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EDITORIALS

Perfect 10
Somnath Chatterjee’s glorious innings
There may be divergent assessments of the 14th
Lok Sabha’s contribution and differences over issues,
laws, personalities and processes for which this House
will be remembered. Yet if there is unanimity across
party lines it is on the role and contribution of Speaker
Somnath Chatterjee.

Warning to Hasina govt
BDR mutineers can’t be alone
W
hen Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed addressed the men and officers of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) at its headquarters in Dhaka on Tuesday, she could not have imagined that her government would face a major challenge from the ranks of the paramilitary force the very next day. She has, after all, come back to power with a thumping majority after the December 2008 elections.


EARLIER STORIES

Zardari vs Nawaz Sharif
February 27, 2009
Just three years?
February 26, 2009
Terrorism is un-Islamic
February 25, 2009
‘Jai Ho’, ‘Jai Ho’
February 24, 2009
Modi’s claim nailed
February 23, 2009
A question of EC’s credibility
February 22, 2009
Habitual offenders
February 21, 2009
Punjab budget
February 20, 2009
Offensive against Naxalites
February 19, 2009
Appeasing the Taliban
February 18, 2009
Carry on, Pranab
February 17, 2009
More open to FDI
February 16, 2009
Pitfalls of democracy
February 15, 2009



Just in time

Sops for economy and voters
S
hortly before the election code comes into force, the UPA government has doled out concessions for the recession-hit leather and textile industries and announced housing and road projects with the twin objective of pleasing voters and stimulating the economy. The proposal to cut the diesel prices by Rs 2 as a pre-election gift to farmers was shelved by the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs on Thursday as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee objected to the issue of fresh oil bonds to compensate the public sector oil marketing companies.

ARTICLE

Trial of the 26/11 accused
It involves unmasking of the face of terrorism
by Rajinder Sachar
I
n the aftermath of Pakistan admitting that the Mumbai carnage of 26/11 was planned in Pakistan and by Pakistani nationals, and that it intends to prosecute them, a good deal of relaxation of tension between India and Pakistan should have been expedited. But we must anticipate the obvious bottlenecks and try to avoid being enmeshed in it. Pakistan is going to ask for the custody of Kasab. But it must realise that exclusive custody of Kasab can never be given to Pakistan.

MIDDLE

May be
by Shriniwas Joshi
H
ere is a story of a wealthy person whose religious beliefs were unknown —may be, we too follow his religion. He had four spouses — may be, we also have the same number. He honeyed all but one of his spouses — may be, we do the same as well.

OPED

Iran’s space programme jolts US, Europe
by Harsh V. Pant
I
ran has joined the exclusive club of eight nations that have the capability of using their own technologies to send objects into space. Though its firing of a satellite into orbit was largely a symbolic accomplishment, it underlined Iran’s desire to emerge as a technologically advanced nation and its growing confidence in taking on the global criticism in its stride.

Sarkozy may redraw the map of France
by John Lichfield
T
he political map of France may be radically redrawn under ambitious, intriguing – and explosive – proposals which will be presented to President Nicolas Sarkozy next week. Paris would become part of a “Greater Paris” of six million people, copying the model of Greater London. Normandy might be unified for the first time in 805 years (since King John carelessly lost William’s dukedom to the French in 1204).

Budget bares Obama’s ambition
by Janet Hook
N
ot since Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt has a president moved to expand the role of government so much on so many fronts — and with such a demanding sense of urgency. The scope of Barack Obama’s ambition was laid bare in the budget blueprint issued Thursday.

 


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Perfect 10
Somnath Chatterjee’s glorious innings

There may be divergent assessments of the 14th Lok Sabha’s contribution and differences over issues, laws, personalities and processes for which this House will be remembered. Yet if there is unanimity across party lines it is on the role and contribution of Speaker Somnath Chatterjee.

