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

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Rudy Shock?
Florida goes in for its crucial primaries today to elect its Republican nominee for the November US presidential elections. The Republican fray is wide open with four candidates vying to win the delegate rich ‘Sunshine State’ with the hope that a win in Florida will propel them to win the February 5th 24 state Super Tuesday election night. National frontrunner John McCain along with Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani are contesting this contest which can have far reaching implications. For the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, this contest holds the most significance. The Giuliani strategy has been to forego the contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina and focus on Florida to propel him to a win on Super Tuesday. This strategy is one which is brave yet inherently risks the former mayor to be all but out if he loses the state. This all or none strategy has taken many analysts by surprise and elucidated chuckles from his rivals.

The Giuliani camp is ruing the fact that in a matter of a month the focus of these elections has moved away from national security and the war on terror, to the domestic issue of the economy. Giuliani was always quick to tout his national security credentials. As the “9/11 mayor” he told voters that he had the experience, resolve and courage to take on Islamic fundamentalism and protect the homeland from future attacks. The war in Iraq was the initial focus of many traditional Republican voters, considering they had put their neck on the line backing the current commander in chief, George Bush to invade Iraq. With the military surge bringing the desired peace, albeit with little in way of political reconciliation between the Shia and Sunni law makers, the Republicans were keen to project Iraq as a plan that faltered initially but has stabilized in time. But unfortunately for Giuliani, good news rarely makes headlines and so was the case in Iraq. Take for example, the largely peaceful Shia festival of Ashura, marred by violence in preceding years, barely made it to the headlines in the mainline news organizations, and very soon Iraq has now taken second position as an issue to the faltering US economy for voters. And in the economics sweepstakes Rudy cannot match the experience of Mitt Romney, a career business man and governor or John McCain a veteran of many economic and national reforms on various issues as a senator.

The other major disaster to hit the Giuliani camp has been his ceding of the top spot in national polls to John McCain and Mitt Romney. Till the beginning of the primaries in January, Giuliani enjoyed broad based support from the Republican base, although even at the time social conservatives had sworn against him. By the time the primaries in the four states finished, Giuliani finds himself at fourth position behind McCain, Romney and Huckabee. What a month can do in politics! Then again, the Giuliani strategy is based on the fact that he will gain momentum in Florida and use his national name recognition to win Super Tuesday. However, what works against this strategy is the fact that the Republican voters have been able to understand over the past month where a candidate stands on the big ticket issues in these elections. By concentrating on Florida, Giuliani has forsaken national standing for a narrow state consideration. And even in the likelihood of a win in Florida, it seems unlikely that the win will suddenly give Giuliani the momentum to win dozens of states come next Tuesday. The past primaries have shown that both on the Republican and the Democratic side, the balance remains even after four contests. The best Giuliani can achieve after a win in Florida is become “a” contender rather than “the” contender. Giuliani must feel the heat and if he can beat the rest to take Florida, he will become the comeback kid of these elections. At the moment, one feels that Giuliani might just be preparing to pack his bags and check out of the presidential race.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

US Presidential Elections Update

New York Times endorsements

The influential New York Times newspaper has endorsed
Hillary Clinton from the Democratic Party and John McCain from the Republican Party as their preferred candidates from the primary race. The endorsement marks a clearing of the race, which though, is far from over, as Clinton and McCain have shown an upward trend in their national appeal to voters, which ultimately will decide the final showdown between the two parties. Although, the New York Times can sway many undecided voters, the 2008 elections are an internet event. With most candidates taking their campaign to the World Wide Web and the explosion of online news media, blogs and think tanks, the undecided voters may just make up their minds on the internet rather than from what the traditional media tells them. That said, it does not take anything away from the importance the endorsements gives to the two candidates. The endorsement will be a body blow for Barack Obama, who after a string of editorial and celebrity endorsements would have got a definite fillip if the New York Times had helped him. But as most political analysts argue, the world will be a precarious place after the Bush administration leaves office. Externally, terrorism, the war in Iraq, North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear talks, relations with Russia, the Middle East peace process and the record oil prices will all need political acumen, experience and leadership that only McCain and Clinton seem to offer given the current fray of candidates.

