generals, naturally, put the blame on the rebels. But the army routinely attacks rebel outposts during the dry season. (Things usually calm down when monsoon rains make the hilly jungle impassable.) Control over resources may play a part. The region of Tanai, where the clashes erupted, is rich in gold and amber, two important sources of income for the KIA. In June last year government soldiers attacked mines which, they said, were operating illegally. Two months later, under the pretence of protecting the environment, soldiers who sit in Kachin’s state assembly proposed making parts of Tanai “restricted areas”. Sometimes, conflict flares up as a result of a dispute between local warlords. An ethnic armed group allied with the KIA in neighbouring Shan state recently staged a bloody attack on a casino run by militiamen close to the army.

Civilians caught in the crossfire bear the brunt of it all. The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, a charity, says that soldiers use civilians as human shields and minesweepers. The Burmese army refuses to create new camps for displaced people, even though that would make it far easier to help them.

Outraged by the army’s belligerence, a group of Kachin youths held protests in Myitkyina. The army sued the organisers for defamation—a crime punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. Anti-war demonstrations spread to other cities including Yangon, the commercial capital, attracting young, urban Burmese from the Bamar majority as well as ethnic minorities. “We’ve been suffering from civil war for too long,” says one participant. Police have broken up these protests; some 40 people are being prosecuted for taking part.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader since 2016, says peace is her priority. She has organised grand conferences and delivered speeches about unity. But little has changed on the front lines. That is mainly the army’s fault. Under the constitution drafted by the generals, the civilian authorities do not control the armed forces or the police. But her government still looks hapless. Khon Ja, a Kachin activist, points out that the country’s peace negotiator is Ms Suu Kyi’s former personal doctor, and that the chief minister she put in charge of Kachin state is a former dentist. A local MP describes him as a nice man, but says he avoids confronting the army.

The civilian government has more authority than it admits. Politicians could intervene in the court cases against peaceful demonstrators and MPs could trim the army’s budget. At the very least Ms Suu Kyi could denounce the army and call for an end to the attacks instead of keeping silent. In the past she has even praised the army’s “valiant effort” to stabilise the region. The arrival of the monsoon next month is likely to be more help to anguished Kachins.

Thailand’s ruling junta is preparing to hold an election—and to win it

“I AM not a vacuum cleaner,” Prayuth Chan-ocha, who heads Thailand’s military junta, insisted last month. The general was responding to the accusation that he was trying to hoover up support from political powerbrokers in anticipation of the restoration of democracy. Nonetheless, he has been touring the country, addressing huge crowds in the company of local barons such as Newin Chidchob, from the populous north-east, who used to act as a political kingmaker before the military coup of 2014. The charm offensive comes ahead of elections currently scheduled for February, although delayed four times already. Mr Prayuth insists he will not support any particular party, nor run for office himself. But the constitution promulgated 13 months ago deliberately weakens existing political parties, and Mr Prayuth has been compounding their woes. The likeliest outcome seems to be a chaotic coalition, perhaps with Mr Prayuth, pretending to be surprised and reluctant, staying on as prime minister.

 For almost 20 years Thai politics has revolved around a feud between the supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, who served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, and the traditional elites, represented by the army and the monarchy. The Thaksinites have won all six elections since 2001. When the army threw them out of office in 2006 and banned their party, they regrouped under a new banner and won the subsequent vote, in 2007. After the courts banned the new outfit (and Mr Newin defected from it), a third Thaksinite party won the next two elections. This time the army, although notionally committed to free elections, seems determined to make sure that voters are prevented from repeating their past mistakes.

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A plague on both your houses

The new constitution, approved in a farcically circumscribed referendum, creates a National Assembly consisting of an appointed Senate with 250 members, to be picked by the generals, and an elected House of Representatives with 500 members. The system of proportional representation to be used in elections will diminish the power of big parties, compared with a first-past-the-post system.

