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

Friday, December 29, 2006

The End of Saddam - Death of a Dictator
Saddam Hussein, the brutal dictator who ruled Iraq for over 25 years was finally executed in the early hours of today by the Iraqi Government in what is seen as a closure of sorts for Iraqis and the country’s tumultuous history. With his execution also comes to an end a regime who’s brutally was on universal display through their acts and actions within and outside the country. Saddam himself was defiant till the end and still regarded himself as the rightful President of Iraq. The end of Saddam ironically marks the end of a bloody era in Iraqi history but at the same time also ushers in an equally bloody immediate aftermath. The questions still remain – did he get a fair trial? Was it nothing more than victor’s justice? Was there an alternative? Will this make Iraq more peaceful in the long run?

While many of these questions will linger for some time to come, any speculation on whether Saddam would actually be hanged or not has now been laid to rest. The Iraqi government was keen to show its firm command over the internal issues of their country and also put its stamp of authority over the execution, not wanting to be seen as a mere puppet regime propped up by the U.S. The US too was keen to back away from any involvement in the actual execution which would have only made the Iraqi popular sentiment rage against the American actions. There has often been speculation on whether the US would “allow” the execution to go on. It is important to point out that the control and influence of the Americans on the Iraqi government is often overstated. Today in Iraq, we have a Shia dominated government and society that bore the brunt of Saddam’s regime. Now in power, nothing will give them more satisfaction than to see dictator pay for his actions. And in that spirit the impending execution was indeed imminent.

Another important question the Saddam saga brings out is over the legitimacy of the trial itself. Many legal analysts argue over whether the trial met international standards. Or whether his guilt was assumed prior to the start of his trial. It is significant to mention that whether this trial met international standards is not as significant as the fact the court that gave justice was an Iraqi one and it is ultimately the Iraqis who decide the fate of their leader on the basis of a constitution and constitutional law so decided by the entire spectrum of Iraqi politics. International trials and courts themselves don’t have a brilliant track record either. Their failure to give justice to Milosevic, Pinochet and perpetrators of other genocides does not augur well for international justice. Then again a Saddam trial in the International Court of Justice would have again raised questions on the fairness of the trial, considering the West’s disdain for the dictator. In lieu of such aspects, an Iraqi trial by an Iraqi judge seems the fairest option at the time.

Saddam Hussein did have a certain romanticism attached with him amongst many people all over the world. His defiance of the West and the US in particular was seen as what can be described as “Arab Machismo” which saw Iraq take on the mighty US army in the Gulf War of 1991. The failure of Bush Senior to “take out” Saddam further added to the myth of the dictator’s invincibility. But for all the defiance against the West he inspired in the Middle East, there was broad consensus in the world community over his brutality and barbaric acts of genocide against his own people – most notably against the Shias and the Kurds. The Dujail Massacre and the Anbar offensive saw many Shias being summarily executed the gassing of the Kurds and the eradication of the Marsh Arabs have horrified generations. Then again the acts of his sons including murder, intimidation and rape further spread hatred and revulsion in equal measure amongst Iraqi and the world alike. Saddam was himself involved in the execution of his sons in law who defected to Jordan and let the world know of Iraq’s secret weapons program. The very execution of his own relatives remains a chilling testament to the utter disregard for human life this dictator had.

The life and times of Saddam have been dramatic to say the least. His rise to power after overthrowing his own mentor in 1979, his acts of military aggression against the Iranians from 1980 to 1988, which saw the support of the US for his regime. The infamous photo of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam 1982 is stamped in memory forever. His defiant stand against the US in 1991 remains etched in public memory. Then again the fall of the Saddam statue in 2003 and his subsequent capture from a “spider hole” in December 2003 will never be forgotten. Also, one can never forget the dramatic press conference by the then US Administrator in Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremer’s three famous words, “We got him” will never be forgotten. His sentencing and the subsequent execution too becomes part of world history.

