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

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Two death sentences and a controversy
The Delhi High Court finally gave justice to Priyadarshini Mattoo in the sensational rape and murder case involving Santosh Singh, son of former cop J.P. Singh. The ruling, a landmark of sorts, overrode the earlier judgment passed by the trial court, in which the judge rather impotently let Singh go free although the judge was convinced that Singh had indeed committed the crime. The trial judge also admonished the investigative authorities and the prosecution for a shoddy job done in the case. The case, which seemed set to go into the cold storage, was revived thanks to the national outrage caused by the acquittal of the accused in the Jessica Lal case. The Mattoo judgment will certainly go a long way in reassuring the nation’s citizens that justice can be given to the victim, albeit rather late and with lots of public pressure and media attention thrown in. Further, the death sentence in itself will ensure that a sense of ‘real’ justice has been delivered for a crime that has been rightly billed as ‘rarest of rare’. But like in any independent judiciary and a democratic setup the guilty has a right to appeal and it is likely that the case may drag on and ultimately knock the doors of the Supreme Court. That said, the very fact that the Delhi High Court has delivered on its job and with the father of deceased finally looking satisfied will go a long way in regaining public support for the pillars of Indian democracy that seemed to have been shaken post the Jessica Lal judgment.

Another death sentence was handed in another high profile case to Mohammed Afzal, the main accused in the dastardly attack on the Indian parliament in 2002. The judgment has had a mixed reaction by the media and the intelligentsia in the country. Many firebrand politicians, leaning to the right or far right of Indian politics, welcomed the judgment and hailed it as a necessary deterrent to any future attacks on democracy and its vital institutions. On the other hand, a mix of social scientists and activists has voiced an opinion against the hanging order. Most notably, Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize-winning novelist and social activist have faulted the Indian justice system and have raised the voice against capital punishment. Observers have also argued on the ‘efficacy’ of capital punishment as many studies have indicated that it does not serve as a deterrent to avoid crimes. While still others argue that will justice not be denied to the families of the braves who fought off the parliament attack. A simplistic answer to a complex argument seems foolhardy. Afzal’s case does fall under the rarest of rare cases and for that he must be hanged. As a nation that is under constant attack from hostile neighbours and victim of the global jihad for years, a strong message needs to be sent out to the world and terror perpetrators that India will not lets its democracy and its institutions be harmed or attacked. More so, many have argued that the ruling will cause great anguish and an uprising in Jammu and Kashmir. The argument is fraught with danger as it amounts to saying that the people of Jammu and Kashmir support the actions of Afzal and hanging him would make him a ‘martyr’. Leaving aside a minority one can reasonably argue that the people of J&K will be only too happy to see such a man go to the gallows in order to help their youth move away from the notion of martyrdom made so infamous by Jihadi propagandists like bin Laden. Martyrdom means dying for one’s country, and not by trying to destroy it.

The controversy surrounding the Afzal hanging aside, the Mattoo and Afzal judgments, though similar in outcome have elucidated a curiously differing response. For Mattoo, a 23-year-old student raped and killed, the death sentence has been received with great relief and a feeling of vindication. As for Afzal, a terrorist who was willing to wage war against the State, the response has been one of doubt and a feeling of victimization for the accused. This when the justice delivery system in both cases was delivered by the same penal code and by the same courts. Then why is it that we doubt once judgment while welcoming the other when the outcome remains the same? One would like to see the same amount of press coverage and outspoken critique of the Mattoo judgment vis-à-vis capital punishments. Will any activist openly come out and oppose Santosh Singh’s death sentence? One thinks not. Is it because the family of the Mattoo’s, Lal’s and Katara’s can get time on air and be pursued by the press while those of the brave men and women who laid down their lives to protect the State are, to put it crudely, not important enough to pursue to make them seek justice?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The War in Iraq : Time for a pullout?