The Obama “hit job”

Former US president Bill Clinton is currently campaigning for his wife, Hillary in the politically sensitive state of South Carolina that will hold its primaries this weekend. The former president has been in the news more often than his wife and that too for all the wrong reasons. First, it was Clinton taking on Obama’s record and rhetoric regarding the war in Iraq, where he called the idea that Obama was consistently against the war in Iraq as a “fairytale”. The Obama camp latched on to this comment and highlighted that Clinton had brought race into the campaign, by calling the Obama candidacy a “fairytale”. Following a vitriolic to and fro between Hill-Bill and Obama, Democratic leaders had to step in to tone down the temperature a few notches. Ultimately, the fight is between Democrats and the Republicans and not between two candidates of the Democratic Party. The fear is that the Democratic frontrunners have got so embroiled in a verbal barrage that who ever wins will find it difficult to expect the losing camps’ supporters to vote for him or her. Then again, Obama is breaking new ground by appealing to fence sitters and some centrist-Republicans. A feat few Democrats can boast of. If these new supporters see the manner in which the Clinton camp decimates Obama’s message for “change” and bipartisanship, they might just go back to their traditional party and vote Republican.

As if the tone of the verbal duel between the two Democratic front runners was not bad enough, Bill Clinton launched a fresh salvo at the Obama camp. He accused the Obama camp of plotting a “political hit job” against him and his wife and twisting facts to sensationalize the media. He accused the media of highlighting the fight between the two candidates as the main election issue, when actually the people of his country were more concerned about the war in Iraq and the economy. While Clinton’s message has resonance, once again the media picked up on the “hit job” part of the statement rather than what he said after that! So much for tutoring the media!

Thompson and Kucinich drop out

Republican candidate Fred Thompson and Democratic contender Dennis Kucinich announced the end of their quest for the White House. Thompson, the former movie and television star, was touted by many Republicans and conservative media houses as a potential winner. But his lackluster campaign proved to inspire no one and his relative laid back style of campaigning saw little interest from voters. Thompson vowed to run a different type of campaign. He did live up to that promise but in a way that his campaign managers did not foresee.

Dennis Kucinich was always a long shot in these elections, and he failed to get into double digits in any of the primaries that voted for a candidate. He was recently in the news for asking for a recounting of votes in New Hampshire, which unfortunately for him, became the butt of jokes in the late night comedy shows in the US.

Dates for the Race


South Carolina primaries – January 26th
Watch out for who takes the honors between Obama and Hillary in state with 50% African American voters and a traditional Clinton vote bank.


Florida – January 29th
This primary will decide the fate of former New York Governor Rudy Giuliani who has put all hopes in the Sunshine State. He chose to ignore the primaries in all other states to concentrate on this state which if he could win will help him gain momentum for Super Tuesday on February 5th. If he loses, he can count himself as a has been for all practical purposes. Latest polls show him trailing in third place behind McCain and Romney.

Maine – February 1st

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The UPA's Legacy Year
This year marks the final lap of the UPA’s dispensation at the centre. With elections scheduled to be held anytime in 2009, the UPA is busy planning to make 2008 a legacy year of sorts. It will use this year to highlight its policies and initiatives taken since it came to power in 2004 while pushing pet schemes that have not had the desired outcomes. The script for what this year might look like, at least the planned script, is evident from the noises coming out of Manmohan Singh’s cabinet colleagues. The UPA is keen to project its ‘aam aadmi’ tilt and will want the electorate to focus on schemes it has come out with for that important constituency. Also, given the fact that elections are in the offing for big states like Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, where the Congress fancies it chances of winning the popular vote, it would like to use its four year reign as a vote catcher. This legacy year will also see the BJP-led NDA highlight the UPA’s shortcomings like its pro-minority policy approach, minorityism, terrorism and the failure on foreign policy fronts.

