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

Friday, September 28, 2007

Burma Burning - India must do more
India’s volatile neighborhood just got more complicated with the mass protests by Buddhists monks in Myanmar against the military junta. Myanmar has long remained isolated in the eyes of the world and the military dictatorship has maintained its only contacts with India and China both for trade and counter-terrorism alliances. New Delhi’s association with Rangoon goes back decades with prominent pro-democracy advocate Aung Sang Su Kyi residing and studying in India for many years and more recently with the pact between the two countries to counter terror outfits that have led the insurgency in the North East. The latest protests, which have claimed nine lives officially, seem to be heading for a showdown reminiscent of 1988 when students took to the streets asking for an end to the military dictatorship. Recent media reports showed the military leader Than Shwe’s son’s wedding ceremony which was lavish even by Western standards and which further outraged the citizens of Myanmar, and helped in precipitating the protests we see today. The United Nations along with the EU have out rightly condemned the heavy handed actions of the junta and more significantly urged India and China to play a larger role in influencing the military to back down. However, this is as far as the UN and EU have gone without spelling out what exactly they expect of India and China as mediators in the fragile state of affairs in Myanmar.

India’s response to the Burmese crisis has been muted and rather ambiguous. The foreign ministry’s spokesperson only spoke of the need for “national reconciliation” and a return to peace without stating what India would like to see as a logical outcome. As highlighted, India finds itself in the same Tibet syndrome and more recently in the Katmandu syndrome where it wants to please all players in the crisis without taking sides and in this process of egalitarianism lose out to the Chinese or worst still lose the faith of the people of the crisis ridden country. In the case of Tibet, India had given shelter to the Dalai Lama and fought for a free Tibet for many years. This policy was retracted as a quid pro quo with the Chinese to settle the border dispute, whereby we would recognize Tibet as an “autonomous region” in exchange for China’s recognition of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as part of India. What we got was a clever ploy by the Chinese, who still seem to dispute the Arunachal and Aksai question while we merrily recognize Tibet as part of China. We not only lost the confidence of the fledging free Tibet movement, we virtually surrendered our Tibetan trump card against the Chinese.

Then again in Nepal, the removal of the King was received guardedly, while at the same time Indian Communists were welcoming the Maoists as the savior for the Himalayan kingdom. Our backing of the Nepali Congress while at the same time the desire to see the King as the ceremonial head of state, sent mixed signals to the Nepalese. Not only were there street protests against India, unprecedented in living memory, but many native Nepalese opening targeted the Madhesi’s and people of the Terai region for their pro-India views. This unfortunate turmoil in India’s sphere of influence has been due to our weak leadership and even weaker foreign office. While we put all our eggs on the nuclear deal basket, we keep forgetting that if India were to truly emerge as a superpower it will need to play a leadership role in own backyard before we set out to conquer the world. India has never indulged in the internal affairs of other countries (though others point out to Nepal and Bangladesh as examples of India’s meddling ways) this mantra for foreign policy has gone too far, and now has reached such a stage that no neighbor considers our views seriously. We seem to repeating the same mistake with our myopic view on the Myanmar protests.

The generals of the Junta in Myanmar recognize that India needs their support to eliminate the insurgency in the North East. They use that as bargaining chips to ensure their continuity in office. But it is also true that the tacit recognition India is providing to the junta gives it some semblance of recognition in the world. If India were to strengthen its borders and then actively support the pro-democracy movement the junta will feel the heat, as will the Chinese. With a strengthened border, the junta will have to deal with the insurgents on their home soil rather than exporting them to Indian territory as has happened over the decades. But for this to happen, India will need to be bold. We have already missed by the bus by not taking an active role as soon as the crisis broke out, now with the UN and EU asking us to intervene; it seems any toughening of India’s stand will seem forced upon us rather than India taking a leadership role to resolve the crisis. That said it is till not too late for us to act and to ensure that the demonstrations end peacefully and with a move towards democracy. China will bargain before it comes down heavily on the junta, but if India were to show its seriousness on resolving the issue, the Chinese may feel compelled to do its bit. It’s a long shot but the current passivity doesn’t bode well for India. India has been a champion of democracy and peace and there is no better opportunity to prove that tenet than to help relieve a deprived nation from the heavy hand of a junta.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Does Ahmedinejad have a fair point?
The United States reluctantly allowed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to come to New York to attend the UN’s annual general assembly meeting this week. The Iranian president was, however, not allowed to visit Ground Zero, where the twin towers once stood, as there was a general consensus on it being inappropriate. What the US officials could not stop was the invitation Columbia University sent to the President to lecture and interact with students of the university. This at a time when Iran-US relations are at their lowest since the Iranian revolution nearly three decades back and with open talk of a possible military strike by the US or through an Israeli proxy on key Iranian nuclear sites in Natanz, Isfahan and maybe Tehran. So what one witnessed made for interesting TV viewing while at the same time spoke highly of the freedom of speech that the US considers a cardinal pillar in its democracy.