The War in Iraq is getting bloodier and makes for grim reading for the Bush Administration and more importantly for the families of the fallen both in the US and Iraq. The month of October has proven to be the bloodiest in terms of body bags for the coalition and the Iraqi police. The realities on the ground are clear – Iraq has descended into civil war and the it is the militias rather than the Iraqi Government that is in charge. Countless media reports have now shown that the Mehdi Army loyal to the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Brigade loyal to the Shia grouping SCIRI are now in control of vast areas of the Shia dominated South, Central and the East of the country. The Sunnis backed mainly by the Al-Qaeda and remnants of Saddam’s Baath Party are now competing for territory in Iraq. The Iraqi Police and defense forces have been reduced to the status of bystanders, chillingly, just waiting to be blown up by either warring faction for being loyal to the ‘infidel’ Coalition forces. Last week’s siege of the southern city of Amarah by the Mehdi Army was another example of the control exerted by the militias and the level of sophistication available to them thanks to the generous backers in Tehran and Damascus. The situation as it exists is untenable and a major military shift in US policy is urgent and necessary.

The response of the beleaguered White House has been to call in the Generals and take stock of the situation at hand. Reports indicate that Bush is going to “stay the course” and a pullout is not in the offing anytime soon. While the gung-ho attempts to remain committed to Iraq is applaudable, clearly a tectonic shift is required at the Pentagon and in Iraq to salvage what is left of the country. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld has been getting the necessary backing to stay in office by Bush and the far-right of the Republicans. While his planning for war has been impeccable his plan for keeping the peace has been dismal. Retired Army generals who have served under him are clearly asking for his ouster. Citing poor planning, inadequate troops on the ground and mismanagement leading to the Abu Ghraib scandal as some of the reasons that the Generals are seen backing away from their former boss. Some argue that the same Generals okayed the very plans they are now blaming Rumsfeld for having conjured up. As with any war, politics is the first shot to be fired. Republicans are blaming Democrats for backing such Generals and financing their airtime. Democrats are countering the Republicans by saying the war in Iraq was ill planned and the time has become for a re-think in strategy.

Bush on his own has also added fuel to the ‘change in course’ fire by accepting comparisons between the situation in Iraq and the famous Tet offensive in Vietnam that ultimately turned public sentiment against the unending war in Vietnam. The chorus has been rising within his administration to change course or face further backlashes at home and admonishment from the Islamic states for furthering a blood bath in Iraq. Bush’s response has been, well, vintage Bush, he has vowed to “stay the course” even if the only one’s backing him are “Laura and my dog Barney”. Such dwindling support for Bush is fast turning into reality and a course correction or a sobering reality check in equal measure is urgently needed.

It is pertinent to analyze the options that are available to the Coalition for its future in Iraq. Al-Qaeda and Jihadists were itching for the war to start in Iraq to reduce it to the quagmire it has now become. It has become a clarion call against the ‘crusade’ being carried out by Bush. A visible propaganda agenda for the group. The Coalition had also had made it seem that the elimination of the former commander of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would ultimately finish Al-Qaeda from Iraq. There lies the inherent flaw in the understanding of the Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is now a global movement and not a terror outfit. They work on a decentralized network of cells akin to Special Forces units of all major Armies. Killing one commander of Al-Qaeda will only lead to another one taking charge, as Abu Hamza al-Masri has done. Al-Qaeda can only be defeated if a sustained and unified offensive takes place against them by Islamic armies or population itself. Currently, with Shia-Sunni tensions reaching alarming proportions a sustained unified effort is unlikely. As for the militias on the ground, the Americans are to share the blame for not doing enough to contain clerics like Sadr. Further the alienation felt by the Grand Ayotollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest priest of the Shias in Iraq, has further moved the Shias away from the Coalition. More significantly, by allowing Sadr to take part in the recently held elections has only given political legitimacy to the militant movement. In such a scenario where a party, whether Shia or Sunni, that is in charge of Parliament on the one hand is also in charge of the street through strong arm tactics is a democracy for the delusional.