The UPA kicked of the year with talks of setting up the 2nd States Reorganization Commission to initiate the process of creating smaller states much like the NDA did during its tenure. The much debated issue of the formation of the state of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh was highlighted in the media. Then again a delegation of the UP Congress made a presentation to Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to carve out Harit Pradesh and Bundelkhand from Uttar Pradesh. This move was a calculated step to not only stem the tide of popular support from Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, it was also brought to the fore with the idea to use the issue in the coming elections in 2009. The Telangana issue has been a contentious one which found no solution during either the NDA or the present regime. While coalition compulsions in the NDA could not see the rise of Telangana, the UPA’s main constituent, the Congress which rules the state currently, was not too keen on the issue which ultimately saw the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti walk out of the ruling coalition. The UPA will face uncomfortable questions on Telangana, if it does raise the issue, from the opposition as to why it could not carve the state out in its years in power. In Uttar Pradesh, bereft of any significant issues to raise and the virtual decimation at the hands of the BSP has ensured that the Congress will use the 2nd SRC as its main election plank in the general elections. However, the Congress will have to contend with the fact that UP Chief Minister Mayawati has already welcomed the idea of carving up smaller states, blunting the Congress’ ‘small states’ campaign even before it began in the state.

The Congress, through the Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, raised quite a storm on the issue of minority quotas and the implementation of the Sachar Committee findings. As usual, Patil found himself in a quandary with the Human Resources Minister’s contradicting his stand on the issue. The Home Minister further tied himself up in knots by acknowledging that the quotas cannot go beyond the Constitutionally binding 50% but that the government will have to look at ‘ingenious’ ways of working around that limitation. The Congress had to distance itself from the Home Minister’s statements but the indication was clear that the government and the Congress would like to push the implementation of the Sachar Committee’s report and like to highlight its ‘pro-minority’ credentials. The UP has also been keen to highlight the rather ambitiously titled “Bharat Nirman” ad campaign. The campaign highlights the government’s infrastructure initiatives but has been careful of not repeating an “India Shining”. How this plays out in the electorate’s mindset is debatable, but the UPA has taken to the virtues of talking about development after the Modi campaign used it effectively in the Gujarat elections of 2007. There is also talk about highlighting the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, seen as the brainchild of Mrs. Gandhi, which has been hijacked unfortunately for the UPA by state governments who are claiming ownership of the project. A clever change in the name of the NREG by the state dispensations has made it look like a state wide initiative in many states, much to the chagrin of the Congress. A news story that did not make it to the headlines was on the Finance Ministry and PMO’s initiative to look at ways to make credit available to minorities on a priority basis. While currently, no mechanism exists to give credit on the basis of religion, the government does seem keen to bring about a mechanism to this effect. If the government does venture on this political landmine of an issue, the opposition will raise it as another example of minority appeasement sponsored principally by the pro-minority Congress party. Nevertheless, this scheme along with the rural health insurance scheme will find much focus in any future national campaigns.

The UPA has also been keen to keep its flock together. With the AIADMK making overtures to the BJP through Narendra Modi, the Congress would want to keep its Tamil Nadu ally the DMK in good spirits. This approach has ensured that the UPA will now see a new minister in DMK supremo’s daughter Kanomozhi taking the environment portfolio that was with the prime minister after A Raja moved out to the Telecommunications ministry. Also, the DMK has been allowed by the UPA to make supportive noises towards the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils and the LTTE, not wanting to roughen the edges of a somewhat steady alliance. However, the Congress has taken a baffling position vis-à-vis UP Chief Minister and BSP President Mayawati. The Congress and the UPA have been particularly accommodating towards Mayawati even in the face of a verbal barrage by the fiery chief minister, who even alleged that certain Congress leaders were out to have her eliminated. The Congress has helped Mayawati in the Taj Corridor case and the disproportionate assets case currently lodged with the CBI. However, their return on investment has been negligible and even damaging. BSP will and continues to push the Congress out of many national and state constituencies by appealing to the traditional Congress vote bank. This is evident in not only Uttar Pradesh but across the Hindi-speaking belt. By strengthening the hands of the BSP, the Congress seems to relying on the fact that she will not ally with the BJP in 2009. However, knowing her quest for power, Mayawati might not only eat into the Congress’ vote bank but also switch sides in 2009. By keeping her in good humor, the Congress is only feeding a monster that could turn on them.

