Friday, September 15, 2017

Gorkhaland Total Bandh Enters Fourth Month As Leaders Duck

Gorkhaland Total Bandh Enters Fourth Month As Leaders Duck
                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi
Darjeeling, Thimpu, Gangtok, Siliguri are a tight cluster on any map even in a large Atlas. Because of the recent standoff with China over Doklam, the strategic importance of the area, the saliency of the Siliguri corridor, cannot be overlooked. Is New Delhi taking an interest in the demand for a Gorkha homeland from this perspective?

My taxi has to wait outside Kurseong Toy Train station, on the way from Siliguri to Darjeeling, because a march by agitating Gorkha women will not let us pass. Violence in this sensitive area could be very unsettling. Angry women bang on the bonnet of my car and jeer at the Gorkha driver: “Have you joined the Bengalis?” It is a threatening query.

Similar bandhs and marches have brought life to a grinding halt for the past three months – and continuing. There are, ofcourse, cunning leakages – a few chicken being sold here, some vegetables there. But this private enterprise disappears at the sight of approaching marchers.

Contrary to what one might imagine, this sporadic enterprise does not demonstrate a weakening of the popular will. In fact it helps people a bit and enables them to bear the suffering a little longer. It supplements the agitation.

Clearly Gorkhaland is not likely to be conceded in a hurry. What then have the leaders of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha promised the people? What spell have they cast on them because of which the people have diligently pursued these marches, street-corner meetings, picketing outside offices in an atmosphere of total bandh (bar the contrived leakages). Schools, hotels, restaurants, shops, are shut and labourers on all the 88 tea plantations have struck work and are, therefore, beginning to depend on packets of food some well meaning people are arranging.

No one quite knows the preferred game plans of the plantation owners. The gossip is that they would now like the strike to continue till December so they are not obliged to pay the workers three months wages (for the period when the plantations have been closed) plus bonus for puja holidays.

The inordinate extension of the bandh is causing all the leaders of the Gorkha Movement Coordination Committee to miss heart beats with alarming frequency.

West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee who is always inclined to see agitations, however legitimate, as an affront to her, has slapped countless cases against leaders, including Bimal Gurung, President of GJM, the main political party.

This has given him a respectable reason to run away from Darjeeling and hide in Sikkim. The cases, in other words, are a godsend. Had there been no cases, how would the leaders escape the wrath of the people who are on this occasion truly mobilized? They must be shown some movement towards Gorkhaland. This “movement” is proving elusive even by inches, leave alone feet and yards.

Since all leaders in the coordination committee were pushed from the precipice into a total bandh by the GJM leader Bimal Gurung, they are privately cursing him, but are unable to publicly say anything that would make their resolve for Gorkhaland look weaker. But some of them are keeping a sly eye on any escape route which they can sell to the agitating populace as an advance towards their cause. The situation is custom made for Mamata Banerjee who is desperate to fill whatever political spaces she can with her TMC before the BJP does. If she can divide the leadership with promises of development plus a dialogue with the centre on “the people’s demand”, perhaps a “dissident” faction can then be mobilized as a vehicle for the TMC.

There is a very big “perhaps”. Why would West Bengal politicians and bureaucrats ever loosen their grip on the hill station, the toy train which their children enjoy so much during the summer vacation. There is nothing more popular internationally and which Bengal claims as its own –Tagore and Darjeeling tea.

New Delhi habitually goes into a freeze when confronted with something new, particularly where strategic concerns are involved. Gorkha/Nepali speaking people from Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan are already keeping New Delhi busy. Gorkhaland would be a new distraction.

A strong card the Gorkhas can play concerns the military. There are thousands of Gorkhas in the army. It is not uncommon to run into a soldier with heroic stories of the Kargil war. These soldiers would be perfectly justified in seeking home leave to see the families who have suffered a bandh for three months. Thousands seeking leave at once? It is a sensitive pressure point.

The straightforward political game the BJP can play to endear themselves to the Gorkhas is by opening up debate on something less than Gorkhaland – say, a Union Territory. Gorkhas would accept it. Darjeeling would come directly under New Delhi. Mamata would ofcourse throw a ginger fit.

After a meeting of Gorkha leaders with Mamata on August 29. Vinay Tamang, joint Secretary of the Morcha and Anit Thapa, member of the Executive Committee, took the leaders and the agitators by surprise by asking them to end the bandh because positive but unidentifiable developments were expected by September 12. By that time the next round of meetings with Rajnath Singh and Mamata would have been held, they said. Well September 12 too has come and gone and there is no sight of the bandh coming to an end.