The liberty to use freedom of speech worked both ways with the president of Columbia University using strong language to introduce the Iranian president as a “cruel and petty dictator” and Ahmedinejad returning the favor with some strong views on Israel, the Palestinian people, Iraq and the contentious issue of Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranian president spoke at length about his controversial statements on wiping Israel of the face of the earth and about the holocaust, which according to him needs continuous research to better understand its cause, reasons, extent and outcome. Out of the entire two hour rambling that was the president’s speech and lopsided views on global affairs, two points struck out very visibly. The first were his views on the Israel-Palestine issue. While it is no ones case to propagate a view to dismantle Israel, which while it needs to do more by way of reconciliation with the Palestinian people so that a credible Palestine comes into existence, is no doubt the only functioning Western style democracy in a region where democracy is a scarce commodity. But Ahmedinejad has questioned the very formation of Israel in 1948 which led to the mass migration of ethnic Palestinians from their native lands. The pretext to constitute the state of Israel is what the Iranian president is harping on. In his view, which does hold some merit, the holocaust led to a huge outpouring of horror and grief over the plight of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Also, by the end of the Second World War, Jews had become a powerful, rich and influential lobby in countries that mattered and soon a country, as promised by God, was formed by driving out people who had lived there under British occupation. Ahmedinejad, and many in the Arab world feel that why should Palestinians and by that token, Muslim Arabs, pay the price for crimes committed by Europeans and by the same token Christians. He further argues that while the crime was committed by those in the West, the price is being paid by people who were not even remotely connected with the outrage. While this scholarly debate is immensely profound, it does hold minute merit. For sixty years Palestinians have paid the price for actions of the West and aggression by the Israeli state. They resorted to violence and terrorism which further impeded their cause for a free state. When the same Palestinians voted out a corrupt Fatah and brought in Hamas, the West hypocritically chose to isolate Hamas since it does not recognize Israel. The Palestinians have suffered enough and now stand a disillusioned lot for the failure democracy has brought them. This version of ‘democracy but only if it’s my man” has created a generation of youths who despise democracy as a front for Western domination in their affairs. The rejection of the democratically elected Hamas along with the war in Iraq will cause irreparable damage to the very institution of democracy, which is today being unfairly used as a cover for neo-imperialism in the Middle East.

The other important point raised by the Iranian President was on his country’s nuclear program. He argued that the US had no business to talk of non-proliferation when they themselves have researched and manufactured “fifth generation” nuclear weapons. He insisted that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are limited solely for energy generation and not weapons production. Scoff as much as we want to, the critical issue at the heart of the nuclear impasse is again Israel. The US has hedged all its hopes for the Middle East on Israel. By arming them with nuclear weapons, the US as not only provided a very effective tool for deterrence it has in the process accelerated the desire by Arab states to get the famed “Arab Bomb”. Many governments in the region were initially pleased with Pakistan going nuclear and called that as the first “Muslim Bomb”, but with Pakistan swaying more towards the US than on the dispositions in the Middle East, the quest by Iran and Syria to get the bomb has only increased over the years. Then again, by arming Israel, the US may have protected a friend but at the cost of initiating an arms race amongst countries in the region rushing towards nuclear deterrence. In the context of nuclear energy, the nuclear standoff between the US and Iran holds importance for India. Many countries, including Iran, are going to use the Indo-US nuke deal as an example of the US using different yardsticks for different regimes depending on their relations with the world’s sole superpower. Then again, it has never been India’s intention to wipe nations of the face of the earth.

