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

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Chinese Checkered - The Perils of Globalization

China in the past two decades has shown a pace of development that is unmatched by any another country in the world. Its products and economy have affected every citizen on the planet and big corporate houses have been seeking ways to engage and reap benefits out a country that is growing at 10% year on year. The Chinese are the proud builders of the Three Gorges Dam, the biggest man made engineering feat in the world. There are fantastic stories on how the Chinese have removed 150 million citizens out of poverty and the prospect of a successful Olympics in 2008 will further boost China’s global standing as a giant in every sense of the word. The prosperity, economic growth and sheer dominance of the manufacturing sector are the bright spots on a country which is still plagued with questions on human rights, individual freedom, freedom of press, health and product safety and most importantly the realness of the democracy that exists in the country.

Call it what you will but the open arms policy that was started two decades ago has also raised some important issues that the Chinese must provide answers for. Couple of weeks ago two widely read and respected weekly news magazines Time and Newsweek carried stories about the safety of Chinese products and also about how food products were manufactured in Chinese factories using substandard and in some cases potentially poisonous substances which reduced cost and therefore not only increased profits but also harm to the consumer. Pet food products were found with illegal substances as were food products that have flooded the West and most of the world. There are newer allegations of the safety of non-consumable products like children’s toys and other synthetic materials as a fall out of the food product scandal. China on its part displayed quick steadfastness and threw the chief of its food product regulatory agencies to the gallows on corruption charges. This action did not however fully satisfy the millions of consumers who are wondering what their options are in a market that is flooded with products from China. Proponents of China have also argued that most Chinese products are safe and a track record of the past two decades proves their safety and fitness for use. They further argue that since the West is facing the belligerent manufacturing might of the Chinese, at the cost of their domestic manufacturing industry, Western governments and media have embarked on a hyper critical campaign in order to reduce their country’s dependence on Chinese products. The allegations and counter allegations aside, for the moment it is the mainstream media that has ensured that “label reading” has become a fashionable and important way of checking out where a product has originated from.

Globalization and the internet age have also thrown up questions about the nature of democracy and individual rights that exist in the country. China, though still officially Communist, does allow local elections and has followed the famous “one nation two systems” vis-à-vis its relations with Hong Kong. The Tiananmen Square protests proved to be a litmus test for democratic reforms in the country, an incident that lead to the deaths of hundreds of students demanding democracy at the hands of the Communist regime. Chinese governments since the incident in 1989 have tried to shake off the far reaching questions that Tiananmen Square has asked of the Chinese. There continue to remain lingering doubts about how serious China really is about keeping pace with democratic reforms or whether the Chinese want to reap the economic benefits of globalization without compromising their grip over power by ushering in democratic reforms. India has been one of the beacons of democracy in the world and the growth of India with democracy has always been compared with the growth in China sans democracy. We in India are quick to make statements to the effect that democracy is the reason why our country has not progressed well enough and also as to why corruption remains rampant in the country. We like to compare ourselves against military regimes and to Communist China where the iron-grip approach has reaped benefits for its citizens. What we are quick to forget is that authoritarianism, while attractive in short term for the quick benefits it brings, is doomed for failure in the long term prospects of any nation. Most nations that have flirted with authoritarian regimes and dogmas have only given it up to pursue the more stable form of governance – democracy. And sooner or later, the Chinese will need to do the same if it wants its citizens to grow and meaningfully contribute to the growth of their country. Then again, the Chinese model could well be used as an example where authoritarianism with kid gloves has bided well for a country of China’s size.

The Chinese currency has also been cited as being undervalued as compared to the Dollar and the Euro and this is also a reason for Chinese and American financial mandarins to lock horns over the unfairness of the Chinese approach to the global currency market. The West is also concerned over the investments China is making in Africa in return for an assured fuel supply from the energy rich though economically stumbling African nations. This reverse neo-imperialism is again under the Western media’s scanner who are blaming China for cutting deals with despots for the sake of fuelling its own economy, never mind the fact that till barely sixty years ago, the West was doing the very same thing it is now accusing China of. That aside there is no doubt that at a certain level by McDonaldising its nation, the country has also opened itself up to some tough questions, questions that China would prefer not to answer. But globalization is an all or none phenomenon. While some companies maybe willing to overlook the Chinese disregard for democracy and food safety for the billions of Yuan’s in return, it is not long before a serious backlash and lack of credibility may hit the Chinese economy if China does not open up – and not just in words but by quantifiable meaningful actions.


