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

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Israel- Hamas standoff: Trouble Brewing

The Middle East is plunged into a new crisis after relative days of calm following the kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit. Militants close to the Hamas government made their way through to Israel across the Gaza strip by means of a secret labyrinth of tunnels to attack the Israel Defense Forces and kidnapping the 19 year old Shalit. This act of terrorism is the first major escalation of violence following the Gaza pullout by Israel and the Hamas land slide victory in the Palestinians elections. Post the Hamas victory both sides have been brow-beating the other into agreeing to their charter of demands. Israel, along with the EU and the US is firm on its demands that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel and recognize all pre standing agreements. Hamas on its part wants Israel to free the 10,000 Palestinians languishing in Israeli jails, withdrawal of the Israeli forces to the pre-1967 war borders and dismantling the settlements in the West Bank. As one can see, any areas of broad agreement or consensus on either’s sides’ demands are remote.

Trouble has been brewing in the disputed land for some months now, Ariel Sharon’s abrupt departure from the political scene in January left the Middle-East peace process in a lull, and further the defeat of Fatah was considered another blow for the peace process. The new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under tremendous pressure from within his party and his Government to pursue a tough line against the Hamas government which it considers to be a terror outfit. Also, he is keen to show himself as the heir to the Sharon legacy and carry his policies to their logical conclusion. The Gaza withdrawal and the border fencing project, both the brainchild of Sharon, have received impetus under Olmert. Similarly, the response to the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier bears the hallmark of a ‘typical’ Sharon response to such a crisis. However, the build up over the Gaza border and Israeli air force entering Syrian space is a sign of deeper Israeli motives. Yesterday, seven Hamas ministers including hardliners like Marwan Bargouti were arrested by Israel and many Hamas parliamentarians were kept in preventive detention. Israel is stepping up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to rein in Kahalid Meshaal, seen by many as the mastermind of the kidnapping. In doing so, Israel is going after the entire Hamas establishment and trying to virtually lock up the Hamas government in its custody. Ultra right wingers in Israel have always criticized the government for its Gaza withdrawal and that the step would lead to a more emboldened Hamas. The past few weeks seems to have vindicated their stand and now their voices seem to the more dominant one even managing to convince the dovish Defense Minister Amir Peretz. The Israeli agenda seems to be to take the Hamas leadership out and virtually make Palestinian President and close US ally Mahmoud Abbas the man who runs the country. In the Israeli scheme of things Abbas is a better bet for peace than the Hamas outfit and they consider Abbas a person they can “do business with”. The US has also defended the Israeli retaliation and it seems their understanding of the current situation is the same as that of Tel Aviv.

However, this simplistic view of taking Hamas out and anointing Abbas as the undisputed leader is fraught with peril. There is a real risk of a major escalation of violence in the region, with Palestinian groups like the Al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade and the Hezbollah stepping up attacks against Israel. Also, with provocative air assaults over Syria, Damascus may be tempted to help back any sort of civilian or militant uprising in the Palestinian territories. While it seems that Israel has made up its mind that working with Hamas is impossible, it will have to chalk out a clear strategy on how to deal with the potentially explosive situation which is gradually building up on both sides of the fence.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Tharoor Candidacy: Woefully Optimistic?

India has formally backed Shashi Tharoor as its official candidate for the UN Secretary General’s post which falls vacant at the end of the year. With Kofi Annan completing his second term in New York, a slew of candidates are throwing their hats into the ring and lobbying hard amongst the member states of the UN, especially the P-5 nations which hold the crucial veto votes. Tharoor, the suave career diplomat and writer, has served in the UN for over two decades; currently he is part of the Annan team as the Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information. His proximity to Annan will both boost and simultaneously hinder his chances at the top job. While there has been a broad agreement amongst member states that it the turn of Asia to get the Secretary General’s position this time that does not automatically make the election process for Tharoor any easier. Amongst the other contenders in the race are the Thai deputy PM Surakiart Sathirathai, South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki-Moon and Sri Lana’s former envoy to the UN and current close Annan aide Jayanta Dhampala. All these candidates have backings of one or more of the P-5 nations, and in the overall scenario, it is actually the P5 who will ultimately ‘elect’ a Secretary General.

The Tharoor candidacy while enjoying the backing of Indian government will not be an easy task. What with the so called Coffee Club comprising of nations like Pakistan and Italy firmly against the Indian candidature coupled with a demand by many nations to do away with Annan’s team completely and selecting a leader to take the UN in a new direction, Tharoor will have to drum up all the support he can from now till the October elections. Realizing that the Indian candidature may meet stiff resistance amongst the Security Council members like the US and China, India has decided to call for the process of electing a Secretary General to be shifted from the confines of the horse-shoe table to the UN General Assembly. In doing so, India hopes to drum up the support of the G 77 group of nations along with getting the NAM nations to back Tharoor. India will also get support from the African block of nations and the Indian calculation is that they stand a better chance in the general assembly than the Security Council. However, any expert on the UN will tell you that key decisions like finding a suitable Secretary General will not be handed out by the P5 to the general assembly, the Security Council would want to get a man most suited to its needs get the spot. In the prevailing situation it is unlikely that backing of the G77 and NAM will make the job of Tharoor any easier.