On the foreign policy front, the UPA had put all its hopes on the Indo-US nuclear deal. With moribund talks not making much headway, the UPA is now looking for an honorable face saving exit from the deal. The chips are firmly positioned against the UPA on the nuke deal, with the Left clearly intend on forming a third front and not budging from its “deal or government” line and with talks with the IAEA going into extended sessions the deal may have to be buried unless the prime minister can find wiggle room to maneuver the passage of the remaining levels of negotiations quickly. If the deal does not go through, the prime minister will have to personally face a two sided attack for this foreign policy failure that he himself has nurtured. The Left will declare it a victory of sorts having stood firm on its position and bringing the government to do a volte face, while the supporters of the deal will highlight it as a missed opportunity to mend fences with the United States and the nuclear club. Though foreign policy has never really become a general election issue, the nuclear deal, which has the potential to break the UPA, will become a focus on the personal leadership of Manmohan Singh and on the UPA’s surrender to the Left.

The interesting aspect to this legacy year will be the timing of the elections. Most analysts suspect that they will be held in April 2009 or maybe even the end of 2008. The factors on which the timing depends are varied and non-linear. The future of the Indo-US nuclear deal, elections results in Rajasthan, Delhi and Chattisgarh, the Congress’ ties with its allies and the inter-party politics within the UPA will all decide the timing of the polls. Also, if the elections were to be held in early 2009, the election commission will have a new Chief Election Commissioner. With the current incumbent N Gopalaswami making way for either Navin Chawla or S.Y. Quereshi, both UPA appointees. Mr. Chawla has been at the receiving end of the BJP’s wrath with allegations of a bias towards the Congress and using his contacts within the Congress to help his foundation. If Mr. Chawla was to be appointed the Chief elections Commissioner, the BJP will raise this issue at all possible forums which could lead to further embarrassment for the government and may also alter the timing of the polls. But for all the punditry one still has to wait and watch how this year progresses and what surprises it holds.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

India - China : Static Movement
The prime minister concluded his visit to China, where amongst other dignitaries he met with President Hu Jintao and his premier Wen Jiabao. The high profile delegation included the commerce minister Kamal Nath, foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and the National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan. The visit was broadly a three pronged approach that included – economic and trade relations, security and strategic relations and energy security. For all the hype that surrounded the visit and the quest to improve the decades old cold relations between the two countries, this visit was not particularly looked at a summit that would or could solve all outstanding issues. At best, this visit was to signify the importance of a continued dialogue between the two countries not only to resolve all outstanding disputes but also to seek common ground for co-operation. However, for all the rhetoric and positive bonhomie that the joint statement issued by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and premier Wen Jiabao reflected, there is no denying the fact relations between China and India remain at best cordial and more or less static. India seems to have conceded far too much in this process and has gained little economically or strategically under the UPA’s “Look East” and “One China Policy”. This visit can at best be rated average for the outcomes it failed to achieve, but promises, nevertheless, it got attested on paper.