Monday, July 23, 2007

The BJP needs a jumpstart
The Presidential elections proved to be a one sided affair with the ruling coalition’s candidate Pratibha Patil winning the elections with a convincing majority. These elections already being called the most scandalous of all Presidential elections saw both the NDA and the UPA exchange charges on each others candidates and managed to sully the whole the process that was reduced to a mud slinging match. And in doing so, the NDA successfully managed to stick the word ‘tainted’ next to the words Pratibha Patil for all times to come even though the ruling UPA was adamant to ensure that even after embarrassing revelations of misconduct by Patil’s relatives surfaced, she continued her march to Raisina Hill. The UPA, though embarrassed by some of the speeches of Patil and the allegations against her family, could not replace their candidate for it would politically have proved to be the end of the UPA alliance. In such a scenario, they continued with Patil and played up the ‘first woman President’ card to attribute some respectability to a person who was facing pressures from all political denominations. Whether the decision to pursue Pratibha’s candidature will prove politically useful only time can tell, however, in the short term there is no discounting the fact that the elation of having a woman president was thoroughly run to the ground with the allegations that surfaced soon after she was endorsed by the UPA. Now with the elections over and a substantial, though predictable, defeat handed down, it is important for the opposition NDA to analyze where it stands on the political stage with barely two years to go before the general elections in 2009.

The Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, L.K. Advani had appealed just days before the Presidential elections to vote according to their conscience and ensure that the ‘independent’ candidate Bhairon Singh Shekhawat wins the elections. Whether the audience that Advani was addressing took his advice seriously or not is debatable, but what did occur was cross voting in favor of Patil instead of Shekhawat as was originally predicted. This embarrassing reversal speaks volumes of the piquant situation the BJP finds itself in vis-à-vis its NDA allies. Some erstwhile factions of the NDA had already formed a rag tag third front which included ex-NDA constituents like the Asom Gana Parishad, the Telegu Desam Party, the AIADMK and the Indian National Lok Dal. This grouping christened the United National Progressive Alliance was to act as a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative that has long been envisioned by regional parties and the Left front. The UNPA was assumed to vote for the NDA for regional and national political compulsions, but it decided to break up on election day and decided to vote according to their own individual party’s interests. While the NDA could take heart from the fact that the AIADMK and the INLD did vote for Shekhawat, there is trouble for the coalition for some of its key allies including the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and some factions within the JD(U) in Bihar decided to vote according to their own personal interests. This lack of command pales in comparison with the UPA which managed to ensure that all factions voted for their candidate. This not only ensured Patil’s victory it has also reinvigorated the ruling alliance who confidently named their vice-presidential candidate barely twenty four hours after installing Patil at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The presidential elections should not be seen in isolation and the NDA should avert calling the elections a mere formality to install the ruling dispensations candidate as the president.

There is no doubt that the degree of coalescence between political parties to form an alliance is directly related to the fact whether the dominant party is in power or not. This was amply proved by the united face that was presented by the NDA coalition under the BJP’s leadership. When voted out of power in 2004, the NDA virtually broke up and finger pointing proved to the norm – not only between parties but within parties as well. During the height of the Vajpayee premiership the Congress and other opposition parties were looked upon as has beens and their chances of winning the elections were considered laughable. By sewing up some strategic political alliances the Congress managed to come to power and today the UPA looks like a formidable foe in front of a tattered NDA. However, this perception can soon change if the BJP were to bring to the fore a manifesto of change. There are regional compulsions that can never be adequately addressed for all formations that constitute an alliance at the national level. However, there are policies and issues that can unite the erstwhile NDA constituents to form a united opposition to the UPA. For that to happen the BJP needs a jumpstart to the run up to the 2009 elections. An active and constructive role in the Parliament is the need of the hour. The BJP is perceived as the staller rather than the opposition in the Parliament today. Endless boycotts and walkouts must end and the party must take back the tag of the principle opposition ironically from the Left which props this government up at the moment. The concerted effort that the BJP showed for the Volcker and Office of Profit controversies is required to reinvigorate the party. The electoral victories of Punjab and Uttranchal were soon dimmed with the reverses that the party faced in the UP elections. It must ensure a romp in the Gujarat elections and the coming electoral cycle of 2008. The party has taken encouraging steps to that effect by appointing Arun Jaitely to oversee the Gujarat elections. Also with the Indo-US nuclear deal soon to be completed, the appointment of Yashwant Sinha as their foreign affairs cell chief is a step in the right direction. The BJP must take a cue from the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy and form a shadow cabinet (however contentious the idea may seem) whereby an individual is given a particular area to concentrate on and offer a critique of the government’s policies. By providing an alternative policy to the one proposed by the government, the electorate will know where the principal opposition party stands on various issues. Merely opposing for the sake of opposing is detrimental not only for the BJP but the entire NDA alike. This mindset of a sore loser must be replaced by that of being a responsible opposition and thereby influencing a large swathe of the electorate to gravitate towards it.

