Friday, September 29, 2017

Merkel And Corbyn: There’s Room For Decency In Public Life

Merkel And Corbyn: There’s Room For Decency In Public Life
                                                                                      Saeed Naqvi

Two developments in Europe this week have brought cheer. First, Angela Merkel has held onto her job (even though only by the skin of her teeth). Secondly, the very citadel of western capitalism, The Economist, has editorially welcomed Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist in the Michael Foot mould, as Britain’s next Prime Minister, whenever elections take place. There is a stamp size photograph of Corbyn standing at 10 Downing Street, without a neck tie, ofcourse.

It is maliciously reported that smoke billowed out of Lord Peter Mandelson’s ears after he read the editorial while holidaying on an oligarch’s yacht. Tony Blair’s favourite sidekick and one of the architects of the now defunct New Labour, had sworn in 2015, that he would work hard to “undermine Corbyn”.

It is not that The Economist has suddenly turned pink. It is doing the best it can to cope with altered circumstances: if you can’t beat them, join them.

The trophy for prescience must go to Chris Mullin, writer and former Labour MP. In 2015, Mullin wrote an imaginary piece in The Guardian under the heading:
“All hail the Bearded One! The first 100 days of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister”.

“To general astonishment, among the early visitors to Downing Street is a grim-faced Rupert Murdoch. He is closeted with the new prime minister for more than an hour, at the end of which the following announcement is made.”

“First, that the Broadcasting Acts are amended, requiring Sky to compete on a level playing field with the main terrestrial TV channels. And secondly, that he relinquishes control of all his British newspapers which will, in future, be managed by a trust in which no single shareholder will have a controlling interest. Mr. Murdoch has accepted these conditions. Our discussions were amicable.”

While Corbyn is still in the realm of speculation, the historic German elections have stirred up the heart of Europe. From the wreckage around her, emerges Angela Merkel as a fourth term German Chancellor, testimony to the compelling power of decency in public life. If she were not a hardnosed politician also she would not be where she is – a titanic figure in world affairs. But a premium she places on moral and ethical values in decision making, shines through. This fourth term is her trophy on that count.

Daughter of a vicar in East Germany, her background has been something of an asset for her. It is the abiding Christian in her, in the highest sense of the term, that enabled her to rise above the din and keep compassion as an ingredient in her decision to accord hospitality to hapless Arab and North Africa migrants – totally against the prevailing political current.

She is too intuitive not to have known that she would be made to pay a price for her decision. As a consequence, the Bundestag will have for the first the ultra right wing AFD (Alternative for Germany) with 94 seats, making it the country’s third largest party much of it at Merkel’s cost. Marine Le Pen in France or Geet Wilder in the Netherlands also represent narrow, anti immigrant Xenophobia. In Germany the AFD resonates more frightfully. It stirs images of Nazism. But it would be a mistake to paint all the one million voters who moved away from the ruling Christian Democrats, with the same brush.

Let me add in parenthesis: voters moved away from CDU and its Bavarian partner, CSU, but, please note, much the largest number of the vote did not shift. They stayed with Angela Merkel. It must be put down to Merkel magic that in a House of 709, she still has 246 seats despite her immigration policy. But she is still 109 short of a majority. “One thing is clear” she announced with good natured mischief in her eyes. “They can’t form a government without us.”

By the same token, she cannot form a government without them. The Social Democrats who were with her in a grand coalition in the outgoing government, have been decimated. They have decided to sit in the opposition.

If Merkel lost 8.5% of her vote because of her calculated decency, Martin Schulz of SPD is kicking himself for having lost 5.2% of his vote for the sin of looking like CDU’s B team. The fate of the Spanish Socialist party leader Pedro Sanchez must have haunted him. After two deadlocked elections, Sanchez was persuaded to abstain from a vote, enabling the Peoples Party Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to sail through. Sanchez now looks a cipher in public life. Schulz wishes to escape that fate. There is accidental altruism in his decision too. By choosing to be in the opposition with 153 seats, he has effectively blocked AFD from taking the pulpit as leader of the opposition.

