Friday, June 24, 2016

Europe Without Britain Prone To Accommodation With Russia

Europe Without Britain Prone To Accommodation With Russia
                                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

By their Brexit vote, the people have administered a punch on the chin of the British establishment, leaving it rattled and dazed.

Britons have now joined electoral insurgencies elsewhere in Europe and beyond, against two party democracies being hijacked by crony capitalism and austerity policies. “Global revolt against capitalism”, is the paraphrase of expressions used repeatedly by columnists, leaders of political parties and sundry pundits, on the high profile coverage of the referendum results, anchored by David Dimbleby on BBC one.

Driving me from Euston station to my hotel the driver of London’s iconic black cab had announced the results hours before counting began. “There has been a relentless campaign by big international corporations to REMAIN in the EU, but the people are not being bullied; they’re making up their own mind.” Trust the cabbie, threatened by competition from Uber and other minicabs, to get to the heart of the matter.

Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, threatened to break the back of the “EXITERS” with a punitive, pro austerity budget which, according to him, would become necessary if the REMAIN lost.

The great hedge fund genius and global finance manipulator, George Soros, alarmed financial markets by his hyperbole: Black Friday he threatened across page one banner headlines. The World Bank, IMF, Federal Reserve, Bank of England, anxious economists – all came out with menacing messages. The Day of Judgement was nigh. Threats were issued from every global pedestal of power, but the important point is this: the people remained unimpressed. They voted according to their own lights. There is a lesson here for establishments everywhere. Their writ has diminished.

Tony Blair’s notorious spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, with new lines etched on his face as results poured in, blurted out in a rare moment of truth: there should not have been a referendum. In other words, the people should have been kept out.

It is precisely this arrogant anti people stance of establishments that is causing voters everywhere, to puncture holes in systems that suffocate them.

In the din of the ferocious campaign, only some newspapers had the time to take note of the insurgent Five Star Movement in Italy having wrested the Mayorships of Rome and Turin from a dwindling establishment. The continent and democracies elsewhere are being tugged in different directions.

While the global ramifications of Britain’s Exit are chewed and digested, a more straightforward outcome is emerging in sharp silhouette in Spain. On Sunday, the left leaning Podemos is likely to be in a position to form a coalition government.

“Welcome Immigrants” was the giant size placard, adorning the Leftist Mayor’s office in downtown Madrid. Young Podemos leaders are optimistic for Sunday’s vote on exactly this kind of platform. This is vastly at a variance from the vocabulary used in the referendum debate.

The British campaign was marked by two distinct threats. The prime Exiters, Boris Johnson, Conservative, Nigel Farage UK Independence Party, painted lurid pictures of migrants flooding Britain in the event of continued union with EU. The REMAIN camp threatened economic doom in the alternative.

Neither had the sensitivity to realize that the people had had enough of experts and politicians. Further complications will emerge as people and establishments interpret the outcome according their respective visions.

That David Cameron, the Right Wing Prime Minister, and Jeremy Corbyn Labour’s radical socialist leader, stood on the same platform was puzzling enough for the common man. Sooner or later, the leaders will define their differences.

Corbyn fears England dominated by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, with shrunken space for working class politics. Scotland’s left leaning Scottish National Party is fiercely for remaining in the EU, edging out labour. Against this backdrop, Corbyn’s vision to mobilize working classes across Europe remains thwarted. Already Corbyn is facing a mini revolt within the Labour party for being slow off the block in supporting REMAIN.

The support Cameron received from President Obama and the US establishment has a huge strategic sub text. A Europe, minus Britain will be more prone to seeking accommodation with Russia.

Will EU now consolidate itself in the growing concert of a multipolar world? Or will it begin to splinter?

Already Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France is waylaying President Francois Hollande from the Right in French elections next spring. German elections in October 2017 will be riveting in the context of some real migration from the theatres in the Middle East destroyed by US, UK and French led military actions which have resulted in the greatest human migration since World War II.

Much before the riveting polls in France and Germany, November elections in the US must engage the attention of punters. If establishments are in such bad odour everywhere, will the darling of the US ruling elite, Hillary Clinton, be exempt from people’s wrath? Donald Trump thumbed his nose at her by turning up to inaugurate his exclusive golf course in Scotland, almost indifferent to the troubling results that were to follow.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Benign Origins Of ISIS Until It Rose To Catastrophic Heights

Benign Origins Of ISIS Until It Rose To Catastrophic Heights
                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi 

Every Joint Secretary’s room in the Ministry of External affairs had a neatly folded copy of the International Herald Tribune on the coffee table. This was the pattern in the 70s and 80s. In mid 90s, after economic liberalization and the birth of the global live media following Operation Desert Storm, TV sets appeared in South Block. BBC and CNN became fashionable.

