Monday, July 25, 2011

After Clinton, All Eyes on Pakistan’s Hina Khar

After Clinton, All Eyes on Pakistan’s Hina Khar
Saeed Naqvi

For the first time in my recollection, the Pakistan Foreign Minister visiting New Delhi will attract more notice than US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton did exactly a week earlier.

There could be several reasons for this, the most compelling being that Hina Rabbani Khar is the first woman Foreign Minister of Pakistan. At 34, she also happens to be the youngest ever. Then, the Clinton visit coincided with the 24X7 focus on Rupert Murdoch’s trial by fire, taking the spotlight away from her.

It is just as well that the Secretary of State’s visit was in a low key, investing it with realism divorced from the hype which generally imparts to Indo-US relations exaggerated expectations.

The US has, in its history, vacillated between global dominance and isolation. A phase of inwardness may be in the cards.

Everyone knows the Civil nuclear deal is in a bit of a jam and Clinton almost said as much. There was nothing new in the US supporting India as a Permanent member of the UN Security Council. What was heartening was the imagery she used for India’s Election Commission: “it is the global gold standard for running elections.”

Without in any way offending China she spelt out roles for India in theatres of Chinese proximity – Pacific and Central Asia. India “straddling the waters from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean is, with us, a steward of these waterways”. Will this region “build the regional architecture of institutions and arrangements to enforce international norms on security, trade, rule of law, human rights and accountable governance?” Chinese know how to decode “human rights”!

She then talks of interlocking triangles: US, Japan (a treaty binds them) and India, also US, China and India. Similar co-operative linkages are sought with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. What Clinton sketched at the library in Chennai is a comprehensive document of intent.

It is in this context that she spelt out a scenario for the Af-Pak region after US withdrawal. “We and the Afghans are making progress on a new strategic partnership declaration that will define our relationship after 2014.”

What the US seeks is in fact a contradiction in terms: how to stay on in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops?

This explains extensive construction at the Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif and at US bases. According to Russians, who know the terrain well, the US has 30 bases in Afghanistan of which the ones in Bagram, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Helmand, Shindand and Mazar-e-Sharif are, by the sheer volume of masonry, not temporary. There is nothing new in all of this. US diplomats in the Af-Pak have for the past five years been fairly vocal about their being in the region for the long haul. Yes, the counter insurgency phase maybe getting a new look, but the entire question of the US withdrawing from Afghanistan is, in my view, an open one.

Yes, there will be photo ops of Marines clambering onto departing aircraft or Gen. David Petraeus looking pensive in a helicopter about to take off. These would be effective visuals on US TV preparatory to the 2012 Presidential election but only if viewers had interest left in anything other the plummeting economy – at home, across the Atlantic or the Pacific where Japan has yet to find its feet after the nuclear disaster.

Some things are not likely to happen soon. The agreement that Americans seek with the Afghans on the bases they wish to maintain in the country is not a document President Hamid Karzai can ink in a hurry given the anti American sentiment. A puzzle for the Americans seems to be “Karzai’s state of mind”. Yes, the Americans are unpopular but not as much as the Pakistan army looking for “strategic” depth in Afghanistan. This is my personal observation after visiting Afghanistan. By playing both sides of the street, the Pakistan Army has lost credit both ways – with the Americans and the Afghans.

The Pakistan Foreign Minister will have met the US and Chinese Foreign Ministers in Bali before arriving in New Delhi. Who knows, Ms. Khar may begin to open up many regional possibilities if she is able to gauge the sincerity with which Dr. Manmohan Singh and his team contemplate Indo-Pak relations in a world changing at dizzying speed.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Tokenism For Muslims Now Counter Productive

Tokenism For Muslims Now Counter Productive
Saeed Naqvi

In these unsettled times, it is always reassuring to be invited to banquets at the Hyderabad House hosted by the Prime Minister or members of his cabinet. It boosts ones sense of self, ofcourse, but it also enhances a sense of communal well being because, as one ambles up the carpeted staircase, one meets other Muslims in suits of reasonable cut. Next week, the beginning of Ramadan, will see the appearance of Shervanis and headgear peculiar to certain Sufi Shrines.

Would unsuspecting Presidents, Princes or Prime Ministers, from any one of the 54 Muslim countries, return suitably impressed with the well being of the world’s second largest Muslim community, having seen so many of them at a banquet meant only for the country’s highest echelons?

The Sachar Committee report into the socio economic condition of Indian Muslims would not make for such depressing reading had Justice Sachar taken into account Muslim attendance at VIP banquets and Iftar parties. In the interest of accuracy, a caveat must be inserted. For the Sachar report, flattering data would only emerge from banquets in honour of visiting Muslim dignitaries. If Justice Sachar were to ferret the guest list under Right to Information, he would find that a banquet for the Cypriot, Armenian, Serbian or even Israeli leaders would probably not have a solitary Muslim on the list. There would not be such self conscious deletion of the Muslim when other Western leaders visit but there would be no premium on them either.