Most importantly though is the need for the famed Next Gen within the BJP to now come of age and decisively take command of the party. For that to happen the old guard in the party will need to step back. The Congress chief to her credit has made a real effort of promoting younger talents even though the Cabinet continues to have an average age well into the seventies. The BJP needs to come out of the ideological doldrums that it finds itself in. The blow hot blow cold approach to Hindutuva and the Ayodhya movement has only smacked of opportunism rather than any substantial policy initiatives on both issues. The BJP also seems to have been deeply wounded by the policies that it had taken during its regime. The India Shining campaign was a feel good campaign that has been blamed for the party’s defeat. The notion gained such currency that many in the party themselves starting believing that the reason they lost was an ad campaign. That is a simplistic argument to the more complex reasons for the loss – primarily the alliances it sought in the run up to the elections. But that aside the party needs to chart a new path on policies that it would doggedly pursue in the years to come. 2009 may seem a long time away but it is just barely long enough to change the perceptions that have crept into the minds of many voters. The time is here to go from the “has been” to the “will be” in 2009. Anyone listening?


Monday, July 16, 2007

Benchmarking Iraq - When will the Iraqis stand up?

The Iraq war took centre stage in American politics with President George Bush not wavering on his administrations current Iraq policy, while at the same time giving his commander in Iraq, David Petraeus time till September to come up with his assessment of the failure or success of the troop surge that was initiated in February of this year. The critics of the current policy has now included prominent Republicans from Bush’s party with long time ally Senator John Warner coming up with an alternate bill for a troop pullout. Some Republicans are also now calling for a troop redeployment, read troop reduction, by April 2008. The US Congress had earlier passed an appropriation bill to fund the troops based on 18 benchmarks that the Iraqi government should achieve in order to enjoy further support of the US army in Iraq. In plain terms, it was a clear indication to the Iraqi government to achieve political breakthroughs in a war where the solution is increasingly not military but political. Most commentators have kept arguing on the failed opportunities and tactics of the White House while ignoring the lack of political resolve shown by the Iraqi parliament. That the decision to invade Iraq was detrimental to US strategic interests is yesterday’s news, it is paramount that a solution is now reached rather than harping on failed policies of the Bush administration. While criticizing the Bush administration is the fashionable thing to do, it is important for the sake of Iraqis who are suffering that a political solution is trashed out and the gradual troop reduction initiated in the coming eighteen months.