Nationalism, that hopelessly limiting sentiment, surfaces when one is away from home. Since I had spent time with newspapers in the UK and the US in the 70s, I found it demeaning that the Indian establishment should be passive recipients of news and analysis doled out from London, Atlanta or New York. If information is power, then those who wield this power control the drift of international discourse. Chinese, Russians, Iranians are not classical democracies but have learnt this lesson. We, in our ignorance or obsequiousness, have not.

Since 1991 the West has been involved in wars, big and small, almost continuously. What have been our sources of information on, say, Darfur, or Kunduz, Helmand, Kosovo, Yemen and the running battlefields of Iraq, Libya, Syria or Yemen – and scores of other theatres? Oh, we do not care. Then why would anyone need us the High Table? In most instances our sources have been the same – either the US media or, in a roundabout way, western intelligence.

Ofcourse, there have been excellent ambassadors, like V.P. Haran in Damascus when Syrian troubles began. He had independent sources of information on the battlefield. Are there many others? Without having our own global network, we make ourselves pathetically dependent on others for information. In the absence of information, one sided discourse on world affairs is launched which we, willy nilly, have to adopt as our own.

Let me give you an example where I saw conventional wisdom being forged on information which was patently false. The pulling down of Saddam Hussain’s statue in front of Palestine hotel in Baghdad has been marketed as the fall of a tyrant which led to a popular upsurge and that this would not have been possible without the US occupation of Iraq in April 2003. Since the CNN amplified this symbolic triumph of “democracy over tyranny”, a clip of the toppled statue has been committed to posterity as a CNN blurb. What really happened was what I saw. And it was quite different.

On April 3, the US troops had entered Baghdad. The CNN and BBC coverage of the troops entering Baghdad was riveting. Obviously, Vice President Dick Cheney, a mastermind of the Iraq operation, also found the TV coverage heady.

He, and his cohorts, must have realized that this high pitch excitement could not be sustained forever. An event had to be televised which signaled American victory. What could be more telegenic than the pulling down of Saddam Hussain’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdous square?

The message would be uplifting. Freed by the Americans, a people, groaning under a tyrant’s yoke have risen and torn down the iconic statue. But, in implementing the idea Americans sensed a problem. People, it turned out, had not arisen. How could victory then be choreographed without the peoples’ participation? Baathist control over the people in Baghdad was iron clad. That was one reason for people not celebrating Saddam’s fall. The other, deeper reason surfaced when the Americans, without any long term vision, replaced the Baathist power structure in Baghdad with a Shia one. People who were really “freed” by Saddam’s removal were the Shias in the South and East – 65 percent of Iraq.

US officials in Iraq did some quick thinking. Shia clerics like Ayatullah Baqar al Hakeem and Muqtada Sadr were urgently contacted. Sadr, scion of a respected clerical order, had mesmeric control on the large Shia ghetto on the outskirts of Baghdad known as Saddam city. Shia refugees from the south had been settled here after an uprising in 1992 which was brutally crushed by Saddam Hussain. Surely, this lot would have reasons to celebrate Saddam’s fall.

When Baghdad citizens did not come out to help bring down Saddam’s statue, requests went out to the Shia clerics to mobilize crowds. A two pronged strategy was devised: a US armoured carrier would help pull down the statue with the help of a rope around the statue’s neck. Footage, from a low angle, would make the hotel staff, journalists, hangers on look like a burgeoning crowd. But that would not amount to jeering mobs? Well, they would have to be driven from the Shia ghetto. Overnight, the ghetto was renamed Sadr city in gratitude to Muqtada Sadr. That is when Shia crowds came onto the streets of Baghdad, beating Saddam Hussain’s photographs with shoes. “Tabarrah” or cursing the enemy is a old Shia tradition.

The choreography for the event was devised in the following fashion.

Dick Cheney will, in a live telecast to the American Society of News Editors, “Salute US troops in Iraq”. In the meanwhile, Saddam’s statue will have been pulled down by the marines. Camera will occasionally cut to the statue dangling from its pedestal. Commentary will establish it as the work of angry, anti Saddam crowds. For crowd scenes, cameras will position themselves outside Sadr city where crowds will trample Saddam’s photographs and spit on it. Commentary will never identify these as Shia crowds. The scene has to be marketed as a popular upheaval.

