Monday, August 31, 2015

Voters Worldwide Breaking Out Of The Two Party Strait Jacket

Voters Worldwide Breaking Out Of The Two Party Strait Jacket
                                                                                      Saeed Naqvi

The wheel may well be coming full circle. It was another world when I first met Peter Mukerjea, CEO, Star TV in his Mumbai office. The year was 1997. I tried to interest him in journalism; he, talked of Boeing, Mercedes and Bajaj. The new buzzwords were “sales” and “ratings”. He looked through me as if I had come to the wrong office. I staggered out, feeling a little hollow in the pit of my stomach.

The bipolar world was over. Market fundamentalism had replaced it. People were making money hand over fist. Delhi was crawling with middle-men, fancy guest houses. What was singularly in order was greed, greed, greed. Indirani Mukerjea was not in the picture then and that part of the current murder mystery is not my concern here. Because Peter Mukerjea is in the news, I have been reminded of the role he played in pushing flippant television centre stage. A new culture of globalization, market fundamentalism and trivial infotainment became the routine fare for a country in urgent need of public service broadcasting.

Many things we valued were suddenly on sale, including our sacred cricket seasons. England, Australia, New Zealand, West Indies – all had their annual five tests. But businessmen and politicians running our cricket had pawned it all to the market. Ministers were involved in hocus-pocus deals. Murders were taking place, some in seven star hotels.

Foreign investors were being discouraged by their Indian partners not to open offices. It was easier for outsiders to depend on their local partners who had local information and “settings” with politicians. Crony capitalism was on the rise. This was a universal phenomena.

Except for some countries like Britain, where sections of the media put up a dogged fight for independence, Corporates and two party systems effectively snuffed out media dissent.

In an Elia Kazan film, a small car is hemmed in between two giant trailers, hurtling at great speed. The voter was likewise hemmed in between two party systems. Controls were with big money in cahoots with politicians.

Excesses of this system made for increasingly horrible news – from all directions. Just take a look.  Europe is taking the blowback from all the western misdemeanours in West Asia and North Africa. Horror of horrors: 80 migrants frozen in a refrigerated truck in the heart of Europe. The same Europe had stood idly by in 90s, watching the horrors of the Bosnian war. The rationale for this inaction given to me by a senior official in the French Foreign office was startling: “The balance of power shifted against Christians in Lebanon; it is shifting against Muslims in Bosnia.”

“A popular uprising against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.” This precisely is how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the Libyan horrors. About the same time British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, confirmed in the House of Commons that British diplomats, intelligence officers and Special Forces had been held in Benghazi. Clearly they were trying to manufacture the catastrophe that was to be pinned on Qaddafi. The narrative repeated itself in Syria. In the world of rapid communications, these are not events without a consequence. Reverberations do, sometimes quite imperceptibly, affect voters too who, over the years, have felt hemmed in between two parties as between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, rather like Kazan’s image. The result has been some surprising guerilla action sporadically on the part of voters.

In recent years successes of parties like the Syriza in Greece has been quite startling. True the revolutionaries within Syriza regard Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as something of a Judas Iscariot. He may well be defeated in the coming elections. But Greece will never revert to old ways.

The far Left Podemos in Spain, won key local elections and mobilized 1,50,000 at Madrid’s Puerto del Sol ahead of November elections. Media silence may well be the lull before the storm.

In Indonesia, a commoner, Joko Widodo beat the all powerful Suharto establishment. Life was made quite as difficult for him in Jakarta just as multiple interests in Delhi have striven to thwart Arvind Kejriwal at every step. But the voters search for new faces and parties continue.

After Scotland decided to go its own way electorally, alarm bells began ringing in right wing citadels at the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as the front runner in the Labour Party.

How anxious the right wing establishment is, becomes clear from the editorial a paper like The Economist has written this week.

The opposition Labour Party is about to inflict grave damage on Britain. If it picks Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran far-left MP, as leader on September 12th, Labour will consign itself to the wilderness. Worse, by wrecking opposition to the governing Tories, Mr Corbyn will leave Britain open to bad government.” Some argument!

“Similar enthused crowds have been greeting another grizzled old socialist, Bernie Sanders, in America. All of them have energised new, mainly young supporters who fret about globalisation and inequality.”

These may not be the most durable shifts to the Left or atleast away from the established two-party systems, but something is clearly astir in all electoral democracies. I have a sense that the Indian voter too, everywhere, including Bihar is searching for new options. What is required is a body of young men and women committed to the people, free from Corporate control, willing to roll a new bandwagon. 

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Friday, August 21, 2015

Who Stopped UNESCO From Declaring Delhi A Heritage City?

