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

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Musharraf's Bugti Blunder
The killing of Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti has brought the issue of Balochi nationalism to the forefront of the international media while at the same time cause strife in Pakistan itself. The military attack on the strongman’s mountainous hideout killed not only Bugti but also other members of the tribe and Bugti’s own grandsons. What seemed like a military success operationally has turned the tables on Musharraf and his regime. The nationalist movement of the Baloch people dates backs many decades, in which many unrests, most notably in 1973, has led to widespread bloodshed on both sides of the conflict. While the army had been painting the erstwhile Chief Minister Bugti as a legitimate resistance leader, the fallout from his assassination has made the military issue statements clarifying that Bugti was never on their hit list. Bugti, famed for allegedly having killed his first human being at the age of 12, had adopted a confrontationalist view against Musharraf. He had openly defied orders for the Pakistani military to have access to the tribal heartland and vowed to fight the army tooth and nail. The Pakistan army has carried out numerous strikes in the region as part of its war on terror. The Pakistani’s have artfully used the pretext of Al-Qaeda and Taliban in its territories to fight a twin battle against the Baloch resistance and the Al-Qaeda movement at the same time. Critics argue that Pakistan is hoodwinking the western governments by targeting the Balochs while claiming to be fighting global jihad. Also the use of American weaponry and firepower against Pakistani nationals has sparked outrage in many edit columns and amongst political observers.

India has reacted to the killing of Bugti and has condemned the incident. Much to the chagrin of the Pakistani establishment, we have called Bugti an important national leader and a nationalist. The Pakistani foreign office has accused the Indian side of meddling with the internal affairs of a sovereign state. While Pakistan may reserve the right to be annoyed at India’s reaction, there is no doubt that Pakistan has been guilty of committing the same crime in Kashmir and other terror affected regions. Analysts also point out that India has been tacitly supporting the Baloch resistance. The proof of any such involvement by the Indians or RAW is still conjecture and no concrete evidence has ever been given. While it may just be that India is extending moral support for the Baloch, it is for the strategic interest of India to support the Baloch. However, supporting the Baloch movement has had a deadly repercussion post the war in Afghanistan. The constant fighting and the confluence of the nationalist resistance with the Al-Qaeda jihadis has ensured a safe haven for the Al-Qaeda leadership for their training, planning and most importantly shelter. This double-edged sword has being yo-yoing in and out of India’s favour as it has for the Pakistani government.

The Bugti assassination has undoubtedly caused the maximum harm to Musharraf. Already reeling under pressure from the West to do more to flush its territory clean of Al-Qaeda, there is additional pressure from the political establishment for him to give up his military uniform. The lull in the peace process with India and the links of the foiled airplane bombings and the 7/7 Mumbai blasts to extremists in Pakistan have ensured that Musharraf is not the usual boisterous leader we have become accustomed to see. The political parties are also now regrouping, albeit, in places like the UK and Saudi Arabia, with Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharief forging an alliance to fight the Musharraf backed current Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. Aziz himself is facing a no confidence motion in the assembly and senate against his leadership. Musharraf, though under pressure to express regret over the assassination of Bugti, has no option but to congratulate his army for fear of a military coup to replace him. This precarious situation means uncertain times for Pakistan, which is increasingly looking like a country on the brink, with too many contradictions pulling themselves in opposite directions and with the leadership increasingly looking under duress and lacking public support. The tensions on the streets of Karachi and Islamabad may die down, but the political ramifications of this latest incident will further menacingly destabilize the country, a sign for India to keep all eyes on its volatile neighbor for the moment.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Hair Again: Just not cricket