Cheney’s speech would be spliced in. “across Iraq, senior religious leaders have come forward urging their followers to support our coalition, another sure sign that Saddam Hussain’s regime is clearly doomed.”

The clerics Cheney is thanking are Shias from Sadr city to Najaf and Karbala. The “doomed” regime are the Baathists. Later, senior American columnists even recommended Ayatullah Sistani for the Nobel Peace Prize. Shias were the allies. An alarmed Saudi Arabia saw Iranian influence at their border with Iraq.

In Iraq who could blame simmering Sunni anger: from beneath the Baathist skins, the second layer of the “Sunni” had broke through.

This Sunni impulse of the erstwhile Baathists, having been in the drill for governance under Saddam Hussain came in handy for the Americans to teach Shias like Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki a lesson. Maliki had the temerity to deny the Americans the US Status of Forces agreement in 2011, which would protect Americans in Iraq from local laws.

It was a worrying scenario.

A Shia Iraq having a 1,500 kms border with Iran which then was on the brink of a major breakthrough with the US, was a source of great anxiety to two steadfast US allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times asked President Obama in the course of an interview in August 2014, why US Air Force had not attacked the ISIS when it first reared its head. By his response, Obama gave the game away:
“That we did not just start taking a bunch of air strikes all across Iraq as soon as ISIL came in was because we would have taken the pressure off Nouri al Maliki.” The ISIS was an asset then.

Nouri al Maliki was shown the door in September 2014 and a US handpicked Prime Minister Haider al Abadi was ushered in.

By this time ISIS had acquired a life of its own.

The cat and mouse that is going on with the ISIS in Fallujah is part of this sequence on which more later.

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Friday, June 10, 2016

Iran: No Cold War With China But Win, Win For All

Iran: No Cold War With China But Win, Win For All
                                                                  Saeed Naqvi 

I don’t exactly gasp but am puzzled by the indifference with which the media has treated two fascinating Indo-Iranian stories. Now that Indo-Iranian relations are set to improve after crucial agreements signed in Tehran by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Hassan Rouhani, the anecdotes should be shared.

During his journey to Iran in 1932, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) made a request: he was keen to visit the tomb of the great Persian Sufi poet, Hafez (1326-1390) at Shiraz.

A reading room attached to the shrine, has a cornice on which is settled a remarkable photograph, the size of a pocket book. It shows Tagore at the tomb, with a book of Hafez’ verses open in front of him.

I have been to the shrine with Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi, and Atal Behari Vajpayee. They were both fascinated by the great poets, representing two cultures, separated by six centuries, captured in one photograph. There was a great deal of loud thinking: life size copies of the photographs can adorn Indo-Iranian cultural centres, and perhaps the two embassies. So far, nothing has happened. Perhaps Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata would take interest.

The second story concerns Ayatullah Khomeini’s roots in the Shia enclave of Kuntoor, near Bara Banki, in the heart of what was once Awadh. After the Shah’s fall, there was a search on for new contacts in Tehran. Atal Behari Vajpayee, then Minister for External Afffairs, asked me if I knew Khomeini’s clan in Kuntoor. I did. Maulana Agha Rhui Abaqati soon materialized in South Block. He was enlisted as a guide to a delegation consisting of socialist leader and Vice Chairman Planning Commission, Ashoke Mehta and senior diplomat Badruddin Tayyabji. When the trio reached Ayatullah Khomeini in Gumran, outside Tehran, there was something of any anti climax. The reception to the delegation was cold. Abaqati in fact got a earful from Khomeini himself.

It turned out that the “young Islamic Revolution” was eager not to publicize the Supreme leader’s “foreign” roots. Opposition to Khomeini among the clergy would exploit it.

Against this background, Iranian ambassador Gholam Reza Ansari’s intervention at a seminar in New Delhi’s Leela hotel in 2014 was quite remarkable. The Ambassador cited Imam Khomeini’s roots in Awadh as proof of ancient ties between the two countries. This was a major shift. Between the debacle faced by the Indian delegation in 1979 and 2014, the Iranian revolution had travelled a long distance. It felt secure enough to admit that Imam Khomeini ancestry could now be traced to India.