The prime minister will be selected by a joint sitting of the two houses. With 250 senators in the bag, the junta’s candidate would still need the votes of 125 members of the lower house to be selected, which explains both Mr Prayuth’s barnstorming and the emergence of several parties backing the army or run by military men. But the generals’ record is not impressive. They have presided over widespread human-rights abuses; economic growth is relatively wan; workers are burdened by high personal debt and foreign investors have been scared away. What is more, the new parties’ lack of policy ideas means they will fail to win support, believes Prajak Kongkirati of Thammasat University.

The obvious solution, from the generals’ point of view, is to smother the existing parties. Section 44 of the interim constitution, which has been in effect since 2014, gives the junta the power to curb “any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or administration of state affairs”. It has banned political activities, including gatherings of more than five people, and accorded itself the power to stop the publication of news it considers unconstructive or misleading. During April members of parties were supposed to declare themselves and pay 100 baht ($3.15) for a year’s membership or 2,000 baht for life. The public clearly sees little point in signing up: just 80,000 of the 2.5m former members of the Democrat party, the country’s oldest, chose to reconfirm their status.

To make life even harder for the politicians, a law passed last month bans policies that are intended to improve the government’s popularity but that may cause long-term damage to the economy or society—a definition so sweeping as to encompass nearly any government decision. Mr Prayuth seemed to have forgotten about the rule, however, when appearing with Mr Newin at the “Thunder Castle”, the stadium of a popular north-eastern football team (pictured above). Mr Newin said the region needed at least 10bn baht in government investment; Mr Prayuth duly promised to improve local infrastructure.

Preechapol Pongpanit, a Thaksinite former member of parliament, says other new rules block even the most basic forms of campaigning. “The best strategy for me to communicate with my people is to make a speech,” he explains. But election speeches will be allowed only at venues managed by the Election Commission appointed by the junta, perhaps only during working hours. The generals’ 20-year strategic plan, enshrined in law, binds future administrations to its development policies. The laws regulating MPs and senators, which have not yet been completed, may find ways to hamstring politicians further.

 None of this has deterred new entrants. One of the most prominent of dozens of new parties is Future Forward, led by a 39-year-old car-parts magnate, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who argues forcefully for a meaningful restoration of democracy. “There’s no consensus in the country on how to move forward,” he laments. Yet he says that during recent visits to the south and the obstinate north, a Thaksinite bastion, he encountered far more supporters than he expected, despite not being able to hold any rallies. His party has already had to satisfy elaborate rules regarding the distribution of its membership and branches around Thailand’s 77 provinces, without holding any political meetings. More hurdles are doubtless under construction.

The junta has had four years to make its mark, as long as a democratically elected government would have. But it has ducked necessary reforms. “They’ve run out of ideas,” says a foreign diplomat. The one area in which they have shown a little creativity is in keeping people who might do a better job than they do out of power.

Australia’s biggest river is running dry, despite plans to save it

PADDLE steamers once chugged up and down the Darling, the main tributary of the Murray river, ferrying wool from remote farms to the port of Adelaide. The Murray-Darling basin, which is larger than Ethiopia, gives life to Australia’s arid interior (see map). But these days the Darling is reduced to a putrid standstill with alarming regularity. Parts of it disappear altogether at times, a phenomenon which was almost unprecedented before this century. Robert McBride, whose parched sheep station in the state of New South Wales depends on its flow, estimates that 600km of the lower Darling will run dry this year.

This is just the kind of disaster that should have been averted after Australia launched an ambitious plan to preserve the river in 2012. The four states that depend on the Murray and its tributaries had been fighting bitterly over its contents. Since the 1970s enormous farms growing irrigated crops such as cotton and nuts had spread across the basin. When a catastrophic drought struck in the early 2000s, the mouth of the river almost ran dry. So politicians thrashed out a plan to conserve the river, while sustaining the farms and communities that depend on it.