The fourth Test between England and Pakistan got mired in unprecedented controversy with the Pakistani side refusing to take field after the tea session on day 4. The apparent angst of the Pakistani side was the decision taken by the on-field umpires – Darrell Hair and Billy Doctrove regarding ball tampering by the Pakistani team. The registered protest against the decision saw the team virtually boycott the final session of the match and ultimately led to the ICC awarding the match to England after declaring that the Pakistanis had forfeited. This is not the first time that Hair has been in the middle of a cricketing controversy; in fact he is a regular hell-raiser with many teams, especially those of the sub-continent. The most famous of spates came in Sri-Lanka-Australia Series in 1995, where offie Mutthiah Muralitharan was no-balled repeatedly for chucking. Many have questioned Murali’s bowling action, but the whole issue of chucking came to light thanks to Hair’s actions. While the media in the sub-continent were quick to cast Hair as a racist, the Australian and western media were of the view that Murali’s action does warrant some correction. The controversial Hair has once again resurfaced and has drawn a wide range of reactions from the world over. However, in defense of Hair, one could argue that ultimately, the decision taken by the on-field umpires is final; any redressal of the decision should be taken at appropriate levels rather than resorting to dissent. Concurrently, once can also argue that Hair has to be some sort of an eagle eye to come to a judgment on whether the five and half ounces of leather was tampered with or not!

This issue has moved on from the playing field to the larger cultural turmoil and misunderstandings that we live in. The entire controversy would have been a non-starter of sorts had it not been for an Asian, and more pointedly a Muslim nations, team taking on the mostly Christian English side. While I would be the last person to advocate such a thought process, to type cast sportspersons on basis of religion, it is an uncomfortable truth all of us have to deal with. The past few weeks saw the threat of British-Pakistanis wanting to blow up airplanes. Also the 7/7 bombings still remain fresh in every one’s minds. Couple this with the broad sense of victimization the Muslim community feels post 9/11, and you have situation where a sporting controversies becomes the clichéd clash of the civilizations. The refusal to take the umpire’s decision in their stride gave a sense of rigid intolerance towards decisions not going your way to the largely white audience. To their minds this is what they equate Islam with – rigidity and intolerance. This mindset allowed many spectators to boo the Pakistani side without understanding the nuances of the hold up in play. Likewise, the umpire’s objection to the alleged ball tampering was seen by the Pakistani side as the white man being unjust to them because of who they are and where they come from. So, the incident in a very ironic sense displayed the times we live in, a time of misunderstandings and growing intolerance towards religions, ethnicities and race.

A Black September Militant

Purists would like to refrain from getting politics into sport. But realistically, any sport historian would point to the innumerable examples of national and international politics and events having an effect on sport. The boycott of the Berlin Olympics by the allied group of nations during World War 2, or the ban on the South African cricket team during the Apartheid era are well
documented. More sinisterly, the massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich during the 1978 games by the Palestinian group Black September have haunted sport till date. The Indians did not play Pakistan for many years during the hostilities in the late nineties.

As one can see at no time in sporting history has politics and global realities not affected the sporting field. The quicker one accepts it; more quickly can one use sport as a tool to disarm mental hostilities and biases against one another. Till then more Zidane’s will heat-butt Materazzi’s and more teams will walk out when they feel wronged just because they belong to a region or religion.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The month long fighting in the Middle East finally ceased on Monday with the UN mediated ceasefire under its resolution 1701 calling for cessation of all military and armed offensives in the territory of Lebanon. With the ceasefire came a collective sigh of relief for the millions displaced by the month long conflict and finally it seems that those displaced will return home – or whatever is left of them. The world has condemned the inaction of the UN in bringing all parties on board fast enough and to broker a ceasefire earlier than when it finally came through. Such ineffectiveness on part of the UN will further make it look like a slumbering organization that takes decisions that are too little too late and lacking credibility in the hearts and minds of many people in the world. The repeated failures to act in Darfur and come out with a resolution on Iran and North Korea have sullied the global body's standing. Further, with the delay in taking action in Lebanon they have further pushed themselves to near redundancy. While, the UN remains the largest humanitarian organization in the world, its influence in the world of politics and international affairs has diminished post the Cold War.

However, the biggest loss in the low-grade war that one witnessed in the Middle East has been undoubtedly Israel. Israel, under Ehud Olmert, started the war on a strong footing with a justified retaliation to the capture of its two soldiers by Hezbollah militants. Any country must have the right to protect its territorial integrity and its citizens. This is exactly what the Israelis did. Unfortunately, in a bid to boost his credentials as a Sharon acolyte and a tough premier in his mentor’s mould, Olmert went overboard with the relentless strike on Beirut, Tyre and other Lebanese towns and infrastructure. The massacre of 28 children in Qana further isolated Israeli action in the eyes of the world as reprehensible.