He has scored a Perfect 10, and not only literally though he has been a member of the Lok Sabha for 10 terms. His perfect score is also in terms of his contribution to democracy, parliamentary values and the dignity of his constitutional office. Rarely in recent memory has a Speaker been commended by all sections of the House for his sterling contribution as Mr Chatterjee has been. The laurels are well earned and, as he retires from active politics, he can deservedly rest on them.

Mr Chatterjee is one of the country’s most principled politicians, known for his unimpeachable integrity. In politics, he has been always on the side of the weak and the marginalised. At the same time, he has never allowed his ideological commitment to colour his conduct in the constitutional office of Speaker. Therefore, it was not surprising that when the CPM withdrew support to the UPA and wanted him to resign from the post of Speaker, he declined to oblige the party bosses.

In doing so he reinforced the principle that the post of Speaker transcends party and partisan politics, and as such he could not be expected to give precedence to the cause of the party over that of Parliament and the Constitution. He was unsparing in his criticism of unruly Members and never failed in his task of disciplining errant MPs.

He did his best to ensure that Parliament remained accountable to the people and it was in pursuit of this that he frequently admonished those who disrupted parliamentary business. A stickler for decorum and courtesy, Mr Chatterjee’s innings as Speaker is a chapter that is both instructive and inspiring.

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Warning to Hasina govt
BDR mutineers can’t be alone

When Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed addressed the men and officers of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) at its headquarters in Dhaka on Tuesday, she could not have imagined that her government would face a major challenge from the ranks of the paramilitary force the very next day. She has, after all, come back to power with a thumping majority after the December 2008 elections.

But the BDR men who mutinied on Wednesday in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country sent out a message that she should not consider her government safe from those opposed to her policies. That there is resentment in the BDR ranks over an unattractive salary structure and perks is a different matter. Had it been just a matter related to the pay scales, which are, no doubt, lower than those in the Bangladesh Army, it could be sorted out through peaceful means.

Those who revolted against the state, leading to the death of over 50 persons, mostly senior army officers posted at key positions in the BDR, must have done this at the instance of their benefactors, who are no longer in power. The BDR’s ranks are full of those owing allegiance to Begum Khaleda Zia’s BNP and its key religio-political ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami.

They cannot tolerate Sheikh Hasina’s drive against those guilty of collaborating with the Pakistan Army in 1971. Such a campaign would expose the people who actually worked against the interests of their own country at the dawn of freedom. Sheikh Hasina, known for her pro-India policies, has also launched a kind of war against those promoting terrorism by using the territory of Bangladesh. This policy, too, does not suit the BNP and the Jamaat.

Sheikh Hasina has handled the crisis tactfully by declaring amnesty for the mutineers, who surrendered their arms. But she has to think beyond the present. Besides resolving the salary-related issues, she will have to keep an eye on the activities of her detractors.

They can go to any extent to destabilise her government, which has earned a good image not only in India but in many other countries, too. Bangladesh has had enough of political instability. The Hasina government must deal sternly with the elements trying to cause instability again.

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Just in time
Sops for economy and voters

Shortly before the election code comes into force, the UPA government has doled out concessions for the recession-hit leather and textile industries and announced housing and road projects with the twin objective of pleasing voters and stimulating the economy. The proposal to cut the diesel prices by Rs 2 as a pre-election gift to farmers was shelved by the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs on Thursday as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee objected to the issue of fresh oil bonds to compensate the public sector oil marketing companies.

The exporters’ woes had remained unattended after the government opted for a vote-on-account. The government’s subsequent u-turn and announcement of excise duty and service tax cuts had also left the exporters untouched. Pleading their cause, Commerce Minister Kamal Nath has finally managed to squeeze out some sops for the beleaguered sector.

Despite the plunging rupee and declining inflation coming to their rescue, the exporters may find it hard to sell their wares in global markets clobbered by widespread job losses and falling incomes. The domestic export sector itself has lost five million jobs this fiscal.

The economic situation is worsening faster than expected as the GDP figures for the third quarter, released on Friday, confirm. A lower-than-estimated GDP growth of 5.3 per cent may unsettle RBI/government calculations for a 7 per cent growth this fiscal. This means more pain for the poor and the jobless.

