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

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The post 9/11 world brought to fore many realities that hitherto remained hidden in the common conscious of civil society. While terrorism and its offshoot – religious fundamentalism was a phenomenon that was well established in the Indian psyche, to the world the events of September 11th 2001 brought this reality centre stage. Along with it came postulations like that of Samuel Huntington that talked about the clash of civilizations where religions and not countries would face-off against each other after the end of the Cold War. What it also brought to global notice was the ideals of secularism and the hardening of religious beliefs in many parts of the world. But in this increasingly divided world on the fault lines of religion and religious beliefs, what is the future of secularism – a pillar of undeniable strength for any democracy or diverse population.

The six years after the events of September 11th have unleashed two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – the former enjoying global acceptance while the latter dividing the world even further on religious lines. It is in that sort of a global environment that more and more countries are questioning the importance of religion and if so what role religion should play in this new era that will be dominated by religious extremism. The classical questions of the separation of religion from State are best highlighted by the events of the past few months in Turkey. A country that was founded on solid secular credentials by the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, the country finds itself divided on whether to elect a candidate for president whose wife is a practicing Muslim and an overtly visible Muslim at that with the use of the veil. Questions have also been raised about whether Abdullah Gul, as president of Turkey, will move the country towards a more Islamic character. The history of Turkey is riddled with the intervention of the army to take out governments that have moved it towards a more Islamic character. This time though, the secular army finds itself in a quandary. Living up to the country’s democratic norms the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for elections after having failed to install Gul as a consensus candidate. The popular notion was that Erdogan and Gul’s AKP party would lose the elections and that this loss would prove Turkey’s secular credentials. Opposition party’s raised the prospect of the country’s drift towards Islam if the AKP were to come back to power. The AKP party won the elections with an even better showing than in the previous elections and to secularists proved the changing nature religion is playing in the country. It is for Gul to prove otherwise whether he will take his country towards Islam in social and cultural policies but the Turkish elections have brought to the fore the importance religion is playing in politics in most democratic countries of the world. The world is indeed moving from a secular mindset to one that respects the religion that enjoys majority in their respective country.

The example of the United States is one that may not be sighted often for the role religion, and in the US’ case Christianity, plays in the country’s politics. One look at the gathering presidential elections proves the case in point. Every candidate in the fray is asked questions on faith and what stance each of them takes on social issues. Whether a candidate is a Mormon, pro-life, anti-abortion, practicing catholic or pro-gay marriages is a subject of intense debate. In fact, at times the political debate in the campaigning focuses more on religion and social standings than on economy, healthcare and geo-politics. The candidates of the Democratic Party recently held a debate on “gay” issues, a debate that focused entirely on the stand each of the candidates took on the issue. One has not heard the same focused approach on say healthcare in a country where 70 million people do not have health insurance. The debate on the Republican side is even more focused on religious beliefs and practices with the straw poll in Iowa recently had huge tents built my candidates where religious (Christian) sermons were carried out all day. Then again, the raging debate between scientists and preachers over the veracity of the theory of evolution versus intelligent design is a subject of much deliberation. So much so that Christian groups have advocated a change in school textbooks where children must be taught that evolution is only “a” theory and not the expected norm. The President of the United States (in)famously told an audience that it was God that asked him to invade Iraq. These examples are a mere reflection of the role religion is playing the world’s oldest democracy, a country which is secular and with a diverse religious makeup.

Europe is also not far behind in the debate over the relevance, importance and meaning of secularism in its society and culture. The Chirac regime in France saw the ban on display of religious symbols, a move that was hailed by secularists but condemned by religious organizations. Then again, in Britain the country has witnessed an unprecedented surge in the number of people going to temples, churches, mosques and synagogues after 9/11. There is also an increase ghettoisation of religious communities in Britain and religion based hate crimes have overtaken race crimes. This in a country that is considered the melting pot of the world with every possible religion having a representation in civil society. Similar increase in religious practices have been seen in every country in Europe so much so that there are groups and political parties across Europe that have called for an end to immigration, a comfortable byword to maintain the Christian nature of Europe. The near paranoia displayed by many EU nations to the question of allowing Turkey, a Muslim country, in to the EU belies the hypocrisy that secular Europe adopts when faced with accepting religions other than Christianity.