Who Stopped UNESCO From Declaring Delhi A Heritage City?
                                                                                     Saeed Naqvi

I was on the third floor balcony of a friend’s apartment in Mehrauli, Delhi’s first city. It had a commanding view of green, lush foliage stretching upto the railway tracks where the Delhi Metro glides past at frequent intervals.

“And that on your left is the Qutub Minar” said my friend proudly – pointing towards dark spaces.

“Where?” I asked.
“There, right there,” he insisted.
There was only darkness on view.

The residence of the Indian ambassador in Paris is much valued because it has a fabulous view of the Eiffel tower. Illuminated, the 126 year old tower is one of the world’s great sights. Likewise, the illuminated Big Ben in London, only 157 years old, is a great view. The Qutub is 900 years old. It is among the world’s highest towers.

It turns out that Archaeological Survey of India, which keeps a supervisory eye on all the monuments in Delhi (and in the rest of the country), has left the illumination of monument to the devices of the local tourism departments. These departments may, if they like, give the contract for illuminating say, the Purana Qila, to Philips or Bajaj. Lighting systems will be installed, even initiated. Passersby will have a great sight transiting from Old to New Delhi and the other way around. But soon enough bulbs will be stolen, sometimes with connivance of the security staff and within a week Purana Qila will be shrouded in darkness once again. Safdarjang’s tomb, the Lodi tombs – name them the same story.

In this fashion, there are 175 monuments in Delhi which should, atleast on paper, be illuminated. In reality, they are not. The New Delhi Municipal Committee, which covers Lutyen’s Delhi too, has “notified” 800 monuments which, in my limited comprehension, means something short of lip service.

Someone from Nizamuddin West has drawn my attention to builders encroaching on Atgah Khan’s tomb. One may have been persuaded to take a casual view of a lesser monument. But what is involved here, is the tomb of Emperor Akbar’s key adviser during the earlier part of his reign.

Delhi Golf Club members were unaware of the importance of the red sandstone tomb in the club precincts close to the Zakir Hussain Marg. The late Bikram Singh, a friend and senior member of the club, framed an article I had written on the monument for the Statesman and hung it in the main bar. It evoked great interest.

Members realized for the first time that the tomb was that of a lady who would have enjoyed being at the club – Lal Kunwar. She was something of a favourite in Muhammad Shah Rangila’s court.

What distinguishes her even more is the fact that her brother, Niamat Khan and nephew, Feroz Khan, made seminal contribution to Hindustani classical music. In the musical fraternity they are known as Sadarang and Adarang whose compositions form the backbone of, say, Bhimsen Joshi, Malikarjun Mansoor, Gangubai Hangal’s singing. Listen carefully and names Sadarang and Adarang pop out of the compositions at every Hindustani Sangeet concert.

The tragedy is that in the Son et Lumiere script at the Red Fort, no mention is made of Sadarang and Adarang. Lal Kunwar is a courtesan; her brother and nephew come across as pimps.

All of this betrays ignorance, ofcourse, but it also betrays disrespect.

Qutub Minar being kept in darkness because of non payment of electricity bills by the ASI or the Department of Tourism is an absolute disgrace, ofcourse. But what is sinister is something else: the government’s definition of what is “our” heritage. Only that which is “ours” deserves to be seriously considered for preservation.

One would have been tempted to place a general aversion to monuments from the Muslim period at Narendra Modi’s door, had this streak not been quite as pronounced during long spells of Congress rule.

In his very first speech in Parliament, Modi lamented 1,200 years of foreign “ghulami” or “serfdom”. So far the Congress talked only of 200 years of foreign rule but that was with an eye on the Muslim vote. Now that the Congress has more or less given up on the Muslim vote, the BJP and the Congress are on the same page on most social issues. It would therefore be wrong to expect Eiffel Tower like illuminations at the Qutub or any of the wonderful monuments Delhi is saturated with under politically altered circumstances.

The government showed its hand most unambiguously in May. UNESCO had shown interest in placing Delhi for World Heritage City Nominations. UNESCO has listed 220 world Heritage cities. Of these not one is Indian. There are four Chinese cities on the list.

For five years, Dr. A.G.K. Menon, Convenor, INTACH, Delhi Chapter and a host of others prepared two dossiers – one for Lutyen’s Delhi and another for Shahjahanabad which is officially designated as a “slum” in the Master Plan of Delhi. One day before the dossiers were to be handed to UNESCO, a mysterious hand “whisked” the dossiers away. “We do not know where the dossiers are”, Menon laments.

The great Indian intelligentsia is silent.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Is An Endgame Catching Up With Young Saudi Rulers?

Is An Endgame Catching Up With Young Saudi Rulers?
                                                                      Saeed Naqvi        

Endgame may be too dramatic a term, but it cannot be denied that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is in deep trouble.

