Friday, December 28, 2018

Announcing Withdrawals: Trump Is Doing What He Promised At Outset

Announcing Withdrawals: Trump Is Doing What He Promised At Outset
                                                                                        Saeed Naqvi

With the suddenness of revelation, withdrawal from Syria and “drawdown” from Afghanistan have been announced by Donald Trump. In the past such announcements were followed up with a tidy pattern: two steps forward, one step back. But this time debate and hesitation have been foreclosed. Witness the way Defence Secretary James Mattis is being shown the door because he finds himself not on the same page as the President.

Pundits will have difficulty digesting the proposition that President Donald Trump is setting out to do in Syria, Afghanistan, the Mexican border, Russia, what he had promised during the election campaign right upto its closing days in November 2016. He suddenly turned up in Baghdad to signal his disapproval of the mess his predecessors made of that expedition. Some cameos will be forgotten in the rush of news that must be expected.

I have followed Syria closely since August 2011 when I found myself in President Bashar al Assad’s office in Damascus. His adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, knitted her brows when I pointed out the ease with which US Ambassador, Robert Stephen Ford, along with his French counterpart, were driving around Hama, Homs, Daraa, all centres of agitation, meeting anti Assad insurgents. “Just shows how penetrated we were”, Shaaban said. The past tense is important.

Like colour revolutions elsewhere, the initial ignition was amplified by the global media to mobilize opinion in the region and beyond. An article by James Glanz and John Markoff in the New York Times gave graphic descriptions of the technology designed by the Obama administration to bypass state communication controls, and to deploy ‘shadow’ internet and mobile phone systems that “dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments.” Did I hear someone wail that Russian interfere in other countries?

Against this backdrop let me fast forward to Trump’s interview with Jake Tapper of the CNN just before the elections. “Where do you think have billions of dollars’ worth of arms – and cash – gone in the course of our involvement in Syria? To the extremists, ofcourse: I believe so.”

Trump was right. Obama’s Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, made several humiliating Syria related announcements. His face in the lower mould, Carter announced that the $500 million project to train “rebels” in Syria was discontinued because arms reached groups the US intended to fight.

That the US intelligence agencies were mixed up with militant groups became more or less clear in subsequent leaks. An admission that Obama made to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in August 2015 when the rise of the ISIS was the big story is revealing. Friedman asked Obama why he had not bombed the ISIS when it first reared its head. The interview was given in August 2015. Obama minced no words. “That we did not just start taking a bunch of air strikes all across Iraq as soon as the IS came in was because that would have taken the pressure off Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki.” ISIS was, in other words, an asset then.

Maliki was in bad odour with the Obama establishment because he refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement: “that would have involved the surrender of Iraqi sovereignty”. In this stand Maliki had the support of the Shia establishment at Najaf led by Grand Ayatullah Sistani. This stance of Sistani’s placed him on the wrong side of the American media. There is delicious irony in this. The media sang paeans of the high priest in 2005. In fact Friedman had written a column proposing Sistani for the Nobel Prize for the constructive role he played in inviting Iraqi Shias, an overwhelming majority in the country, to help stabilize electoral democracy.

True, a structure for the practice of democracy is in place in Baghdad but the Two River Civilization has been ripped apart and terrorism is endemic. On this too Trump, in his conversation with Tapper, pulls no punches:
“Saddam Hussain and Qaddafi may have been bad men but there was no terrorism in their countries. What we have created is terrorism.”

There have been many false troop withdrawal alarms in the past, even during the Trump years. The Syrian army, aided by the Russians, appeared to be in control, until the next eruption, in Aleppo, Del Azour, Idlib, anywhere. The motivation to keep the pressure up on Assad came principally from Riyadh. But a somewhat lame duck post Khashoggi. Riyadh is winding down in Yemen and probably lacking in spunk vis a vis Syria. A greater credibility therefore attends announcement of troop withdrawal on this occasion.

Trump’s announcement of drawing down troops in Afghanistan has coincided with the appointment of Amrullah Saleh as Minister of Interior. He is a Tajik, former spymaster and close adviser to the late Ahmad Shah Masood and a persistent critic of Pakistan’s role in the Afghan civil war. Let me share with you a flavour of Saleh’s thinking when I met him in Kabul a few years ago.

