Friday, May 20, 2016

Is Rahul Really A Modi Asset As Mamata Believes?

Is Rahul Really A Modi Asset As Mamata Believes?
                                                                      Saeed Naqvi 

The sharpest observation after the five state elections has come from Mamata Banerjee.

“Rahul Gandhi is a Narendera Modi asset”.

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul had mounted a bitter attack on Mamata during the campaign in West Bengal. Against this background, would she ever shake hands with the Congress? asked NDTV’s Barkha Dutt. Mamata came down sharply with the above one liner.

The implication of what Mamata said is that Rahul, and the Congress by extension, are a requirement of Modi. They, and they alone, must be the counterpoint for the musical score the BJP is composing.

In fact this composition has been underway well before the May 2014 general election which brought Modi to power. The entire Indian establishment, CII, FICCI, the electronic media, press – everybody was chatting up Rahul to stand in opposition to Modi. He was cajoled, paraded on the stage. Anchors implored him to debate Modi on live TV. As it is, Modi’s 2014 victory was because of the universal disgust with Sonia, Rahul and Manmohan Singh which was harvested by the world’s most expensive election campaign. BJP think tanks now divined that Modi will continue to look good so long as Rahul is projected as the alternative. And Mamata has quickly noticed it.

So, Rahul must remain in play to benefit Modi. Instead of admitting that Rahul is something of a non starter, his coterie keeps making excuses: his take off had been delayed because Rahul wanted to raise the party from scratch. He is teeming with ideas, says Motilal Vohra, Janardan Dwivedi, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma. Only, Ahmad Patel sees authority resident elsewhere: “let’s ask madame”. No one is willing to concede that Rahul simply doesn’t fizz.

After P.V. Narasimha Rao brought the Congress tally down to 140 seats in 1996, Sitaram Kesri as Congress President raised it by one to 141, but the next year Sonia plummeted: 114 seats. Electorally, the mother and son combination has done the party no good.

So many of the party’s wounds are self inflicted. Take the tamasha in Assam. If Sonia Gandhi can dig her heals in for her son, who can blame 81 year old Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi dream dreams for his son, Gaurav Gogoi? Why can’t he be the next Chief Minister. Himanta Biswa Sarma was to Gogoi what Amit Shah is to Modi. He was miffed at Gogoi’s brazen nepotism, ofcourse. But Rahul has had a role in driving Sarma away. Sarma describes a meeting with Rahul. “He is arrogant and likes to behave like a master with his servants.” It is universally acknowledged, an angry Sarma has brought down the Congress citadel in Assam.

True, the BJP now is in power in two frontline states – Jammu and Kashmir and Assam. But circumstances impose a certain moderation in both situations. It cannot permit communal excesses and live comfortably with Mehbooba Mufti in Srinagar. Nor can it put on war paint against Bangladeshis in Assam at the same time as it is having exceptionally good relations with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka.

An atmosphere of moderation induces other steps. The BJP fields nine Muslim candidates of whom one has survived the fray. What if he becomes a Minister? Badruddin Ajmal of the AIUDF would be a worried man on that count?

And now the imminence of Congress collapse is causing interesting political shifts elsewhere. In Kerala, Muslims have veered away from the Congress and Muslim League. They have voted in large numbers for the Left Front. This is welcome.

There are other lessons in these elections. The Indian ruling class has long deluded itself that the country had a durable two party system. In a multi ethnic, multi religious country where every currency note has to indicate denominations in atleast seventeen languages, to aim for such a system will, in the long run, prove illusory. A durable system of coalitions will surely evolve.

The five state elections have, after all, produced five results. A contest is on between two ideas of India – a federal India and a unitary one. Establishments, of which the media is a part, are generally more comfortable with two national party systems, in bad odour though they be globally. They have since the 90s, bred crony capitalism and corruption. Electoral changes sweeping the world are on that count.