All of Merkel’s negotiating skills will be brought into play to forge what in German parlance is called a “Jamaica” coalition – black, yellow and Green representing the colours of CDU, FDP and Green. The combination happens to be the colour of the Jamaican flag.

How will Merkel reconcile her gentler, market approach to the Liberal, FDP leader, Christian Lindner’s unbridled capitalism?

Will there be difficulty striking a rapport with the Green’s Katrin Goring-Eckardt on environmental issues? Merkel did not hesitate calling off nuclear energy for Germany quite instinctively as soon as she witnessed Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

She will also work very hard to retrieve the million or so voters who drifted away from her because of her being “soft” on immigration. A hunch on Merkel is that she will not compromise on her core beliefs. One such belief concerns immigration. Refugees fleeing from the post 9/11 West Asian wars strike a very Christian chord with her.

Being practical, she will not accelerate migration; she will facilitate migrant leaders, NGOs, in establishing model migrant settlements. Unnecessary gestures unpopular with the electorate, will be discarded. She has already spoken with her usual honesty that talks with Turkey should be suspended on European entry. Where is the point in sustaining a dialogue with Turkey when nobody in Europe is willing to give up the medieval aversion to the “Turk”. Decades ago, French President Giscard d’Estaing declared with stunning candour: “European civilization is Christian civilization”. In it there was no room for a Muslim Turkey. Those were days when Turkey’s case could be supported because it still donned the secular cloak of Ataturk. Now Europe considers such support untenable: Turkey is quite transparently, Muslim Brotherhood.

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Friday, September 22, 2017

Referendum In Iraq’s Kurdish North Sets Cat Among Pigeons

Referendum In Iraq’s Kurdish North Sets Cat Among Pigeons
                                                                         Saeed Naqvi
Iraqi Kurdish region’s planned referendum on September 25 for independence has set the cat among the pigeons. Last minute efforts are on to persuade the Kurdish autonomous region’s President, Masoud Barzani, to postpone the referendum because it will distract regional and global powers from their main focus – that of destroying the residual Islamic State elements in the region.

All countries are either opposed to the referendum or, like the United States, opposed to the timing of it. Only Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel stands out in lone splendour, endorsing the referendum. By doing so, he has, of course, let the cat out of the bag. This has added to Iran’s concerns. Tehran says it will seal its Kurdish borders should the referendum take place. The implication is that necessities of daily life, which came from Iran will no longer be available to Iraqi Kurdistan. For a landlocked enclave, this is severe punishment.

It is easy to conclude that the US and Iran are on the same page on the referendum. But this is a wrong impression. For Iran, any suggestion of eventual independence for any of the Kurdish enclaves, is anathema. For the US, the timing of the referendum is inconvenient. It disrupts its script for the region.

New Delhi knows better than anyone else that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan has been US’s pet project ever since its forces entered Iraq, first during operation Desert Storm in February 1992 and finally during the invasion of the country in March-April 2003.

The No Fly Zone imposed on the Kurdish north in 1992 created an autonomous region. This was not without an eye on the future.

It was in 2003-2004 when, President George W. Bush was drooling all over New Delhi, he invited India to take charge of the Kurdish north. Military officials of all ranks, were asked to be ready, to set sail in the largest ships available with the Indian navy. Yes, New Delhi came very close to playing an Imperial role in West Asia as America’s sidekick. It was Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who saw the US not as a great power but a dangerous one for its adventures in West Asia. He scuttled the deal.

Regional circumstances changed but the original blue print for Iraq’s Kurdish north remained dear to US policy makers. But the timing for the referendum is wrong because, atleast on the face of it, the US would like to be seen in the lead, fighting the Islamic State.

There is an even graver concern that the referendum might adversely affect Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s fortunes in the April 2018 General elections. Any reversal for Abadi, a loyal US nominee, will be a gain for Iran. This is a disturbing prospect for Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Trump.

Iranians see the referendum in two ways: should it lead to independence, they will choke Barzani’s enclave by sealing its borders. The Kurdish north constitutes 20 percent of Iraq. If it separates, Shias, who are an overwhelming majority already, will become 85 percent of the population. It will only consolidate the “Shia crescent”.