The point I am making here is a simple one: schools of Iranian studies have mushroomed in the West, placing every aspect of Shia scholarship under a microscope. Here, in and around Lucknow, is incontrovertible evidence of linkages between Indian centres of Shia scholarship and rest of the world. Libraries with rare books lie in utter neglect. Who knows, this astounding lack of interest may end in this new phase of accelerated relations between the two countries. Cultural collaboration is an important part of the agreements.

Iranians have been spreading out a range of maps before diplomats in Tehran. “It’s a win, win for all”, they say.

Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s very purposive visit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinto Abe’s officials are locked in discussion with their Iranian counterparts to prepare a script for Abe’s visit to Tehran in September. The development of Chabahar port will be an item on his agenda.

Pundits preoccupied with China and Pakistan will say: this is part of the US “pivot to Asia” in which, they hope, Iran too will be roped in. But the “win, win for all” chant coming out of Tehran suggest a more nuanced look at China’s anxieties particularly in the South China Sea.

“In periods of hostility, their passage through the straits of Malacca can be choked” said an Iranian diplomat. The Gawadar port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf is a key element in the Chinese ambitious One Belt – One Road concept. It frees them of their total dependence on Malacca. Iranian diplomats insist that Japanese interest in Chabahar need not be seen in adversarial terms. The distance between Gawadar and Chabahar, it is point out, is only 150 kms. “Win, win for all” goes the chant after the recent agreements.

These agreements have been signed with an Iran everybody is wooing. The difference this time is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has actually signed agreements after considerable preparation. But there still remains a fly in the ointment. The parallel road and rail links via Afghanistan, which are central to the Chabahar agreement, will remain unimplementable unless there is peace in Afghanistan. This should be a worry.

Americans have been threatening to pack their bags in Afghanistan since 2009. But their desire to leave was, in retrospect, seen to have been half hearted. Several factors were not allowing Afghanistan to be at peace with itself.

Outsiders have been reluctant to notice an undercurrent in Pushtoon society: the Durrani, Ghilzai tensions. This needs explanation. When Noor Mohammad Taraki, an afghan communist, took over as Prime Minister in 1978, an epoch making change took place.

By seizing power, after killing President Mohammad Daud Khan, the communist parties, Khalq and Parcham, had upturned the Afghan feudal structure in many ways. For the first time in 200 years, Durranis had yielded power to Ghilzais. Like the late Mullah Omar, most of the Taleban leadership are Ghilzais. The power structure put together in Kabul with US help, whether Hamid Karzai or Ashraf Ghani, happen to be part of the old ruling class: Durranis. If this 38 year old tension is ever to soften, Ghilzais will have to be decisively in power in Kabul. Is there a non Taleban route to this end?

For the American presence, however depleted, the port city of Karachi remains indispensable for logistics. The convoy route is seldom far from Taleban strongholds – Quetta or Kandahar.

Even after a considerable drawdown of troops, the US is unlikely to give up its half a dozen or so major bases. I wonder if pundits have spotted American determination to keep some presence in Afghanistan. They will never be too far from the world’s only Islamic state “too nuclear” to be left to its devices. Even for limited bases, Americans will always require continuous logistical help from Karachi.

Should Chabahar construction actually accelerate, the port, roads and rail linked to it can be used by everybody, Americans included. Americans finding alternative routes to and from Afghanistan is no trifling matter. It will spell loss of power in Islamabad. That is one of the reasons Chabahar will be a game changer.

Tehran is aware of all the contradictions with Islamabad. That is why both Supreme leader Ayatullah Ali Khameini and President Hassan Rouhani never gave up the chant: it is a “win, win for all”; agreements are “against” nobody.

To underpin this “win, win”, Iranian officials point to an already existing rail link between Zahedan and Quetta which can be easily spruced up and extended should Pakistan so desire.

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Friday, June 3, 2016

Have They Traded Sanctity Of Test Cricket Season For IPL Money?

Have They Traded Sanctity Of Test Cricket Season For IPL Money?
                                                                                             Saeed Naqvi 

West Indies cricket commentator, Tony Cozier’s death last month brings to an end the phase in cricket when the game’s live transmission depended on the spoken word. Radio was king. John Arlott, our very own Vizzy, Devraj Puri, Dicky Rutnagur, Nobby Clark, Pearson Surita – a procession passes by. Control on diction, descriptive passages, tone, measured pauses, humour – this is how cricket was packaged to us in our school days. Richie Benuad was the master of commentary in the TV era. With the briefest of interventions, he magnified the fine point.

