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

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pope's Panzer attack on Islam
Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Germany got mired in deep controversy over his speech at the University of Regensburg by passing controversial statements on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. While the remarks were not strictly his, but that of a 12th Century Byzantine emperor, the timing and the potential to cause angst amongst the Muslim community is quite evident. Further, the words from the leader of the Christian church on Islam were ill-timed and also irresponsible considering the political realities of the day. Also, by quoting an ancient figure of centuries ago, the Pope has seemed conservative and detached from realities and outlooks of the 21st Century. This at a time when the strain between the two biggest religions is clearly showing, with allegations on both sides arguing that the other is promoting extremist values to pursue a goal of greater penetration of their religious beliefs the world over – Muslims with their Jihad and Christians with their military pursuits. Moreover, the wider Christian world has always told its Muslim counterparts to part ways with extremism and give up its jihad against the western world. Christians have always argued that the likes of Al-Qaeda and the vitriolic jihadis are distorting the true picture of Islam. But when the leader of the church equates Islam with violence and Islam’s spread “by the sword of the faith he preached”, the ‘true’ mindset of Christians seems to be reflected. This duality in approach is sure to feed into the hands of religious extremists who are going to use this as another example of Christians wanting to spread their ‘crusade’ in the Muslim world by passing derogatory remarks on their religion and its Prophet.

Also, the entire incident raises another important question about the Christian church and the values it is propagating to its followers. Many find the Church as regressive and even oppressive, seen as propagating values that are disengaged with the world we live in. The Church’s approach towards AIDS and the use of condoms, its attitude towards abortion and allegations of forced conversions have left many followers disagreeing with its leaders. Further, with secularism spreading its wings in the former stronghold of Catholicism, Europe and America, the Vatican has always felt the need to find more followers in the third world and also to reiterate the core values of Christianity. In the process a great debate was initiated at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death on whether to elect a new Pope with new modern and moderate values, or to check the diminishing numbers of the faith by reinforcing the core Christian values. In the end, the latter won (at least according to the cardinals in the Vatican) and Joseph Ratzinger, the Panzer Pope, named after the German tanks of the 40’s, was elected to lead the Church into the 21st century. His recent comments on Islam are sure to re-ignite the debate on whether the election of Ratzinger was beneficial in the long run. Surely, a debate is needed to ensure that leaders of the two biggest religions in the world are representative of the beliefs of the majority in their respective religions. While the recent years following 9/11 have made Islam to be seen as a religion of ‘extremism’, the Pope validating such a notion only serves to harm inter-religion harmony apart from making the actions of a fringe few seem like the belief system of Islam itself.

The debate needs to initiated in the Islamic world itself, where they have to realize that today their religion is being hijacked by extremists and being passed off as the holy word. If the Muslim community extols the virtues of peace and brotherhood as the hallmarks of its religion, its perception in the non-Muslim world is the diametric opposite. A through deliberation on part of the community leaders and leaders of all major Islamic sects need to spread the idea of education and peaceful prosperity along with their religious beliefs as the urgent need of the hour, rather than bloodshed and violent confrontation that has unfortunately become synonymous with Islam.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Blair Legacy : Is there any?
After months of speculation embattled British Prime Minister Tony Blair finally announced his retirement plans. The most successful Labour leader in history has decided to step down within the next 12 months, without getting into a specific time frame about his imminent departure. His unpopularity and the public growing mistrust in his leadership was evident with the way several junior ministers resigned sighting a lack of confidence in his leadership. Also, poll after poll have shown that the Blair run is finally over and that its last lap is being seen by the world. Growing criticism for his domestic and foreign policy, most notably in Iraq, ensured that whatever chance of his political survival were dashed once his heir apparent the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, virtually asked Blair to give a set date or face a government meltdown. So, ten years into New Labour and three consecutive election victories later, has the dark shadow of Iraq doomed the premiership of one of the charismatic and at the same time reviled leaders of contemporary world history?
In 1997, Tony Blair was a 44-year-old leader who charmed the British public with lively public debates in Westminster and looked every bit the pretender to the throne. The only one who could challenge the 18-year reign of the ruling Conservatives. Ten years on and the wrinkles and furrows are not only earned by the age and travel, but also by the controversial and polarizing policies of his government. Any discussion on Blair would be incomplete without Iraq. Undoubtedly, the most divisive and unpopular policy of Blair has been on Iraq. His popularity and standing as a leader reached its nadir with the manner in which Blair aligned himself with President Bush and by extension Bush’s neo-con agenda. The unenviable title of a poodle was bestowed on Blair thanks to his unwavering support for the trans-Atlantic friendship. This rather one sided friendship seems to have ended badly not only for Blair but also for George Bush, who is seeing rock-bottom popularity polls on his leadership. The complete surrender of Britain’s foreign policy to the US was at show in the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg earlier this year when a mic accidentally left on recorded the exchange between Bush and Blair. Blair was seen taking Bush’s permission on whether to intervene in the recently erupted Israel-Lebanon conflict. Bush summarily dismissed his viewpoint and told him that Condoleezza Rice would handle it. The world saw the beginning of the end for Blair that very day. Further, his failure to ensure a clear exit strategy for British troops in Iraq further brought mistrust into the British voter about Mr. Blair’s intention in Iraq. His recent siding with the Americans on the Middle East crisis and his line on Iran’s nuclear ambitions have made him a virtual spokesperson for American rather than British foreign policy.