The deep design behind the hospitality list for a visiting Muslim leader could possibly be that India is good to its Muslims and would therefore be good to the visiting leader’s country. But, snicker my non Muslim friends, this communal outreach flies in the face of the secular ideal which entails even handed treatment. Is it a nagging awareness of deviation from the equal-rights ideal, which results in dollops of tokenism doled out? Invitations to banquets and Iftar parties are the tiniest part of this tokenism. And, above all, having been in the drill of democracy for 60 years, Muslims have caught onto tokens as pacifiers. Tokenism is now counterproductive. Do an opinion poll!

Most pernicious of all is institutionalized tokenism. A special Haj terminal at the Indira Gandhi airport for instance. This sort of stuff invites the chorus “appeasement!”

Further, there are Haj subsidies and special VIP Hajis on freebies to facilitate their passage to paradise. Does the government believe that such favours ensure Muslim support during elections? Yes, a benefit once conferred upon a group is difficult to withdraw because such a withdrawal would provoke editorials in Urdu newspapers. This, a government on sixes and sevens may not like to risk on the eve of the critical 2012 UP Assembly elections. After all, 14 of the 21 seats Congress won from the state have a decisive Muslim vote share.

If such fears are to determine policy, I am afraid other tokenisms will also have an extended lease of life. A government so pulverized on the issue of Muslims is not likely to alter a totally untenable policy that the ambassador to Saudi Arabia must be a Muslim. The argument that a Muslim ambassador is an enormous asset during Haj is about as convincing as the presumed requirement for a full fledged air terminal for Hajis. If the state pulled itself out of this area of patronage, it would make immense sense for private enterprise, Muslim or non Muslim, to step in to facilitate Haj. Business by its very nature is secular. Witness Indians in Saudi Arabia: senior management of Indian origin are increasingly non Muslim because they are better educated, they do not seek five breaks in a day for namaz nor a month for Ramadan.

There is a lesson here somewhere for the short sighted Muslim leadership which has, by converting a remarkably secular, internationally known university, Jamia Millia Islamia, into a “minority institution” has gifted a dud to the community. Graduates from this institution will be discriminated against even in Saudi Arabia. A Muslim minority institution faces resistance in the secular job market.

As for a Ministry of Minority Affairs the less said the better! It is grist to the communal mill whenever it stirs out to serve the community. I have said this before: a non Muslim with a secular image in this slot would be able to chart out an agenda for minorities which is free of the odour of tokenism, which would really enthuse the community, not bluff it.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

How Not To Project The Party or PM

How Not To Project The Party or PM
Saeed Naqvi

The invitation by the Prime Minister to five newspaper editors to share his thoughts or, months ago, TV editors seated around a rectangular arrangement for a televised transmission of ideas, are two recent examples of effort at building a communication link between reticent leaders and a precocious public.

TV, particularly its 24X7 variant, is a recent phenomenon, beginning around the mid 90’s. In other words, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and, contrary to the general perception, even Rajiv Gandhi pre dated the barrage of 24X7 channels rained on us the past sixteen years.

The first Prime Minister who completed his full term in the 24X7 age was P.V. Narasimha Rao, articulate in several languages but singularly indifferent to media arc lamps. Narasimha Rao and his Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh’s arrival on the scene coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of (it seemed then but no longer) a lasting unipolarity, accompanied by bugles of undiluted capitalism, which needed advertising which needed the amplifying media. The balance of power in news establishments shifted radically from the editor to the marketing manager.

It seems difficult to believe that before the “total” market takeover of the media in the mid 90s, newspapers were more free. True, the then 20 year old Doordarshan however largely remained a government department.

Overwhelmed by the market, print and electronic media began to serve partisan interests on key issues, leaving just that much space in between – a bit like the speaker’s corner at Hyde Park.

Having an “independent” media is one thing but having one held on the leash by Business Houses quite another. One does not necessarily need dictatorships to have a controlled media.

The quest for media management in an environment of a media so controlled is a quest for the impossible. Even assuming that the Prime Minister’s conversation with the chosen five last fortnight had helped clear the air on issues and that the unfortunate statement on Bangladesh was just that, unfortunate, how will the PMO justify conferring Prime Ministerial favours selectively, five at a time?

As the media is structured today, it calls the shots.

The culture of obsequious eager-beaver spokesmen for the major parties, hopping from channel to channel, gives power to anchors disproportionate to their grasp of the subject.

A private market survey will reveal, the channel hopping spokesman does himself and the party more harm than good. It imparts to anchors, not always informed, the role of arbiters. If a political party does not send its spokesman to defend an issue will it concede an advantage to the opposition which will? Quite the contrary. In fact the channel concerned will carry the episode only on pain of being accused of being biased.

Will this tactic remove the issue from public view? Not at all. Political parties must wrest the initiative and hold weekly briefings themselves rather than turn up in channels, cap in hand. The idea is to avoid the shouting match, the tu-tu-maen-maen format from which our Parliament has begun to take its cue.

The PMO, and relevant ministries must likewise hold regular briefings.