India presents a much more complex picture than any other country sighted above. India was founded on solid republican, secular credentials. In the sixty years since independence the country has seen many a clash of religions but none that have torn the country into fragments. The Babri Masjid demolition, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Mumbai riots in 1992 and countless terror attacks by Islamic fundamentalists have bent but not broken India. But in this romanticism, it is undeniable that the events mentioned above coupled with the events of 9/11 and the years since then have divided the country on religious lines. Our political parties have been only to happy in highlighting this divide. Be it the Congress party with its pseudo-secular approach to religion where criticizing the minority community in the face of bloody insurgencies and terror strikes is a big no-no at the altar of secularism. Or the BJP which has used the Hindu pulpit to target the minority community on the premise that the country’s majority religion must be “respected” by the minority – be it by choice or by force of a rioting mob. Countless, regional parties and religious organizations have helped accentuate this Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Sikh divide to gain politically while decimating the secular strength of the country.

In such a complex triad of religion, politics and secularism, where is secularism heading? And what is the role of religion or what role should religion play in civil society and in governance. The debate may throw up many aspects but the fact remains that in the increasingly globalized world and diffuse religious make-up of populations the world over, secularism is the only way forward. Secularism, in the true sense of the word, an outlook that respects all religions while not making religion a hindrance in the political, social and economic growth of practitioners of any and every religion is the required by all means. All religions are equal yet no religion should play a role in the matters of the State is the crying need in this increasingly divided world. Lastly, there is also a need in the post 9/11 world that an increased display of religion or the practice of one’s religion should not be necessarily taken as a move towards extremism. Sometimes, in the face of terror atrocities and the limited success of governments the world over to wipe terror from the face of the earth, religion maybe the only refuge for many. While politicians must respect that and religious members of society must also acknowledge that if one were to have a more just society secularism is the only way forward. Amen to that.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The nuclear deal is about energy stupid!
The debate over whether the Indo-US nuclear deal is good for us or not, its merits and demerits, its drawbacks and potential, has been the subject of intense debate ever since the Manmohan Singh led government signed on the dotted line nearly two years back. Initially, the debate had focused on the right aspect of the deal – nuclear energy and energy independence. Somewhere along the line the crux of the debate switched from energy to non-proliferation. The US side took the first lead and US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice was quoted as saying that through the agreement the Americans had brought a nuclear pariah into the nuclear non-proliferation fold. This instigated the Indian side with scientists, journalists and the Opposition parties raising hell at this benign attempt by the UPA to become a ‘client’ state of the US and thereby surrendering our sovereignty. While some of the concerns that came out of the draft of the nuclear deal and the 123 agreement needed a concerted effort to resolve, the UPA government has failed miserably to win back the public perception about what really this deal means for India.

If one were to leave the strategic analysts, nuclear scientists and knowledgeable journalists who have written on the subject aside, there will be only a minute minority of people in this country who truly understand what this brouhaha is all about. The political parties have tried to project this deal according to their political compulsions. So while the Left supports this capitalistic leaning government, it cannot be seen in consort with the Congress as they generously embrace the United States. The Left has displayed stupendous hypocrisy by claiming that the right to test a nuclear weapon must not be curtailed by the 123 agreement or through the actual agreement. This when the Left has been an advocate of nuclear non-proliferation as an ideology. The Left should have embraced this deal as it would cap India’s nuclear weapons program, but instead they have aroused their till now dormant nationalistic pride by pressing the government to retain the right to test nuclear weapons.