The need to engage Iraq’s neighbors and the key backers of various warring factions is a must. The Bush administration will have to forego history and a little pride and will have to talk to Damascus and Tehran. By keeping these two key players out of Iraq, it is only helping them fuel a covert system of backing the Islamic radicals in Iraq. A former Secretary of State once commented that in diplomacy you don’t talk to friends, you talk to your enemies. In the case of Iraq, the Americans are seen only talking to their friends rather than take Iran and Syria on board to get some achievable results in Iraq. White House officials do confirm secret meetings between the US and Iran on Iraq, but understandably, the US will not hold pubic conversations with Iran with their current face-off on Iran’s nuclear programme.

The other key facilitator in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia. Good relations between Bush and the house of Saud run generations back. Although, of late, the relationship between the two have soured post 9/11 and the War in Iraq. King Abdullah has been keen to shed his image as a friend of the US and has buckled under pressure from the religious Wahabis in the inner circle to gradually wean its relations with Washington. This led to US forces relocating in Bahrain and also to a further chill in the two countries relations. With the Saudis now not actively interested in peace, and with a majority of the Sunni militias getting its backing from Saudi financers, the road to peace is further winding. The UN is not interested in cleaning the mess the US created. It has lost too mush time and personnel in Iraq, with the bombings of its headquarters in 2003 killing its chief envoy, Sergio de Mello.

In such a tenuous situation, no single solution seems fit for use. A gradual troop withdrawal and maybe introducing a peacekeeping force under the aegis of the Arab League can help quell some of the violence. Then again the question of a federal re-structuring of Iraq, a plan backed enthusiastically by the Kurds, is always on the table. However, partitioning the country will never be acceptable to Bush, who will for all times to come be held responsible for the breakup of a secular though dictator state. But failing to find a credible solution will relegate Bush to the list of war-mongering leaders who knew war but could never make peace. That reality is now beginning to show on Bush.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Where’s the RTI for the media?

The Right to Information Act of 2006 has been a watershed in Indian democracy by increasing transparency on how the government carries out the function of governing and policy decision making. The Act has been well received despite its teething troubles and the crucial question of whether to include file notings in the purview of the act. Those troubles aside, in principle, the legislation will go a long way in introducing a greater degree of transparency, which as stated is the hallmark of any democratic system. Moreover, the act also empowers the citizen, who is now armed with a law, which can hold his government and public servant accountable for actions and decisions taken. However, one wonders whether the present law can be modified to include another pillar of democracy, which of late has played the role of an errant boy, in our current set-up – the media.

The opening up of the media space has ushered the floodgate of information that is now available to the viewer or reader. This increased media presence has played a crucial role in highlighting issues that were earlier overlooked or un-reported. Gone are the days when the staid old Doordarshan would be the only source of information to the general audience. The major disadvantage of the state run media was that accusations were offer laid on it for helping or supporting the ruling dispensation. Now, with channels and newspapers galore the government and all major sections of the ruling elite maintain a healthy fear of being exposed by the media for their acts of omission and commission. But this relentless pursuit of information and news has reached a breaking point of sorts. 24-hour news channels and tabloid sections of newspapers are looking for ‘news’ where none exists. Many a times one wonders whether what one is watching is exactly news or the twisted views of voyeur being caught by the lens of a camera. Shameful news stories have appeared where media persons have actively encouraged people to immolate themselves so that that they can get that famed ‘exclusive’. The word exclusive itself has become the most abused term in the media, with even a press conference of someone important being passed of as an exclusive. Also, one has noticed an increased sense of ‘dumbing’ down of the media and stories.

Journalists argue that we are addressing an audience that watches such news stories and ultimately if there is a demand then there is a news channel that is willing to fulfill it. The argument is flawed as the media prides itself in educating the ordinary viewer about what is the state of the nation and also let them know about how our country is being run. Surely showing biased news stories and writing motivated columns does not uphold to that principle. However, any mention of any sort of regulation on the media is downrightly termed as a move to curb freedom of expression. No democratic setup will ever advocate any sort of move that undermines the very principle of democracy – freedom of expression. But many still raise eyebrows on how motivated stories appear at the whims and fancies of journalists. If the truth has to emerge then the personal views of the journalist are immaterial, that should be left for the opinion makers and the edit page, not for ‘news’. Today, if one flips through any channel all one sees are views and not news based on hard facts. The media needs to encourage self-regulation to improve its lot before the pursuit of TRP’s and eyeballs makes them redundant. Madhu Trehan, a veteran journalist from the ‘Newstrack’ days recently spoke out on a panel discussion on NDTV about the way editorial space in a national daily was being “sold”. Such alarming views and that too from the fraternity itself warrants some sort of attention and frankly grave introspection.