Iranians are also not afflicted by fear of their Kurds, barely four percent of the total population, tearing away from the main nation because of ethnicity, religion and language. Iranian Kurds, like the rest of Iran are Aryans, a sizable number being Shia. Their language, Pahlavi, is close to modern Persian.

For Turkey, an Iraqi Kurd enclave is a life and death issue. There is oil in Diyarbakir, the principal Kurd city in Turkey; 15 of their power stations are on rivers flowing through the region. But these are not the reasons why Turkish tanks and troops have been amassed on the border with Iraq. The official Kurdish explanation makes sense: the military presence on the border is designed to block a flow of refugees from the Iraqi side should the situation in the province take a violent turn.

Turkey does have a very real fear of refugees because it is already struggling to assimilate over three million refugees from Syria.

The referendum scare is part of the confusion the US has created in the region. Americans entered Iraq with one script but are having to cope with completely unexpected outcomes.

The no-fly-zone made Kurdish-Iraq into a self governing enclave except for Defence and Foreign Affairs which were left to Baghdad. But the fate pf important cities like Kirkuk, one of the world’s great oil bearing areas, would be decided later. Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution, written by the Americans, left the fate of cities like Kirkuk to a referendum by “the people of Iraq” not later than 2007.

Obviously Americans imagined they would control Iraq to their advantage by sheer brute power. But this is not the way events turned out. Eventually, in December 2011, the last US solider left. President Obama failed to extract from Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki an honourable status-of-forces agreement. That is why it became unstated US policy to have Maliki replaced by a more “pliable” candidate Abadi, for example.

When New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asked Obama in the course of an interview in 2015: why did the President not order air-strikes against the Islamic State as soon as it reared its head? Obama’s response was startling: air strikes against IS at a stage when it was advancing towards Baghdad, would have relieved pressure on Maliki. In other words, the IS was an asset for destabilizing Maliki.

Meanwhile, there is total chaos in the north’s (Erbil) financial dealings with Baghdad. Barzani thought of getting out of this chaos by announcing a referendum. In his framework the timing seemed auspicious because the Iraq army would be less energetic is retaliating since it is tired from the recent wars in the north with the IS

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Gorkhaland Total Bandh Enters Fourth Month As Leaders Duck

Gorkhaland Total Bandh Enters Fourth Month As Leaders Duck
                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi
Darjeeling, Thimpu, Gangtok, Siliguri are a tight cluster on any map even in a large Atlas. Because of the recent standoff with China over Doklam, the strategic importance of the area, the saliency of the Siliguri corridor, cannot be overlooked. Is New Delhi taking an interest in the demand for a Gorkha homeland from this perspective?

My taxi has to wait outside Kurseong Toy Train station, on the way from Siliguri to Darjeeling, because a march by agitating Gorkha women will not let us pass. Violence in this sensitive area could be very unsettling. Angry women bang on the bonnet of my car and jeer at the Gorkha driver: “Have you joined the Bengalis?” It is a threatening query.

Similar bandhs and marches have brought life to a grinding halt for the past three months – and continuing. There are, ofcourse, cunning leakages – a few chicken being sold here, some vegetables there. But this private enterprise disappears at the sight of approaching marchers.

Contrary to what one might imagine, this sporadic enterprise does not demonstrate a weakening of the popular will. In fact it helps people a bit and enables them to bear the suffering a little longer. It supplements the agitation.

Clearly Gorkhaland is not likely to be conceded in a hurry. What then have the leaders of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha promised the people? What spell have they cast on them because of which the people have diligently pursued these marches, street-corner meetings, picketing outside offices in an atmosphere of total bandh (bar the contrived leakages). Schools, hotels, restaurants, shops, are shut and labourers on all the 88 tea plantations have struck work and are, therefore, beginning to depend on packets of food some well meaning people are arranging.

No one quite knows the preferred game plans of the plantation owners. The gossip is that they would now like the strike to continue till December so they are not obliged to pay the workers three months wages (for the period when the plantations have been closed) plus bonus for puja holidays.

The inordinate extension of the bandh is causing all the leaders of the Gorkha Movement Coordination Committee to miss heart beats with alarming frequency.

