Friday, December 30, 2016

Head In Cashless Sand, As Global Events Pass India By

Head In Cashless Sand, As Global Events Pass India By
                                                                          Saeed Naqvi
While New Delhi is busy with the demonetization upheaval, it may find itself paces too slow in coping with the new strategic dynamic engulfing the region.

Neither Kabul nor New Delhi can be sanguine about the high level meeting in Moscow on Afghanistan to which China and Pakistan were invited. This follows Moscow’s declaration that it does not consider Taleban as the enemy. In fact Afghan Taleban can be allies against Al Qaeda and the Islamic States.

A piqued Ahmad Shekib Mostaghni, spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, said “even if such talks are organized with goodwill, they cannot yield substantial results because there is no one from the Afghan side to brief the participants about the latest ground realities.”

New Delhi, preoccupied otherwise, has not reacted to the Moscow meet. Apparently, the Russians took the Indian Foreign office into confidence that “it was only about the internal situation in Afghanistan”. Russians are concerned about the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, a diplomatic source said.

Does New Delhi accept Moscow’s anxieties about ISIS in Afghanistan? And does it go along with Moscow and Beijing’s evaluation that Taleban are possible allies against the more infectious ISIS? But Washington has invested blood and treasure fighting the Taleban for 14 years. Is New Delhi at a trijunction?

In diplomacy, friendly gestures come with disguised ambiguity. With the Trump Presidency, a new chapter may be opening in US-Moscow relations. In preparation for this phase, Moscow would like to retain some pressure points to determine the pace of new equations. Kabul maybe one such pressure point.

Should Trump turn upon Tehran over the nuclear deal, there is something in the Afghan cauldron for Iran to stir too.

So, the New Year begins with many new events to juggle with. Of the scattered scratches on my mind that 2016 leaves behind, the deepest one was etched in New York. At my friend’s DUMBO loft in Brooklyn on the night of November 8, an assortment of friends from every walk of life, left champagne bottles uncorked because the ground from under their feet moved when Hillary Clinton lost.

If you make Bernie Sanders impossible, I said then, you make Trump inevitable.

American exceptionalism notwithstanding, the popular mood globally across liberal democracies was the same – a disgust with establishments foisted on them by globalization and crony capitalism.

The assault on the establishment has come from the Left as well as the Right. Establishments, like the skilled matador, have deflected the people to the Right. This is their preferred fallback position. Hence, No to Bernie Sanders. Yes, to Trump. And now they are beating their breasts!

Well, let it be recorded, the American establishment did try to write itself into the script too. Clinton, after all, was nothing if not the establishment. Yes, people think I am untrustworthy. Yes, they think I am dishonest. Yes, I goofed in Benghazi…..but still vote for me because Russians have hacked into my email. Bill Clinton went one better. Did I not tell you, he said to an interviewer, that Boris Yeltsin was a much better President than Putin.

Who knows the new Trump team from Forbes Who’s Who may reassert an old motto: the Business of America is Business. This encourages one to conclude that Trump would like to restore America as the land of unvarnished capitalism minus the hegemonic distortions, one which has made the US the world’s most hated nation even in influential enclaves of Europe.

Whatever else Trump may achieve, will he ever succeed in weaning away the Occupy Wall Street youth Bernie Sanders had mobilized? If not, he will begin to look like a semi finalist until the next elections in 2020.

Establishments may be able to channelize popular preference away from the Left, once or twice, but they cannot make a habit of it.

Ultimately, all speculations will be tempered by a Realpolitik, like the one opening up to India’s north. Countermoves will come as soon as Trump finds his feet in the White House. As he surveys the scene from the Oval office, he will notice, a new bounce in the Russian tread in Islamabad, Beijing, Damascus, Ankara, Manila, Kuala Lampur. To be counted among Putin’s possible friends could well be French Presidential candidate, Francois Fillon who defeated Nicolas Sarkozy in recent Republican party elections. Trump has already held out his hand to Putin. How firmly will he clasp it? And will the clasp last over Afghanistan too? Will New Delhi have respite from the unfolding demonetisation drama to attend to all of this?