In this context, the hurried clearance of a Rs 5,000-crore scheme to build 10 lakh
affordable houses and some road construction projects, mostly in Naxalite-hit
states, are welcome. These will not only create jobs but also perk up demand
for cement and steel.

The previous government plan for inaction on the plea of upholding constitutional
propriety would not have served anyone’s cause. Even if motivated by elections
and stretching the budgetary limits a little harder, the giveaways will help in
fixing the economy.

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Thought for the Day

Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates. — Gore Vidal

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Trial of the 26/11 accused
It involves unmasking of the face of terrorism
by Rajinder Sachar

In the aftermath of Pakistan admitting that the Mumbai carnage of 26/11 was planned in Pakistan and by Pakistani nationals, and that it intends to prosecute them, a good deal of relaxation of tension between India and Pakistan should have been expedited. But we must anticipate the obvious bottlenecks and try to avoid being enmeshed in it. Pakistan is going to ask for the custody of Kasab. But it must realise that exclusive custody of Kasab can never be given to Pakistan.

Kasab is the living lynch-pin of Pakistani involvement in the Mumbai carnage conspiracy. It was a sheer stroke of luck coupled with less than complete suicidal squad training given by Pakistani handlers of Kasab that he was captured alive. But for his live presence, Pakistan would have continued its denial syndrome.

Similarly, India would want the custody of persons arrested by Pakistan. But Pakistan could somewhat legitimately insist upon holding a separate trial as conspiracy was hatched in Pakistan. The situation is thus building up for the strain to continue, and both countries have persons with a hawkish agenda who will want to worsen the relations.

Both countries must accept that none of us would be a victor in this game. Let us team up and form a common frame of action. Pakistan is under severe strain and criticism of the Swat climb-down phenomena and charge of permitting US drones to fly from within Pakistan territory and to bombard its own citizens. To counter this, the Government of Pakistan may instead welcome a belligerent non- cooperative stance by India so as to cover up its exposure. It is, therefore, in India’s interest to modulate its reactions in a sober restrained manner.

It is only if in a spirit of common interest and welfare that both countries so modulate their policies that we can come out of the present morass. Though the Indian government is apparently purporting to keep a low profile, its decision to suspend all mutual contact on confidence building measures in the matter of trade, boundary and water disputes can hardly be an encouraging development.

In the interest of confidence-building measures both India and Pakistan should have an open, honest and without any inhibition access to all the evidence in possession of each other. India should invite Pakistan to send a team of its own investigators and lawyers, and share with them the material in the Kasab trial.

After taking permission from the Supreme Court, this trial should be televised live. The reason is that many countries, especially those whose nationals were also the victims, would have a genuine interest. India, by adopting this mechanism, will show its openness and faith in the impartiality of the justice machinery. This trial is not a case of a mere terrorist.

It involves unmasking the mechanism and the face of terrorism which is not only a grave issue for us but, in the words of President Zardari, a matter of equal concern to Pakistan as well. The same procedure could be adopted by Pakistan in the trial that it intends to hold for other co-accused, as it would have the same compulsion for Pakistan not to hand over those accused to India as we have to hand over Kasab.

Of course, the most desirable legal strategy would be if both countries could have a joint trial of all the accused to present a coherent logical case. Contrary evidence, though not legally admissible before tribunals in the respective countries, could raise serious questions of fairness of the trial, a key element in our jurisprudence. There will, of course, be the conflicting claim of venue, the tribunal and the prosecuting agency to be sorted out. These are matters which both countries must seriously articulate and consider if we are not to make a laughing stock of us before the world community.

Mutual needs of each country must be co-related to the single important objective to find out the truth behind the Mumbai carnage — failure to act prudently and with sobriety can only worsen Indo-Pak relations, which must be avoided at all costs, more so because, as it is, there are enough hawks in both countries driving us to a collision course.