The BJP too has projected a confused outlook towards this deal. They have at times welcomed the deal only to reject it on some aspect of the draft or the other. In principle the party has always advocated closer relations with the United States and in fact, it was under the aegis of the Vajpayee government that the two countries talked about the possibility of opening India’s nuclear energy program for inspections and nuclear commerce. It has now taken a strong view on the right to test nuclear weapons while at the same time has made it clear that a principle of reciprocity in perpetuity must be maintained. The BJP made the right noises since any opposition party would want to find faults in any ruling governments policy initiatives. What the BJP did wrong was to reach out to the Left and ask for their support against the nuclear deal. It would be prudent and frankly ideologically consistent to have maintained an opposition to the deal or ask for a vote in parliament rather than go and woo the Left to corner the government. It is not a state secret that every time the Right has shook hands with the Left, the handshake is short lived and more unfriendliness invariably follows. The BJP should have advocated a hands off approach to its conduct on the deal in Parliament. It should have sought to let the Left do all the opposing so as to embarrass the government. As it is the job of the principal opposition is done by the Left and not the BJP, so why not do the same this time around.

The media managers for the Congress and the government have proven completely ineffective in handling this latest PR crisis for the government. The saving grace ironically in this case have been the bureaucrats, on both sides. Shyam Saran and his successor, Shivshankar Menon along with their opposite number the Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns have played to the media gallery well in highlighting what each side will get through this deal. Their handling of the nuclear deal has ensured that citizens have got some sort of understanding on what this deal actually means for their respective nations. The Congress’ media managers and the Prime Minister’s press managers have ensured that no sense of clarity on the nuclear deal ever came through. When being hammered on certain aspects of the nuclear deal, the media managers did the worst sort of rebuttal – answer questions which would lead to more questions rather than answers. Instead, if they would have taken a larger holistic view rather than a narrow micro view of the matter they would been on a stronger wicket. After all, the man on the street has a simple question – how does this deal affect me? Instead of answering this basic question of the electorate, the government has thrown words and phrases like the 123, the Hyde Act, the FMCT, right to return, right to reprocess, the three stage nuclear reactors, the IAEA, NSG and NPT among other toss ups. Now, it is nobody’s case to suggest that the debate on a deal of truly landmark proportions should be "dumbed down" in any way, but it is also true that by highlighting the growing energy needs of this country, the government could have talked about the ultimate goal of this initiative and its plans to secure the country’s future energy needs. Such an emotive message would have definitely hit the right spot with most people in this country. By trying to throw at the country jargon the government is finding itself in a tight spot. How easy it would have been for Manmohan Singh to say to Parliament that under this deal I have ensured that the quest for energy security, an issue of paramount importance to a growing economy like ours, has been partially addressed. But I don’t blame the doctor, he thought everyone knew the intricacies of diplomatic give and take and the constitutional requirements of India and the United States, which only a truly scholar like him would know. But he doesn’t have an election to face or win, or can, and so he can talk the jargon, while the rest are trying to collect as many brownie points as possible for 2009.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Demise of the Bush Presidency
US President George Bush’s closest ally and “boy genius” Karl Rove resigned from the Bush White House as Deputy Chief of Staff. While the official designation may not seem significant, Rove along with Vice President Dick Cheney were behind every policy initiative taken by the Bush administration. Be it election strategy, domestic policy or the war in Iraq, Rove left his mark on every issue that the Bush administration has faced up to or skirted around. The Bush-Rove partnership goes back to close to two decades when the men from Texas became a formidable force that installed George Bush as the Governor of Texas. From then on Bush political fortunes have been keenly tied with the decisions taken by Rove as his point person for policy during his campaign trails and then in the two terms at the White House.

In 2000, Bush faced a popular incumbent vice president in Al Gore as his opponent for the White House. Karl Rove quickly seized the idea to bring to the fore issues of morality and dignity of the highest office of the land. He pandered (though indirectly) the Clinton years as ones which saw an increase in ‘liberal’ mindsets and an approval of gay marriages and abortion. He was quick to highlight the fact that the President of the United States must enjoy the respect of the nation, thereby implying that with the Democrats in the White House, expect the President to be caught with his pants down, quite literally. He then went on to coin the term “compassionate conservatism” which was a centrist approach to press independents and Democrats to vote for Bush. The ploy worked and a new wave of conservatism movement, the first after the Reagan years, swept the mid-west and Red states of the United States.

