Arrest of activist sparks protests across India

This is not the first time that the Indian government has come down hard on an anti-corruption campa

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in India to protest against the arrest of Anna Hazare, the country's most prominent anti-corruption campaigner, and at least 1,200 of his followers.

Hazare, a 74 year old activist, was detained by police hours before her was due to begin an indefinite hunger strike to demand tougher laws on corruption.

The harsh crackdown follows a series of huge corruption scandals, which have sent the government's poll ratings plummeting, along with wildly inflated food prices. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has been accused of being out of touch with public opinion.

This is by no means the first time that the government has come down hard on anti-corruption protestors. The New Statesman's recent India special is essential reading for the background on this latest incident.

Patrick French describes public support for Hazare's cause, and how his public fast in April successfully forced the government to promise a harsh parliamentary bill on corruption (the bill has since been denounced by Hazare as a "cruel joke", as it exempts the prime minister and senior judges. This has prompted his latest protest).

In April, an elderly Gandhian activist named Anna Hazare led a public fast against corruption in public life. As a method of exerting pressure, it was certainly effective: the government agreed to introduce a severe law against corruption - the Jan Lokpal Bill - and to give Hazare and his nominees a hand in drafting it...

With the Middle East convulsed by change, it was understandable that the Indian media should draw parallels between Hazare's pro¬test and the events in Tahrir Square, Cairo. The spontaneous support expressed for his cause has more in common with the Tea Party movement in the US, however, than the Arab spring: it grew out of a sense among educated, middle-class people that the government was aloof, and that something indefinable but important was being taken away from them. The protests sprang from pent-up frustration and a sense that, even as India is growing richer, corruption is deepening and professionals are becoming isolated from the workings of government. The country might have one of the largest middle classes in the world, but its members are kept out of the driving seat. Even business tycoons share the growing feeling that India's political leaders are part of an alien tribe, with which they have little in common.

Nor is the harsh crackdown on Hazare and his supporters unprecedented. In the same issue, Siddartha Deb describes action taken against a guru known as Baba Ramdev:

This year, he began to make ever more strident pronouncements about corruption, including the way money was allegedly being siphoned out of the country into Swiss bank accounts. By June, his statements had grown into plans to hold a public gathering in New Delhi that would be part yoga camp and part protest rally.

The Indian National Congress (INC) government made a conciliatory gesture by despatching some of its senior ministers to meet Ramdev as he arrived in the city, but the guru went on with his plans, beginning a hunger strike on 4 June at the Ramlila Maidan grounds. Tens of thousands of Ramdev's followers gathered at the venue. Shortly after midnight, the government sent in a team of riot police. Tear-gas shells were fired, sticks were swung and, after a futile effort by members of the crowd to shield Ramdev, the guru was arrested. The authorities sent him back to Haridwar, from where he threatened to continue his campaign even as the government began an investigation into his business affairs, including his acquisition of the island of Little Cumbrae.

Due to mounting public anger, officials have ordered Hazare's release. However, he has refused to leave jail unless police drop the conditions they set for his freedom, which include limiting his fast to three days. Hundreds of his supporters have begun a vigil outside of Tihar jail. With protests on-going today, it does not look like the government has succeeded in burying this protest yet.

To read everything from our India package, including an interview with Arundhati Roy, click here.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.