The US with its hawkish UN representative John Bolton has been asking for reforms in the UN in the post 9/11 world. They want the global body to become more proactive and take into consideration the post cold war and post 9/11 realities. They have argued that the sluggish pace of response by the UN on global issues often sees wars break out or massive human rights violations as is the case in Dafur in Sudan. They have also subtly tried to convey to the world body that in the post cold war era, the world must recognize the sole super power in the world will exercise unilateralism if it finds the UN to be dragging its feet. The unipolar reality came to the fore with the US war in Iraq which was in direct contradiction to the UN stand. The US-Annan relationship has also been bitter in the past few years. With the Oil for Food scam breaking out, many US diplomats were seen openly talking of a resolution to oust Annan. Bolton has indicated that the end of the Annan presidency should also usher the beginning of the new face of the UN lest it becomes a redundant body. In order to do so, they want to rid the new secretary general’s office of any Annan ‘remnants’. In such a situation, the chances of the US backing Tharoor are remote. India’s neighbors, Pakistan and China, will be wary of having an Indian at the top job; it is no surprise then that China has backed Sathirathai, while Pakistan’s UN envoy Munim Akram has talked about “fielding their own candidate”. As things exist at the moment there is a clear disconnect amongst the P5 on their ideal candidate for the job. The chances of Tharoor, with all his experience in the global body, are still remote at the outset and optimistic at best keeping in mind the prevailing global realities.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Oil Hike: The Rollback Drama

After many days of speculations and much political machinations, the government finally announced the hike in fuel prices of petrol and diesel. The response to the hike was well on the lines that the political parties had earlier stated. The Left has been the most vocal political outfit that has virtually condemned the government for its decision. Also the principal opposition party BJP and NDA have asked the government to look at the excise duties and a possible cut in the duties and pass the benefit to the oil PSU’s and the user. While this maybe a possible solution for the citizen and the PSU’s the possible move will have repercussions on the Government coffers and a dip in revenues. The government already having announced mega projects like the National Rural Guarantee Scheme and the now proposed increase in the number of seats and infrastructure to buffer the 27% OBC reservation in higher education will need all its reserves to make these schemes economically feasible.

The opposition has not only come from the usual suspects – the Left and the NDA, there have been some reservations expressed by the Congress itself. It is a clear indication that Sonia Gandhi has been trying to distance herself from her own government’s decision in order to maintain her messiah of the aam admi credentials. It was indeed ironical that just as Petroleum Minister, Murli Deora was admitting that he had no choice but to increase oil prices, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi was expressing his party’s displeasure over the hike. The Congress’ ploy to differentiate itself from the ‘government’s’ decision will not work, since the obvious question to be asked is that – if all the principal constituents of the UPA have opposed the oil hike and if the Congress itself is against it, then who took the call? Was it the prime minister and the finance minister – both Congress party members? Or was the decision based on a broad consensus by the UPA?

Another pertinent observation has come out with the oil prices rising and the sensex dipping. India is now part of a global community and with the world increasingly becoming flat, events taking place in the global scenario have a bearing on India and its citizens. The increased inflow of FDI’s and foreign capital have made India the preferred destination for investment and India has registered an astounding 8% growth rate. But one must remember that with the good comes the bad. Once there was a global meltdown in the global bourses, there was a similar effect on the Indian market as well. Similarly, the current middle east crisis in Iraq and Iran coupled with surging global demand for fossil fuels have sky-rocketed oil prices. This is a price to pay for being part of the global economy. We cannot take the best from the phenomenon of globalization like outsourcing of jobs etc. and expect not to be hit when oil hikes, wars and decisions of global implications are taken. The quicker we handle this reality the better equipped we will be to counter any such moves. India must take its role in the international scenario more seriously and ensure that we are in the scheme of things to ensure that citizens don’t bare the brunt of decisions that are not necessarily taken from the PMO. China has used its oil diplomacy and proximity to Iran on the nuclear issue to ensure uninterrupted supply of oil to its citizens. India as part of its need to meet energy demands have instead invested in the gas supply line from Iran, which is now mired in controversy and has also relied on the futuristic and highly ambitious Indo-US nuke deal. The deal as it turns out has become less about Indian’s energy needs, as was sold to the Indian population by the Indian government, and more about nuclear non-proliferation.

The standard demand for a roll back will not only hurt the already bleeding PSU’s but will further increase the disparity with global oil realities and its pricing in India. Whether it is a one-rupee rollback or more is immaterial, what is important is for every citizen to realize that these hikes will become the norm as demand surges and oil supplies have remained the same. Artificial subsidies will not work; prudent economic policies and clearly voicing India’s concerns in the global forums will prove better in the long run.