Politics and International Affairs and the quest for the ulterior motive.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


The War in Iraq, three years on, is not looking good for the Bush Administration and the Pentagon. Wave after wave of bombings, suicide attacks and civil strife have left the current American establishment and the new Iraqi government with a feeling of despair on what is the best way to steer Iraq into some sort of normality. The recent reports of the massacre that occurred in Haditha in November 2005 have again sullied the image of the American Marines in their manner and handling of Iraqi civilians. President Bush in a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged that the Abu Gharaib prison scandal was the biggest mistake in the war in Iraq. It is ironic that this admission came just days before reports of the Haditha massacre came to light.

The Haditha massacre has all the makings of another propaganda tool that can be used by insurgents and ex-Baathists to show the ‘true’ face of the American infidels in Iraq. The massacre itself is now under a military investigation to get the truth out about the incident in which US Marines allegedly gunned down 24 Iraqi civilians, which included women and children. The incident was recorded and reported by an Iraqi journalism student covering the war. Also, the trigger that instigated the bloodbath was apparently a Marine being killed by a roadside bomb, which led to the retaliatory killing of innocents. This latest incident is in line with a number of excesses committed by the US army that has failed the military’s mission to win hearts and minds. The Fallujah assault, Abu Gharaib, the Basra excesses by the UK forces and now the Haditha massacre have left the Coalition troops with much face saving to do. Also, the greater Muslim world has show cased the latest military excess to highlight the need for the troops to be withdrawn from Iraq, albeit for their strategic national interests.

The War in Iraq has seen has had its share of mistakes and shortcomings right from the start. To begin with the number of troops required to stabilize Iraq were not deployed. Former Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator, Paul Bremer, in his insightful book, ‘My Year in Iraq’ has pointed out that there was a consensus on the ground between the civilian and military authority that close to 500,000 troops would be required in Iraq. However, the Pentagon and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reiterated their beleif that the 150,000 strong Coalition force would serve the purpose. Bremer’s contention to have more troops in Iraq proved to be right and the rise of the insurgency has been attributed to the lawlessness and lack of military patrolling in areas of Baghdad and the Sunni triangle.

The American policy of ‘De-baathification’ of the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi bureaucracy had the broad agreement of the Governing Council at the time, however, today the British Prime Minister has outlined the de-baathifaction policy as a oversight in the war. One must point out to the prime minister that to put all the blame for the current turmoil in Iraq on that one decision is far too simplistic and frankly too convinient to explain the stinging insurgency that had embroiled the nation. Agreed, that disbanding the Iraqi army had its drawbacks, but one must realize that it was the same Iraqi forces that terrorized the nation, and to have them still running the security in Iraq would have made the whole pretence of spreading freedom and democracy in Iraq laughable.

Analysts and Middle East experts often are quick to criticize the Bush Administrations pretext to go to war in Iraq. However, a solution for the current imbroglio is never offered or not thought through. Senator Joe Biden and Leslie Gilb’s idea to separate the country on ethnicity under a federal structure united by a federal government in Baghdad does hold some merit. The three years since the fall of Saddam has seen intense bickering between the Sunnis, majority Shias and the autonomous Kurds. Frustratingly, each with a set of demands diametrically opposing the others. The Shias want to run the country, the Sunnis want more say in the government and the Kurds are insistent on autonomy. The idea for federalism while moderately acceptable will have to deal with a few outstanding issues before it can be implemented. The Kurds will have to be told that autonomy will not mean ultimate statehood to form a Greater Kurdistan which includes areas of Turkey with a majority Kurdish population as part of the proposed nation. The Sunnis will have to be given broad commitments that a reasonable share of the country’s oil revenue will be given to their provinces. However, they will also have to exert influence on the Sunni led insurgency to put down their arms and join the mainstream. The Shias will have to be brought on board to disband their militias and rule Iraq in an inclusive manner involving all minorities. A task that seems easy on paper but is near impossible to achieve, as anyone who knows Iraq will understand the deep resentment and animosity that exists between the three ethic groups (and partly why Saddam had to rule with an iron fist to control the country).

The Bush administration is seen drifting out its second term and it is acute need of a major shakeup. While the architect of the neo-con policy Karl Rove has been eased out of the White House’s West Wing, he still enjoys tremendous power. Similarly, now with Paul Wolfowitz, the former Under Secretary of Defense now cooling his heals at the World Bank, the neo-con messiahs are not exactly the flavor of the month in Washington. Also, with Colin Powell, the only dovish voice in the administration, having left the Bush team, there is a need to elevate people who are ready to accept mistakes in the conduct on the war in Iraq and ready to listen to voices urging change. Most importantly, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney must take some of the blame and make way for younger and more balanced people in the Bush cabinet. If Bush wants to leave some sort of a legacy and more importantly some semblance of order in Iraq a major shake-up is the need of the hour, failing which the current rigid policies of Messers Rumsfeld and Cheney will sink Iraq into anarchy and also mark the eight years of the Bush White House as a miserable failure.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

UPA: Two years on, not much to show

The UPA government ‘celebrated’ its two years in power yesterday, albeit, on a very somber note, what with the country’s middle class and social structure extremely polarized and the nations’ two bourses taking a heavy body blow on the same day. An assessment of the two years in power shows many lows than the government would have hoped for, some notable achievements, which unfortunately got muddled in the cacophony of criticism fly thick and fast.