Little wonder most of the Gorkha leaders, Bimal Gurung, Vinay Tamang, Anit Thapa are on a rapidly declining popularity graph.

Bimal Gurung’s political career was launched by his opening numerous fan clubs for a Gorkha singing sensation, Prashant Tamang, who won the 2007 Indian Idol, a reality show. Prashant won in the third week of September. On October 7, Bimal Gurung had launched the GJM.

Impulsively, he leapt into the bandh when Mamata wanted Bengali to be inserted in the three language formula. Later she withdrew her word. But by that time the GJM and the coordination committee of other Hill parties were fairly advanced on a high-wire act. An endless bandh was on.

The leader whose graph is up is R.B. Rai, twice Member of Parliament, President Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist, Central Committee. He is universally accepted as politically savvy and an incorruptible and respected leader. He believes “tripartite talks” are a promising enough outcome to end the bandh. Apparently, Rajnath Singh has dropped hints that New Delhi, Kolkata, Darjeeling tripartite talks on Gorkhaland are possible. But will Mamata agree?

Rai is cross with the amateurishness of Bimal Gurung for playing “the ultimate card of a total bandh without having a backup plan. We should have started with Mohalla marches, struck work for a few hours, tested the political reaction in Kolkata and New Delhi, planned jail bharo andolans, gauged the plantation workers capacity to survive long strikes without wages. And so on.” There was no plan, he laments. It is a fruitless bandh but it can only be called off when people see some real promise, he says.

So, until God comes riding a thunderbolt by way of a solution, Gorkha leaders are condemned to remain suspended on the last rung of a very high staircase leading to nowhere.

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Friday, September 8, 2017

Needed A Non Doctrinaire Left To Carry Gauri Lankesh Vision

Needed A Non Doctrinaire Left To Carry Gauri Lankesh Vision
                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi

Encouraged by the spontaneous outpouring of sympathy and resolve across the country after Gauri Lankesh’s murder, I began to ferret out my last year’s notebook. The thousands who came out in marches need a regular formation to lean against – a non doctrinaire left. Are such movements stirring globally? I fell back on my coverage of events, including elections in the US, Spain, France, the UK and the mayhem in virtually every West Asian country.

Because there is no tradition of coverage of international affairs by Indian journalists, we sometimes miss out on external affairs impacting on our political and social currents.

Let me give you just one example. The post 9/11 global war on terror generated a wave of Islamophobia which, as a reaction, augmented by geometrical progression, cesspools where more terror bred.

When Narendra Modi turned up in Gujarat in October 2001 as Chief Minister, he was not even a member of the state assembly. On October 7, 2001 began the US airstrikes against Afghanistan. Even as the world – India included – remained riveted on the menacing fireworks for months, Islamophobia and terrorism grew apace. The global anti Muslim atmosphere amplified on world TV was a Godsend for Modi to shape his majoritarian platform in the state and beyond.

New Delhi found itself in the embrace of a global power, buoyed by its recent triumph over the Soviet Union. This victory was marketed not as a victory for human values, but as a triumph of unbridled capitalism. This self image took something of a knock in 2007-08 when the very citadel of capitalism, Lehman Brothers, collapsed. Then other citadels fell.

Indians did not quite see the writing on the wall as starkly as the more creative folks in the West did.

Corporate American greed and crime became the theme of a play which set West End in London ablaze. Enron, based on the power project in Maharashtra, shrouded in corruption, became the most talked about script by playwright Lucy Pebbles. It had an extended run at Broadway as well. The irony, ofcourse, is that the play is based on Enron’s Indian scandal. But India had buried its head in the sand. No libertarian theatre group has ever thought of producing the play in Mumbai or New Delhi.

The post 2008 political restiveness in the West is there for all to see. The word “establishment” has acquired a particularly negative connotation and establishments are under attack from both flanks, Left as well as the right. Everywhere, even in countries where it has held on to power, it has done so by throwing everything into the battle – money and media above all.

In the US even this combination has not worked.

