Friday, December 2, 2016

The Idea Of An Interview With Castro in Havana

The Idea Of An Interview With Castro in Havana
                                                             Saeed Naqvi

Culled from a four hour conversation, the two part TV interview with Fidel Castro in Havana in 1990, remains one of the most valued treasures in my journalistic archives.

Why would an interview with Castro supersede in its value all the others spread over a hundred countries?

A mind reared in Awadh’s Urdu ambience inherited certain attitudes. These faded during years at school, but left their traces nevertheless. To begin with our elders were in opposition to the British who had caused their wonderful Kings to vanish from Lucknow and Delhi. Over time, these attitudes translated themselves into anti colonialism, anti imperialism. This was Urdu’s foreign policy.

Urduwallas faced a contradiction. The language, and the culture accompanying it, had prospered under a feudal system. It was intellectually untenable for the Urdu elite to oppose Imperialism but be supportive of feudal excesses. And yet taking up cudgels against the feudal order would be tantamount to biting the hand that feeds. The situation was more complicated: the bigger Nawabs, Rajas and Taluqdars had made peace with the new British rulers.

The feudal system in Awadh, as elsewhere, was hierarchical and depended on agrarian exploitation. But it was not tyrannical socially. Unlike the polo and tennis playing princely order in Rajasthan and Saurashtra, the Awadh feudal elite encouraged a life of the mind. Diction, quip, repartee, wit, lyric, music, conversation. Libraries were common. Saraswati was on a pedestal.

Urdu poets did prosper under feudal patronage but they also enjoyed the freedom to give vent to their thoughts. Proximity to the Sufis enabled them to keep their ears close to the ground. This is how a courtly language was also filled with Mir Taqi Mir’s folksy flavour, sometimes derived from Kabir.

Marx was nowhere in Mir’s or Ghalib’s ken and yet both wrote poetry with a bent which today would be called leftist.

“Na mil Mir ab ke Ameeron se tu
Huey hain gharib inki daulat se hum”
(Mir, do not mingle with the wealthy
Their wealth has impoverished us)

Ghalib derides the market as a promoter of philistinism:
“Gharat gar e namoos na ho gar hawas e zar
Kyon Shahid e gul bagh se bazaar mein aaye?’
(pursuit of greed, destroys beauty; why should a flower,
the essential beauty of a garden, be sold in the dusty marketplace.)

By early 20th century, particularly after the Bolshevik revolution, Marxist-Leninist ideas had entered the mainstream of Urdu literature.

Majaz Lucknavi was to wear his leftist credentials on his sleeve:
“Baeen rindi, Majaz ek shaere mazdoor or dehkan hai;
Agar shehron mein woh badnaam hai, badnam rehne do”
(His drunkenness notwithstanding, Majaz is a poet of peasants and the workers;
Do not bother if he has a bad reputation among the urbane elite.)

Political leaders of the Left, notably P.C. Joshi of the CPI, tapped into this reservoir of post feudal awakening. Talents like Balraj Sahni were drawn to Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA). The Progressive Writers Movement brought under its umbrella Krishen Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, a host of others. A remarkable detail is often overlooked: from the earliest Urdu poets to the most recent ones, not one ever wrote a line – not a line – supportive of religious orthodoxy, the mullah or capitalism. “Sarmayadari” was always a curse.

In our formative years, a stream parallel to the left inclined aesthetics of Urdu poetry, was the composite nationalism projected by the Congress party. The two streams converged on the persona of Jawaharlal Nehru. Disillusionment with Nehru set in with retrospective effect much later.

My initiation into journalism coincided with Nehru’s death. But Leftism or Nehruvian socialism remained fashionable until the Soviet collapse in 1990-91.

As Rajiv Gandhi’s principal Secretary, when Gopi Arora drew up a list of journalists for the young Prime Minister to meet, he placed Nikhil Chakravarty, a card carrying communist, at the top of the list.

“In a developing country” Gopi explained, “the Left will continue to provide intellectual leadership.”

This framework was shattered with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It was at this turning point in world affairs that I arrived in Havana. I had pulled all the strings I could with the Prime Minister’s office, Ministry of External Affairs, Communist leaders in Ajoy Bhawan and, ofcourse, the Cuban embassy in New Delhi. The prospect of a world scoop was undoubtedly a motivating factor. But professionalism alone did not explain the extraordinary effort I made for the Castro assignment. Iconography sketched on my mind in my formative years also played a role.

I carried all this boyhood baggage in my head, as I nervously waited for a message from the “Commandante’s” secretariat.

At 7.00 pm my crew and I were ushered into a spartan office. At about 9.30 pm Castro made an appearance, looking larger than life in his fatigues. That he spoke in Spanish did not create any distance. With such speed and clarity did his petit interpreter anticipate his ponderous Spanish that one did not miss any nuance.