Traditional media will also have to come to terms with the fact that people interested in the news are now relying on non-conventional innovative ways to get their daily dose. News blogs, podcasts, independent news portals and citizen journalism are fast becoming the core source of getting the news. In a way, if traditional media does not get over its biases on these newer information outlets the cat will be out of the bag on facts overlooked and facts not reported as they exist. A case in point has been the recent Barak controversy involving George Fernandes and now the UPA and the Navy. When the CBI charge-sheeted Fernandes all hell broke loose on how outdated and flawed the Israeli Barak missiles were and how good the indigenous Trishul system would have been had it not been discouraged by Fernandes. Now, with the Trishul project itself in the doldrums the media is blaming the DRDO on the long delays and the virtual redundancy of the Trishul as it has been in the planning for the past 20 odd years. A more prudent analysis of the weapon systems in question was never delved into and only quick sound bytes from disgruntled members on both sides were aired and passed of as facts. To top it all what has been appalling has been the manner in which the current Defense Minister and the UPA have been blamed for doing a flip-flop on Barak and Trishul. Never was analysis done what are the requirements of the Navy and the armed forces in general on its needs and how the two systems fared when squared off against one another. Quite frankly, this bandwagon style of journalism will soon start getting flak with people relying on independent sources to get to the truth.

There is not denying the fact that the strong criticism against the media does not in any way take away the good that is being done by them. The Jessica Lal case and now the Mattoo verdict has been the work of the media to make the stories of the slain remain centre stage in public consciousness. Also, a replacement for the media by news blogs and web portals is still a way off with most people in the country relying on the good old ways of getting their news. But with each passing sting operation and media hype around issues that seem to die a mysterious death, the media houses need to do a thorough analysis of where they stand today. Fact checking and the veracity of sources is a must in any story. Lessons need to be learnt on the Valerie Plame issue that rocked the media and polity in the US, where New York Times journalist Judith Miller had to spend time in jail for not revealing her source that put Plame at a serious risk of bodily harm. An intense debate has raged since on what constitutes as journalism in the interest of the people and what amounts to biased reporting that can harm people. Such introspection is acutely needed amongst the luminaries in the field before some sort of legislation on how transparent the news organizations are in making news stories is forced on them or worse still before the news starts looking like an episode of Saas-Bahu and nothing more.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Paging Republicans : Troubled Times Ahead

The political temperature at Capitol Hill in Washington has been red-hot since the revelations of former Congressman from Florida, Mark Foley’s child abuse scandal and charges of pedophilia surfaced on ABC News service a few weeks back. The charges against Foley relate to him sending obscene and sexually suggestive instant messages to pages in the Congress. Pages are teens employed as interns at Capitol Hill for them to carry out courier services and also to expose these young minds to how the legislative government machinery of the world oldest democracy works. As it turns out, if the charges are proven, the Page system itself will need an overhauling to avoid teens from becoming victims of prying eyes and thoughts of Senators and Congressman. What has been most appalling in the Foley scandal, has been the fact that Foley himself was a ‘champion’ against child abuse and was on various sub-committee’s to introduce legislation to ensure child safety against domestic violence and sex crimes. Foley’s own involvement in the crime he was trusted to prevent augurs very badly for all politicians on both sides of the divide on how to tackle the menace of child abuse in this day and age of the internet and unsupervised web exposure by children.