The crucial war on terror and the war in Iraq were also the handiwork of Karl Rove. Rove, though not a neo-conservative himself, was greatly influenced by neo-conservative writers and the movement which prophesized that as the only superpower in the world, it was incumbent on the United States to take a leading role in the world and if it meant invading foreign countries for the benefit of the country and her allies then it was a route worth taking. The unilateralism that Bush showed as the US went to war in Iraq was a direct fallout of the impact the neoconservative movement had on the administration and the messenger advocating the neoconservative principles in this case was Rove.

But the 2004 election Bush victory will remain the greatest achievement for Karl Rove. Faced with sagging popularity figures and a war that many felt was a diversion to the real war on terror, George Bush again turned to the man he has described as the “boy genius”. Rove turned around the very question about the reasons to go to war in Iraq, which was the Democrats main big ticket issue. He instead turned the tables on the Democrats and went to the voters with the simple message, we are a nation at war and George Bush, not John Kerry is the man fit to lead. The ploy worked and Bush got what his father couldn’t – the second term at the White House. And in doing so, Rove proved that as a strategist if you can turn your disadvantages to your advantage, the race is all but yours. In 2004 he proved his worth to his detractors who were voicing their concern over the ear time Rove got with the President.

Since 2004, though, the going has been tough for the Bush administration both domestically and internationally. 2005 was a disastrous year for Iraq and the chopping and changing of the military leadership had all the hallmarks of ‘Rovism’. At home, the White House got embroiled in the Valerie Plame spy scandal which saw Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby being sentenced to prison time. Many believed that Libby was the scapegoat for Rove, but due his indispensability, Libby and not Rove paid the price. Immigration reforms which is a major issue in the border states including Texas, from where both Bush and Rove hail, was a key policy initiative taken by Bush. The idea behind the bill to introduce the guest worker program for illegal migrants was meant to move the Latino and Hispanic voter en masse to the Republicans. However, the bill got stalled by the Senate and was ultimately given a quiet burial. The illegal wire tapping of US citizens, the appointments of judges favoring the Republican cause to the Supreme Court along with the firing of judges that were not “Republican enough” all weakened Rove in the last year of his current stint. Also the fact that many from the original 2000 team left the White House meant that increasingly Rove was surrounded by newer people who were not averse to expressing their views even if it meant contradicting Rove. With Colin Powell, Ari Fleisher, Scott McClellan, Dan Bartlett, John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld all exiting the Bush administration, Karl Rove’s exit was only a matter of time. While the prospect of writing and publishing the most anticipated political memoir of this decade might excite Rove, he must be circumspect about how the dream of invincibility was shattered so soon after it began. The members of the original Bush team now walk into the sunset knowing fully well that their policies and decisions did not have the desired effect they so strongly believed in. And with that grim realization, the Rove exit also marks the end of Bush’s term which will not see any path breaking policy initiatives or strategies to alter the execution of current policy. Rove just pulled the plug on a terminally ill presidency that is waiting to go.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Resurgence of Europe
International politics has been busy of late with the coronation of new leaders to take over countries that are considered the vanguard for democracy and culture. Britain saw Gordon Brown take over the reins from the decade old and war worn Tony Blair and France saw Nicolas Sarkozy taking the Elysee Palace from the septuagenarian Jacques Chirac. Last year saw the election of Angela Merkel take the Chancellor’s position in Germany and this new troika offers hope to those who despair at the thought of the current world order which has the United States at the helm of global affairs. The new leaders, though all friendly to the United States, have all taken initiatives to show that “old Europe” has got a facelift and is ready to regain its role as the voice of moral, political and economic authority in world affairs. This development has been contiguous with the decline of American power, or at least the perceived decline, due to the fall out of the war in Iraq and domestic politics. The strengthening of the UK, France and Germany is encouraging and will bode well for multilateralism in the world.