At present, Pakistan is making the right noises. They have arrested Lakhvi and Zarar Shah. India cannot object to their being tried in camera because we have the same enabling law. I hope Kasab’s trial will not be in camera. I can understand that considering security and other angle, it also cannot be in open court. But, then, we have the precedent of the Indira Gandhi murder trial being held in jail. Kasab trial has to be absolutely security cordoned. Of course, with all limitations, I still believe that the trial should be televised — necessary precaution can be taken that spoken evidence of witnesses is telecast, their identity is not put on the tube.

There is another suggestion though it may sound like a wild card. Could we not have a strategic team of five jurists (two from India and Pakistan , and one from any country of South Asia — say Bangladesh or Sri Lanka ) which should be in overall charge of prosecutions in both countries. This may be a genuine step in assurance by both our countries that there will be no compromise with terrorism which is not only a common enemy of both countries, but, in fact, of the whole humanity.

One immediate way of relaxing tension is to open up TV and radio communication between India and Pakistan. We take pride that our TV channels are doing good work in supplying information which the official agencies may want to keep secret. We must also appreciate that Pakistan TV is doing equally wonderful service by disclosing the facts which the Pakistan government was suppressing.

It was Pakistan TV which disclosed the Pakistani origin of Kasab. It has also shown the house and location where all these Mumbai carnage terrorists stayed in Pakistan and took training. These instances show that the Press and peace activists in civil society of Pakistan are no less insistent on dispelling any strain in Indo-Pak relations as some of us claim to in India.

It is felt that the peace lobby must activate itself strongly lest by default we are driven to a conflict — a disaster beyond measure and of unimaginable magnitude. Of course, the recent statement by Mr Pranab Mukherjee, External Affairs Minister, that war between India and Pakistan was never an option and would never be so is greatly to be welcomed in both countries.

The writer is a former Chief Justice of the High Court of Delhi.

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May be
by Shriniwas Joshi

Here is a story of a wealthy person whose religious beliefs were unknown —may be, we too follow his religion. He had four spouses — may be, we also have the same number. He honeyed all but one of his spouses — may be, we do the same as well.

He was on his death bed — surely we, too, would be on the death bed one day — though to Yaksha’s query about the strangest fixation with humans, the wisest among the Pandvas, Yudhister, replied that all and sundry were moving towards the crematorium yet everybody believed that his goodbye day might not ever dawn. Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “Live as if you have to die tomorrow; read as if you have to live thousand years” stay put at Rajghat.

The dying man called the youngest of his spouses on whom he had doted frantically and was crazy for her and asked if she would go with him. She said, “No, not even a step.” The second to the youngest on whom he had spent youth, time and money said, “Going with you is a distant cry. No sooner you kick the bucket, than shall I wed the next.”

The third one with whom he had spent best of times and generously graced to keep her in good humour agreed to go with him up to the crematorium. “So far and no further”, she had replied. He, at last, called the ignored one and asked her the same question. She said that she was prepared to go with him wherever he went.

He felt guilty that she, whom he had disregarded the entire life, was sincere and ready to accompany him in the journey even beyond death. This is the story of us all. The youngest of the spouses is the alluring and ever-attractive mammon which bedazzles us throughout our lives. It moves not a step as its keeper dies.

The second spouse is the acreage and property that we accumulate spending time and tide but the moment we depart from the world; it falls into the lap of the next in line. The third one is the friends and relatives with whom we spend the happy moments of our lives.

As one dies, they come up to the cremation or burial ground and then get engaged in their mundane affairs. The last and ignored one, the noble and pious deeds that we perform, generally unwittingly, during our life span, goes with us and is the measure through which the world evaluates us. When we are in fine fettle, we engage ourselves in amassing goods and assets and forget righteousness as unseen, unattainable paradise.

May be, we like the protagonist, find ourselves in an identical conundrum as our end approaches and react according to our karma. He repented, at last, that he had ignored doing good when opportunity was there.

May be, we also repent like him; may be, not — if we realise that when our biodata is read afterlife, people would overlook the years of our birth and death and search for the proverbial seven cardinal virtues in the dash existing between the two.