#          #          #          #

Friday, December 23, 2016

Brutalities Of Aleppo Would Be More Real Without Western Propaganda

Brutalities Of Aleppo Would Be More Real Without Western Propaganda
                                                                                                    Saeed Naqvi
Why is Aleppo in such heavy focus just when the Syrians have more or less wrested the eastern part of their biggest city from an assortment of the extremist Jabhat Al Nusra and similar groups. The US, France, UK, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel have consistently dignified these as “Syrian rebels”. Turkey was a key member of this gang too but has switched sides after an attempted coup against President Tayyip Erdogan which he suspects had American origins. He travelled to Moscow outlining an Ankara, Moscow Teheran axis. This, by the way, is a game changing axis: major powers are meeting over Syria without US participation, for the first time.

This brings me back to the above question.

The American establishment, bruised by the defeat of its very own candidate, Hillary Clinton, is trying to influence the incoming administration on some issues it has invested heavily in – Russia and Syria, for instance. The CIA and the media, duly mobilized, would like to cast Russia in a cold warlike adversarial role. Also they would not like to give up on regime change and fragmentation of Syria. This, among other aims, is also designed to delude the Saudis, that they still have a hand to play in the Syrian misadventure for possible future bargaining in Geneva. Loss in Yemen and rout in Syria would cause heart failures in Riyadh.

The relentless propaganda war, with Aleppo as centre stage, is part of an effort to salvage something from the wreckage. What is happening in Aleppo is truly grim and very tragic. But tragedy dressed up as propaganda is what we are being exposed to. The propagandist’s expectation is that folks around Donald Trump would begin to worry about public opinion thus whipped up. This in turn would influence policy.

All of this is delusionary because Trump has come to power fighting precisely this kind of stuff and from these very sources – CIA and the media. He has set the cat among the pigeons by taking on the CIA even before he has assumed office. Never have CIA daily briefings to the President been so summarily dismissed. What is the point of listening to the same thing every morning, he says.

Rep Peter King who sits on the House Intelligence Committee says CIA director, John Brennan, is orchestrating a “hit job” against the President elect by leaking allegations that Russia hacked into US elections. Some heads may roll but the CIA will eventually fall in line once Trump enters the Oval office.

Media gyrations on the other hand would be interesting to watch as it begins to make adjustments. Stalwarts like Christiane Amanpour and Fareed Zakaria, (to name just two) have followed the Establishment script to the last syllable. Now that an avowed anti establishment is in the White House, will they change their spots?

There is another dimension to the media story which has been reinforced by Trump’s victory. He won despite major networks and newspapers arrayed behind Hillary Clinton? This is proof of an abysmal drop in the media’s credibility. This is a truth the media (including Indian media) will ignore to its peril. There is a consistent decline in the media’s credibility for two primary reasons.

The post Soviet, unipolar world order was accompanied by accelerated globalization which, in its wake, gave rise to crony capitalism worldwide.

It is in the nature of crony capitalism to have mainstream media (Think Tanks too) lined up behind the establishment. Recent history shows that this arrangement results in wide disparities of income and lifestyles. A majority begins to lose faith in the media which is seen as being partisan to an establishment they have lost trust in.

There is another durable cliché to remember. When wars break out, the first casualty is truth. In conditions of war, the journalist becomes myth maker and propagandist. Only the finest journalists are able to separate a war from the national interest. Such is the din of jingoism. There were many journalists who exposed the fallacies of the Vietnam War. They changed the course of history. That kind of professional honesty has been a casualty of journalism in the age of crony capitalism. What objectivity in an era of embedded journalists?

This media has been called upon to cover nearly 50 big or small conflicts the West embroiled itself in after the Soviet collapse. One sided coverage resulted in a huge loss of credibility.

During the final debate with Trump at Las Vegas, Clinton simulated a lump in her throat talking about the four year old Syrian boy with a burnt face. This was evidence of indiscriminate Russian bombing of civilians in Aleppo, she said. Is none of the brutality to be placed at Jabhat al Nusra’s door? Is the Nusra a benign force?

On cue, Christiane Amanpour thrust the very same photograph of the Syrian boy under Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov’s nose. “Crime against humanity” she emoted. In counter propaganda, youtube showed graphic details of how the “burnt boy” story was manufactured. Anyone can see it on youtube.

In the course of another interview, Amanpour thumped the table “are we going to allow another Srebrenica in Aleppo?”

In Srebrenica in 1995, 8000 Bosnian men were separated from their women and children by Serbian soldiers. They were lined up, shot and buried in mass graves, even as Dutch Peace Keeping troops turned the other way. True, Aleppo is witness to great brutality perpetrated by all sides. Where is the comparison with Srebrenica?