But his execution also marks a solemn day for Iraqis, who will now reconcile to the fact that in whatever little way they finally did get justice. For the relatives of close to 400,000 people who went missing or killed during his rule this maybe little conciliation, but then again not many Iraqis thought that they would see this day. The overriding question that comes out of the execution is what effect it will have on the current violence and insurgency in Iraq. Frankly, the answer is not too rosy. There will be a short term flare up in violence, most notably by the Sunni militias who will see this as the day when any chances of the Sunnis regaining authority over the country have all but finished. They will now have to live under Shia political and social dominance due to the sheer majority in numbers that the Shias enjoy. Then again the insurgency in Iraq has little to do with Saddam. The remnants of his regime and the Ba’ath Party form a very small minority of the violence. Saddam’s death may activate these insurgents, particularly in the Sunni triangle, but their actions will not significantly alter the current levels of violence. Some analysts argue whether the violence can get any worse than it already is, and hence Saddam’s execution will have only some much influence over the insurgency.

The execution of Saddam is a timely reminder to other strongmen in the world that they may also have to face the gallows for their actions, and more importantly the aura of invincibility is nothing but a smokescreen that can vanish in time and your actions will be accounted for – by victor’s justice or otherwise.
7 lookouts for '07
With barely a couple of days to go, another momentous and memorable year will come to a close and an action packed New Year awaits us. While 2006 had its share of politicking, wars, scandals, sporting triumphs and tragedy, 2007 offers more of the same. Here is a sample of the seven events to look out for in the New Year.

Election time in UP and Punjab

Undoubtedly, the major news making event of the year will be the elections for the state legislature in UP. Considered as the most crucial state in national politics, the UP elections will have politicians, psephologists, news watchers and analysts alike eagerly waiting for the run up and the outcome of these elections. What makes the elections even more interesting is the lack of a clear frontrunner in the electoral fray. A new coalition based on the electoral arithmetic amongst the BJP, Congress, SP and BSP seems to be in the offing. But with the twists and turns of politics in the state being more unpredictable than the weather, this is one event where putting ones money on any party is at one’s own peril!

The second election battle will see arch enemies in Punjab take on each other. With this being the last chance for Shromani Akali Dal leader Prakash Singh Badal to wrest the chief minister’s post from the Congress’ current incumbent Amrinder Singh, the battle will be a no holds barred affair with chances of a hung assembly likely. If either party manages a clear mandate, it will certainly be curtains for the losing side. A strong Akali come back would certainly mean the end of the road for Amrinder, with either Deputy CM Rajinder Kaur Bhattal or state Congress chief Shamsher Singh Dullo being given the baton to pursue the post electoral fallout. A Congress win would ensure that Badal Senior will have to let go of his position at the helm of Akali politics and make way for a new leader. Whether the new leader will be son Sukhbir or some other old hand of the Akalis remains to be seen. Then again by coronating his son, Badal may actually increase factionalism in the volatile Akali grouping.

Cricket World Cup

The biggest sporting event of the year will definitely be the Cricket World Cup in the West Indies. With the current favourites and champions Australia looking menacingly ruthless in destroying any opposition the signs are ominous for India who find themselves in the same grouping as the world champs. India too will need all the help it can get to come out of the rut of poor form it finds itself in and start getting ready for the challenge that presents itself in the Caribbean. An Indian victory may be far fetched but it’s the desire of every Indian. Will men in blue do their due?

Quota Raj

2007 will see a definite political uproar over the implementation of quotas for OBC’s in government educational institutions and the possibility of implementation of the recommendations of the Sachar Committee on Muslims and minorities. With the summer protests against quotas from students still afresh in public memory the coming unrest is a definite event in the 2007 calendar.

The future of Iraq

Iraq will continue to dominate headlines in the coming year. With the likelihood of a Saddam execution and a new strategy on Iraq by Bush to be carried out in the New Year, all eyes will be on Iraq and its deteriorating security situation. Will Bush change tracks and go for a new military and political policy in Iraq? Analysts say it is not a question of if but when. Are you listening Mr. Bush?

Blair to step down
British Prime Minister Tony Blair will make way for a new premier at 10 Downing Street later in 2007. With his departure, the New Labour revolution of Blair and Brown will see a continuation under sometime friend and sometime foe Gordon Brown, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer. How tumultuous or smooth will the transition be? Also, if rumors are to be believed Blair might be getting an international assignment to broker peace in the Middle East once he demits office. Watch this space for more.