The economic and trade relations between the two countries seems to now overtake all other matters between India and China. The two sides have made an ambitious target of achieving $60 billion worth of trade between the two countries by 2010. The current projected levels are at $40 billion at best by 2010 by most economic analysts. Then again the $60 billion target is not adequately transparent, as it does not signify the share ratio between imports and exports between the two countries, and also does not factor in the under valuation of the Yuan which hits both Indian imports and exports. The trade deficit between the two countries is in the negative for India and with India increasing cheap imports from China manifolds, the deficit will continue to rise. In that case, the Indian side needs to step up the pressure on China to remove trade barriers between the countries that are currently set unfavorably towards India. The joint statement also touched upon working out a Regional Trade Agreement between the two countries. This too must not be rushed into without adequate safeguards to ensure that India does not become a dumping ground for Chinese goods at the cost of the Indian manufacturing sector. Also, the Regional Trade Agreement must include a product safety clause between the two countries. Last year, the United States was flooded with Chinese products that were produced using poisonous substances like lead which caused an outrage and forced China to review its manufacturing policies and quality control standards. Surely, this issue must figure strongly in any future Regional Trade Agreement. The cause for concern vis-à-vis trade remains in the ambivalence towards action by the Chinese. So while India readily agreed to give licenses for Chinese airlines to carry cargo and flights within the Indian airspace, the Chinese never reciprocated the same with Jet Airways, making only conciliatory noises to the effect.

Security and strategic relations has been the thousand pound gorilla in the room for any move towards friendly relations. The border issue and the breeches on the Line of Actual Control seem to go on endlessly. China still does not recognize Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India and remains ambivalent on Aksai Chin. There again, India seems to have given the Chinese a long leash, with the prime minister trying to divide border disputes on ‘populated areas’ basis. This sort of differentiation will hurt India in the years to come, as China may ask for a quid pro quo to settle the Arunachal issue by demanding Aksai Chin to become a part of China. We made the same mistake with the “One China” policy. By making Tibet an undisputed part of China, we not only stepped back from the overt support given by successive government’s right since Nehru to the Dalai Lama, we never got anything in return for this recognition. The understanding for Tibet to become part of China was to ensure that Arunachal Pradesh too became a part of India, however, China till as late as a few months ago still keenly contests India’s “claim” over Arunachal. The Tibetan faux pas was cleverly exploited by China and they connected Lhasa to the Chinese heartland and pumped in goods and materials that the desolate area had never seen. And by dangling the carrots the Chinese establishment effectively made the residents of Tibet move away from the message of the Dalai Lama. The joint statement did make some positive noises about India’s aspirations for the United Nations Security Council. This on its own is a welcome step, but will need a concerted effort by India and other aspirants to see the light of day. The Chinese help, though welcomed, does not go far enough and for India to find itself at the high table anytime soon, seems fanciful. Terrorism too finds a notional mention in the joint statement and here again the Chinese have not done much to help India’s cause by coming down strongly against Pakistan’s state sponsored terrorism. The Chinese are a crucial ally of Pakistan and have for decades now passively watched the ISI and Pakistani army indulge in the promotion and protection of terrorism. It might have suited the Chinese to watch India embroiled in fighting terrorism, but with an unstable Pakistan possibly affecting Chinese interests in Pakistan, the scourge is a matter of concern for both sides. The Chinese also did not take too well to the joint military exercises between India, Australia, United States and Japan last year and an alarmed government decided to initiate military exercises with the Chinese late last year. Such shifting of strategies seems to represent a knee jerk reaction approach towards military policy. India must weigh in the pros and cons of military exercises with multiple nations and formulate a comprehensive and contiguous policy on how it approach military co-operation.

Energy security and climate change are the only two issues that see the two sides speaking virtually the same language. Both are an area of concern. A growing economy and a richer middle class have put pressures on India and China to ensure energy supply and security to fuel this growth. The result on the environment has been a reflection of this economic spurt. Both sides need to address both issues together, since whether we like it or not, India and China both feature hyphenated in climate change talks as being the major culprits behind global warming. It is in the best interest of both countries to work on this key issue together. Here too India needs to take a lesson out of Chinese foreign policy. The effective security of fuel supplies by investing in Africa seems to have paid off, and today the skyscrapers in Shanghai and Beijing owe much to sub-Saharan Africa for their existence. There is a lesson in the advantages of being the first mover in energy security, where limited resources have many suitors, India being the one of the biggest.