The speech by Ahmedinejad, which precedes his address to the UN general assembly, only harped on the existing differences between Iran and the West while doing precious little in way of reconciliation. While the prospect of a US invasion of Iran seems distant and remote, given the fact that the US finds itself stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is clearly going to harden its stand on Iran with the new found support of a vocal French president and his foreign minister. The Iranian President used his US visit to raise some important points and to sell himself to the American citizens. He may not go back with a happy report card, with the American media choosing to ridicule his stand on various issues, it does not take away the essence of his message or the importance of a man who could provide for the next flashpoint of conflict in the Middle East.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Lord Ram to the BJP's rescue?

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad along with allied Hindu groups displayed a major show of force across the country over the Ram Setu issue and the Sethursamundram project which had been a nascent issue at least on the national stage. The VHP succeeded in two things primarily, one, bringing the issue to the centre stage of national politics and two causing complete disruption of traffic and daily life in most cities of the country. However, the true beneficiaries of this agitation may just be the BJP which is desperately looking for an issue to raise amongst the electorate after having bungled the nuclear deal issue thanks to the infamous internal wrangling to take control of the party amongst its leaders. The BJP, by providing tacit support to the agitation, would want to bring Hindutuva part 3, having tasted electoral success after the Babri Masjid demolition and the Godhra massacre and the ensuing riots. This when the government is finding itself on the mat with coalition partners turning on the Congress and a series of gaffes on the policy front.

The BJP is in dire need of a substantial issue or issues to call its own and then to use them as the mainstay of any possible election campaign in the event of a mid term poll which seems likely in 2008. The nuclear deal issue was one cause which is now being championed by the Left more than any other party. Though part of the UPA, the Left parties have been brilliant, though highly mistaken in their “imperialist” arguments, on the nuclear issue. They have pipped the principal Opposition party by organizing a concerted campaign of road shows and rallies right from Bengal to Kerala. They have also sent their best known faces to countless TV stations to articulate the Left’s flawed point of view on the matter. The latest in this tidal red wave is the upcoming compilation of the CPM General Secretary’s articles and views on the nuclear deal in the form of a book. Though, one may not agree with the Left’s arguments, their intensive campaign is something that the Opposition camp must take note of and implement into their own strategies. As compared to the Left’s campaign the NDA’s campaign has left much to be desired. After making the right noises initially, the BJP, like on most issues in the past two years, went into self destruct mode. The internal leadership struggle once again ensured that the campaign sputtered only to be taken over by a belligerent Left. Although, the nuclear deal issue is one that nearly brought the Manmohan Singh led government down, it is just one of the many issues that the Opposition party can target the government on. The failure to make the import of wheat at premium prices by a minister who is known more for his cricket administration skills than prudent farmer related issues to the present law minister whose crony ways to please his masters has ensured that Quattarochi is a free man amongst a host of other issues where questions have been raised over his role in converting the CBI into a full fledged political body have given way to more innate issues. That aside price rise, flood relief, corruption and the growing menace of Islamic and Naxal terrorism are issues that the Opposition can capitalize on and challenge this government when it goes to the electorate. However, the BJP, through the VHP and the larger Sangh Parivar, has brought to the fore an issue on which it finds itself most comfortable – Hindutuva.