A new French President

After Germany got Angela Merkel last year will 2007 see a female French President? With current defense minister Michele Alliot-Marie announcing her bid for presidency the race has just gotten interesting. Her opponent is the Socialist Party’s Sergolene Royal, who is generating considerable interest amongst the French electorate. But the man to beat will be the interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. With his strong nationalist message and a clampdown on lawlessness and illegal immigration he is a rage amongst the centre and right of centre of the French political spectrum.


If 2006 was all about blogging and YouTube, 2007 will have more technological innovations and products up its sleeve. With the Windows new operating system Vista ready to hit shelves soon, the PC will certainly undergo a change (At least that’s what Microsoft hopes for!). Also, the eagerly awaited Sony Playstation 3 will be available early next year, and the gamers are gearing up for that prospect. TV on your mobile may become a reality in 2007 with 3G and IPTV making its way to India on a mass consumer level. The year will surely also see a fall in prices of Plasma TV’s, which hopefully will make it affordable for all of us! More importantly will 2007 signal the end of the cablewallahs with the coming of DTH and CAS?

So, 2007 promises to be an exciting year whether you’re a news buff, sports freak or a techie. These events are only the planned ones; one really wonders what will be the real surprises ‘07 throws up. Any guesses?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Hamas-Fatah Standoff: The internal Intifada

The fragile peace in the Palestinian territories is now on the brink of a complete break down considering the infighting and violence of the last few days. The two warring factions – Fatah and Hamas had been eyeballing each other for a few months now, but the latest increase in skirmishes between armed gunmen of the two sides has got the disastrous prospect of a civil strife in the making. Hamas, the radical political and para-military party is made up of renegade Palestinians hell bent on destroying Israel and take back the holy city of Jerusalem, which is effectively under Israeli control. Having transformed from a militant para-military force to a political player in the turbulent world of Palestinian politics yielded reach results as they stormed the parliamentary elections in January and formed a majority government. In doing so, they also replaced the corrupt and ineffective government of the Fatah party whose founder was the legendary leader Yasser Arafat.

The bad blood between the two sides is nothing new. Both sides have argued on which of the two stands of the genuine interests of the Palestinian people. Fatah, though with a para-military force of its own, has been taking the more moderate view on how Palestine should deal with Israel. Hamas, on the other hand, have adopted a more radical approach, with their charter calling or the destruction of Israel and the return of Palestinian land from the Jordanian border to the Mediterranean. Both sides, unfortunately, have not lived up to the expectations of its people. Fatah has been given repeated mandates, both while being led by Arafat and also after his demise, only to get neck deep into corruption and also having to fend of allegations of being subservient to Israel and the US in its dealings for Palestinian statehood. This fear of looking like “sellouts” had an unfortunate outcome with Arafat breaking away from the potentially path breaking talks with President Clinton and then Israeli PM Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 in order to strike a better bargain for the Palestinians. Many Western analysts regard it as a colossus failure on the part of Arafat to have walked away in 2000. However, many Arab and Middle Eastern analysts do offer a different version of the events of that fateful summit. That apart, the Hamas victory in January completely shook Western establishments and Israel as they faced their enemy as a democratically elected government. With their strong mandate and a good humanitarian track record, Hamas has been adopting a confrontationalist attitude towards the Israelis for any negotiations. The peace talks further broke down with the capture of Corporal Gilad Shalit by the Palestinians in June this year that led to a tense standoff between the two sides. Since then the Western governments have been backing the moderate President of the Palestinian territories, Mahmud Abbas (also the leader of the Fatah). In doing so, they have side stepped any dealings with Hamas and it’s Prime Minister Ismail Hanieyah. Pointedly, here lies the genesis of the current problem.

The West has been a vocal advocate of democracy and has used that pretext to overthrow Saddam. The White House has made is clear that the democratization of the Middle East is important for world peace. But quite paradoxically, when any Arab country or in this case the Palestinian people legitimately chose a government then the West has no right to complain. However, this is not the first example of the West influencing a country to “help” them choose their leaders. The now reviled former leader of Chile, late General Augusto Pinochet received American support after the Communist Party installed Salvador Allende as the nation’s president. Henry Kissinger at the time had remarked rather caustically, "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people." With such an approach to foreign policy, it is little wonder that the same is being replicated in the Middle East policy of the the US. By actively backing Abbas and his call for early elections, the West have furthered the tensions between Hamas and Fatah. Also, with both sides retaining their para-military forces, the violent infighting is the logical yet tragic outcome.