That is why Mamata’s is an astute observation. By describing Rahul as a Modi asset, she is debunking the illusory two party system at the Centre. Yes, two party systems will be the order in the states. Come 2019, leaders like her, from the regions, will shape the power structure in New Delhi. The days of two party compact, above the regional satraps, may be coming to an end. Parties with national pretensions must quickly find lasting partners in the states, not one night stands like the Left and the Congress had in West Bengal.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

The Unknown Who Defined Lucknow’s Lost Generation Bows Out

The Unknown Who Defined Lucknow’s Lost Generation Bows Out
                                                                                        Saeed Naqvi 

The mail from Lucknow was terse.
“Mr. Ibne Hasan Advocate is no more.” He was “Ibne Hasan bhai” to me ever since he cast me as the young Daagh Dehlvi in 1954 in “Dehli Ki Aakhri Shama” (Flicker of the last lamp in Delhi) a Tamseeli Mushaira, enactment of the last poetic gathering in the Red Fort in 1857. Ghalib, Zauq, Momin, Daagh and other great contemporaries participated in this historic soiree.)

The show was staged at the University Union Hall where Ibne, as master of ceremonies, announced a hundred awards for the young Daagh.

The couplet which brought the ceiling down was:
“Jo rahe ishq mein qadam rakkhein,
Woh nasheb o faraz kya jaanein”
(They who step onto the path of love,
Do not distinguish the highs from the lows)

Prof. Ehtesham Hussain, Prof. Aale Ahmad Suroor, Amritlal Nagar, all sent chits of paper to Ibne requesting him to announce awards for me as “Daagh” in their names too. At 14, I was eager to collect these “awards” which, alas, never materialized. One had to take the will for the deed.

This was typical of Lucknow’s intellectual elite – their budgets having shrunk after the Zamindari (landlordism) Abolition of 1951. In a general sort of way they moved in two political directions. Some stayed with the Congress party, largely because of Jawaharlal Nehru’s appeal. Others of a more literary bent gravitated towards progressive causes, even communism. This became the stepping stone for the Progressive Writers Association which received a shot in the arm when P.C. Joshi became Secretary General of the party. Sajjad Zaheer, Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Niaz Haider, Saiyyid Mohammad Mehdi, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Balraj Sahni, Bhishm Sahni, Krishan Chander, Mahinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chugtai, Sahir Ludhianvi – the lot – became active in the PWA. Many followed Joshi to Mumbai as “full-time” members of the party. Thence to Bollywood.

There were others who could not make these stark choices. Majaz Lucknowi for instance. Ibne belonged to a whole category of educated youth, highly politicized, but unable to strike a balance between Leftist idealism and the practical requirement of bread for the table.

Because he had been in university with my firebrand Aunt, Alia Askari (later Alia Imam), and addressed my mother a “Baji jaan”, we had a ringside seat on his impecunious circumstance.

He spent his mornings table hopping at the Coffee House, now with Ram Manohar Lohia, Amritlal Nagar, Ehtesham Hussain and, most frequently with Majaz, a genius in the firmament of Urdu poetry but in penury. He had found Bollywood too harsh and retreated into his Lucknow shell. This provided Ibne the opportunity to know Majaz better, even when the latter shifted to Delhi to take up employment at All India Radio. Ibne had no great memory for poetry but he remembered Majaz’s couplet, the first one ever to have been broadcast:

“Saara aalam gosh bar awaz hai,
Aaj kin haathon mein dil ka saaz hai.”
(The world listens with rapt attention.
Who is playing this instrument of the heart?)

Failed love, once with a married woman in Delhi, and another in Lucknow were reasons for nervous breakdowns which resulted in Majaz being confined to psychiatric centres for long spells. This was Ibne’s version as Majaz’s informal Boswell.

Ibne was part of the well knit team Alia Askari put together to organize the Urdu convention in Lucknow’s Qaisar Bagh Baradari in December 1955. The mushaira turned out to be a historic event: Sardar Jafri challenged the audience: let us see who tires first, poets or the audience? The scintillating stalemate continued well past midnight.