#          #          #          #

Friday, December 16, 2016

Western Media Wrong On Spate of Issues: Time For Indian Media?

Western Media Wrong On Spate of Issues: Time For Indian Media?
                                                                                    Saeed Naqvi

Since I had been to the region some time ago, a school invited me for a talk on Syria, particularly Aleppo, and why Assad was killing his own people.

“This is not true” I said. “Why do you have this impression?”

“Because this is what we read in our newspapers”, one said.

“Even in the Hindi newspapers which my grandfather reads”, chipped in another.

Teachers were worse. Their minds were more firmly made up. They had seen it all on TV, and next day’s newspapers confirmed what they saw at night.

How does one cope with this challenge? I agree that world affairs are not the staple in hundreds of thousands of higher secondary schools in India. But the occupation of Afghanistan, Iraq, war in Syria, bombing of Gaza, the post Qaddafi mayhem in Libya, Ukraine, Trump’s shock victory, Europe bolting from the stable of liberalism, are all events that must, willy, nilly, come into everyone’s focus, even in schools, the better ones certainly. And they will all come through western filters. And on all these issues, a large segment of the western media has been woefully misleading. I shall never tire of repeating myself: now is the time for an Indian, global, multimedia network.

The students I addressed were 17 and 18 years old. Their world view was being shaped by what they watched on TV and read in newspapers. Since there has never been an Indian journalist, leave alone an Indian news bureau, in any of the live news theatres listed above, we are witness to an entire generation in the thrall of the only sources they have for information on global events.

In fact, the world view on show in that school hall, is not a casual inclination towards a way of looking at the world. It has solidified over generations.

Upto the 90s, BBC World Service News and Reuters were the routine sources of world news. The hegemonic embrace of the global media began in 1991 when Peter Arnett of the CNN inaugurated the new, invasive age of the global TV. He beamed live images of Operation Desert Storm in February of that year. This was the first time that a war was brought into our drawing rooms. This was also the first time when the BBC was beaten by cousins from across the Atlantic. I still remember John Simpson driving around Baghdad with his satellite telephone for BBC World Radio. BBC World Service TV was born later.

The televised coverage of western triumphalism divided the world into two hostile audiences the victorious West and a humiliated Muslim world. This was the base on which hostilities simmered. 9/11 detonated an almighty explosion the war on terror, which ostensibly brought the West into conflict with many Muslim societies on varying perceptions of terrorism.

Parents of those I was addressing in the school had been fed on this media diet for its understanding of world affairs.

An important fact is often overlooked. Operation Desert Storm and the subsequent Information Order coincided with new economic policies bringing India in line with globalization, then on a gallop. The World Is Flat, declared Thomas Friedman in his bestselling book. He was treated like a local hero by Bengaluru’s IT pundits.

The neo-liberal economic policies rapidly augmented the ranks of the Maruti-plus middle class. To cater to the burgeoning consumerism this class brought in its wake, came the mushroom growth of electronic media.

Both, the media as well as the new middle class found itself out of sync with another reality. The country was gripped by unprecedented social disharmony after the Babri Masjid was pulled down by BJP volunteers on December 6, 1992. This was the period when Manmohan Singh, as Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister, was promoting new economic policies.

The new middle class, was looking at the stars. A bonanza was writ on the horizon. He was impatient with the conflation in his mind of the war on terror and social disharmony in India. The Muslim was spoiling the game.

The new TV channels, creatures of globalization, were brazenly imitative of the way the western media covered the war on terror. As I have said earlier, western coverage created a distance between nations – Western and Muslim. Indian coverage distanced 180 million Muslims with a distinct nuance on the war on terror. It strengthened majoritarianism. 

I am not for a moment suggesting that all the western media dissembles. They do, however, see the world from their own perspective. For us to swallow everything doled out to us by these sources will cause us to lost sight of reality.

“What nationalism” taunted a scholar recently in London. “You don’t allow travel between yourselves and a neighbouring country you helped create.” I thought this was the usual harangue about a Pakistan policy we have grown accustomed to. But his punchline was devastating:

“And your entire elite, without exception, aches for a Green Card for its progeny, to be parked permanently in the United States of America what nationalism?”