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Iran’s space programme jolts US, Europe
by Harsh V. Pant

Iran has joined the exclusive club of eight nations that have the capability of using their own technologies to send objects into space. Though its firing of a satellite into orbit was largely a symbolic accomplishment, it underlined Iran’s desire to emerge as a technologically advanced nation and its growing confidence in taking on the global criticism in its stride.

This stands in stark contrast to the loss of confidence in the Western capitals about finding a sustainable solution to the “Iran problem.” There are indications that the Obama Administration is reviewing its policy vis-à-vis Iran and might offer direct talks with Tehran, something that its predecessor strongly opposed.

It was in 2007 that Iran launched its first sub-orbital rocket which reached an altitude of 150 kilometres before falling back to earth and deploying a parachute for recovery. Iran claimed that the rocket was intended for research and part of its goal of launching Iranian-manufactured satellites on Iranian manufactured rockets.

It seems to have accomplished that with its latest launch of the rocket carrying the satellite, Omid. These launches assume significance not only for Iran’s satellite effort but also for the development of its long-range delivery systems.

Any space launcher is in effect a potential Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that could reach anywhere on earth with very small changes in their guidance systems. Much like other states that have benefited militarily from improvements in their space programmes, Iran is also using the development of its space programme to improve its conventional WMD delivery systems.

Iranian officials often discuss space and missile developments simultaneously, perhaps indicating the parallel nature of the programmes. They have openly admitted that the Shahab missile system has been used as the basis for Iran’s space launch vehicle. In 2005, Brigadier General Ahmad Wahid, Chairman of Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organisation, commented that Iran was developing its space programme both for military and civilian uses.

Iran’s missile programme has been geared towards serving its security interests and has shown a steady progress in its range, precision and sophistication. During the 1980s, it was Iraq that was Iran’s main adversary and most of its missile capability was geared towards countering the threat from Iraq.

During the eight-year war with Iraq, most of Iran’s major cities, including Tehran, came under repeated attacks of Iraqi Scud missiles. It used Oghab and Mushak-120 missiles against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war and also sought short-range Scud missiles from North Korea. China, North Korea and Russia have been Iran’s primary partners in the development of missile capability. It purchased CSS-8 short-range ballistic missile from China in the late 1980s.

From early 1990s, Iran’s focus shifted towards the development of intermediate range Shahab-3 and Shahab-4 missiles. Shahab-3 is based on North Korea’s No Dong missile and it gives Iran the capability to hit every major city in Israel and some in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Though Shahab-4 has been characterised by Iran as a space launch vehicle, it could be used as a technical base for intermediate and intercontinental-range missiles. Shahab-4 is based in Soviet R-12 (SS-4 sandel) technology obtained from Russia.

As concerns about Iraq’s WMD programme grew after the First Gulf War, Iran also accelerated work on its own missile capability. Shahab-3 is seen as central to Iran’s deterrent posture, particularly vis-à-vis Israel’s nuclear capability.

Iran is also keen on acquiring missile capability that counters American hostile foreign policy towards it and as tensions between the US and Iran have increased in recent years, Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear and concomitant missile capability have also gathered momentum.

As Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has gained momentum, so has its attempts to acquire adequate delivery capabilities and much like its nuclear programme its missile programme is also shrouded in mystery. What makes Iran’s recent test troubling is the concerns that the international community has about Iran’s missile programme and about the possible nexus between that programme and their nuclear ambitions.

The U.N. Security Council has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment. Western powers suspect the work is aimed at building an atomic bomb. Tehran says it is for peaceful power generation only.

Iran has rejected the powers’ long-standing demand for an enrichment suspension before talks can begin and has gradually expanded its programme during the stalemate, raising fears it may be approaching bomb-making capability.

Despite their agreeing to send the Iran case to the Security Council, Russia and China, two states with real leverage vis-à-vis Iran, have refused to support meaningful sanctions for the fear of hurting their own economic interests in addition to their interest in restraining US power.

