The South Asia Channel

India’s ‘Third Front’ Alliance Comes Together; First Televised Afghan Election Debate; U.S. Curtails Pakistan Drone Strikes

Event Notices: "Churchill's First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans," a book discussion with Con Coughlin, TODAY, 12:15 - 1:45 PM (NAF); "Afghanistan: A Distant War," a book discussion with Robert Nickelsberg, TODAY, 4:30 - 6:00 PM (SAIS). 


Third Front comes together in raucous Indian parliament

Eleven political parties from nine Indian states announced on Wednesday that they would push a common agenda in parliament, signaling the creation of a federal non-Congress, non-BJP alliance (The Hindu, NDTV, Times of India). Parties including Uttar Pradesh's Samajwadi, Bihar's Janata Dal, Tamil Nadu's All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and Odisha's Biju Janata Dal parties joined hands with four leftist parties to push for the agenda in the final session of parliament before elections. Several parties in the alliance are in power in their respective states and currently enjoy second or third terms in office, and are expected to pull in several seats in the upcoming national polls. Earlier this week, there was talk that the so-called "Third Front" would draft a common program and hold joint rallies to increase solidarity amongst themselves (Economic Times, Indian Express).

There were also several disruptions during the first day of the budget session of the Indian parliament, media outlets reported on Wednesday (BBC, NYT, Times of India). The lower house conducted business for less than an hour before legislators from Andhra Pradesh began vocal protests against Telangana, with similar scenes playing out in the upper house. Following an hour-long adjournment, legislators from the opposition took up the issue of student Nido Taniam's death on Jan. 30, and those from Punjab's Shiromani Akali Dal created a uproar over Rahul Gandhi's remarks on the Congress party's role in the 1984 riots. A bill to introduce harsher punishment for perpetrators of communal violence was deferred amidst the opposition in the upper house (Economic Times). Ultimately, the lower house was adjourned at 12:30 p.m. and the upper house at 2:50 p.m. 

A failure of parliament to conduct its business will cause several pending bills to lapse, including the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Bill, which would provide a share in profits for people displaced by mining projects on their land (The Hindu). The government is hoping to push for the passage of 40 key bills in this session.

Gov't opposes commuting death sentence of Rajiv Gandhi killers

India's Supreme Court reserved a verdict on Tuesday on a plea by three men sentenced to death for killing former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi (Hindustan Times). The three convicts had filed a plea seeking the commutation of their death sentences to life imprisonment, saying that a delay of more than 11 years in deciding their petitions made the execution of the death sentence "unduly harsh and excessive." The central government vehemently opposed the move, arguing that the government could not be blamed for a delay in deciding their plea (CNN-IBN). 

On Jan. 21, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of 15 people and ruled that delay by the government in deciding a mercy plea for death row convicts can be grounds for commuting their sentences, a decision that was widely expected to strengthen the rights of other death row prisoners (Reuters). Earlier in January, the Supreme Court also ordered a stay on the execution of Sikh political activist Davinderpal Singh Bhullar and requested a report on his mental health (Times of India). 

Sharif invites India to Kashmir dialogue

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif invited India on Wednesday to engage in a "comprehensive, sustained, and result-oriented" dialogue with Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue (Economic Times). Rallies were organized across Pakistan as the country marked "Kashmir Solidarity Day," which Pakistan has observed on Feb.5 every year since 1990. Sharif said Pakistan has taken several concrete steps to reduce the hardships faced by people living along the Line of Control, including opening the border to facilitate trade and movement of people. His remarks came one day after Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry called for the resumption of the dialogue process with India so that outstanding issues, including the "core issue" of Jammu and Kashmir, could be resolved (Economic Times).

India greets Nadella's appointment at Microsoft

Indian media is lauding the appointment of Satya Nadella, a native Indian and naturalized American citizen, as the next leader of Microsoft (BBC). Nadella will replace Steven A. Ballmer, while Bill Gates, the company's founder, will step down from his role as chairman to become Nadella's technology adviser (NYT, BBC). Nadella's appointment makes him the highest-ranked executive of Indian origin in the corporate world, ahead of Pepsico's Indra Nooyi and Mastercard's Ajay Banga (Times of India). Nadella, 46, from Hyderabad, India, was previously the executive vice president of Microsoft's cloud and enterprise businesses. He has received degrees in engineering, computer science, and business administration. Indian media have greeted Nadella's appointment with headlines like "India makes a Powerpoint," and interviews with his friends and former classmates about his outstanding academics and love of cricket (Hindu Business Line).

My buffaloes are better than your queen

Azam Khan, a state minister from Uttar Pradesh faced both criticism and bemusement this week when he ordered a search party to look for his three missing buffaloes, and then suspended three police officers for dereliction of duty (NDTV, Indian Express). The story received widespread coverage in the Indian media, prompting Khan to declare that his buffaloes were "more famous than Queen Victoria." It allegedly took 48 hours, officials from the crime branch, and a team of (the unluckiest) sniffer dogs to find the three missing animals.