#          #          #          #

Friday, December 9, 2016

Cashless Queues And A Million Pound Note

Cashless Queues And A Million Pound Note
                                                             Saeed Naqvi
Consider this very plausible rumour I picked up at the Times Lit Fest in Mumbai: some Bollywood bright sparks are developing scripts around demonetisation in double quick time.

One of them has, in a moment of inspiration, turned to 1954 Gregory Peck classic, the Million Pound Note, to enable the storyline. The film is based on a Mark Twain masterpiece.

Oliver and Roderick Montpelier, eccentric millionaire brothers, spot Henry Adams (Gregory Peck) who has suddenly fallen on penury because of an accident. Unknown to Henry, the brothers place an unusual bet on him. They obtain from the Bank of England a Million Pound note and place it in an envelope. This is handed to Henry.

Oliver’s wager is that Henry will be able to buy everything he needs, including luxurious accommodation, without the note ever being encashed. Mere existence of such wealth will obviate real expenditure. The magic of credit would suffice. Roderick’s bet is exactly the opposite.

In the envelope, Henry also finds a letter from the brothers informing him that they will be out of the country for a month. There is an enigmatic instruction for Henry: during the period of their absence, he must live comfortably but try not to spend the money.

Mark Twain wouldn’t write a story without clever twists. For instance, the note is hidden by the hotel guest whose luxury suite has been taken by Henry on the strength of his newly found wealth. Confusion follows. But in the end, Henry returns the Million Pound note to the Brothers having made a fortune from a mining company.

I realize that the mind does make cavernous connections. But even so, Bollywood script writers have a great deal of work to do before they make Mark Twain’s yarn applicable to the consequences of demonetisation. A comic twist being considered was: hundreds of thousands of swipe machines to be placed at every point of contact between man and money – offices, courts, police stations. Bollywood needs to look beyond cinema: here is an idea for an endless TV serial.

By the time the film, or the serial, is mounted on the sets, the economic story will be stale. Who will be interested in the circumstances under which Reserve Bank Governor, Raghuram Rajan, was shown the door. Is it true that he was lunging at the fat cats responsible for non performing assets which were causing banks to gasp for breath?

That Urjit Patel was promoted as Reserve Bank Governor hurriedly to protect the fat cats and, at the same time, to remonetise banks by other means – demonetisation for instance – must rank as an unverifiable fact. Yes, he is yet another Gujarati at India’s very top. But it would still be bad form to join critics who have pulled out a comparison from China. The Gang of four dominated Mao’s Cultural Revolution; a Gang of Five spurs India’s galloping nationalism.

Even the Supreme Court has chipped in. Doors of cinema halls must remain shut while the national anthem is being played, presumably even in the event of fire. Nobler to die standing than run like rats when the anthem is playing.

The economic consequences of demonetisation are obvious, but it is this nationalism business which has been accelerated.

Never in history has a leader lined up a nation of a billion plus population outside its banks, day after day for a month. Heaven knows how long these drills will continue. Surprising that choreographers of the national purpose have not suggested martial music or an occasional saffron flag at these venues. Such additions might be required to stiffen the people’s sinews.

Belief was widespread at the earlier stages of the currency queues that Narendra Modi had mobilized the poor against the rich, the hoarders of black money, who would soon be exposed, then dragged through streets, their faces blackened. This was the common refrain I heard from Mumbai taxi drivers.

People are now beginning to see light. Not only are hoarders, black marketers not being caught, but folks of their ilk or even the untainted rich are not even there in queue. In fact the queue as an equalizer has failed. Unless some new diversionary tamasha is quickly mounted, restiveness will grow.

Social upheaval or no social upheaval, Modi has already pulled off an incomparable feat. In the full flare of empiricism, he has been able to gauge the Indian’s abject willingness to be mobilized behind a national cause, timid and docile. Tied to this is another reality: he has beyond any shadow of a doubt exposed the complete impotence of the political opposition, barring Mamata in Bengal. Never will the opposition have a better opportunity for a counter mobilization than the one Modi offered them on the night of November 8. Here were readymade queues across the nation aching to find out whatever fate awaits them. There was not a single leader to stoke public anger; no one to harvest it. The weaklings, who pass for our opposition, preferred to deposit themselves in the well of the House.

For a people sickened by politicians, Modi does look like the leader they would will nilly look towards. But is he in control of the game he has started on November 8? Does he have a clue which way the ball is turning?

#          #          #          #