Iran has carefully cultivated commercial and strategic relations with non-Western powers such as China and Russia in the last few years that might now help it to counterbalance the threat of western sanctions. Meanwhile, Iran’s standing in West Asia seems to be at an all-time high, especially after the perceived victory of Hezbollah over the mighty Israeli army.

The West and many in the Islamic world are openly expressing their anxiety about the emergence of a “Shiite crescent” from Iran through the Persian Gulf to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Even without nuclear weapons, Iran now wields considerable influence in Lebanon, Syria, with the Palestinians and in Iraq.

Regardless of the technical characteristics of what was launched, the launch itself demonstrates Iran’s continued intent to advance its delivery capabilities. Although the Iranians are determined to enhance their space programme, they are equally focussed on developing their long-range WMD delivery systems.

Iran is following parallel paths with their civilian and military programmes to legitimise purchases and maintain an ambiguous posture. It is apparent that any improvements in Iran’s peaceful space programme will also benefit Iran’s military programme and the broad trajectory of Iran’s progress in its space programme remains clear in so far as Iran will eventually have capability to threaten the US and Europe even though the time-line as to when it might achieve that capability remains far from clear.

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Sarkozy may redraw the map of France
by John Lichfield

The political map of France may be radically redrawn under ambitious, intriguing – and explosive – proposals which will be presented to President Nicolas Sarkozy next week. Paris would become part of a “Greater Paris” of six million people, copying the model of Greater London. Normandy might be unified for the first time in 805 years (since King John carelessly lost William’s dukedom to the French in 1204).

Brittany could, finally, reclaim its “lost” territory around Nantes and might expand eastwards for another 100 miles. Fury is erupting in Picardy, which would be one of two regions broken into pieces and wiped off from the administrative map.

Several other regions may be merged but only one other is threatened with dismemberment and oblivion. This is – perhaps coincidentally – Poitou-Charente, the fiefdom of the unsuccessful Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal.

The ideas will be formally presented to President Sarkozy next week by a committee chaired by the former prime minister Édouard Balladur. The President commissioned the report last year after promising to rationalise the multiple layers of governance in what is the most minutely administered nation in the world (100 départements, 22 regions, 36,000 communes).

In a country where a change in the colour of bus-tickets can be an invitation to open revolt, the proposals have already provoked fury, resistance movements and some scattered satisfaction. The present boundaries of the 22 regions go back only 25 years but they represent in some cases – not all – local pride in dukedoms and kingdoms which pre-date a unified France.

M. Balladur and his committee believe that the 22 regions should, over the next five years, be shrunk to 15, which would be stronger economically and capable of standing their ground against national government and multinational industries. He insisted that no boundary changes would be imposed without consent but a re-drawn map of France discussed by the committee is likely to be approved, in outline, by M. Sarkozy next week.

The proposal to expand the département (county) of Paris to absorb three neighbouring, suburban counties is an attempt to resolve a long-simmering quarrel about how to re-connect the well-heeled capital to its poor and troubled banlieues. The city of Paris (population two million) would remain as a separate municipality but the existing département number 75, which has the same boundaries as the city, would expand into “Le Grand Paris”, embracing the rich and poor suburban towns of the three encircling departments, numbers 92, 93 and 94.

This idea was rejected by some left-wing members of the investigating committee and was dismissed yesterday by the Socialist Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, as “wrong-headed” and a “democratic regression”. He prefers the idea of an “Even Greater Paris”, extending to all the capital’s sprawling suburbs. An amorphous territory of this kind would not threaten to muddy the identity of the “historic” Paris inside the virtual city wall of the Boulevard Périphérique, the ring road.

— By arrangement with The Independent

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Budget bares Obama’s ambition
by Janet Hook

Not since Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt has a president moved to expand the role of government so much on so many fronts — and with such a demanding sense of urgency. The scope of Barack Obama’s ambition was laid bare in the budget blueprint issued Thursday.