The British Prime Minister was the focus of keen attention during his visit to the United States for his first meeting with President Bush as prime minister. Many were eager to notice the change in relationship that Brown would bring and how Brown would unshackle British foreign policy from that of the US, which over the past decade seemed to be intertwined to the point of irrelevance. Those who predicted a change from the Blair years were not left disappointed. Not only did Brown assume a “business like” approach he was quick to point out the nuanced differences between American and British interest in Iraq. Bush, who called Brown the “humorous Scotsman” rather than the dour variety Brown is accused of being, tried to unleash his southern charm and hospitality but to limited success. Brown made it clear that British troops will remain in Iraq (mostly concentrated in the southern part of Iraq) till the time their commanders deemed it necessary. He further clarified that once the British are ready to hand over power to the Iraqis they shall do so, irrespective of the situation in Baghdad. This key change in strategy showed the firm commitment Brown wants to bring whereby his country’s foreign policy does not depend on the decisions of President Bush. He made it clear that it will be his commanders, and not American ones, that will indicate when to leave. But more crucially, if the British are ready to hand over power to the Iraqis in Basra and elsewhere, they shall do so, without or without American consent. So while he reaffirmed his country’s commitment to the war against extremism and on the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship, he was careful to point out that his country will not carry out the foreign policy decisions made in Washington but rather have policy guided by his commanders on the ground and Whitehall. And with that the Blair-Bush foreign policy initiative come to a tentative end and a new Brown-Bush relationship has begun which will only mean more trouble for Bush, for he will have to now convince rather than inform the British prime minister about the way forward.

The French President Nicolas Sarkozy proved he was no babe in the woods last week when he managed to negotiate the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were incarcerated in a Libyan prison for years on the charge of deliberating infecting babies with the HIV virus. This was a major coup for Sarkozy, barely months into his new job, not only showed his great understanding of how to deal with a dictator, but it also showed that France was willing to take centre stage in international affairs rather than remain a benign bystander as the reputation of France has become for better part of the Chirac presidency. Then again, Sarkozy has called himself a close ally of America and has expressed his high regard for the American political system and its history. In doing so he has also offered the French fig leaf to America, in a bid to improve relations that plummeted during the run up to the Iraq invasion. Sarkozy has also been insistent on strengthening the EU and he along with German Chancellor have talked about a redrafted EU constitution which would be acceptable to all members as well as to their domestic audiences. While the Chirac-Schroeder attempt at the EU constitution proved to be a zero sum game, the Sarkozy-Merkel approach to the EU has been more pragmatic, with both leaders realizing the inevitable failure in case the draft constitution was continued in the same form. Their nuanced approach towards the entry of Turkey into the EU was well received within the EU, although the wider international community was dismayed at the xenophobic approach towards a secular Turkey, which if inducted to the EU will become the only country with a Muslim majority to become part of the EU. The German Chancellor too has impressed world leaders with her stewardship at the G-8 summit in Hilligendamm this year winning her accolades and also the manner with which she managed to converge the varied interests of member states as the president of the EU.

If Europe and the broader EU were to continue to strengthen their stands on issues of terrorism and unilateralism it is possible that they can present themselves as a creditable alternative to policies of the US. With young and dynamic leaders at the fore, a resurgent Europe can actually wrest back some of its lost voice. However, the EU and Europe will need to overcome its stagnant economies if it wants to have a greater say in world affairs. It is no secret that today’s foreign policy is more commerce than politics, and the EU will never be taken seriously if it does not improve its economic influence over the world. That said, this might be the last chance for Europe to resurface as a major player in international affairs. With the rise of India and China, the 21st Century has already been claimed by the two most populous country’s in the world. The relevance of Europe has diminished, but with the Sarkozy-Brown-Merkel team in charge, the outcome is cautiously optimistic at best and status qouist at worst. It’s up to Europe to make the most of it.