The two years in power have seen some very controversial decisions being taken by the Government in general and the Congress in particular. The dissolution of the Bihar, Jharkhand and Goa assemblies, the increased number of terror attacks, the rise of Naxalism, Volcker, office of profit and the more recent quota controversy gives the picture of a government that has sputtered at crucial stages of its existence and have brought it down a couple of notches in the public domain. The loss of Natwar Singh, as foreign minister was seen as a victory for the opposition and left many at 24 Akbar Road red faced. Also with Shibu Soren been declared an absconder and a proclaimed offender did not show the government or the PM’s team in good light. In fact, the root cause of many of the problems that seem inherent with this government is the lackluster leadership of the prime minister to forcefully take charge of the cabinet and really be the last word on his government’s policy. His media managing skills are partly to be blamed for this peculiar situation. The prime minister is virtually invisible in the public domain. Whenever an issue of national importance breaks out the prime minister is found wanting in addressing the nation and reassuring the citizens about the governments policy. All we hear on most issues is that the PMO was kept out of the loop in most controversies. That line to take is an indicator that the prime ministers team members are taking their own course with Dr. Singh as the bystander in all of this. It is not very reassuring for the country nor does it augur well for the prime ministers own image. He has to speak out and be heard more, lest he wants a false impression of indifference or more damagingly, indecisiveness to become the hallmark of his premiership.

The notable achievements that the government has been trying to hard sell is the Indo-US nuclear deal and Sonia Gandhi’s pet project the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Both projects are of incredible importance to India in terms of its future, however, both are now mired in controversy for different reasons. The onus now lies with the government to prove that both projects are implementable are at the same time beneficial for the country. Some other notable highs for the government have been its opening of the aviation sector. Although, many may argue that the seeds of opening up the civil aviation space was the work of the previous government, the very continuing of a successful policy is commendable.

No analysis of the UPA government will be complete without looking at the role of the Left in the alliance. If the UPA were to be represented with a color, it would no doubt be red, crimson at best. The shadow of the left is imprinted on every major decision taken by this government, sometime pulling it back on some pragmatic decisions. The pension regulatory bill, FDI in retail and disinvestments of PSU remain in limbo with no consensus on the issue within the alliance.

The rise of Naxalism has been well documented and it has seen an unprecedented rise in the past few years. The so called ‘red corridor’ by some observers now accounts for 23% of the nation’s territory, this remains the biggest threat to the country’s internal security and will have be addressed soon, however, resolving the issue anytime soon is far fetched for this government to tackle.

Foreign policy has been another key focus area where flip-flops within the government and the larger coalition have come to the fore. The Iran vote at the IAEA had the Congress and the Left on opposing camps; the Nepal situation was badly handled with a coherent policy not coming out from South Block. Similarly, the government has been hamstrung on the level and degree of support it wants to seek from the US at the cost of its traditional friends. Relations between India and countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and our neighbors as well have not gone according to plan. The peace process with Pakistan now needs an impetus as the progress on a solution is moving at a snail’s pace, with both sides not knowing how to take the well established confident building measures forward to resolve all outstanding issues. The urgent need to find a suitable foreign minister is also required to bring some sense of leadership and articulate a consistent foreign policy in this world that is looking at India as a future superpower.

The assembly elections that have been held this year have shown the Congress’ diminishing presence to the gain of its political allies. The DMK, Left and other regional factions have emerged much stronger at the cost of the Congress. Every few months the talk of a third front floats in the air, indicating the allies in the UPA wanting to keep the Congress out in their ideal scheme of things. The Congress to realizes the pressure groups that have established within the coalition but seems to be doing little about it knowing fully well that a CPM or a DMK could really rock the UPA boat if push comes to shove.