There are many in the Israeli Right that are now asking for the Defense Minister Amir Peretz’s (the Labor Party leader and known dove in the current establishment) resignation following the inability of the IDF to crush Hezbollah emphatically. Also, by the end of the ceasefire, the Israeli army’s twin objective of unconditionally rescuing its two kidnapped soldiers and the decimation of Hezbollah remained unfulfilled. This while the standing of Hezbollah and that of its leader Hassan Nazarallah has been hailed as the custodians of the so-called ‘Arab pride’. Not only could the Hezbollah mange to ward of all Israeli incursions, they retained their ability to hit hundreds of rockets into Israel till the ceasefire came into effect. However, all the talk of how Hezbollah and Nasrallah have been able to restore Arab pride in the region, has been put to perspective by New York Times columnist
Thomas Friedman. Friedman, rightly points out to the fact that the day after the ceasefire, many Lebanese are going to look at their crushed homes and lives and ask whether this was worth the ‘pride’ that Hezbollah claims to be fighting for. Hezbollah has promised to rebuild all lost homes and provide shelter to returning residents in the South of Lebanon and Beirut. But surely there will be many who will ask, why bring on death and destruction voluntarily in order to back a group that is purely in the proxy war against Israel at the behest of Syria and Iran?

This war has also been the first of sorts in which a proxy war has been waged by two allies for their ‘big brothers’. The US intended to back this war and Israel on the pretext of getting back at Iran and Syria for their confrontationalist policies and their role in the insurgency in Iraq. Syria and Iran, on the other hand, are keen to demonstrate their larger role in the Middle East and world politics. The speech by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Arabic

journalists on Tuesday was more a victory speech and a tacit acknowledgement of the role Syria played in helping Hezbollah in its fight against the Israelis. The Syrians and Iranians' determined backing of Hezbollah in terms of arms and monetary support helped them fight Israel, the strongest army in the Middle East. The US cannot engage in another war in the region as it is bound militarily, economically and morally with its twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is looking at allies that can further its cause for the 21st Century to become ‘Freedom’s Century’, a euphemism one wonders that actually means American hegemony. So the future of the Middle East will see more proxy wars and low-grade incursions that will be used to ‘settle scores’. With peace looking like a distant dream, the war in the past months has certainly outlined a previously unknown fact, that Hezbollah is a force to reckon with and that the dominance of the Israelis in the region, although undisputable, is at the same time vulnerable with foes like Hezbollah and Hamas and backers like Syria and Iran.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Oil for Thought: Why was the Congress let off?
The much-awaited Pathak Commission report investigating the Oil for Food scam managed to create the anticipated political uproar that was witnessed. The report’s findings were a trifle mysterious in its virtual exoneration of the Congress Party and a ‘clean chit’ of sorts to Natwar Singh and his son Jagat Singh in any financial kickbacks that they are alleged to have received. However, Natwar Singh has been accused of misusing his power and influence in the erstwhile Baath regime to lift oil from Iraq. Expectedly, the conduits, Andaleeb Sehgal and Aditya Khanna were found guilty of having received the kickbacks. The report is odd, as it has cleared the Natwar family of having received any money when there is an ongoing investigation by the Enforcement Directorate into the economic offences or abetment to those offences having been carried out by Natwar and Jagat. Also, the report clears the Congress’ name without even serving a formal notice to the party whose name figures as non-contractual beneficiaries in the original Volcker report. The question being asked by a broad spectrum of political hues is that how is it that the Congress is exonerated without having faced the Commission (except an informal visit by Moti Lal Vohra to the commission) while Natwar is guilty of misusing his power? Also, if Natwar is guilty of having ‘facilitated’ the four million barrel contract to Sehgal and Masefield, then what became of the four million barrels lifted by Masefield in the name of the Congress Party?