But like all scandals this too has taken a political hue. Understandably, the Democrats have been accused of raking up this issue when the House of Representatives is to undergo mid-term elections on November 5th. Republicans, with their backs against the wall are hitting back at the Democrats by accusing them of having prior information of Foley’s outrageous behaviour but keeping a lid on it till election fever sweeps the country, thereby, exposing more Page’s to further possible abuse by Foley. Democrats, now sensing that they can wrestle back the Congress from the Republicans have found another pet issue of moral values that the Republicans champion and are turning the tables with the Foley fallout. They have also insisted that the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert knew about the instant messages and salacious e-mails prior to its expose by ABC. They are also demanding that the speaker owe up to his oversight and resign. Hastert, the longest serving speaker, is himself in a bind, for if he resigns it is a tacit acceptance of his guilt, on the other hand, if he stays the issue remains at the forefront of national debate and media attention. The sitting Congressman and Senators who are fighting to save their seats are avoiding the controversy and detaching themselves from any knowledge of the alleged crime. Some have asked for Hastert to resign, if found guilty of complicity or abetting, charges which are far from proven at the moment. But for Hastert, the former wrestling coach, these are testing times.

President George Bush has been vocal in condemning the Foley scandal and has been quick to distance himself from the politics of Capitol Hill. But he too knows that the scandal will have leave a mark on the mid-term polls and it is likely that the core support base of the Republicans – evangelical Christians and Christian conservatives will have doubts on the high moral ground the republicans talk about during election but fail to live up to those values once in office. Also as Democratic Senator Joe Biden, articulated on CNN’s Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, even without the Foley scandal, the Republicans were in trouble with the War in Iraq, the Iran nuclear issue, North Korea and on domestic issues of rising gun-related crime in schools and oil prices. President Bush has been hitting back at critics of the Iraq war and have accused Democrats of advocating a policy of “cutting and running”, he insists, that the American Marines should stay the course and get the job finished. While, one would not advocate an immediate pullout of the quagmire that has become Iraq, a change in policy is urgently required. Former Secretary of State, James Baker, who has just returned from a fact-finding mission in Iraq, has painted a grim picture about the country’s future and its present sectarian strife. Baker’s report echoes what analysts and politicians alike have been saying for the better half of this year, that Iraq is in a low-grade civil war. Increased troop levels or the division of Iraq on sectarian autonomous zones remain the two credible options. While the former is the needed to save the country from breaking-up the latter offers a more long-term peace prospect. Both these notions have been ignored by the Bush White House, and with a lack of an alternative strategy Bush’s own political standing has been severely diminished. With talks on the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue seeming further from resolving Bush’s foreign policy will have a severe effect on the Republican party’s chances.

Moreover, Bush has always painted himself and the Republicans as the moral lighthouse of America. Bush’s tough line on abortion and on embryonic stem cell research have won him accolades from the Christian right. But, with the Foley scandal severely eroding the party’s moral standing, it seems that the last bastion of the Republicans that has remained their stronghold in the Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, finally seems to have been breached. It is unlikely that the Republicans will hold on to the House of Representatives and that can severely effect the maneuvering space the new Democrats controlled Congress will offer to Bush. There are tough times ahead for the Republicans and the Congress who are wondering whom to blame – Foley, the current whipping boy or Bush, the perennial one.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