Having used the potent mix of religion and pseudo-secularism the BJP has ensured that issues like the Ram Mandir, minority appeasement and now the Ram Setu issue will help in uniting the Hindu vote which will rally behind the party. This time too the party seems to be wanting to benefit from the whole Sethusamundaram project, which according to media reports will save 30 hours of travel time between the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, though it would mean dredging parts of a natural structure which many Hindus believe was the bridge used by Lord Ram to invade Lanka and rescue Sita. The government, with a frequent habit of shooting itself on the foot, kept up to its habit and through the Archeological Survey of India has told the Supreme Court that the Ram Setu is not a man made structure and that there is no proof of the existence of the mythological figure of Lord Ram except in some texts. This on a day when the whole country was witnessing an agitation on that very issue shows either complete political naiveté on part of the government or a deliberate attempt to push through this project in the face of religious sentiments. While the former seems the more likely reason given the track record of this government, but in doing so, the government has made the issue far more emotive than what a one day agitation would have otherwise done. The BJP will surely rake up this issue as an example of the disregard by the UPA for the largest religious block in the country and the BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad has made similar noises about how the government would have tread on a different path had it involved other religions. For the BJP this may seem like an issue they can pursue all the way to the polls, but with elections at least 6 months away, how relevant this issue will remain is debatable. The BJP will, nonetheless, add this into its kitty of political armor to use against the government as when elections are called for. It seems the largest Opposition block is looking for divine intervention for its quest for power. They have succeeded earlier, will they now?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Osama "virtually impotent", really?
Osama Bin Laden dominated the airwaves with a new video message, the first to have emerged after nearly two years. Certain quarters in the intelligence community had predicted that since the elusive Al-Qaeda leader had not appeared for many years, it was likely that he was dead or severely ill. Bin Laden proved those theorists wrong with a message that showed him fit and looking like a person who still commands the largest terror movement of the twenty first century. While most of the coverage on the Osama tape figured around his dyed or fake beard or the fact that he looked younger, an in depth analysis of the content of his message took a back seat. As compared to all his previous messages, mostly centering around a call to arms or to wage jihad against the West, this tape spoke directly to the American people. The propaganda that Osama is unleashing on the world has become more complex, scholarly and part of a well thought out strategy.

The rants that is the hallmark of any Al-Qaeda propaganda aside, Osama smartly chose to mention certain aspects of capitalism that have been criticized by leftists and proponents of alternate social systems. He chose to speak about big corporations and how they run the politics and foreign policy of the United States. He talked about how the pursuit of material gains has left people unhappy, he talked about how capitalism brings ills in the form of mortgages and debt. While many may argue that this was banter that was expected from the Al-Qaeda leader, there is no denying the fact that they are concerns that do affect a large number of people. While the panacea that Bin Laden offers, a conversion to Islam may seem like a simplistic solution to solve the world’s ills and more so coming from a man who is a mass murderer, his advice is best left unused. However, it is important for the world to also realize that the intended targets of the message that Osama is preaching are probably people who end up holding the short end of the stick in the big bad world of capitalism. It is the same gullible people that the terror networks have brainwashed with their ideological jargon and converted them to suicide bombers and the like. The only difference this time being that earlier it was disenchanted youths in Arab countries, this time it maybe similarly disposed people in the West, as in the case of the July 2005 bombers in London. Most analysts and middle class citizens may disregard every word coming out of a man who forever has changed our perceptions about Islam and religious reconciliation, but his message will unfortunately resonate with a lot of people living in the West who face extreme hardships and economic disparity to actually fall for Osama’s bluff. But the reaction from the leadership of the US, the citizens of the country who are the intended audience for this tape, has been one of complete dismissal. The White House Homeland Security advisor, Frances Townsend, speaking to CNN on the Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, dismissed the tape and its speaker as “virtually impotent”. What they do not realize, or at least publicly accept, is the fact that this message may actually be a recruiting tool aimed at US citizens rather than a discourse in political history. While the intervening six years since September 11 has made Osama less relevant in the global war against terror, with new threats emerging and a spawning effect that Al Qaeda has unleashed, it is still Osama who is Al-Qaeda’s most important recruiting agent.

The Osama tapes have met with the most favored response that politicians prefer – finger pointing. With Osama mentioning the Democrats, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and a host of world leaders, politicians have been quick to pass the buck. Democrats argue that it is the incompetence of the incumbent President that has ensured that six years since the 911 attacks, Osama can spread his message of terror with ease. The Republicans have countered by saying that the Democrats have been endorsed by Osama and that a Democratic President will make the country less safe. The response, though predictable, has been disappointing. It is clearly high time that the Bush administration lays down a clear strategy to get Osama bin Laden while Bush is in office. Not only will it be a vindication on the war on terror, it will also be pay back for the attacks on the twin towers and the countless other atrocities Al- Qaeda affiliates have carried out the world over, including in India. But more importantly, unlike in other tapes where Osama calls for direct strikes and a call to arms, this tape may just lay the seeds to the formation of a second wave of sleeper cells forming within the confines of democratic nations, and here again, India included.