The eighteen benchmarks that the US Congress had set of the Iraqis have seen a limited success rate. Bush recognized that of the eighteen benchmarks, eight had been achieved; eight had not been met with while two remained in progress. The Iraqis were to have achieved success or partial success on all eighteen items by the time General Petraeus addressed the Senate in September. So with three months to go till September, the onus lies on the Iraqi parliament and government to meet the remaining requirements of the bill. The reaction of the Iraqi politicians to these benchmarks has been disappointing. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has stated that the Iraqis have done their bit and that if the American forces were to leave the Iraqi security forces could step up to the plate and secure their country. While the statement might seem far fetched, but in terms of Iraqi politics one can see why he made such a comment. Not wanting to seem cowering to American demands, Maliki wanted to address his domestic audience that he was no American stooge and that the Iraqis were capable of defending themselves. But Maliki’s statement belies that fact that most Iraqi politicians agree upon - that a precipitous withdrawal of American troops is untenable. Further contrary to Maliki’s claims, the Iraqi security forces have not provided the American led Multi National Forces with the required three brigades as part of the Baghdad Security Plan (the formal name for the US troop surge). Infact, the Iraqi parliament instead of heading towards political reconciliation has now taken a summer recess which may last till mid August, thereby, giving it very little time to actually achieve more targets laid down by the Americans. It would be unimaginable for any Parliament in the world to even think of a recess if their country were in facing a threat to its very existence. The lack of steadfastness on parts of the Iraqi politicians will go down as a greater tragedy than the invasion itself. The Iraqi parliament needs to discuss, debate and reach consensus on key policy decisions which include a review of the new Iraqi constitution, disarming of militias, policy on oil distribution and the setting up of semi-autonomous states within Iraq. All these issues are highly contentious and need deft political and diplomatic handling to achieve any breakthroughs. The more the world concentrates on the failed US policies – both diplomatic and military the more the Iraqi politicians find reason to shirk from their duties. It would do great disservice to claim that the Iraqi parliament and parliamentarians have not achieved anything since the war began. Their devotion to the cause of a free Iraq lies in the fact that they have a constitution in place and have held a referendum on it. Many Iraqi politicians and ministers have lost family members to the sectarian violence, so the insurgency has hit most Iraqi parliamentarians. Further, commendably, they have held nation wide elections which saw a large number of voters casting their ballots. However, the onus remains on them for they cannot falter at this crucial stage in their country’s history. Any failure on the part of Iraqis will give the White House and the remnants of the neo-conservative movement ammunition to charge that the Americans sacrificed their soldiers and failed because the Iraqis could not present a unifying voice.

The time has come for Iraqi politicians to set an example for the rest of the Middle East that it is possible for diverse ethnic groups to unite as a single nation. The thousands of years of violence between the Shias and Sunnis cannot end in a matter of years or over a cup of Arabian brew. However, for the sake of reinvigorating the lost Arab nationalism of the seventies and eighties it is important for the Iraqis to now stand up. For the risk of not doing so will vilify them for generations to come. The West will take this as an example where they tried to spread democracy and freedom in the Middle East only to be scuttled by in fighting and radicalism. The future Arab generations will wonder why their predecessors did not take the opportunity to change Arab history and instead preferred to maintain status quo. For all the appreciable sacrifices aside the hand of history wants to be held. It’s for the Iraqis to now reach out.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lal Masjid Siege – Musharraf’s Bluestar

The tense standoff between the Pakistani Army and clerics and suspected militants at Islamabad’s Lal Masjid mosque finally ended in blood shed with the Army using tanks and small artillery fire to storm the mosque and kill the deputy chief cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi. The total loss of life has been put at 150 with dozens of Army personnel losing their life in the siege. The siege and the trouble leading to the siege has been brewing for months with the Government exchanging terse vocabulary with the Lal Masjid clerics, who themselves had undertaken a anti-vice campaign in the capital city and were adamant on imposition of the Islamic Sharia law in the country. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was left with no clear options than to storm the mosque with the clerics asking for free passage for foreign terrorists holed up in the mosque, which was clearly unacceptable to the pro-US Musharraf regime and for Musharraf’s personal ‘moderate’ credentials. That said the fallout of the siege, though enjoying the support of a majority of Pakistani civil society, will severely influence the longevity of Musharraf’s regime and the pincer effect has finally taken a stranglehold on the eight year old dictatorship.