When I told him that I had set the camera in the lawn outside, he insisted that we have “coffee or brandy” and “relax” before stepping out for the interview. The brandy session lasted till 11.30 pm.

The interview is available on youtube. What was playing most on his mind was Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) that Gorbachev had embarked on. Both were acceptable concepts, “provided the pace is controlled”. He did not say it in so many words, but he feared that Gorbachev may have lost control. Events proved Castro right.

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Friday, November 25, 2016

Trump A Turning Point Or Stopgap As Centre Crumbles Everywhere?

Trump A Turning Point Or Stopgap As Centre Crumbles Everywhere?
                                                                                              Saeed Naqvi

After a convivial evening at King’s College on the Strand, when he boarded the Victoria Line to Earl’s Court, Prof. Ron Geaves experienced the first public reaction to a Donald Trump victory.

At one of the stations, two Polish jazz singers entered the compartment. They were busking, an established tradition on the London underground.

“Let me travel in peace”, a woman at the far end shouted. It was clear from her accent that she was American. The authority in her tone invited a riposte from an English woman. “We are used to buskers in this country.”

“You tolerate too much from outsiders” the American persisted. “We now have a President who will straighten things up in our country.”

“Not here, though” said the English woman.

Two attitudes in conflict. When Prof. Geaves told me the story, I found it refreshingly down to earth.

How far removed from real life had I been in the groves of academe on the East Coast of the US. Conversations with US diplomats, bankers, media led to the same conclusion: the US electorate was being asked to choose between candidates they did not like. But all were inclined towards Clinton.

Trump was inelegant, even boorish; Hillary Clinton was untrustworthy, indeed a liar. And yet all these fine minds gave the balance of advantage to Clinton. This relatively higher comfort level with a candidate surrounded by all manner of scandal was for a simple reason: she was the known devil, to whom direct or indirect links could be found by all the interests listed above.

The Trump victory was explained most succinctly by placards carried by protesters in Philadelphia: “If you make Bernie Sanders impossible, you make Trump inevitable.”

Bernie Sanders and Trump, both, challenged the Establishment from two diametrically opposite ideological ends. Socialism is anathema to the Establishment; it stokes McCarthyism. So, Bernie, even though on a roll during the primaries, had to be set aside.

Once Bernie was stopped in his tracks, Hillary would look like a natural commander-in-chief with her vast experience in diplomacy and the Congress. This assessment overlooked the essential detail: the electorate was fiercely averse to the Washington-centred establishment. And this, alas, was all that Clinton represented – the Establishment.

For prescience on these elections, the trophy must go to film maker, Michael Moore. Three months before polling day he wrote:

“This election is only about who gets who out to vote, who gets the most rabid supporters, the kind of candidate who inspires people to get out of bed at 5.00 am on Election Day because a Wall needs to be built. Muslims are killing us! Women are taking over! USA! USA! Make my Penis Great Again! Hillary is the devil! America first! First in line with the polls.”

Moore emphasized that those who felt obliged to vote for Hillary to keep Trump out had no “positive” urge to vote for her. Therefore personal persuasion on a wide scale was required. Those depressed at Bernie having been grounded would need extraordinary persuasion to walk to polling booths to vote for Hillary.

“So many people have given up on our system and that’s because the system has given up on them. They know its all bullshit: politics, politicians, elections. The middle class in tatters, the American Dream a nightmare for the 47 million living in poverty.” People wanted to tear down establishments. A Clinton victory would have endorsed the continuity of exactly the state of affairs Moore laments.

Some maintain that Bernie Sanders would have carried the day in a hypothetical Bernie-Trump fight. They speculate that a Trump victory is therefore only the semi final in the country’s political evolution.

Place him against a global backdrop, and Trump begins to look more like a “stop gap” than a “turning point”.

In the UK, the “New Labour” Blairites and the conservatives would join hands to thwart the left ward surge represented by Jeremy Corbyn.

The rise of the Leftist Podemos in Spain has been temporarily checkmated after last June’s election created space for a possible Podemos participation in a coalition. But in the end Corporate interests have prevailed – Socialists have enabled the conservative People’s Party to remain in power by abstaining in a vote of confidence. PP with links to a Franco past was considered a better prospect for the socialists than a real Left. In Madrid observers saw this thwarting of a new Leftist party as its long term gain. If people are pitted against the establishment surely people will carry the tide eventually.

On December 4, Italy holds a referendum on a new constitution. The Anti Establishment Five Star Movement, which has already captured the key Mayorships of Rome and Turin, is expected to win. There are shifts galore everywhere.