Majaz, in an advanced stage of inebriation, had recited a rather tepid ghazal:
“Jigar aur dil ko bachana bhi hai
Nazar aap hi se milana bhi hai.”
(How do I protect my heart,
And yet make eye contact with you?)

No one noticed that someone had whisked Majaz away to a country liquor tavern in a lane near Lalbagh. It is not known what happened on the first floor of the bar. But when the bar opened the next day, Majaz was found lying, in a coma, on the terrace. He had spent a cold December night in the open. Efforts to save him in the nearby Balrampur hospital failed.

The memorial meeting at the Rifah e Aam club, where Ibne, like my elder brother, escorted me, will always remain etched on my mind. As a teenager, I had the priviledge of shedding a tear on the death of a great poet.

Ismat Chugtai was blunt. She put her finger where it hurt.
“Shame on the women who loved his poetry but, for married life, they sought middle class security elsewhere.” Majaz describes this rejection in his masterpiece poem, Awara or Vagabond.

The term “Middle class”, had almost derogatory implications for generations which had transited from feudalism to economic embarrassment but progressive politics. They had totally missed out on the “middle class” experience. Many of our eccentricities, it turns out, derive from that missing link.

Ibne’s political acumen was spotted by Keshav Dev Malaviya, a progressive member of Nehru’s cabinet. This proximity was sought to be exploited by owners of some sugar mills in UP. For Ibne, it was not harmless drudgery. But even these adjustments did not take away from Ibne bhai his unconventional agnosticism.

In his last days Ibne bhai was ailing but still found the strength to recite Majaz’s lines:

“Phir iske baad subah hai,
Aur subhe nav, Majaz
Hum par hai khatm
Shaame gharibaa ne Lucknow.”
(Look, a new dawn breaks. The night of Lucknow’s exiles, will end soon – along with me.)

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Friday, May 6, 2016

Aleppo Milestone: Syria To Limp Along Until US Elections

Aleppo Milestone: Syria To Limp Along Until US Elections
                                                                           Saeed Naqvi

Just when it appeared that Syrian rebels and their proxies had thrown in the towel, and that they had been persuaded to acquiesce in a political settlement to be negotiated in Geneva, there is a sudden spike in fighting in the northern city of Aleppo. Its 5.5 million population as against Damascus’ 4.5 million, makes it the country’s most populous city.

Writings in the New York Times, other western and Saudi publications have been talking of a “divided city of Aleppo”. This is ominous.

With Russian help, Syrian forces had won a morale boosting victory in Palmyra. In the third week of March, Russians had all but encircled Aleppo. Why did they spare Izaz, the main smuggling route to Turkey? That is the route through which most new arms and men on brand new vehicles have driven in to revive the mayhem in Aleppo.

Russian Foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov has been flourishing “proof” under Secretary of State, John Kerry’s nose: “look so much of this material is brand new and American in origin.”

In the Syrian whodunit, Americans have actually been admitting their mistakes with endearing docility. Remember Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, his face distinctly in the lower mould, being grilled by a congressional committee, then by the media, for the clumsiness of US Special Operations in Syria? The “moderates” they were training left their weapons with the Al-Nusra Front and sought safe passage. Carter announced, on live cameras, that a $500 million training programme had been discontinued.

Asked by Thomas Friedman, of The New York Times, why had he not used air strikes when the Islamic State first reared its head, President Obama was honest: that would have released pressure on Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. At that stage, the US-Saudi combine’s priority was to put an end to Maliki’s brazenly pro Shia regime. In that project, the IS was an asset. Is it no longer an asset?

In the latest attacks in Iraq, the IS does not look like a diminished power despite US, Britain and Israel having rung alarm bells across the world. Is this trio confronting the IS powerless?

Arab ambassadors, particularly those opposed to the Saudis, draw diagrams to prove that the IS, in its origins, was a US backed project which may have grown out of US control. Just as Osama bin Laden did.