Briefings, by their very nature, are tepid and can be dull unless handled by someone interesting – and there are such talents available. Sometimes their being an asset outweighs the risks involved in having them bat for you. The person I have in mind reminds me of Mir Taqi Mir’s line: “Hai aib bada usmein, jsey kuch hunar aawey”. In other words he is cursed by his own ability. Talent inspires jealousies. No hierarchy likes to keep in its stable someone who can run away with the show!

Then, an essential requirement of a developing society and country is a public service multi-media, an idea that Rajiv Gandhi, Inder Gujaral, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh have all endorsed. The Prime Minister himself announced it twice during UPA I. Regular meetings were held in which PMO officials participated. Then what happened?

As for the Prime Minister, his interaction with the media must consist in a projection of the future, not 2G and “haan ji”.

To quote Jean Genet, “as for living, my servants will take care of it.” The PM’s response to 2G like queries should be: “As for recent scandals, my minions will take care of them.” Find suitable “minions”. Don’t place the Prime Minister on show, pinned and wriggling against the wall, allegedly blundering on Bangladesh.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Taleban’s Hurrah at Kabul Intercontinental

Taleban’s Hurrah at Kabul Intercontinental
Saeed Naqvi

The dramatic attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental hotel earlier in the week ties in somewhat convolutedly with the arrest in Karachi in February 2010 of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taleban commander who led the Quetta Shura and directed the insurgency from Pakistan. Let me explain.

The dream of strategic depth in Afghanistan, nurtured by the ISI, which helped train the Afghan Mujahideen against Soviet occupation, was eventually to be realized by “installing” a government of its choice in Kabul whenever an opportunity arose.

Towards this end, the Taleban that the ISI was nurturing, would be helped and protected to climb up the ladder. This facile game plan was blown to smithereens after 9/11 when President George W. Bush, egged on by the neo-cons, mounted a massive military retaliation in Afghanistan and the Pak-Afghan border which became the sanctuary for the Al Qaeda-Taleban operations.

The US could not have thought of a more menacing figure than Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to deliver the threatening message to Pakistan. If Pakistan did not support the US-led war against Islamic terrorism, the country would be “bombed back to the stone age”. This quote would be unbelievable had it not been repeated by Musharraf himself on CBS News 60 minutes in September 2006.

The complications of what Musharraf was being asked to do are clear as daylight. He was being asked to eliminate exactly the force his ISI had helped create and nurture over the past two decades. Double dealing was built into Musharraf’s response – shoot the Taleban (or their look-alikes) when the Americans were watching, hide them behind the sofas when they were not. Ambidexterous though he was, he could not avoid participating in the “rendition” programme or in helping American’s ferry Afghan Taleban to Guantanamo Bay. Remember, when the lawyers agitation began to destabilize Musharraf, a sensitive issue the Army and the ISI had to duck concerned “missing persons”. If the Army’s hand in the “missing persons” came to public notice, the army would invite public anger on a massive scale.

Over the years much more came to light. Some sort of a crescendo was reached with the Lal Masjid affair. The blow-back from the Afghan war, which was by now raging in the North West Frontier Province and FATA, eventually consumed Musharraf.

Despite Musharraf’s departure, neither the ISI nor the Army, could disengage itself from its dream – strategic depth in Afghanistan. For this, Baradars, Haqqanis and their tribe had to be pampered as well as kept on a leash.

Pushtoons in Afghanistan have had to cope with so many traumatic shifts since the ouster of President Daud in 1978 that the traditional social structure has broken down. Pushtoon society on the Pakistan side has been relatively less unsettled. This explains why the Pakistani Pushtoons were able to open their “hujras” or hospitality quarters for their cousins escaping disturbed conditions in Afghanistan. A large Pushtoon population has therefore spread as far as Karachi where Al Asif is a Pushtoon ghetto on an epic scale, like Dharavi, in Bombay. Al Asif is one of the many.

This Pushtoon Diaspora is sensitive to the “misfortunes of our brothers” at the hands of the US and Pak military. Since all Taleban are Pushtoon this hurt for “our brothers” includes, in many instances, the trouble visited up on the Taleban.

It is therefore not surprising that the former Taleban Ambassador to Pakistan, Abdus Salaam Zaeef, on the terrace of his Kabul hideout, froths in the mouth at the mention of a Pakistani role in Afghanistan. Not only did the Pakistan army facilitate his deportation to Guantanamo, where he was prisoner for four year, “Pakistan has proved to be unreliable – it has no role in Afghanistan”.

And now that President Obama has indicated a dialogue with the Taleban without mentioning a role for Pakistan, the Pakistan Taleban and their handlers are flaring at the nostrils. They will snap the leash and rush into exactly the sort of demonstration, blazing flames and billowing smoke, that was on display at the Intercontinental hotel in Kabul. This is desperation, not some well thought out long term strategy.

As I said at the outset, the latest outrage in Kabul ties up with Baradar’s arrest in Karachi in February 2010 because that was the showdown with CIA who had started establishing direct contacts with the Taleban, circumventing their Pakistani handlers.

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