“The enemy is headquartered in Pakistan and he should be defeated there. For the US, the “expendable” part of the Taleban is in Afghanistan. Why would we ever collaborate with NATO who wish to kill Afghans they consider expendable? NATO has no strategy in the region because it has no policy towards Pakistan. They know they cannot defeat the Afghan Taleban without hitting hard at their bases in Pakistan.”

Much water has flown down the Kabul River since Saleh spoke to me. Trump’s newly appointed special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has also tried to correct the image attached to him, that of being anti Pakistan. During a recent visit to Islamabad, Secretary of State Mike Pampeo, gave Khalilzad a high profile in his delegation. Much was made of the fact that Khalilzad visited Islamabad before New Delhi. Obviously, Khalilzad would like to get rid of the perception that he proposes a higher profile for India in Afghanistan.

Anyone interested in visually observing the success of India’s policy of “diplomacy by default”, a slow tortoise-like movement, should visit Hauz Rani opposite Max hospital where a virtual afghan colony has sprung up, eateries et al, harmoniously merging with the landscape.

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Friday, December 21, 2018

An Oasis Of Peace In A Troubled World

An Oasis Of Peace In A Troubled World
                                                                     Saeed Naqvi

Yellow vests in Paris, Brexit in Britain, Trump in the US, George Soros and Steve Bannon vying for the soul of Europe, Turkey embroiled in the Kurdish enclaves in Syria, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in post Khashoggi free fall, corruption allegations enveloping Netanyahu: In the midst of these global wind storms, cyclones, tornados is the calm centre which I visited last week. It is four hours flight away from New Delhi – indeed most major Indian cities – Qatar or, to be more precise, Doha, the capital, where 80 percent of the population lives.

For this reason, among others, traffic is a nightmare at peak hours. Bumper to bumper, Jaguars, Mercedes, BMWs, Land Rovers, Lexus – luxurious means of transport all static exhibits of high end automobiles in Doha’s traffic jams.

This is the price which the 300,000 Qataris, 700,000 Indians and a host of others who make up Qatar’s total population of nearly three million (mostly expatriates from countries as diverse as Sri Lanka, Ukraine and Georgia) have agreed to pay. With a little more inconvenience until 2022, the FIFA World Cup promises to shower incalculable windfalls on the country. Its GDP of 167.60 billion makes it the world’s richest country by World Bank calculations. Frenetic activity to build nine air conditioned football stadiums and all the infrastructure, roads, hotels and, to ease the traffic, an elaborate underground metro system are possible only when a country so small is insulated from upheavals endemic in the world all around. It is almost unreal.

In a strife ridden neighbourhood Qatar exceptionalism invites jealousy. The May-June 2017 closing of Saudi land border leads to a catastrophic situation. UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan sever diplomatic relation, shut down the Al Jazeera channel, impose land, sea and air embargo. But the coordinated effort to bring Qatar to its heels boomerangs on the conspirators. With Metternich like diplomatic finesse, the Emir, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani (advised by his father) wove a formidable coalition. Just in case Saudi’s thought of a military adventure, Turkish troops in brigade strength had taken pre emptive positions in Qatar.

The line being enunciated by the strategic community in the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia is straightforward: the Shia-Sunni faultline in the Arab world will subsume the Palestinian issue. This is anathema to the Qatari rulers. A Sheikh with direct access to the palace minced no words: “There are two taboos in Qatar – never speak about intra tribe conflicts and total silence on Shia-Sunni identities. “ In the Emir’s framework, “We are all Qataris – period.” So firmly has this line been pursued that it is impossible to know whether Shias are five or fifteen percent of the population? In a country as rich as Qatar, the top three or four businessmen are Shias.

Broad spread of Wahabism in the GCC countries has been tempered with strands of Sunni belief, a fact which gives Qatar access to activists of the Akhwan ul Muslimeen or the Muslim Brotherhood which holds sway over Hamas in Gaza.

Brothers must be ruing the day they appointed the inept Mohamed Morsi as the President of Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. For that one year of Morsi’s rule, there was a coherent Muslim Brotherhood ring from Egypt, Qatar, Turkey to Hamas.