It has been in obvious trouble eversince the late King Abdullah returned from convalescence in Europe in February 2011 and rained $135 billion on Saudi citizens to opiate them against the sort of uprisings that toppled his friends Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Cairo and Tunis respectively. He swore monarchies and Sheikhdoms would not be allowed to fall.

Saudis have had a knack of externalizing internal upheaval. The siege of Mecca by anti monarchy, Muslim Brotherhood extremists in 1979, almost at the same time as the coming to power of the Ayatullahs in Tehran, was shrouded in a news blackout. In fact an impression was created that Iran may have been involved in the Mecca siege. The remarkable story of US Special Forces, converting temporarily to Islam to be able to enter Islam’s holiest mosque to flush out the militants, was kept away from the American public. I would give my last penny for a photograph or TV footage of US officers reciting the “Kalma” in their line of duty. If the Saudis could buy news blackouts to hide such sensational stories, the basement level Saudi restiveness in the wake of the Arab Spring was much easier to conceal.

Whatever dissatisfaction there was within the Kingdom was soon directed towards the Syrian and Libyan operations. Saudi Arabia was in the vanguard in both theatres. I was witness to the artificial manufacture of civil war. At one stage Lakhdar Brahimi the UN Special Representative in Syria, counted sixty four opposition groups hatching separate plots to topple Bashar al Assad. The idea was to wrench Syria away from the Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas axis, a longstanding dream of US neo cons, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The departure of Hillary Clinton from the State Department and the appointment of John Kerry, relieved pressure on Damascus because the Nuclear File with Tehran picked up in acceleration. If Tehran was kosher with the West, Assad now had a double protection – from Moscow as well as from Tehran.

Riyadh and Jerusalem were in deep despair. An expression of this despair was Saudi Security Chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s extraordinary meeting with President Putin in the Kremlin. Saudi would give Russia the moon and protect forthcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi if Russia helped them topple Assad.

This remarkable admission of Saudi control (influence) over terrorism in the Caucasus may be hyperbole. But after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISIS took control of Mosul in June 2014, President Obama explained the delay in bombing and retarding Daesh advance towards Baghdad similarly. If the ISIS was checked, he said, pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki to vacate his seat would lessen. Washington’s priority was to see the back of Maliki whose allegedly pro Shia policies were the primary reason for Sunni resentment which expressed itself in the burgeoning ISIS. In other words, ISIS was allowed to grow to help remove Maliki. To that extent it was an asset.

In any case, the ISIS was an amalgam of three broad streams – Muslim Brotherhood, Jabhat al Nusra (an Al Qaeda off shoot) and the former Baath elements in their new avatar as anti West Sunnis. All three streams have received Saudi help to fight Assad, even though each is separately anathema to Riyadh.

Soon enough, Saudis were to start paying a heavy price for having helped create a monster. The Kingdom’s Northern Border with Iraq was breached by Islamic State elements in December 2014. Saudi General Oudah al Belawi was killed. The success of the operation was explained on “inside” help.

After King Abdullah’s death in January 2015, the mentally ailing king Salman bin Abdulaziz has been surrounded by a brash, young royal leadership among whom the King’s 29 year old son, Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Sultan is calling most of the shots. A 100 year old system built on consensus among the sons of the Kingdom’s founder, Abdula ziz Ibn Saud, must resent the new usurpation of power.

The new princes have upturned the late King’s cautious policies, and entered into a war in Yemen which they do not know how to end.

Frenetic diplomatic activity in the region is neither able to end the war in Yemen nor eliminate the Islamic State in Syria because of Riyadh’s obstinacy

Riyadh must have victory in Yemen which means the restoration of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, now an exile in Saudi Arabia, to the Presidential palace in Sanaa. Imagine the idea – a perso n who invited Saudi military intervention, which has all but destroyed Yemen, to rule Yemen as the people’s leader!

The young prince also wants Assad to go before he endorses any settlement in Syria or final action against ISIS. Riyadh has another condition: in both instances they insist in Iran being chastised for helping the Houthis in Yemen and Assad in Syria. This is the most difficult condition to fulfill. How does the international community vouch to terminate Iran’s “moral” support in both instances? The original sins of supporting anti Assad extremism in Syria and declaring war on Yemen lie at Saudi door. Saudis want Iran to be yoked with them in comparable guilt. This is Shia-Sunni parity being carried to absurd lengths.

In a state of funk, the young leaders are cosying upto the Muslim Brotherhood and the al Qaeda at the same time.

While the White House is under pressure from the US Congress on the Iran nuclear deal, and Iran is readying itself for two elections – to the House of Elders and the Majlis – Riyadh imagines it has some room for maneuver.

This game will in all likelihood be over early next year. What hand will Riyadh be left to play with then?