President Barack Obama during a recent visit to Europe attributed some of the turmoil to a mismanagement of Globalization. The consequent hardships have produced a young, progressive elite, trying to break out of conservative shackles. Trump, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy and Blairite Labour do not respond to the aspirations of this lot. Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Pablo Iglesias of Podemos do.

Corresponding shifts to left and the right are afoot in other democracies as well. Establishments are universally in bad odour. It will be interesting to watch how the Trump administration copes with political shifts down the road.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

The View From A New York Loft: The Devil's Own Choice

The View From A New York Loft: The Devil's Own Choice
                                                                            Saeed Naqvi

The certainty of a Hilary Clinton victory had given way to anxiety as soon as the TV anchors began to concede that Donald Trump had taken Florida.

A dozen or so friends, who had assembled in Lucknow boy turned New Yorker, Nusrat Durrani's trendy DUMBO loft under the Brooklyn Bridge, did not have the heart to uncork champagne bottles.  We were not sure which one of the Clinton supporters in the party might be offended, so shocking had been the trends fairly early.

Our adorable Jewish World Banker friend couldn’t bear to look at the screen. "I feel faint; I must leave."  Another from the state department was on frantic long distance calls advising her family to prepare for the worst.

Trust a journalist, an honest senior back room boy with Fox News to be in total control of his nerves.   Outside his 48th street and 6th avenue office, multimillion dollar arrangements had been made for victory celebrations. Fox News was supporting Trump.  They were therefore unlikely to waste their wealth in preparation for a Clinton victory. The implication was that Fox, their tentacles deep in the Trump establishment, had a better sense which way the electoral cookie was crumbling.  They had prepared for a Trump victory well in advance.

Our host, with his Lucknow versatility, a Kashmiri wife, and a committed New Yorker's (he is an art impresario) serious contemplation of the shock results, looked calm.  But the way he consoled his wife, made his anxieties transparent.  His white neighbour, banged frantically at the door, and barged in, beads of perspiration on her brow.  She could not bear to watch the results alone.  She needed to hold her neighbours hand.  It was all too unnerving, the earth was moving from beneath people's feet.

Even though everyone in that volatile assembly saw the results according to their own lights, pockets of consensus were discernable among a group huddled in this corner, or another, speaking in whispers there.

One consensus is now a universal cliché: of the two bad choices, Clinton was more acceptable to folks raised on a daily diet of New York Times and CNN. The establishment, in other words.

Conversation zigged zagged to another point of agreement: the lasting contribution of Hillary Clinton to American public life, quite ironically, is Donald John Trump.  Indeed, this has been the singular contribution of the entire US establishment.  The sheer cockiness of it, leaves one quite breathless.

Establishments and two party systems, linked to Corporates, were under siege universally, from the Left or the Right - Britain, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Canada, Indonesia, The Nordic North and Eastern Europe, are obvious examples.

By eliminating Bernie Sanders, the American establishment, shifted the centre of gravity of electoral politics, way to the Right.  In this arena, Trump exuded the aura of being the anti establishment outsider.  On Hillary Clinton's shoulders, was placed the heavy yoke of being the establishment.  Indeed she became the epitome of a double distilled establishment with Republicans and Democrats looking at her with cow eyes.

If people worldwide, on an almost revolutionary scale, were tearing down establishments, by what logic could a plausible case be built for a Clinton victory?

When Ahmad Shah Abdali's marauders were knocking at the gates of Delhi, the Moghul emperor uttered the famous lines, "hanoz "dilli doorast"- dilli is still far. Call it delusion; call it rank cockiness.

With confidence derived from convoluted logic, friend Surjit Bhalla, came out as his own town crier: Trump's victory would be the end of Western civilization.  By contrast, Prof. Dinesh Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology, echoed Mohammed Ali's refusal of the draft during the Vietnam war. "I've got nothing against them Vietcong."

Asked why he preferred Trump, Mohan was sharp and succinct: Trump never killed anybody.  He was setting up the tycoon President elect against Hillary's callous hawkishness.

Americans are paying a price for keeping their focus willfully away from that frame etched indelibly on my mind. Half the split TV screen has a yelling Qaddafi being sodomized by a knife; the other half has Hilary's astonishing triumphalism, "I came, I saw, and he died".

McCarthyism was improved when hysteria was generated about Russian interference in US elections. Never was American democracy projected as being more vulnerable.

Yes, with Trump, the world enters a dangerous new phase. Strategists the world over may have to pour over new drawing boards.  But is that such a hopeless prospect after the bleak and shoddy record of the past 25 years which have seen more war and mayhem than ever before.

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Friday, October 28, 2016

But For Atal Behari Vajpayee, Kurdish Iraq Was Nearly Ours

But For Atal Behari Vajpayee, Kurdish Iraq Was Nearly Ours 
                                                                                Saeed Naqvi 

Hard to believe, but Mosul, currently in the news, would have been ours today had Atal Behari Vajpayee not played spoil sport.