Any freedom movement or nationalist struggle remains viable till all the players toe the same line after due consensus. The Palestinian issue has been one without any solutions for over half a century thanks to the differing opinions and the ensuing violence that succeedes it. Today, it is the Hamas, tomorrow it might be another political entity. The Paelstinians must speak in unison in what their demands are and more importantly the West must heed the democratic voice of the electroate. The subvsersion of any mandate is nothing short of arm twisting democrarcy to suit one’s needs.

The current stand off, which has resulted because of the declaration of early elections by President Abbas, also has the imprint of the regional powers pushing their vested interests. Iran, whether the US likes it or not, has emerged as the single dominant force in the Middle East, having overtaken Saudi Arabia for the coveted title. Iran now has a say in all the flash points in the Middle East including Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestine issue. Their active support for Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon has helped it in its talks on Iran’s nuclear program. Their influence being so strong in Iraq and Lebanon that the West has no option but to talk to them, a foreign policy no-no till a few years back. Iran, ironically, has the US to thank for its sudden elevation in stature as a fallout of the Iraq invasion. Now, with support to Hamas and in doing so thumbing the nose of the Israelis, it is truly having the last laugh. However, it is important for the Palestinians to realise how much of a friend is Iran to their cause or is it using the emotive issue of Palestine to raise its standing in the wider Muslim world. If indeed the Palestinain street supports Iran and its machinations, peace may be distant, also, if the reality is the latter, then the political establishment of Palestine must charter into taking control of their foreign affairs rather than have Iran coverlty push its own agenda. While those may be long term policy objectives of Palestinian politics, in the interim it is important for the infighting to stop and a government of national unity be formed to help Palestinian movement move out of the unending cycle of violence peppered with moments of peace. The longer this fighting festers the more dangerous the world becomes. Sadly, this numbing truth seems to be falling on deaf ears in Gaza and the West Bank.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Baker’s Truth on Iraq: Get out and get out fast

The most important foreign policy document for the Bush Administration finally saw the light of day with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group finally coming out with its 79 recommendations on the way forward in Iraq. The report made from some in your face grim reading with a bleak assessment of the outcome of current American policy in Iraq. Though, much of the reports recommendations were made available thanks to the selective leaks to the media, the basic undercurrent of the report was that the Bush policy is failing and moreover doomed for a complete failure in Iraq. The group has outlined three main areas of change. Firstly, it recommends that the American troops change their primary mission in Iraq from anti-insurgency to support and training of Iraqi forces. Second, it has asked the Iraqi government to set realistic landmarks – political, military and economic to end the sectarian divide and help the country on a path of reconciliation. Third, they have called for an urgent need to initiate a new diplomatic effort in the region to bring in Iraq’s neighbours to the table to help fight the growing divide in the country.

The three key recommendations are not new, but considering they come from a 10-member panel that includes democrats and republicans and headed by a Bush Sr. confidante, the writing is clearly on the wall. The group’s assessment is in a way the call from the entire political fraternity on both sides of the divide to tell in no uncertain terms that the current policy in Iraq is unacceptable. The group’s report could not have come at a better time, with over 2900 American troops dead and another 21,000 wounded, the country is polarized on the war and the cracks in even the staunchest of Republican support base is beginning to show. Politics apart, the commission suggests that the Iraq war could be billed at over a trillion dollars, a price that will certainly leave most Americans wondering whether that money could have been better spent on internal issues or on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, unlike the President's proclamations, the war in Iraq has made America more unpopular and unsafe than ever before. Al-Qaeda is still a menacing threat to the world and the war against terror has derailed with the Americans caught up in stopping sectarian strife and fighting armed militias in Iraq. Better still the troop involvement in Afghanistan, the real theatre of the war on terror has a paltry 32,000 troops while Iraq has close to 150,000. The need to fight the resurgent Taliban is more acute than preventing civil war in Iraq. Strategic analysts summarize by saying that the situation in Iraq looks worse than it actually is, while Afghanistan is actually worse than how it seems.