So, at the end of the three day visit, the prime minister can look back at his trip and be moderately optimistic about what he has achieved. He did not set out to solve all the problems; he went to China to make sure both sides keep talking. But then relations between the two countries under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have remained just that – talk.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hill pulls a Bill!
Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton regained her front-runner status by proving her detractors and pollsters wrong by edging past Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primaries. The win will reinvigorate her quest for the White House and makes the Democratic race a two horse affair between her and Obama. The run up to the New Hampshire primaries saw Clinton trailing Obama by 10 points according to pollsters, who were proven wrong rather emphatically. Many analysts, after the Iowa caucus defeat had predicted the end of the Clinton campaign, but she managed to win a state that her husband won in 1992 and was dubbed the ‘comeback kid’ in those presidential elections. Pundits who had predicted the end of the Clinton campaign did spell out their predictions much too soon in a race that is just beginning to gain momentum. With the second place finish, Obama will now look forward to the Nevada primaries, wanting to regain some composure and momentum, lost due to the New Hampshire setback. The race now seems poised for a fight to the finish till February 5th, when 24 states go to the polls. Barack Obama was quick to reemphasize the fact that he never was or is the frontrunner but sees himself as the perennial underdog. The Obama strategy is to lower expectations, even though he is poised to do well in Nevada and South Carolina, so as to claim a even larger victory if he wins the two states. The Clinton campaign is now looking to continue is first place position, knowing fully well that the daggers will be out again, a la post Iowa, if she loses another state. The campaign also saw John Edwards finish second in New Hampshire, and though he will fight on till the South Carolina primaries, his home state, the chances of Edwards winning the candidature seem remote. Also, it is likely that the fourth place will end Bill Richardson’s campaign, and in that likelihood there is a high certainty that Clinton might offer him to become her vice-presidential candidate. While a Clinton-Obama Democratic ticket sounds too good to be true, it remains outside the realms of immediate possibility. Obama, Clinton and Edwards have taken position far diverse from each other and their coming together to run on a democratic presidential and vice presidential ticket seems remote. Richardson, who served as Energy Secretary and at the UN under Bill Clinton, will seem like a handy candidate for Hillary Clinton to win over the crucial Hispanic vote in politically important states like California, New Mexico and Texas. The battle for the democrats is clearly in South Carolina. The top three candidates have a lot at stake in the state. The state has a large African American population that can sway the result for any candidate. Bill Clinton enjoyed the support of this politically vital community during his two presidential races and his wife would want to retain those votes. For Obama, it will be an important test to see the type of support he enjoys amongst his own. And for Edwards, fighting in his home state will mean more about a show of strength and honor and also an indication of where his race is going.

The Republicans seem to be in the undecided mode. Without giving a clear signal, all four frontrunners continue to battle on. While John McCain made a predictable comeback, New Hampshire has been his focus and the state has been particularly kind to him, though, he still figures below Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani in the national polls. Mike Huckabee won third place in New Hampshire and would like to continue his momentum to South Carolina, a state which has a large Christian evangelical population, a segment which has been the bulwark of the Huckabee campaign. Mitt Romney, who invested a lot of time and money in New Hampshire, finished second. Sounding upbeat, he said that he had won one gold and two silvers, with victories in Wyoming and second place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he has vowed to carry forward his campaign. His test will come in Michigan, his home state, where if he fails to do well he might just see his candidature fizzle out. While a favorable win in the state will give him the momentum to carry on the fight. Also, after a loss in Michigan to carry out the fight in South Carolina given his Mormon beliefs might just seem untenable. As of now, it does seem that Michigan will go to McCain, who enjoys support amongst the automotive unions that make a big chunk of voting blocks in the state. The mysterious campaign of Rudy Giuliani continues to defy logic. Not fighting in Iowa and New Hampshire has thrown his campaign out of the national debate. By wanting to put his political eggs in the Florida basket, the self proclaimed “mayor of America” might be putting up too big a gamble. However, he still remains a strong contender who might just win the candidature.