After their invasion of Iraq in April 2003, Americans realized fairly early that a full fledged occupation for an unspecified period was not possible without allies taking responsibility to administer large swathes of the ancient land.

Seldom has a US ambassador been more effective than David Mulford was. It took very little persuasion for External Affairs, Jaswant Singh, Defence Minister George Fernandez, and Army Chief N.C. Vij to fall in line.

Ships were readied, battalions shortlisted, Generals chosen for India’s first imperialist adventure since the Cholas. We were going to rule a part of that country which alone of all the 52 Muslim states had stood by us at the UN, OIC and elsewhere on the Kashmir issue.

I suppose it must have been self interest which caused us to turn turtle on Iraq as soon as the Americans were in occupation of the country.

Our ambassador to Baghdad, B.B. Tyagi, even risked his life. Iraqi resistance had identified him as a diplomat who was supportive of the occupation. No wonder I was once ushered into his presence while he sat in bed, his legs outstretched, eyes wide open as in a daze, his hands on automatic weapons by both his sides. It was a frame for a possible Woody Allen war film.

Just as the first US representative, Paul Bremer, was convinced that the occupation would be a cakewalk, so was South Block and, indeed, Tyagi.

Bremer, a devout Roman Catholic, had turned up with a batch of Priests who smacked their lips at the prospect of saving souls in a post Saddam Iraq. It turned out that Antique smugglers did rather better, cleaning out the Baghdad museum on America’s watch.

South Block, like Bremer, had assumed that once Saddam’s yoke was lifted from their necks, Iraqis would turn up in droves to hug the Americans.

In anticipation of Iraq’s immediate future in American hands, South Block parked Tyagi in a three star hotel in Amman where he spent mornings, afternoons, evenings watching CNN and BBC for the American progress in Iraq. The irony was that Lyse Ducet of the BBC was herself in occupation of the terrace of Amman’s Intercontinental hotel watching her Arab staff count their worry beads, waiting for the American flag to be fluttering over all of Iraq.

Were this to happen, Tyagi would helicopter into Baghdad’s Green Zone and offer his credentials to Bremer or his Iraqi nominee.

Just imagine, New Delhi was all but ready to open its embassy with the American occupiers of a country which had given unstinted support to India always, particularly against Pakistani machinations at the UN.

This being the state of affairs, who could blame the US for being so confident of India’s enthusiastic willingness to partner them and take charge of Kurdish Iraq. It had very nearly happened, had Vajpayee not decided to show spine – just in the nick of time.

He kept his head while those around him were losing theirs. On April 9, American marines brought down Saddam Hussain’s statue and exactly the media which is lined up behind Hillary Clinton, attributed the statue’s fall to popular rage.

Vajpayee kept his counsel. On April 18 he turned up in Srinagar. Remember, Armies of India and Pakistan were in an eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation after the December 13, 2001 terrorist attack on Indian Parliament.

The fall of Saddam’s statue had registered differently with Vajpayee – this scale of western triumphalism was a source of anxiety for him. An “awesome” power has arisen. In the new situation, regional quarrels had to be composed, he said. Dramatically, he extended his hand of Peace to Pakistan.

This was the beginning of the process which led to India and Pakistan signing an agreement in Islamabad on January 4, 2004 that forbids the use of a country’s territory for cross border terrorism. The word was not kept by Pakistan, but that is another story.

The “shining India” campaign mounted by the BJP recoiled on it during the May 2004 elections. But for Indo-Pak relations, it was an unfortunate turn. When Vajpayee became External Affairs Minister in the 1977 Janata government, he had made up his mind on Pakistan: “we cannot change our neighbours.” Among his first foreign visits was to Pakistan in February 1978. The bus journey to Lahore in February 1999, and the January 2004 visit which resulted in the agreement against cross border terrorism, were audacious. But there were reverses.

He was able to cushion the reverses because of his cross party stature nationally and his standing with the RSS. But he persisted because he had grasped the triangle in which the country had trapped itself since 1947 – Srinagar-New Delhi, India-Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim are one complex of issues. Unless a holistic view is taken of this triangle to outline suitable policy, eternal social strife would remain the nation’s lot.

He had the vision to pull India back from the brink on Iraq. Just imagine what would have been our fate had ships carrying Indian troops actually set sail.

The troop build up against Pakistan after the Parliament attack was also a calculated move. The Sole super power was in place to pull the protagonists back from the brink. It is just as well that neither Russia, and China (nor the US) paid much credence to the “surgical strikes”. In the absence of an overarching super power, real “surgical strikes” may cause the situation to spiral out of control.

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