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The Joint Anti-Terror Mess

The key outcome at the recently concluded NAM summit Havana, Cuba, at least the one generating maximum interest in India, was the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Their subsequent joint statement and the setting up of the Joint Anti Terrorism Mechanism also raised the importance of their summit meet. The ambitious programme will soon see Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies and other key players in defense and internal security ‘jointly’ manage terror and share its pre-attack intelligence to safeguard on both sides. The move marks a paradigm shift in India’s approach to terror and more specifically towards the Pakistan sponsored variety of cross border terror.
In committing to this one mechanism we have virtually given the General the carte blanche he so desired to declare and prove to the world that he is indeed a victim of terror rather than the propagator – as is conventional wisdom of the day. What better opportunity to show himself as a man of peace than show up for a photo-op with the premier of Pakistan’s arch nemesis and that too conveniently days before meeting the most important man on the planet President Bush. The obvious questions that come to mind are – whether India really thinks that this new initiative will change anything considering years of talks followed closely by failures? Or more pertinently has India lost out on its most dependable weapon against Pakistan – branding it as a sponsor of state terror and global jihad.Empirical wisdom would suggest that this sort of a terror mechanism is advisable with more friendly countries rather than those with which a state has active hostilities. To draw a parallel it is impossible for the Israeli army to share intelligence with say Lebanese or Syrian intelligence for fear of the fallout it may have on its own troops and citizens.
The prime minister has taken a rather lenient attitude towards the Pakistan. He commented that even if this mechanism fails, it would still be worth a try. While no Indian in his right mind would oppose such overtures by their prime minister to look at ways to solve the long standing dispute with its neighbour, it is debatable how easy it would be for India to pull out of such an agreement and also what would define it as a failure. Is the success of the proposed mechanism time-bound with a certain “ all deals are off” after a fixed expiry date or will India retract in case of another terror atrocity that may bear the fingerprints of Pakistan or the ISI? These questions or what are the finer details of this arrangement have not been spelt out by the prime minister or his special representatives and they do need immediate attention. More clarity and a debate to trash out a consensus would have been prudent and quite frankly credible rather than pursuing a change in the government’s foreign policy, which clearly caught the nation’s polity off guard. One hopes and shares the debatable optimism of the PM in wanting this mechanism to prevent terror attacks, but a more nuanced look does unfortunately favour cautious optimism at best currently.The potential to gain politically and diplomatically from this peace initiative seems to benefit Pakistan more – at least on the face of it. The General has finally gotten around to dealing with India on the single most contentious issue by being on the negotiating table as an equal rather than from apposition of having to constantly prove his anti-terror credentials. The mechanism assists Pakistan in multiple ways. First, with the ISI and RAW sharing the same intelligence or the lack of it, will give Pakistan some knowledge of what we know and what we don’t. Secondly, by implementing such a mechanism Pakistan can for the first time raise the issue of alleged state sponsored terrorism by India legitimately to the world. Islamabad’s constant pandering to the world that India is fuelling the uprising and separatists in Balochistan have been received the world over with a generous pinch of salt. But the current proposed mechanism allows Pakistan to raise the issue, albeit a rather non-existent one at that, to us and to the world, thereby, painting both nations with the same terror brush. Thirdly, comments from Musharraf and the former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan have raised the question of separating religion from extremism. They argue that if terror acts carried out by Muslims can be type-cast as Islamic fundamentalism or the jihad, then surely the terror activities of the LTTE in Sri Lanka should be branded as Hindu terrorism. This rather clever ploy by Musharraf indicates his insistence on separating religion from terrorism so that he can re-jig the terror activities in Jammu and Kashmir as a freedom struggle, rather than the now accepted view that Jammu and Kashmir is a front line against Islamic fundamentalists.
But the more pressing repercussions of this arrangement needs to be addressed to the prime minister and the foreign office mandarins in South Block. What has significantly changed on the ground that the Indian establishment suddenly feels it’s ok to talk intelligence with Pakistan? Barely months after the dastardly and terribly devastating 7/11 bombings of Mumbai, has Pakistan really changed? The often referred to trust deficit between the countries still remains, so what are the merits of committing to Pakistan with a lack of deliverables being demanded from Pakistan? The prime minister has dismissed aspersions on the mechanism as “rumours”, but then what are the real facts have not been spelt out by him in his recent press meet in Nainital. If, as the PM suggests, this mechanism is actually a “test” for Pakistan, then why does the Indian side not have a clear roadmap towards its early implementation. Also, as discussed, the most important aspect of setting up this mechanism is when to claim it to be a qualified success or a failure.
Doubts will remain in this latest confidence building measure which follows after a longish gap from the previous set of CBM’s involving people to people contact across the border. With the government under pressure from the opposition and foreign policy gurus alike, it seems like the government has to lay down a credible road map soon. Whether Musharraf will be able to walk away with more than he bargained for remains to be seen, but more significantly, this mechanism may just prove to be the litmus test for the success or failure of the prime minister’s policy on Pakistan. Importantly, it will also determine his future legacy as prime minister and as the leader who finally made peace or the one who let the general off the hook.