The other day a journalist in Dhaka placed in my hand a copy of Dabiq, the slick IS online magazine threatening Islamist mayhem in Bangladesh, Myammar, India. Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina’s government in not convinced. She believes her arch rival Begum Khaleda Zia’s Jamaat-e-Islami supporters are behind the recent killings of liberal bloggers, university professors, and minority groups to destabilize her government.

Syrian diplomats on the other hand are targeting Britain with fanciful stories. When British Parliament did not permit Prime Minister David Cameron to attack Assad’s Forces in Syria, British intelligence thought of an alternative scheme: set up the propaganda machine for groups opposed to Assad. Intelligence intercepts, which authorities in Damascus decoded, are cited as evidence.

As one grapples with this confusion, emerges Christiane Amanpour of the CNN subjecting the hapless Ashton Carter to fierce interrogation. She put the fear of God in him. “Aleppo is another Srebrenica waiting to happen.”

Srebrenica became notorious for genocide. Serbian troops separated 8,373 men and boys from their womenfolk during the Bosnian war and, in July 1995, slaughtered them. They were buried in mass graves.

Carter did not rise to the bait. “The misery of Syria can only be ended by reaching a political solution.”

Why this resumption of fierce fighting in Aleppo?

With Russian help, Syrian Forces had regained so much territory that the opposition had very few chips to play with at the bargaining table in Geneva. Turkish demand for a no-fly-zone along the stretch north of Aleppo and the Turkish border has not been conceded. The US would not like to dislodge Kurdish influence in that region. A divided Aleppo gives the Syrian opposition atleast a toehold. Russians would be doing a cost-benefit analysis to see if they can allow that to happen.

The US and Russians had agreed to the original ceasefire primarily between the Syrian Army and groups who accept the ceasefire. The agreement did not provide scope for the Al-Nusra Front or IS to be protected. But the US, under pressure from the Saudis and the Turks, is lumping Al-Nusra with the so called “moderate opposition”.

Roughly, what is going on is this: there are, say, rocket attacks which the Syrian Army compasses show are coming from Nusra held enclaves. The army retaliates. The western media screams murder – look, they are attacking civilians and moderate oppositions.

In other words, Al-Nusra is the miasmal mist behind which a so called moderate opposition is being conceived and forged. What I suspect is being sought is a ceasefire along an imaginary line which will then divide Aleppo. The Syrian-Russian combine would like to impose on Aleppo a fait accompli favourable to them. Syria, I am afraid, will probably limp along a path of non resolution until a new administration in Washington begins to take stock of the situation after November 7.

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Friday, April 29, 2016

Islamic State’s Shadow On The Land of Tagore And Nazrul

Islamic State’s Shadow On The Land of Tagore And Nazrul
                                                                             Saeed Naqvi

It was like a macabre end to a Chabrol movie. I had returned with images of such aesthetic delight from the Pahela Baishakh festivities in Dhaka that the news of Prof. Rezaul Karim Siddique having been hacked to death by Islamists left me in something of a daze.

Promotion of Bangla syncretism, which I had found so compelling, was precisely his “guilt”: he was in the vanguard of progressive literary and cultural activities, on the Rajshahi university campus; keen that students take an interest in the poetry and music of Tagore and Qazi Nazrul Islam, modern dance dramas, just the sort of stuff that lends to the Bangla cultural scene so much vibrancy.

Islamic State (IS) which claimed responsibility for killing Prof. Siddique, said he was inviting Muslims to the path of “atheism”. A few days later, the rampant culture of impunity claimed its next victim – Xulhaz Mannan, editor of the gay, transgender, magazine, and his fellow activist, Mahbul Rabbi Tonoy. So far extremism had struck in the Bangla countryside. The latest attacks are in the heart of Dhaka, deepening concerns about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s grip on the administration. A criticism of the regime on these lines invites from Sheikh Hasina a knee jerk response: darts are being fired by arch enemy Khaleda Zia, the BNP, Jamaat e Islami – the source of all Islamic militancy in Bangladesh. She is not exactly in denial of the IS presence but her focus is on the Khaleda – Jamaat mischief.