The report and its bleak assessment does some blunt talking with it clearly stating that “military solution alone will not work”. Further, the report says that the famous Bushism, “staying the course” will also not work. Hence, it is clear that the change in tactics and strategy is the need of the hour, if Bush wants to salvage some sort of a graceful exit from Iraq. The most interesting aspect of the report suggests the setting up of an International Iraq Support Group. This group will engage the support of Iraq’s neighbours including Iran, Syria, Egypt and the Gulf States apart from representatives from the UN, EU and the five permanent members of the Security Council. Such a suggestion, though making diplomatic sense, has been out rightly rejected by the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who insists that the solution to Iraq will be decided by Iraq and not by outsiders which amounts to interfering with the Iraq internal issues. The sentiment is well taken as Mr. Talabani may want to address a domestic audience by that statement, he too will accept the role Iran plays in the Shia majority of Iraq and the influence of Syria in the rising sectarian divide. Involving the players who have a stake seems to be the only solution for Iraq. Then again Iraq was at war with Iran for close to a decade and for Iraqis to look at the Iranians as their saviors is a bitter pill to swallow. The option lies with the Shia bloc in the Iraqi parliament, if they wish to not be at the mercy of Iran for a solution, they themselves must stop their dependence, economic and ideological, on the Iranians. Coming to the International Iraqi Support Group, it remains to be seen whether Bush will bite the bullet and call the Syrians and Iranians for a summit to discuss the way out in Iraq. The biggest beneficiary of the Iraq war remains Iran, which will extract some concessions from the international community in return for its support for a new way forward in Iraq.

The Iraq Study Group has also looked at other options for a new policy on Iraq. They have rejected the notion of a federal structure on sectarian lines, with a centralized government in Baghdad, as one that will cause chaos and civil war. Also, they suggest that such a step might trigger a regional war. So only a staggered withdrawal of troops with a force of 20,000 to aid in training of Iraqi troops and Special Forces to battle Al-Qaeda and support the Iraqi security forces holds profound merit in the current state of affairs. With the “ability of the US to influence events in Iraq diminishing“, an 18-month withdrawal plan is highly recommended to salvage some sort of a victory in Iraq.

What remains to be seen is how much influence the report will ultimately have on the White House. This may provide the right political cover for Bush to initiate a phased and responsible withdrawal, citing a bipartisan voice urging such a move. However, if accepted, Bush will also tacitly admit to his own failure in Iraq. All may not be lost, but Bush has certainly lost some of the famed political capital he has earned after the 2004 presidential elections. The hope is that he can end this war with minimum damage – political, military and economic and at the same time set the stage for a Republican continuity in the 2008 elections. That may be a long shot, but the recommendations of the commission will put the ball in Bush’s court to take some action on it. Bush has the last opportunity to salvage some brownie point from all of this. If he gives up his brusque ways in the last two years of his presidency and helps unite the nation and the world into a honorable exit with an acceptance of some of his shortcomings he can emerge as a leader tried to make a difference in the post 9/11 world albeit in a divisive and bloody way. Who knows we may have “misunderestimated” him all this while, but it is ultimately for him to realize that only he controls his own legacy and time is running out as his legacy is already stands tainted.

Friday, December 01, 2006


World Aids Day was celebrated the world over with the message of spreading awareness and not the disease. What has been disturbing this year though has been the rapid increase in the number of HIV cases in India and the ever rising toll it is taking on the country’s people and resources. Aids has now firmly got a vice like grip over India with Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Manipur, Nagaland and Uttar Pradesh accounting for the majority of new cases detected. However, that said, the epidemic is truly pandemic in nature and no state has survived its aggressive reach. For years, sadly, we have taken myopic comfort in the fact that the disease was ravaging sub-Saharan Africa and the West, and although the number of dormant cases of Aids was next only to South Africa, the disease was not ‘really’ an epidemic in India. Today the reality is that the disease of global proportions has India as its epicenter and that judgment has some sound backing. Of the 40 million odd people suffering from HIV/AIDS, 6 million are in India. And with figures from China still unverifiable, India truly is the hub of HIV/AIDS. So how have things come to this, how have we gone from just another affected country to the world capital for Aids.