The genesis of this present face-off is the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001. At that time Musharraf had switched sides from being a Taliban backer to a frontline ally in the war against terror. The persuasion to shift was more because of the threat from the Americans to “wipe Pakistan off the face of the Earth” rather than a new found realization of the perils of Islamic fundamentalism. This shift in policy was however a clever smokescreen. The Taliban, while being removed from the Afghan territories, were replanted by the Pakistani ISI to safer locations along the Afghan-Pakistan border and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Some of the radicals, as it now turns out, were also accommodated to safer locations close to the power centre in Pakistan and the Lal Masjid seemed like a favorable venue for this collection of Islamic fundamentalists. Coupled with local clerics who were increasingly taking a hardline view of Islam and the present day Lal Masjid became the virtual Taliban Embassy in Islamabad. All this while Musharraf was claiming to be a victim of terror and showing his country’s active involvement in removing extremist elements from Pakistan. The overt show of support for the US’ war on terror along with the covert support for Jihadi elements has ensured that Musharraf did not enjoy the support of either grouping. In such a situation an inevitable showdown was all in the making.

The showdown between the Army and the militants and clerics of Lal Masjid has raised some serious questions for the Pakistani establishment. Were the Lal Masjid clerics not propped up by the ISI? It is important to note that the ISI headquarter is barely a mile away from the controversial mosque. This either shows a support of the ISI for the clerics or a catastrophic intelligence failure on part of the ISI who could not notice a build up of weapons and arms. A striking similarity between the buildup in the mosque and the intelligence agencies turning a blind eye is with the buildup of arms and ammunition by Sikh radicals in the Golden Temple in 1984 where the local police and law and order agencies turned a blind eye for a cause that they felt was just. If one were to take the similarities further and compare the unfortunate fallout of Operation Bluestar of 1984 with the events of Operation Silence in Pakistan of 2007 then it certainly does not bode well for Musharraf. The pressure on Musharraf has already begun, today Al Qaeda’s second in command Ayman Al-Zawahiri has called for the end of his regime. Al-Qaeda will definitely step up its activities to take out Musharraf whom they are blaming for the violence that was witnessed during the Lal Masjid siege and have labeled him as an infidel who is being played at the hands of the Americans. The US will also find it difficult to increase pressure on Musharraf to take steps towards bringing an end to military rule in Pakistan and move towards a representative democracy. The Americans will understand that the siege has made Musharraf more vulnerable to Al Qaeda and home grown terror groups who seem to have turned on the military regime. In such a state it is also likely that radicals within the Army may be convinced that Musharraf needs to go and a coup against Musharraf would then become inevitable. The fallout of the siege will also ensure that the ISI will now see this as the end of Musharraf and may even switch sides to the Islamic elements within the armed forces. Both possibilities will be disastrous for Musharraf and for the nascent movement towards democracy with assemble elections slated for October this year.

Analysts have also argued that Musharraf played out Operation Silence to not only redeem his moderate credentials to the world but also to defect personal criticism from the fallout of the sacking of the former Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikar Chaudhary. Either way Musharraf has ended up with a far greater problem that he was facing prior to the Lal Masjid face-off. The US State department’s open backing of the military regime will further deteriorate Musharraf’s stand as terror elements will want to show the mosque siege as an American sponsored operation. So what are the realistic options that Musharraf can activate? First and foremost will be to strengthen his control further over the Army, a hint of a possible coup against him will be the end of his regime. The second most important step would be a realistic move to democratic change by which he may forego some of the absolute powers he enjoys in return for him remaining the head of state. It is also high time that the imposed exile on key political leaders like Nawaz Sharif is ended and both Sharif and Benazir are allowed back into the country to contest elections. If Musharraf manages to maintain a stronghold over the Army, he will not need to worry about the outcome of the elections in October. The Pakistani establishment since independence has been the ones calling the shots and democratically elected leaders have on most occasions - be it Pakistan going nuclear or the Kargil incursion – acted as rubber stamps or worst still been kept in the dark. In such a reality that exists in Pakistan, news reports of a possible ‘understanding’ between Musharraf and Benazir vis-à-vis the impending elections will further weaken the Musharraf regime. Musharraf turned a new leaf overnight after the US led Multinational Forces invaded Afghanistan post the September 11 attacks, the time for a repeat and to turn a new democratic leaf, which is the only way Musharraf can realistically stay in power. If he does not go down the democracy route chances are that the regime might implode or worst still Al Qaeda may just get lucky on its new man topping their hit list.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Doctors on Jihad - The Deadly Prescription
The United Kingdom is witnessing tense days with terror threats reeling the capital London and Scottish city of Glasgow over the past few days. The failed car-bombings at West End and that at Glasgow airport has ensured that the UK has raised its threat perception to its highest level. The failed terror attempts have also proved to be a baptism by fire for the barely week old Gordon Brown government, with the prime minister acknowledging the clear and present danger that Islamic fundamentalism and Al Qaeda linked and/or inspired groups pose for the UK and the larger democratic world in general. The tactics used by the terror plotters are similar to those that are commonplace on the streets of Baghdad, a deadly mix of explosives, fuel and nails that come together to ensure carnage. It is hardly surprising these tactics have now been adapted to the streets of London given the exposure the internet and Jihadi networks have received over the past half a decade. Bomb making tactics and methods to create widespread lose of life and limb are easily available for any individual provided the individual or group has the audacity and zeal to follow the foot steps of earlier “martyrs”. What is surprising though, is the fact that all three attacks failed, with the Glasgow attempt being the only one causing minor damage, the failure of the attempts is more luck and perhaps a sign of first timers giving their dose of Jihad a shot rather than experienced hands planning these attacks.