These questions along with the embarrassment of having an ex-foreign minister and Gandhi loyalist cast aspersions on the current Finance Minister have made the entire Congress descend into a collective hush of sorts. The BJP has gained with the issue after their own equally embarrassing ‘mole’ fiasco. While this current Monsoon session seems doomed to adjournments, this issue will continue to rage outside parliament as well. The entire controversy has acquired an additional dimension with the apparent leak of the report to the media prior to it reaching the prime minister or the parliament. According to some theories doing the rounds, the Congress, in a bid to get the good news of its exoneration out, went out and got the report leaked. While some say that a person within the Pathak Commission leaked the report to the media. While all this remains mere hearsay, the leak itself is serious in nature and needs to be investigated. Also, with the Left and the Right of the political divide virtually junking the report as an exercise to save the Congress, a more serious investigation involving an investigative agency like the CBI seems to be in the offing. Even as the entire issue has sprung many surprises along its 10-month infamy, Natwar Singh’s careers surely looks in the doldrums or on its decline. How he recovers from this setback is keenly watched, will he let loose and spill the beans, will he join another political party, or will he keep a dignified silence and gracefully exit remains to be seen. But the Oil-for Food scandal remains a major embarrassment for the government and the Congress in particular after many blushes on its policy and reform front.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Dalmiya’s Ultimate Guide for Survival

Jagmohan Dalmiya, Indian cricket’s Machiavelli and notorious survivor got a fresh lease of life when he narrowly won the presidency of the Cricket Association of Bengal by a slim 5-vote margin. Had Dalmiya lost this election to the Kolkata Police Commissioner Prasun Mukherjee, he would have been out of power from all major posts that he has held for the past 15 odd years in cricket’s national and international organizations. Ever since Dalmiya surfaced as a Cricket administrator there have been allegations about his style of functioning, his wheeler-dealer ways and his coercive attitude towards state cricket boards and clubs. Add to that broken friendships and allegations of corruption and you have a complete saga with all the elements of a Bollywood potboiler. The spat between Dalmiya and I.S. Bindra is part of cricketing folklore which saw Mohali, arguably one of the best stadiums in the country, being virtually blacklisted from the venues to hold international matches. Now, with I.S. Bindra in the current ruling faction, the knives are drawn out against Dalmiya. The troika of Pawar-Bindra-Dugarpur has been actively pursuing corruption charges against Dalmiya in the PILCOM case during the 1996 World Cup. Also, with the CPM overtly supporting their Police Commissioner for the CAB presidency, Dalmiya had his back against the wall. Whether the charges of corruption are proven against Dalmiya is eagerly awaited, what the CAB polls have thrown up is the level of politicization of sport, cricket in particular, that exists.

Budhadeb Bhattacharya’s diatribe against Dalmiya, where he equated his candidate as ‘good’ versus Dalmiya as ‘evil’ was unnecessary. The unsavory remarks drew flak from the grand old man of the CPM, Jyoti Basu as well and paradoxically helped Dalmiya in gaining public support as the oppressed rather than the oppressor. To see the level of politicization of cricket, one need not look far, the current President of the BCCI, Sharad Pawar, is the old war-horse of the NCP and Indian politics in general. As Agriculture Minister one wondered whether he would be able to don the mantle of cricket’s top administrator along with his crucial portfolio. As one saw price rise in food grains and farmer suicides, the doubt turned to firm belief that more work and time needs to be devoted by the honorable minister to his ministry rather than his cricketing ambitions. Further, while a debate rages about the Office of Profit in Parliament one wonders is the President of the BCCI with all his perks and first-class air travel not an Office of Profit?

While politician’s fascination with sport has been legendary, with prominent politicians heading various sporting bodies, the utter mismanagement by these politicians has been routinely brought to the fore and debated when failure after failure is seen at the international sporting events. While there is no arguing that politics and politicians have been part and parcel to sport, their resulting mismanagement has been duly and timely highlighted of late. Do sportspersons make better administrators than politicians? I think the jury is still out on that question. Either way, one fact is emphatically clear, politicians will remain part of sport for some time to come. Rather than fighting that inevitability one would be strongly advised to hold them more accountable rather than join the chorus of debate that’s has no seeming conclusion.