So with two states having thrown out two different results, this race is still too early to be called. However, it is emerging clearly that the fight is narrowing down to a two or three candidates on either side and who knows like New Hampshire, the coming primaries might alter who remains on top and for how long.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Caucus Kickoff - Obama, Huckabee first movers
Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee registered big victories in the debut caucuses in the state of Iowa. The margin of victory for both candidates was handsome considering the poll predications envisaging a tight race. Barack Obama, the first serious African-American candidate in the race for decades, proved too good for the frontrunner Hillary Clinton and contender John Edwards. The predictions had held that Clinton would just scrape through Iowa and Obama would finish second. However, in a dramatic turnaround Obama beat both Clinton and Edwards to claim top spot and rather poignantly said “they said this day would never come”. The fact that Obama is on top of the heap is no surprise. An engaging speaker with a good network of volunteers, supporters and money, Obama has harped craftily on being the agent for change. The Iowa vote will ensure that he carries that momentum for change into New Hampshire where the primaries will be held on Wednesday.
The loss was indeed a setback for Clinton, who claims to be the best prepared, experienced and pedigreed for the top job. A third place finish will surely invigorate her campaign to ensure victories in the upcoming state primaries in New Hampshire, Florida and South Carolina. The New Hampshire vote should go to the Clinton kitty given the fact the East Coast liberal establishment would want the sailing is smooth after the Iowa jolt. The Iowa loss meant that two democratic candidates dropped out of the race. Foreign policy heavyweight Joe Biden and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd declared the end of their bid for the White House. That leaves only four serious candidates in the fray – Clinton, Obama, Edwards and Richardson. The rest will eventually drop out in the course of the month or latest by February 5th or the adequately titled “super duper Tuesday” when 24 states go to select their candidates.

The Republican race is open with Mike Huckabee winning in Iowa but not enjoying much approval across the country. The assumed frontrunner former New York Governor, Rudy Giuliani did not even take part in the contest, expecting a defeat, he finished a dismal sixth. Mitt Romney continues to remain at number two with 25% of the vote. He should go on to win New Hampshire on his fiscal conservative, pro-business policy approach. Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, carried Iowa based on the Christian evangelical vote which forms a large majority in the mostly rural state. How he fairs in the rest of the country is debatable. He would like to see the victory’s momentum help him pick up the coming states especially South Carolina, where the religious vote forms an important constituent. Giuliani meanwhile is targeting Florida, which carries a huge chunk of votes to gain momentum for super-duper Tuesday and ultimately get the candidature. However, his strategy may rebound, by not taking the Iowa and New Hampshire states seriously and thereby losing out on the first mover advantage. Romney for all his drawbacks on policy flip-flops and his Mormon religious beliefs appears to be a strong candidate and could just pip the rest to get the nomination. At worst he remains a strong vice-presidential running mate for the man who ultimately gets the nomination. The Iowa vote will also end the lackluster campaign of former “Law and Order” star and Senator Fred Thompson’s campaign. The much touted savior of the republicans fell flat with policy gaffes and a clear lack of depth to stand for the top job. So the Republican race narrows down to three realistic candidates – Romney, Giuliani and McCain. The Republican race, though, is wide open.

The X-factor in these elections remains former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A seasoned Democrat, he quit the party to become the Republican candidate for mayor in 2001. Bloomberg has the money, pedigree and political experience to turn the presidential race on its head. If he does join the fray as an independent, he will cut into the Republican and Democrat votes given his centrist position. He could become the Ralph Nader of 2008 and that prospect will ring fear into strategists on both sides. However, as recently as a couple of days ago, he has ruled out his candidature. But the lack of a clear frontrunner in both or either party’s may just tempt him to jump into the race.