West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee who is always inclined to see agitations, however legitimate, as an affront to her, has slapped countless cases against leaders, including Bimal Gurung, President of GJM, the main political party.

This has given him a respectable reason to run away from Darjeeling and hide in Sikkim. The cases, in other words, are a godsend. Had there been no cases, how would the leaders escape the wrath of the people who are on this occasion truly mobilized? They must be shown some movement towards Gorkhaland. This “movement” is proving elusive even by inches, leave alone feet and yards.

Since all leaders in the coordination committee were pushed from the precipice into a total bandh by the GJM leader Bimal Gurung, they are privately cursing him, but are unable to publicly say anything that would make their resolve for Gorkhaland look weaker. But some of them are keeping a sly eye on any escape route which they can sell to the agitating populace as an advance towards their cause. The situation is custom made for Mamata Banerjee who is desperate to fill whatever political spaces she can with her TMC before the BJP does. If she can divide the leadership with promises of development plus a dialogue with the centre on “the people’s demand”, perhaps a “dissident” faction can then be mobilized as a vehicle for the TMC.

There is a very big “perhaps”. Why would West Bengal politicians and bureaucrats ever loosen their grip on the hill station, the toy train which their children enjoy so much during the summer vacation. There is nothing more popular internationally and which Bengal claims as its own –Tagore and Darjeeling tea.

New Delhi habitually goes into a freeze when confronted with something new, particularly where strategic concerns are involved. Gorkha/Nepali speaking people from Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan are already keeping New Delhi busy. Gorkhaland would be a new distraction.

A strong card the Gorkhas can play concerns the military. There are thousands of Gorkhas in the army. It is not uncommon to run into a soldier with heroic stories of the Kargil war. These soldiers would be perfectly justified in seeking home leave to see the families who have suffered a bandh for three months. Thousands seeking leave at once? It is a sensitive pressure point.

The straightforward political game the BJP can play to endear themselves to the Gorkhas is by opening up debate on something less than Gorkhaland – say, a Union Territory. Gorkhas would accept it. Darjeeling would come directly under New Delhi. Mamata would ofcourse throw a ginger fit.

After a meeting of Gorkha leaders with Mamata on August 29. Vinay Tamang, joint Secretary of the Morcha and Anit Thapa, member of the Executive Committee, took the leaders and the agitators by surprise by asking them to end the bandh because positive but unidentifiable developments were expected by September 12. By that time the next round of meetings with Rajnath Singh and Mamata would have been held, they said. Well September 12 too has come and gone and there is no sight of the bandh coming to an end.

Little wonder most of the Gorkha leaders, Bimal Gurung, Vinay Tamang, Anit Thapa are on a rapidly declining popularity graph.

Bimal Gurung’s political career was launched by his opening numerous fan clubs for a Gorkha singing sensation, Prashant Tamang, who won the 2007 Indian Idol, a reality show. Prashant won in the third week of September. On October 7, Bimal Gurung had launched the GJM.

Impulsively, he leapt into the bandh when Mamata wanted Bengali to be inserted in the three language formula. Later she withdrew her word. But by that time the GJM and the coordination committee of other Hill parties were fairly advanced on a high-wire act. An endless bandh was on.

The leader whose graph is up is R.B. Rai, twice Member of Parliament, President Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist, Central Committee. He is universally accepted as politically savvy and an incorruptible and respected leader. He believes “tripartite talks” are a promising enough outcome to end the bandh. Apparently, Rajnath Singh has dropped hints that New Delhi, Kolkata, Darjeeling tripartite talks on Gorkhaland are possible. But will Mamata agree?

Rai is cross with the amateurishness of Bimal Gurung for playing “the ultimate card of a total bandh without having a backup plan. We should have started with Mohalla marches, struck work for a few hours, tested the political reaction in Kolkata and New Delhi, planned jail bharo andolans, gauged the plantation workers capacity to survive long strikes without wages. And so on.” There was no plan, he laments. It is a fruitless bandh but it can only be called off when people see some real promise, he says.

So, until God comes riding a thunderbolt by way of a solution, Gorkha leaders are condemned to remain suspended on the last rung of a very high staircase leading to nowhere.

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