In this kind of polarization, what value does one place on an interview that a perfectly sensible, liberal editor in Dhaka places in my hand. Dabiq, the glossy IS magazine has in a Q and A, invited Shaikh Abu Ibrahim al Hanif, the Emir of the Khalifah’s soldiers in Bengal to spell out his plans. The 13 page interview, if validated as being authentic, has a dreadful message for Bangladesh: IS headquarters may shift to the country where Shias, Qadianis, Hindus and other deviants espousing cultural syncretism will be terrorized to their knees.

“Jihad base in Bengal will facilitate guerilla attacks in India from both sides”. There is terrible news for Myanmar too: “cells” will be helped until the nation is overwhelmed.

Ofcourse there is institutional support for the ghastly killings of writers, teachers, artists with a liberal streak who have been hacked to death with machetes and meat cleavers. Los Angeles Times headline rings alarm: “Bangladesh may be the next providing ground for global Jihadist groups.”

Macabre attacks on soft targets in Bangladesh has multiple purposes: they discredit Hasina government, intimidate liberals, the anti Jamaat e Islami masses. Under stress, the Hasina establishment responds to such criticism by unfurling its authoritarian fangs. This explains the crackdown on editors and journalists – 84 cases against Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star and arrest of 81 year old Shafiq Rehman.

The regime’s authoritarian streak, disheartens the secular, liberal elite. True Hasina takes on the obscurantist forces but must a price be paid in Civil Liberties to contrive an unsteady, status quo?

Because Indo-Bangladesh relations have seldom been as good as they are today, there is a suggestion, in murmurs among the elite that New Delhi supports the illiberal regime. This kind of talk carries. At the popular level questions surface: why must Dhaka be so obsequious with an “RSS led government”?

An influential China lobby takes heart and looks for balance in the Dhaka, Beijing, New Delhi, Washington quadrangle. Any illiberal act by the regime in Bangladesh, correspondingly causes tongues to wag about New Delhi’s heavy handed handling of affairs like JNU and Hyderabad universities. Between New Delhi-Dhaka official relations and the people-to-people perceptions, contradictions sharpen. What can New Delhi do? It certainly is in no position to stand on high moral ground and proffer advice to a regime increasingly intolerant of dissent.

The BNP under Begum Khaleda Zia is a depleted force banking on the Jamaat e Islami’s excesses. But her antecedents do link her to powerful elements in the Army, a source of great discomfort to the Prime Minister. She is therefore willing to give the armed forces all the toys they want including a nuclear submarine to be used against few know who.

The army is in clover, what with both the ladies outbidding each other to keep it in good humour. The bonanza from UN Peace Keeping duties increases by the day. Recently Saudi Arabia very nearly extracted Dhaka’s participation in their year long war in Yemen. A decision to send troops was reversed by Sheikh Hasina: she agreed to troops only under the UN. By seeking Dhaka’s help, Riyadh was out to spite Islamabad which said “no” earlier. That Sheikh Hasina even toyed with the idea was to undermine Khaleda Zia’s support in Islamabad. Her expectation also was that Riyadh would help tone down Jamaat e Islami opposition to her. Has the Saudi initiative failed or does it still have life in it?

Meanwhile the diplomatic corps cannot take its eyes off the string of gruesome murders – four this month alone. American Human Rights group must have played a hand in 29 Bangladeshi bloggers being placed on the State Department list. In other words, if free thinking bloggers are threatened with death by IS, Al Qaeda and sundry extremists, they will be entitled to apply for US residence. This has the potential to swell the ranks of would be victims. It is a perfect arrangement: if militants wielding machetes, meat cleavers and bombs can qualify for the houris of paradise, their potential victims can now aspire for a fall back position in the real land of milk and honey.

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