Too much hype has been surrounded on the Iowa vote, it must be pointed out that neither Bill Clinton nor George H.W. Bush won Iowa yet they went on to the win the White House. The ultimate date to watch out for is February 5th. The results of the day will more or less decide who wins the nomination and from then onwards it will become a Democratic versus Republican battle. The election fever has only just begun.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

When Truth Hurts - Conspiracies Abound
The Benazir Bhutto assassination has joined the long list of news stories that have a legion of conspiracy theories attached to them. Some theories are plain silly, like the 9/11 conspiracy theory that the building was brought down by the Bush administration by a series of internal explosions. Some are more thought provoking like the truth about Area 51 and so on. Then there are others which have lingered for over decades like the Kennedy assassination and the Zia plane crash. Most of these incidents have plausible explanations but have some loop holes that can help an industry of conspiracy theories to flourish and even make money. Of the most famous of these theories is on the man landing on the moon. Many allege that NASA faked the entire incident and actually Neil Armstrong’s small step was very much on earth rather than on our nearest satellite. Then again, the conspiracy theories about age old myths and legends continue till this day. Was the Mona Lisa a man? Was Mary Magdalene actually the wife of Jesus who was abandoned by the patriarchal church that followed after Jesus? Does the Ram Sethu really exist or is it the figment of a fertile imagination? All these questions may never get reasonable answers or worse still theorists choose to overlook the explanations either because of a genuine sense of doubt and over questions over a governmental cover-up or worst still just to make petty cash in the process.

Some conspiracy theories which involve religion are especially troublesome. Many lives have been lost over the years over differing theories on the subject of religion. Be it the differences between the Shias and Sunnis in the Muslims, or the various theories put forth in Christianity over Jesus’ succession and the role of Mary Magdalene apart from the various offshoots that hold different beliefs over their religion. Then there are the various theories based on ethnicity and Semitism – the ever existent Zionist conspiracy that holds much currency on the Arab streets. Closer home there is a clear industry in the field of conspiracy theories on the role of the ISI in just about everything – right from terror strikes to food shortages and maybe even the entry of big retail to India!. A quick hop across the border reveals the other end of the spectrum. In Pakistan anything and everything that goes wrong has a Zionist-American theory attached to it. But the subcontinent pales in comparison to the United States not only in having a fertile imagination, but also in terms of the number of believers. Every major incident in the US has thrown up as many conspiracy theories. The Kennedy assassination, the Apollo missions, Area 51, Watergate, 9/11, the Obama candidacy, Gulf War 1 and 2 and the list goes on endlessly. Much of it has to do with a certain sense of paranoia that exists amongst many towards big brother. Big Brother has not done itself too many favors by selectively hiding and selectively leaking information that not only plants the seeds of nagging doubt but also discredit the official version of any event that may have happened. This is more so true in the post-9/11 world with the expansion of the internet to nearly every household in the West and the burgeoning media offering different aspects of a story from ‘reliable’ sources. Much of the conspiracy theories that exist today are a direct fallout of this intense sense of competition and opportunity that interplays between the media and the new media of the internet. Mush of it though, is just plain silly and holds mere entertainment value.

So why are we intrigued with the whole idea of conspiracy theories. Much of it has to do with the fact that often the truth is rather pale in comparison to a competing conspiracy theory. Did Hitler, the greatest villain of the twentieth century actually just shoot himself in the head? Sounds rather dull for a man who achieved so much notoriety. While a competing view that he escaped and lived somewhere in South America holds certain romanticism and adds to the legend. When Saddam was on the run, he was reportedly on a virtual world tour, with some opining that he may be actually be in US smoking cigars with the President, he was thought to be anywhere in world except a spider hole where he was eventually found. Osama too seems to be a frequent flier having potentially been in Africa, Central Asia, South East Asia and now has settled somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Romanticism aside, some incidents actually need more prodding to reveal the truth. Many times, governments choose to become more economical with the truth in order to save their own skin. And it is the credible work of theorists, independent investigators and journalists that ensures that truth sees the light of day. Pop culture too seems to play on that notion well. The award winning series X-Files harped on that very aspect by claiming that the ‘truth is out there’. And so, till the time spectacular incidents take place and till the time governments continue to cover their tracks, conspiracies will continue. And so shall we all revel in talking to each other about our own ‘explanation’ on how things happened. Truth can wait.