The initial investigations have also revealed a new face of terror – that of qualified medical professionals being involved directly or helping the perpetrators in carrying out the terror atrocities. For long terror analysts and civil society the world over have argued that the root cause of terror is not directly religion but actually poverty, disenchantment and a sense of alienation felt by poor, uneducated youths towards their governments and society and this ultimately leads them down the path of Jihad and religious fundamentalism. Also the role of Madarassas and other religious teaching schools have come under severe international focus for the role they play in radicalizing the youth. While, it is no doubt true that all the above factors contribute tremendously towards ensuring the radicalizing of youth the world over, the plotters of the latest terror plots in London prove that the explanation may not be the case always or that the profile of the religious extremists is changing. The eight persons currently under custody of the British police and the two detained by the Australian police are all doctors. All are well qualified and from external appearances do not fit the profile usually associated with terrorists, but the police do claim that all those detained were involved in these attacks, either directly or indirectly. This remarkable change in the profile of terror is indeed chilling and a stern reminder that increasingly the call for extremism is slowly taking hold of sections of society that were considered to be moderate and democratic in belief. It also shows that the call to fundamentalism has its roots not only in poverty or disenchantment, but also because of the perceived injustices the war on terror has thrown up. While earlier generations had grown on a steady diet of Arab nationalism that included a sense of pride in being Muslim and part of the Ummah, the current crop has been more inclined to follow the words and actions of men like Osama Bin Laden, for whom the message of destruction amounts to martyrdom. As mentioned, the fact that the terror perpetrators were doctors is surprising to most people, the unfortunate fact however is that many doctors have taken the path of extremism and are high on the terror pecking order. Take for example Al Qaeda’s second in command, Egyptian born Ophthalmologist, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who spearheaded the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt and his now widely considered the ideological mastermind of the Al Qaeda movement. Closer home, the horrific 2005 bombings in New Delhi, threw up Dr. Tariq Ahmed Dar, who was suspected as the mastermind behind the attacks. Similar examples are not hard to find, however, they remained dispersed in a wide-ranging profile of current Jehadis. The truly surprising aspect of these terror attacks is the fact that the entire ring of terror plotters seem to doctors, something that is unprecedented.

This new profile of the terror cells based in UK further deteriorates the standing of the expatriate South Asian community in Britain. While the radicalization of British Muslim youths was underway soon after the 9/11 attacks, popular perception held that those radicalized were those who were unemployed or those who went astray following the words of some deranged Mullahs. However, with doctors of differing nationalities now becoming an active part of the terror planning and execution, a general backlash against the community is inevitable. Those leaning towards the right of political ideology will see this as another example of how Islam as a religion itself is flawed and is inherently violent. Doctors wanting to work in the UK and Australia will also bear the brunt of the irresponsible actions of a deviant few. That said the onus now really lies with the governments of the Western world to prove to the world that their policies and actions are not a scheme to exploit the Muslim people or to gain a foothold in their lands, but rather their policies are based in ensuring human rights and freedom for all people. Guantanamo Bay, Haditha and Abu Gharaib however, will take more time and a definite shift in policy to prove as mere footnotes in the larger struggle to rid the world of religious fundamentalism and imperial war mongering.