With the first hint of winter, came the announcement of the visiting team for a five test series. Scrap books were out, the size of a broadsheet. With such diligence, we pasted pictures of batsmen and bowlers who promised to dominate the series. A column was saved for averages. The first three day encounter with the Cricket Board President’s XI was always in Pune.

My autograph book at school represented my two earliest interests: Urdu poetry and cricket. From right to left were autographs of all the poets beginning with Josh Malihabadi. Frank Worrel was the most exotic name in the list of cricketers.

Cultural schizophrenia was our lot from the beginning. I opened my eyes in an environment rich with Urdu, but was put through paces in English to keep the wolf from the door. That was one explanation for my bifocal autograph book. There was also a more straightforward explanation. Urdu poetry as well as cricket, blossomed and mellowed in the shadow of a declining feudal system.

The sheer poetry of players in white against the lush green was enhanced by Dom Moraes’ Green is the Grass which he wrote when he was 13. Little wonder he went onto win the Hawthornden Award for poetry at Oxford. Literature and cricket mingled a little more in Neville Cardus’ writings, stocked in the school library.

With these aesthetics, the mind is liable to go into a tizzy at an American sporting arena – baseball, basketball or what they call football. The tinsel razzmatazz, the carnival atmosphere, cheer girls et al are not without their attractions but they were so different from anything one experienced in India, West Indies, England.

Some clubs across the US played against each other and called it the “world series”. The rest of the world was presumed beaten. It was American exceptionalism at its peak. It would have been quite harmless had it not been accompanied by a very American desire to see the world in its own image.

Macdonalds, Martinis, Manhattans on the rocks, are all American exports. In cricketing terms, it was left to the Australian media tycoon, Kerry Packer to graft American sporting culture onto cricket. That is how World Series Cricket was born.

We had embraced the Packer package and that is how the ODIs were born. That was the thin end of the wedge. Rampaging capitalism was to drive home the advantage. Money, and not the aesthetics of cricket, became the primary consideration. In one fell swoop, Lakshmi had snatched the game away from Saraswati and shaped it for the marketplace. IPL cricket was born.

In the corner of the West View bar at Kolkata’s ITC Sonar Bangla, grumbled Morne Morkel, “its killing the game”. But on a high bar stool, Wasim Akram was holding forth. “T20 has come to stay” he grinned from ear to ear.

Not just Wasim, other greats in Cricket’s Hall of Fame, have traded their stature for sinecures in the burgeoning IPL fraternity. It is a Faustian bargain. They diminish. Test cricket diminishes most. Really, for a handful of silver..….? I am actually filled with remorse being tardy in my admiration for Virat Kohli. He may be doing wonderful things for IPL but I cannot help feeling that it must be at the cost of test cricket. He ranks with our greatest test batsmen already. Eleven centuries in 41 tests is an amazing record. That should have been his trajectory. A leading newspaper recently described Virat as “Bradman of T20”. Frankly, he stands more circumscribed than praised in that editorial.

Admittedly, T20s have transformed fielding into an art form. Sensational catches have been taken. But what else? By universal consent, the format has been a bowler’s graveyard. With decline in bowling standards, is great batsmanship possible? Neville Cardus described a great batsman as one who was “courageous and skilful in the face of a fine attack”. What “fine attack” when low cunning will do – bowl yorkers on the tenth stump.

T20 or the Big Bash tamashas will draw crowds. But these are not cricket crowds. These are T20 crowds. Cricketing respectability has been accorded to these events by once big names in cricket who are in quest of not just post retirement sinecures but also a little bit of the spotlight. Imagine, Balasaraswati and Yamini Krishnamuthy choreographing Bollywood item girls or Bade Ghulam Ali Khan singing “Biwi number one”.

If T20 were a passing squall which would leave our test cricket untainted, I would make my adjustments. But I do not trust our ability to stand our ground. We only talk of tradition and culture but are easily swept off our feet. Other cricketing countries may have dabbled with IPL type variations. But they have held on tenaciously to their traditions of test cricket. Come Boxing Day, and Melbourne cricket ground will be filled to capacity. A roar will go up as the two umpires amble towards the pitch, signaling the start of a test match. There will be no compromise on a five test series.

Even as I write, England are playing a somewhat one sided series against a depleted Sri Lanka side. But that slow hand clap at Lords is still music to cricketing ears. Their seasons for test cricket are sacrosanct.

We have become an economic power house in cricket. But, alas, we have surrendered the sanctity of our five test cricket season to the profligacy of the market place.

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