Overall, the two years at the helm of affairs have thrown a government that though not short on ideas has faced numerous challenges and impediments created by its own coalition partners or surprisingly by many foot in mouth cabinet ministers. On the whole two years of the UPA would warrant it a 4 on 10 with much work to be done and a more assertive prime minister standing up and being counted.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Mandal 2 : The coming social unrest?
The past week has seen intensified protests by doctors and medical students over the contentious issue of reservations in professional institutions. Also the past week has seen the delusional HRD Minister, Arjun Singh rubbish every voice of sanity that has spoken out against the issue, be it the Knowledge Commission, his own cabinet colleagues and prominent industrialists. While whatever is going on in the mind of Mr. Singh is still as much a mystery, it is certain that octogenarians lifelong political dream of becoming prime minister is in the realms of being preposterous. The weekend also saw the police brutally assaulting doctors and peaceful protestors with scenes reminiscent of the Honda employees’ incident in Gurgaon. While whatever be the pre text of controlling a crowd, surely there are saner ways to deal with such a situation. Earlier this year, France saw similar scenes with the student community there up in arms against proposed legislation against the de Villepin government. However, the crowd control means employed by the French police was exemplary and our police force ought to take a leaf out the French ways of managing protests.

The past weeks protests have till now seen the anti-reservation protests all over the country. While this remains an issue of prime concern for the government, the more pressing concern is the waiting social unrest when the pro-reservation voices also take to the streets. The impending situation will certainly deteriorate the fragile balance that currently exists with the pro-reservation voice keeping a low profile at the moment. This potentially explosive situation has be on top of the Governments agenda apart from getting the crippled medical services back on track. As the days go by, the patients who are in desperate need of medical aid will need to be taken care of, this while the strike still goes on. The coming days don’t offer much hope unless of course the government comes with a credible plan to pacify both parties. However, today, the idea of a solution finding its way in the near future is wishful yet distant at best.

In all of this I do hope that the HRD minister also realizes that at the sunset of his political career his policies to change his image and become the messiah of the backward class will only ruin his political obituary. Couple that with the fact that I wonder if and when he is admitted in a hospital, which doctor will treat him, knowing fully well that this is the very gentleman that has caused grievous bodily harm not only to doctors but to the fragile balance of caste cauldron that exists in the country.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Enter: Left, Exit: UPA?

The assembly elections in the four states may just prove to be watershed for the ruling UPA. The Left, with no surprises expected in West Bengal, still managed to beat expectations with an impressive two-thirds of victorious candidates bagging the assembly. Oomen Chandy’s government on Kerala also was swept by the Left onslaught and now it seems that V.S. Achutanandan will become the chief minister of Kerala, provided the internal wrangling in the Left coalition do not resurface and hamper the consensus in their alliance. Tamil Nadu was the other decisive state going to the polls. And the state lived up to its reputation of cyclic approval followed by disapproval of the two main parties – the DMK and the AIADMK. The ‘wave’ of support that Amma got in the last elections seems to have evaporated in the Indian summer heat and the DMK is now set to install either Karunanidhi or his son Stalin as the chief minister in the state. Coupled with the victory in Pondicherry the DMK as emerged as the most powerful regional party south of the Vindhayas. It is pertinent to point out that DMK was in power in the NDA establishment and quit the alliance in favour of the Congress alliance before the elections in 2004. Many analysts believe that this crucial shift in the DMK’s poll affections ultimately brought the NDA down. The DMK has a succession plan also laid out with MK Stalin and Dayanidhi Maran the new rising ‘sons’ in the party known more for populist politics and dynastic succession. The exit of Jayalalitha will bring a fresh round of political vendetta and it is likely that the DMK will open old pending cases against her and try to being her to justice.

Clichéd as it may sound, there is no arguing the fact that the internal dynamics of the UPA will certainly be altered with these poll results. The prospect of an even stronger Left in the ruling alliance was on show yesterday, when the Petroleum Minister, Murli Deora actually sheepishly ‘appeared’ before the Left politburo to present his case for a price hike. The Left too realizing its increased say in the UPA rejected the minister’s proposal and the government was left looking a little inadequate with the Finance and Petroleum Ministers advocating a fuel hike and on the other hand the government remaining entirely mum on the decision. A similar situation was witnessed on the quota issue, with the HRD minister toeing one line and the Prime Minister, with no consensus amongst his own flock, looking a little out of his depth on the issue. Such situations are likely to become the norm with the emergence of alternate power centers in the government with the Left and DMK looking to assert its point of view and make it the policy of the UPA. The only consolation for the Congress is the fact that Sonia Gandhi won with an astounding 4-lakh votes, with all her opponents virtually decimated in the poll arena. However, before the Congress party begins to break open the champagne, they must realize that decisions and policies of the UPA may not start and end at 10 Janpath, as has been the norm, but may actually need the blessings of Chennai and Kolkatta for them to be meaningfully accepted and implemented by the UPA.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Pramod Mahajan : 1949 - 2006