The budget would make up 24.1 percent of next year’s Gross Domestic Product, one of the highest percentages since World War II, and would raise taxes, redistribute income, spend more on social programs than on defense, and implement policies that touch almost every aspect of Americans’ lives — their banks, health care, schools, even the air they breathe.

Even more stark than the breadth and scale of Obama’s proposals was his determination to break with the conservative principles that have dominated national politics and policy-making since President Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.

“It changes the whole paradigm,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “We’re going to have a government that helps people.” House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, took another view. “The era of big government is back, and Democrats are asking you to pay for it,” Boehner said.

Obama’s budget plan asserts that, in some areas, government can do a better job than private enterprise and do it for less. For instance, he argues, Washington can provide loans to college students just as efficiently and at lower cost than the private lenders who now dominate the field.

And, after years of steady growth in the share of the nation’s wealth owned by its most affluent citizens, Obama is calling for tax changes that would require high-income taxpayers to shoulder more of the load. The question now is whether Congress will go along.

The question applies, in particular, to “Blue Dog Democrats,” members of the House and Senate who in recent years have won election from traditionally conservative and Republican areas by positioning themselves as moderate-to-conservative, especially on spending and the deficit.

Although Obama’s supporters enjoy a fairly comfortable margin in the House, his $787 billion economic stimulus package passed the Senate only after a deal was struck with conservative Democrats and three moderate Republicans.

As a candidate, Obama often was reluctant to take sides in major policy debates — instead choosing to stake out general positions that could be open to interpretation. In his first five weeks as president, Obama largely continued that approach, signaling that he was willing to listen to all sides and using his choice of cabinet members to balance among interest groups.

That stage of his presidency appears to be ending. The budget outline suggests that Obama is ready to start spending his political capital — a recent Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Americans approved of the way he was handling the stimulus bill — and risk making enemies in the pursuit of ambitious policy goals.

The breadth of the budget has an advantage: Even if Obama achieves only part of his goals, that could leave a long record of accomplishment. But by proposing action on such a wide range of fronts, Obama also risks overloading the often cumbersome legislative machinery of Capitol Hill.

Yet Obama has already demonstrated an ability to get Congress to break its institutional inertia. The economic stimulus legislation was one of the biggest bills in history, and it made it through the congressional maze in record time.

Part of his approach to achieving that was to set the broad parameters of the initiative and leave it to congressional Democrats to fill in the details. On the stimulus, no detail seemed more important to Obama than two demands: the package had to be big, and it had to be approved quickly.

In the new budget blueprint — a basic outline of the detailed budget to be submitted to Congress in April — Obama has similarly left it to Congress to write the details of his health care initiative. But he wants it placed at the top of Capitol Hill’s agenda.

All this has left Republicans largely on the sidelines, despite earlier talk about a new era of bipartisanship. Indeed, the budget’s sharp U-turn away from conservative principles shows how willing Obama is to confront Republicans directly. Even a relatively moderate Republican like Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, bridles. “We seem to be going back to class warfare,” he said.

Obama’s leadership style is a far cry from other recent presidents, like Bill Clinton, who declared “the era of big government is over,” and made an art form of proposing modest initiatives — such as requiring school uniforms as a step toward improving education.

Some in Washington were surprised by the budget because Obama often talks in such a nuanced fashion that he blurs distinctions rather than highlights them. But in writing this budget, he had to drop the shades of gray because a budget is all numbers in black and white. Either spending for defense goes up or down; taxes are raised or they are cut.

Although Obama has tried to cut a nonideological profile and has staffed his administration with many moderates, much of his budget reflects liberal ideals. He says government can do some things better and cheaper than the private sector. He embraces income redistribution of sorts by proposing to pay for his health care initiative with increasing taxes on the wealthy.

And without apology, the budget document essentially declared the end of an era: “The past eight years have discredited once and for all the philosophy of trickle down economics — that tax breaks, income gains and wealth creation among the wealthy eventually will work their way down to the middle class.”

— By arrangement with LA Times-Washington Post

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