For the Democratic nomination, a liberal Left, Bernie Sanders was way ahead of others in the race but he was grounded citing a 1962 law. It did not matter whom the Republicans nominated because Hillary Clinton, being the darling of the Establishment, would trounce whoever the Republican candidate might be. In their obstinate determination to have Hillary as their nominee, the authors of the script forgot the cardinal point: an anti Establishment electorate was by the Democratic Party’s choice, being required to elect a candidate who was nothing if not the very core of the establishment. Well, they helped manufacture Trump.

Today, in September 2017, opinion polls describe Sanders as the most popular American politician by a long shot. But we also know that the ghost of Joseph McCarthy oversees much of what the establishment does. Will this establishment versus the people deadlock ever be resolved?

The Establishment versus the popular will debate in UK, is poised for an outcome which is healthy for democracy. Oddly enough, my gloom at Gauri Lankesh’s murder, was dispelled by a four deck headline, in large fonts, as the front page lead story in Britain’s most right wing, establishment newspaper – the Sunday Telegraph. The headline read: Tory Rebels Told: Back Brexit or get Corbyn”. When the establishment begins to project the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, as the bogeyman, it is reasonable to assume that the establishment does not find itself in good electable health. In any case umpteen polls in recent months give Corbyn a huge advantage.

The novelty of the surprise 39 year old Centre-right Emmanuel Macron provided has worn out quite as rapidly as it had caused the French to be in its thrall. Three months into his Presidency, he is being seen increasingly as power hungry and inexperienced. What has made him look a little silly recently is the $36,000 bill paid to a “make-up” team which helps him conserve his “boyish” looks. His ratings have plummeted, encouraging debate that the more “authentic” peoples’ candidates, if not the establishment’s, may well have been the Left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon and, for the right, Marine Le Pen.

The Establishment in Spain, a descendent of the Franco era, is doggedly keeping the notoriously corrupt Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in power by management of the arithmetic in the assembly. Even so Pablo Iglesias of the Podemos, (Communist) has been holding his own.

Syriza or Communist party, which had come to power in Greece, was badgered into compliance by Germany and EU on issues like austerity, exactly the policies the party had opposed to come to power. So it will someday be replaced by its rightist counterpart in the coming elections.

The point I am making is this: the Gauri Lankesh murder has not taken place in an atmosphere of total helplessness for folks who have their heart in the right place. The pre 2008 drab, right wing uniformity is under challenge. A new, non doctrinaire, Left is on the ascendant in many places. Eruptions taking place elsewhere will, in the medium to long run impact on India. The traditional Left in India is, ofcourse, on the retreat but the ideology responsible for Gauri’s murder will remain under challenge by regional forces in Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka etcetera.

The BJP’s defeat at the hands of AAP in Delhi, Ahmad Patel’s victory in Gujarat, an unprecedentedly massive rally in Bihar, the embarrassment on demonetization, are clearly not making the rulers smell of roses. Slowly coming into focus, is a real question mark on the longevity of the structure which evidently shelters killers of Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

BRICS Summit Against Backdrop Of Plummeting Washington-Moscow Relations

BRICS Summit Against Backdrop Of Plummeting Washington-Moscow Relations
                                                                                              Saeed Naqvi
Two recent events will influence attitudes at the 9th BRICS summit at Xiamen, China, from September 3 to 5 – Doklam and Trump’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Beijing and Moscow have grave anxieties about terrorist groups, in the name of militant Islam, threatening their Xinxiang and Caucasus regions. They would therefore like terrorism to be an important theme at the summit.

So would New Delhi, but the Indian focus would be on Pakistan as the source of terror. The complication is that Pakistan has looked upon China as an all weather friend in recent years. Has skillful diplomacy, on all sides, defused the Doklam standoff sufficiently to prevent divergent approaches to Pakistan on terrorism come to the fore at the summit?

Moscow is cautious. Who knows how durable is the understanding reached over Doklam between Beijing, New Delhi.

That a RIC (Russia, India, China) Foreign Ministers conference is billed in New Delhi is a good sign. It was postponed in April because of heated exchanges between China and India over Dalai Lama’s weeklong visit to Arunachal Pradesh. Also, New Delhi had refused to attend the Belt and Road conference Beijing placed great store by. Indeed, New Delhi also prevailed on Thimpu not to attend.

Moscow and Beijing view Afghanistan as the centre where terrorist groups like the Islamic State can breed and threaten countries in the neighbourhood and beyond.

Since April 2016 a group of countries under the auspices of what came to be known as the Moscow initiative began to analyze the Taleban as an Afghan, nationalist category which was not fired by transnational aspirations like the IS and Al Qaeda. The Taleban, in other words, should be brought into the tent, to borrow Lyndon Johnson’s colourful expression.