Apart from the obvious unpopularity of the war in Iraq, domestic policies and intra-party scandals have rocked the Blair government. Blair had won election after election with his “New Labour” mantra following the “third way” to break away from the traditional Socialist leanings of the Labour party to the more centrist and market oriented New Labour. However, a decade on, many of his policies saw the virtual bankruptcy of the National Health System, fewer spending on education and further increase in crime. More importantly, the ethnic strife in Iraq was not the only sectarian worries on Blair’s mind. The aftermath of the war in Iraq and the 7/7 bombings, along with unpopular measures like racial profiling have further alienated the diverse minorities that make up the UK. His regime saw the rise of home grown jehadis along with race violence and increased ghettoisation of the Muslim community. How Britain plans to tackle this after Blair and still into the war on terror remains to be seen. Also, a spate of ministerial goof ups and scandals left Blair red in the face many a times. Be it Deputy Prime Minister’s John Prescott’s love affairs or that of former Home Secretary David Blunkett, or the embarrassing situation of having your Foreign Minister Jack Straw openly dissenting on the Prime Minister’s foreign policy, Blair has seen it all.

But whatever the criticisms, Blair always will have a special place in most people’s minds. The very thought of young dynamic leaders, though plenty in the West, are a rarity in our part of the world. Every Indian looked at Blair and wished the day would come when young leaders decide the future of an emerging India. Also, under Blair, India did get special attention, and relations have been good with Blair at the helm. While Blair, may have decided to quit, ten years into the New Labour dream, the world is watching whether it will be more of the same under Gordon Brown. Or will history repeat itself and, after a 10-year Labour reign, will another young 40 year old, this time from the Tories, David Cameroon, beat the ‘boring’ Brown to live the “New Tory” dream. One shall see.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Student Politics : Time for Reform

Student bodies and unions have been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. The thuggery on display in Ujjain took the life of a professor who was opposing holding student body elections. The intimidation and eventual assault on the professors was covered by the media and one got to see first hand the ugly side of student politics. Student politics came of age in the seventies with many movements demanding rights and for socialist causes. Over the years the ‘student’ in student bodies was replaced with politicians of all colours and hues. With all major national parties having their student bodies, the politicization of student unions is complete. The national parties are using student politics as laboratories to extend their influence and also delve into a young vote bank for electoral gains. They have also in the process inculcated the sterling qualities of politicians – voter intimidation, violent confrontations, booth capturing, horse trading and of course corruption and the use money power.

A case in point is the Delhi University elections, which have been reduced to a farce with candidates each year proclaiming to do the exact same thing in their manifestos year after year. While many may argue that the one year tenure is too little to achieve anything concrete, the question arises that all these years could the student leaders not concentrate on this single issue and get a more workable time frame rather than fight over petty issues? Also, would it not be better if students raised issues on say the right to access the Internet or introducing newer courses etc. rather than indulge in arm-twisting and false promises?

The utter degradation of student politics was not exactly a hidden truth, but recent farcical election campaigns and violence has given it the necessary scrutiny. Student bodies are meant to represent student’s rights; at least that is what they claim. But when issues of student welfare and the very future of students is in question, all student parties are found wanting. During the recent reservation demonstrations, not one student political outfit came out in open support of the movement. It was left for umbrella groups to raise the concerns and demonstrate their angst. The government on its part had appointed former Chief Election Commissioner, J.M Lyngdoh, to propose election reforms for student bodies and statutory regulations on them. Lyngdoh recommended a cut in election spending and bans on posters etc. These steps work well for the election procedure itself, but the essence of the argument lies in what is the role of student politics and bodies in the first place? Is their role to be testing ground for a future in politics? Is it a fast way to grab power and legitimize thuggery? Is it to make the years spent by a student in college fruitful? Or is to voice student rights? To find one answer to that may be naïve, but the answer sure lies somewhere in between. Despite the fact that one may be critical of student bodies one cannot deny their role in a democracy and especially in a democracy involving young people. So one can also argue that the politics of today is now being reflected in the student version of the same as well. What student leaders see on television screens, with mud slinging and chair throwing, they feel is what politics stands for. So in an ironical sense the student leaders behavior is a creation of the politicians themselves.

One would be happy to see mature and reason based student politics but at the same time it is the job of the ‘big’ politicians to show them the way. Surely, one cannot be critical of students and not of the politicians who are pumping money and absurd notions about politics into these leaders. But with the tragic death of Prof. Sabbarwal there is a clarion call for reforming student politics, who does this – the government, the students, or college administration is debatable, but the time has come to rid ourselves of manufacturing goons and criminals in the name of student empowerment.