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Friday, August 7, 2015

Is The Congress Running Fast to Stand Still?

Is The Congress Running Fast to Stand Still?
                                                                 Saeed Naqvi

Do page one photographs of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Kumari Shelja, Anand Sharma and Mohsina Kidwai, the Rajya Sabha MP from Chattisgarh, agitating against suspension of opposition members, spell Congress revival?

Let us pick up the thread from the build up to the election of May 2014. Everybody and his neighbour had tried cajoling Rahul Gandhi to be a willing counter to Narendra Modi – CII, FICCI, Arnab Goswami. But Rahul was a soufflĂ© that wouldn’t rise. He would speak in parables; he planned to reinvent the party from grassroots, a ten year project which, if it fructifies, will see a 53 year old Rahul at the helm. He has not announced any change of heart yet.

What then is this hyper activity about? Surely, Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chauhan and the discomfiture of the Sangh Parivar on that count, are all custom made for any opposition to seize upon. Are these treaties designed to affect the Bihar vote?

Modi harvested the Congress led United Progressive Alliance’s discomfiture. Who in that page one photograph will reap the benefits of their current exertions against him in and out of Parliament?

It is universally acknowledged that the Modi campaign was carefully crafted by Corporate India, with help from a host of outfits including APCO Worldwide Consultancy under the leaderships of Timothy Roemer, former US ambassador to India. India was going to be transformed into a Corporate Paradise which would provide new sinews to the global economy in free fall (Joseph Stiglitz’s term) since 2008.

India Inc, led by Modi acolytes like the Adani group, spent more money on the Modi campaign than has ever been spent in the world’s electoral history.

The campaign worked because the electorate was disgusted with the two stars in our photo-frame plus Manmohan Singh. The Congress was reduced to a rubble. Which is why Congress’s new found confidence, so early in the proceedings is puzzling, the scams notwithstanding.

A massive publicity campaign plus a pulpy state of the principal opposition brought Modi to power. An Arabic saying explains it succinctly: not love of Ali but disgust with Muaviya was the operative fundamental.

Modi had not come to power because he was loved by the people. Nor was he admired by senior BJP leaders he foiled during the 2013 Goa conclave in which he was nominated the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate, despite their opposition. He was endorsed in the hope that he would be “strong”.

Within six months of becoming Prime Minister, had Modi also picked up the election to the Delhi Assembly as a trophy, the narrative today would have been very different. But the Aam Admi Party wiped out both the Congress and the BJP, in two elections in quick succession.

This petrified the BJP, Congress, Big Business with huge stakes in Delhi, the Police and the section of Babudom prone to corruption. The AAP experiment had to be crushed. The media was mobilized in this expedition. The Lt. Governor-AAP stalemate in Delhi is part of this larger Ding-Dong.

In this fashion, a year has passed and an impatient business community, who have seen property prices in Delhi (for example) fall by about 40 per cent, is restive. The famous Land Bill is neither here nor there. There is plenty of Mun ki Baat on the radio and photo ops on foreign trips, keeping up the delusion of energy, action, policy. But nothing of substance, except for deteriorating law and order and rising prices.

Impatience is now afflicting corporate India. Modi’s cheer leaders in the media are turning upon him. Saner advice coming from former insiders may well be heeded. Why must the next generations of reforms be restricted to facilitating big business. These reforms should focus on governance, the Panchayati Raj apparatus, education, health, rural housing, police reform. There is no nodal point in Delhi that keeps a steady gaze on Kashmir. The BJP-PDP government in Srinagar is floating on its own. There is some indication the Prime Minister may make helpful announcements in his August 15, utterances.

The important point is that the business community, which had dreamed up the moon when Modi first came to power, is now distributing its largesse, which include the media it controls, to those stars in the photo frame too. To that extent the current unending agitation could well be on queue. There is no enunciation of new strategy. Rahul will visit Dalits, families of farmers, flood hit areas, but never victims of communal violence, confirming the Congress as a party similar to the BJP minus the Sadhus.

Ofcourse, no one is for a moment suggesting that there is smoke without fire. The three scams do hang around the BJP’s neck. But the shifting of Corporate favours away from Modi in the direction of the Congress once again ignores the people. Are the two national parties seeking comfort in Corporate munificence? This is at the heart of what is now being understood even by common people as crony capitalism. Voters have recoiled on this arrangement in Latin America, Indonesia, Greece, Scotland, Spain – even in Delhi. They may not have discovered the third way but they are searching for it. If the Corporates, BJP and the Congress persist with their troika dance at the centre, the people will, over a period of time, make themselves heard in the regions. In the long run, this is good for federalism. But it will dilute centralized power which is the dream of the ruling class as exemplified by the Congress and the BJP –– tweedledum and tweedledee.

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