The reasons and causes are not hard to find. With a majority of HIV transmissions passing though unprotected sex, the reason why India is a country with the largest HIV/AIDS population becomes evidently clear. Sex and talking about it is still a big no no in the country. While our urban centers do enjoy a high degree of understanding about the virus and its modes of spread the vast rural hinterland remains largely untouched by this critical awareness strategy. A shocking statistic reveals that one in two sex workers in Mumbai are HIV positive, to think the number of people they can infect and the true reality hits you in the face. A major reason for the spread of the disease has also been the dismal state of women rights. A woman has no right to demand her husband to use a condom and many a times becomes the unfortunate victim for her husband’s follies. Similarly, men who indulge in unprotected sex often do not grasp the true nature of Aids and what it can do for his family and future generations. The need to create awareness on condom use is ever more important in the rural areas where awareness remains abysmally low.

Religious leaders too must share the blame for the continuing rise of HIV/AIDS in the country. Their policy of abstinence and equating AIDS as a disease of the immoral is fuelling the AIDS epidemic. Abstinence was a policy that has been championed by the more conservative governments of the West and Africa. Though, they have enjoyed limited success in those countries, abstinence is only part of the solution and not the Holy Grail for controlling the disease. It is imperative on our religious leaders to spread the message of abstinence and condom use hand in hand rather than see the use of condoms as one that promotes promiscuity.

While at the cost of sounding self-contradictory, the urban Indian while more knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS than in the past has started taking a rather cavalier attitude towards HIV/AIDS for the past few years. Awareness is certainly on the rise, but paradoxically, with new methods to control the spread HIV now clinically in practice, it is making many Indians more callous in its attitude towards HIV/AIDS. With anti-retrovirals finding more acceptance as a means to delay the transfer of HIV to full blown AIDS, people have changed perceptions about the disease. What was once the incurable disease has now turned to one which does have a limited cure for it. This grave misconception does lead to risqué beahviour which is furthering the spread of AIDS. While one does not advocate a fear psychosis to set in people, reminiscent of the 1980’s when AIDS was thought to spread through shaking hands and eating together, the need to inject a healthy fear of the disease and how easily you or I can be victim to it is needed.

One cannot talk about AIDS without talking about the social stigma that attaches on its victims. Countless stories of discrimination – social, economic, educational and professional have become common in the country and the world over. Cases of HIV+ children being abandoned by their parents or HIV+ families being ostracized by their immediate communities fill the newspapers of the day. The early 90’s saw brilliant adverts featuring Shabana Azmi boldly interacting with AIDS patients and asking each citizen to do the same. Such campaigns had a profound affect on society. Unfortunately, today we find that the level of social acceptance is similar to what it was when the disease first found its way to India. A fresh relook is needed to reinject the sense of obligation towards helping those with AIDS is required.

The government on its part has done well to address the issue of AIDS with setting up of NACO and several high end laboratories to check the disease. It is highly unfortunate that the government has also been rather uptight in handling criticism of its policies. Any mention of India being the epicenter of the disease is usually dismissed and the good worked done by the government harped upon. The government will have to realize enormity of the task at hand and deal with the situation with a muti-pronged strategy. Unfortunately for India, there is no one-size-fits-all type of a solution. The many diversities of the country require diverse tactics to control HIV/AIDS. An urban campaign will certainly not work in the rural areas. Similarly what might work in the North of India will differ from the approach needed in the South. Similar adaptations are required on religious and ethnic grounds. Steps like compulsory HIV testing before marriage, while retrograde as may be, is one important method needed to check the spread of the disease. The spread of AIDS through infected needles by intravenous drug users too needs to be addressed rather than taken as a problem affecting a deviant few.

Analysts say that India still has time to buck the trend and get a check on its AIDS crisis. These may be the last few years before we truly are faced with a disease which we are frankly not equipped to handle – medically, socially and economically. Every Indian must do their bit before we are tragically forced to re-define AIDS as the All India Disaster Syndrome.