Pramod Mahajan breathed his last at the Hinduja hospital at 4:10PM. After having battled for 12 days in an ICU and with multiple surgeries, the inevitable was waiting to happen. His death marks a serious blow for Indian politics and the BJP in particular. Having lost their Lakshman, the road to recovery seems that much more daunting. But today its not about politics and the BJP, its about a gifted person who rose from virtually nothing to scale dizzying heights only to fall to the bullets fired by his own brother. The nation has lost a talented politician who was the backbone of his party and was revered and hated by many in equal measure. I hope his family and his friends get over this loss but I also hope that it will be a moment when the nation stops and pays respect to a person who really did change how we looked at politicians and politics.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Qaeda Video Games

The past week saw the top leadership of Al-Qaeda featured on our TV screens. It is the first time that top the three operatives of the terror network came out with diverse messages but with the same tone and rhetoric as before. An audio tape of the Al Qaeda supreme Osama Bin Laden, criticized the West’s move to end funding to the Hamas led Palestinian Authority. This was a deliberate attempt by Bin Laden to show his ‘solidarity’ with the Palestinian people. For years, Al Qaeda has defended its attack on the West as a sort of reprisal attack for the West’s political and military support of Israel. The Hamas Government was quick to distance itself from the tape, for fear of not having Al Qaeda as its backers, and thereby vindicate the Wests’ stand that Hamas is a terror organization. Moreover, it was heartening to see the Palestinian people (hopefully a majority of them) also dismiss the tape as nothing more than a method by Laden to malign their cause for statehood. That Al – Qaeda is moving on to make political comments is evident, it is also noteworthy the increase in the frequency with which these tapes are appearing. More chillingly, unlike previous communications, Bin Laden has blamed the American people for their country’s foreign policy. Earlier attempts by Bin Laden saw him talking directly to the American people and asking them to tell their government to stop the war and oppression in Iraq and Afghanistan. Analysts fear that this warning call may lead to terror strikes on American soil.

The second tape, this time a video, was of the Al Qaeda number two and the chief idealogue of the movement, Ayman al Zawahiri. Apart from the other grand standing, now familiar with all such tapes, Zawahiri chose to speak specifically about the Indo-US nuclear deal and casting aspersions on it. It is indeed the first time that India has been featured in the terror ramblings of these tapes. Is no secret that Al Qaeda and its brand of Jihad have called the US, Israel and India as their major hits, for alleged ‘oppression’ of Muslims. While the Zawahiri tape will not succor the nuclear deal in anyway, this is the first time that India’s foreign policy and ties with the US has featured in the communication from Al Qaeda. Also, increasingly, Al Qaeda is moving from its terror fixation to passing sermons on foreign policy of Muslim nations, in a bid to make themselves the principal voice of Muslims the world over. The call by Zawahiri to the Pakistani Army to get rid of the American ‘poodle’ Musharraf is indeed a cause for concern. It is widely believed that rogue elements in the Pakistani Army who are ideologically close to the Taliban carried out the nearly successful assassination attempts on the President. The fact remains that love him or loathe him, Musharraf is our safest bet in Pakistan. The option of Muslim zealots taking over will only take the Indo-Pakistan peace initiative back a few notches and also threaten to escalate the Kashmir militancy.

The third tape, and by far the most interesting, featured the ‘Commander’ of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. An elusive figure, who became notorious for the brutal beheadings of Americans he carried out personally. The hunt for Zarqawi has seen the Americans devoting the 101st Airborne and Special Forces to kill or capture Zarqawi. In fact, last year’s virtual war to take back Fallujah had the clear intent of finishing Zarqawi off. But he proved elusive and managed to escape Fallujah “by a matter of minutes” according to American Generals in Iraq. There had been talk that Zarqawi had been replaced with an Egyptian terror suspect as the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. This tape is an attempt by Zarqawi to reassert his authority amongst the minority Sunnis in Iraq and in the Sunni Triangle in particular. He senses that in the eventuality of a full scale Civil War breaking out, the Sunnis will need a figure head to fight the Iraqi establishment which is Shia in majority. To some it seemed like a desperate attempt to show his importance to the world. Either way it is evidently clear that whether he still commands the Al Qaeda in Iraq or is another foot soldier is of academic interest, what is important is that he still out and about and is the most dangerous terrorist in Iraq at the moment.

The glaring alacrity with which Al Qaeda has been able to produce and route its propaganda to the Internet shows some semblance of networking and hierarchy in Al Qaeda. Post the Afghan and Iraq war the terror network and organization of the Al Qaeda had been somewhat dismantled. But now they seem to have restructured and are fairly ‘comfortable’ in their new headquarters. With the North West provinces and Balochistan proving to be the new terror capital, Al Qaeda has reformed and operating with relative ease, with the tacit understanding of the Pakistani Army, the ISI and the local warlords. The question of whether the leadership of Al Qaeda is dead or alive has now been emphatically answered with the latter, the new question is when will the next tapes appear, or has the signal to launch a fresh spate terror attacks already been given with these tapes that the world saw last week.