This is a transformational design because so far the government in Kabul, Afghan security Forces, US and NATO Forces have targeted the Taleban as the enemy.

The use of this massive firepower, with western troop levels waxing and waning over the past 16 years, has not brought the alliance anywhere near victory. To the contrary, the terrain under Taleban control has grown exponentially. Defence Secretary James Mattis became only the umpteenth US official to declare before the media, his face in the lower mould: “we are losing.”

This candid acceptance of defeat in the longest war (16 years) ever waged by the US, has coincided with the Moscow led initiative to bring the Taleban into the Kabul power structure.

The Moscow initiative was designed against the backdrop of Trump’s chant of walking away from previous US policies of intervention and nation building. Since the US was withdrawing, as Trump kept reminding all and sundry, it made sense for Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Islamabad and the Central Asian Republics, to shape their Afghan policies according to their strategic requirements.

In a White House where the Deep State is demonstrably the ventriloquist and Trump the puppet, a flip-flop in Afghan policy was announced last week: there will be no withdrawal but a minimal troop surge (less than 4,000 to augment 11,000 already on the ground) to enable Kabul to recover some of the vast swathes of the country from Taleban control. Somewhere in this pursuit of a military solution, a carrot has also been inserted: a channel for talks with Taleban will also be opened.

To dignify this US initiative, the Moscow initiative has to be rubbished. Russians have been arming the Taleban, goes the allegation from Washington. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, clarified this and more at a Moscow Press conference.

When the US State Department made this accusation, he said, the Department should have known better. “Because at a news conference in the State Department, journalists asked the official spokesperson to present facts. Not a single fact was presented just like there was not a single fact to confirm our interference in the US election or breaking into sites.”

Lavrov contrasted Moscow’s policy with that of Washington on contacts with Taleban. He gives two reasons for such contacts. First, Moscow needs to resolve practical issues on which security of Russian citizens and offices in Afghanistan depend.

“Second we are striving to encourage a dialogue between the Taleban and the government on the basis of criteria (this is important, he insists) established by the UN Security Council.”

According to this “criteria” the Taleban must break ties with terrorists, end the armed struggle and respect the Constitution of Afghanistan. Washington’s abrupt policy of connecting with Taleban is without any conditions.

The fine print the Russians read in the US script on Afghanistan is not difference from what Lavrov has openly said in other theatres of conflict. The US is not out to douse fires of militancy: it intends to preserve some of it as “assets” against rivals and enemies. Breeding of the Mujahideen to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 80s was not a one time trick.

Trump’s Afghan surge, despite himself, also comes at a time when he has been persuaded by his hawks to ratchet up tensions with Russia. The Russian Consulate in San Francisco has been closed and two other Russian properties in Washington and New York have been ordered to be shut by September 2.

This being the big-power play in the region, how should New Delhi respond to Trump’s cajolery in Afghanistan? To frame policy, friends in South Block have to do no more than visit Saket in South Delhi. You cannot walk into Max hospital without coming face to face with an Afghan. By universal consent of doctors and other hospital staff, they are the most gentle patients. This outreach cannot be matched.

In front of the hospital, in Hauz Rani, a row of Afghan eating places has come up.

Pakistanis stepping out of Kabul’s Serena hotel do not wear Peshawari sandals and Pathan suits. They feel safer in trousers and bush shirts, looking like Indians. Hospitals, schools, roads and, above all, Bollywood have already won Afghan hearts. Nothing should be done to upturn this low key, common sense policy. Expeditious completion of Chabahar port in Iran, linking to Central Asia by a road through Afghanistan will be brilliant for commerce and for winning hearts and minds.

What must not be overlooked is the change in US policy towards New Delhi’s role. When President Barack Obama announced troop withdrawals from July 2011, the assumption was that Afghanistan would have been reasonably stabilized by that date.

US Force Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal created something of a flutter in New Delhi. He said New Delhi’s popularity among the Afghans – because of development works – creates complications because it distracts Pakistan from its war on terror focus.

Washington’s new blandishments make one feel good but they would be more valuable if the reliability quotient of the occupant of the White House was a shade higher.

The principals sitting around the table at the Xiamen summit likewise will carry in their minds the image of what to each one of them is a very different kind of Presidency in Washington. No one quite knows what to make of it.

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