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Australia already had an elaborate system for trading water rights, allowing farmers to buy or sell entitlements according to their need in any given season. The idea of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was to reduce water consumption by at least 2,750 gigalitres a year, either by purchasing water licences from farmers who were willing to sell them or by funding projects which could deliver “equivalent” outcomes—for instance, by making irrigation systems more efficient. So far, the government has spent over A$8bn ($6bn), and in theory cut usage by two-thirds of the target. Yet, somehow, the river is still at a low ebb.

The first independent review of the plan, published last year by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, found “no evidence yet to demonstrate improvement across the basin as a whole”. Another report, by the authority which administers the scheme, concluded that irrigation in the basin’s upper reaches was still depriving those farther downstream, like Mr McBride, of water. Richard Kingsford, a scientist in Sydney, says that the plan’s targets were not ambitious enough in the first place. But it also seems that more water is being siphoned from the stricken river system than was intended.

Theoretically, water saved with taxpayers’ money should stay in the river. But not all of it does: the Wentworth Group says state governments use several tricks to “retard” that process. Victoria hoards water in dams. New South Wales has altered local water-management schemes along the Darling’s tributaries, allowing irrigators to pump out more. This means that liquid purchased by the government in Queensland is guzzled back up again when it crosses the state border, explains Jamie Pittock, a member of the group.

Illegal extraction is a second problem. Farmers are meant to use meters to monitor how much they pump. But last year, cotton irrigators in New South Wales were accused of tampering with their machinery to mask how much they were taking. Two families face charges associated with breaches of their licences. There is also concern that money which was supposed to fund projects that would conserve the Murray-Darling is being misspent, allowing irrigators who have sold water to the government to replace it with flows to which they are not entitled. One big cotton farm is currently under investigation.

Wide-scale abuse has been possible because states and local governments have failed to enforce the rules. Last year, New South Wales’s top water bureaucrat was caught on tape offering to share confidential information with irrigation lobbyists. (He was referred to the state corruption watchdog.) From the shelter of his veranda, Mr McBride fumes that “the greatest man-made destruction in Australian history is being condoned by New South Wales and the federal government.”

The federal government has handed oversight of the plan to the farm-friendly National Party, the junior partner in the governing coalition. Since then, critics claim, regulatory oversight has slackened. The Environmental Defenders Office NSW, a pressure group, notes that there is no legal bar to stacking the board of the authority in charge of the plan. Four of its six members have links to the irrigation industry.

Parliament recently ordered the publication of details of a series of “buy-backs” of water rights. In one case, the government spent A$78m—almost twice the sum recommended by its own researchers—on a water licence belonging to an agricultural company, Webster. The purchase was not put to a public tender. Webster had taken over Tandou Limited, which owns the property in question, only 18 months earlier. Nick Xenophon, an independent senator at the time, complained that the plan was being “systematically undermined”.

This month the Senate approved an amendment to the plan which lets communities in the southern part of the basin consume more water. The extra consumption is supposed to be offset by 37 “efficiency-saving” projects. New South Wales had threatened to abandon the plan altogether if the amendment failed. But the Wentworth Group questions whether the projects will really deliver the promised savings; it believes that only one of them is watertight, as it were.

Communities which rely on irrigation detest the plan because it threatens their livelihood. Yet their thirst hurts farmers downstream. Indigenous tribes who imbue the river with spiritual significance say that their elders are dying with it. Scientists worry about the loss of fish and birds. The Coorong, an important wetland near the river’s mouth, has been polluted with salt and algae as the river’s flow diminishes. David Paton, an ecologist, has spent decades monitoring its fairy terns. Their numbers are a quarter of what they were in the 1980s. “We’ve pushed this system to the point of collapse,” he laments, “and we’re watching the species go to extinction.”

Hope comes in the form of greater accountability. Overwhelming evidence of theft and mismanagement has led to more prosecutions. New South Wales has established a new regulator, and South Australia has launched a royal commission to look into breaches of the plan. If state governments walk away, the national government could, by law, enforce the rules instead—if it were so inclined.

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