-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson 


Presidential candidates participate in first televised debate 

Two days after the 2014 presidential campaign season got underway in Afghanistan, five of the 11 candidates gathered in Kabul for the country's first televised debate (AP). Broadcast by TOLO TV, a private Afghan news channel, the debate featured former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, President Hamid Karzai's brother Qayum, and former defense minister Rahim Wardak. The debate focused on a number of security issues facing Afghanistan, with the candidates discussing peace talks with the Taliban and the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States. While President Karzai has so far refused to sign the BSA -- which will determine the size and scope of any post-2014 U.S. troop presence -- the three candidates closest to him -- Ghani, Rassoul, and his brother -- said they were in favor of signing the security pact. Bonus read: "Candidates Present Platforms on First Campaign Day" (TOLO News).

The debate, the first in an unprecedented series, comes "as Afghan newsrooms prepare for blanket coverage of the campaign," with local media outlets launching dedicated campaign websites and sending reporters out to the country's 34 provinces to get voter feedback (WSJ). The Associated Press notes that newspapers in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan's main languages, as well as numerous radio and television stations are competing to offer their views of the race, with the coverage of the 2014 election resembling "what you'd see in any other modern democracy" (AP).

While President Karzai has not yet endorsed any of the contenders, he told reporters after the debate that the country needs "a natural mediator to resolve the differences between the government and the opposition [the Taliban] and that starts for [sic] bringing people to participate, and the elders, the ulama, the young people, the educated people, the businesspeople to come up with the peace plan" (RFE/RL). 

U.S. defense team meets to discuss Afghanistan 

President Obama and several senior defense officials, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, met in Washington on Tuesday to discuss a way forward in the war-torn country (AJAM, NYT, RFE/RL, TOLO News, VOA). The meeting comes as U.S. and NATO officials continue to press Karzai to sign the BSA, and a day after the New York Times reported Karzai had engaged in secret contacts with the Taliban, a claim the militant organization has denied (VOA). U.S. defense officials have not commented on the Times' report, but Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for the State Department, told reporters that the United States welcomed any talks that would bring peace to Afghanistan (Pajhwok). While no decisions were made at the meeting on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, Laura Lucas Magnuson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said it was a "useful, constructive" discussion (Pajhwok). 

New law raises concerns about women's rights in Afghanistan

As Karzai prepares to sign a "criminal procedure law" that was passed by the Afghan parliament last year, Human Rights Watch has reissued its concerns that the law will strip Afghan women of legal protections designed to shield them from domestic abuse and forced marriages (RFE/RL). If signed, the bill would prohibit relatives of a person accused of violence from testifying against them, making it much more difficult for victims to bring domestic abuse cases to court (Guardian). The human rights organization called on Karzai to send the bill back to legislators with amendments, arguing that it runs counter to the groundbreaking 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women Law (HRW). A spokesperson for the Afghan president said he could not comment on his intentions regarding the bill. 


U.S. to curtail drone strikes in Pakistan

The Washington Post reported late Tuesday night that the "Obama administration has sharply curtailed drone strikes in Pakistan after a request from the government there for restraint as it pursues peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban," citing U.S. officials familiar with the request (Post). According to one official, "That's what they asked for, and we didn't tell them no." However, the administration also indicated that it will continue to carry out strikes against senior al-Qaeda targets in the country's tribal regions, and any direct, imminent threat to U.S. persons. The Post notes that the request provides one explanation for the absence of drone strikes in the country since Dec. 25, 2013, "the longest pause in the CIA's drone campaign since a six-week lull in 2011." Editor's note: You can find the New America Foundation's database of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan here.

Despite the Obama administration's decision to limit its drone strikes, the latest round of peace talks between the Pakistani government and the militant organization is already in doubt as each side accuses "the other of not doing enough to make the process sustainable and result-oriented" (Dawn). While the government sought clarifications from the Taliban's negotiating team on a number of issues, the Taliban said they weren't sure if the government really wanted to hold the talks or go ahead with a military operation in North Waziristan. 

The two sides were originally set to meet for the first time on Tuesday, but the government committee delayed the talks at the last minute as they sought those clarifications (AP, BBC, NYT). Irfan Siddiqui, a member of the government's team, said the two groups may meet on Thursday (ET).  

Deadly blast in Peshawar hotel 

At least nine people died and more than 50 were wounded in Peshawar on Tuesday night, when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a hotel restaurant frequented by Shi'ite Muslims from a nearby mosque (AFP, WSJ). According to Najeeb Rehman, a local police officer, the bomber was sitting in a nearby shop and then rushed into the restaurant, where he blew himself up (RFE/RL). The Pakistani Taliban denied having any involvement in the attack, reaffirming their commitment to conducting peace talks with the government. RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal reported that the attack was perpetrated by Major Mast Gil, a new militant group.

-- Bailey Cahall

Edited by Peter Bergen.