Hamas meanwhile had support from another formidable axis – Iran, Hezbollah, Syria. The paradox was that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ayatullahs in Iran representing two antithetical interpretations of Islam converged on the Palestinian cause. This was cause for alarm for Tel Aviv as well as Riyadh, the latter because the Brothers, like the Ayatullahs, are opposed to monarchies and wahabism. Little wonder the late King Abdullah turned up in Cairo with $8 billion to help Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stabilize himself after Morsi’s ouster. It was important to remove Egypt, a key link in the Brotherhood chain, for a simple reason. A similar effort to breach the Iran led axis, by bringing about a regime change in Syria, had come a cropper despite persistent efforts since 2011.

Egypt, the largest Sunni country having been neutralized, the idea of digging deep along the Shia-Sunni faultline received a determined push from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Much to his irritation, his cousins in Qatar were, with great suppleness, as comfortable with the Brothers in Hamas as they were with Iranian support for the same cause.

The closer MBS gets to Israeli positions in the region, the more do the Qatar Emirs tap into their generosity towards the battered economy of Gaza. This goes down well even in today’s relatively desensitized Arab Street. Gaza civil servants were saved from abject penury when the Qataris picked up the entire salary bill for last month. More is in the pipeline.

While these gestures are lifesaving ones for Hamas, they are sources of annoyance to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority nurses conspiracy theories. Tel Aviv is aware of these transactions, say Palestinian officials, since most of this cash is transferred from Ben Gurion airport across Israeli territory.

Earlier, US sent $840 million to Hamas annually. But an essential part of Trumpism is to invite regional players to chip in for problems in their neighbourhood. The President’s son-in-law, Jarred Kushner’s recent talk of “Palestinian misery” is designed to invite the oil-rich Sheikhdoms to loosen their purse strings. By harping on this narrative, the Palestinian Authority is, by implication suggesting that Qatari generosity towards Gaza is at Washington and Israel’s bidding. If true, this more or less confirms the thesis popular in Doha and Ankara since the mid-90s: Turkey under Tayyip Erdogan’s three terms pursued a policy of zero conflict with neighbours and major powers. Likewise, Doha maintained excellent relations all around. In fact it was at American behest that Qatar opened an office for the Taleban in Doha as a channel for dialogue.

The genesis of the Saudi-Qatar bitterness is old, cavernous family feuds. But the recent reckless escalation by MBS is a function of his own irritation at the mess he has landed himself in Syria and Yemen. In these circumstances Qatar’s excellent relations with Iran stand in the way of MBS, Netanyahu, Kushner’s promotion of a Shia-Sunni faultline.

Who knows by 2022 when the universe will be riveted on the FIFA world cup, Khashoggi, like Banquo’s ghost, will continue to menace MBS, possibly to the bitter end.

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Friday, December 14, 2018

Can Rahul’s Hinduism Succeed Where Bogus Secularism Failed?

Can Rahul’s Hinduism Succeed Where Bogus Secularism Failed?
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

It will be impossible to resist the temptation of attributing Congress gains in the three northern states to Rahul Gandhi’s demonstrative adoption of Hinduism. In some measure, that is. There are two ways of looking at it. It is a trick which worked. Or it is the enunciation of a line which has to be developed?

So effective has been the BJP’s saffronization of the atmosphere that even Communists shy away from discussing minorities. West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee has decided to build 10 Sun temples. Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav will build a Vishnu temple. There is, ofcourse, the biggest temple of all to be built in Ayodhya. If Rahul places his new found religiosity on a creative track, he can trump the BJP on that count too. Absurd though it may sound, he can, under certain circumstances, bring Muslims around to the idea that the ailing Lucknow cleric Maulana Kalbe Sadiq has been consistently propagating. Even if the Supreme Court verdict goes in their favour, Muslims should, in an act of magnanimity, help build the Rama temple. This cannot be expected of a community which sees itself as an object of hate. But if Rahul’s is an all-inclusive Hinduism where all are equal, well, the terms of endearment can change.

Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, after all, had the Ayodhya temple locks opened, an act which facilitated the temple movement. Rajiv promised “Ram Rajya” while inaugurating the 1989 election from Ayodhya. He allowed the bricklaying ceremony of the Ram Temple on disputed land but asked officials to look the other way. He fell between stools. Gingerly flirting with Hinduism proved counterproductive. Rahul has come out overtly, causing some of us to smirk. How far will it go?

The Congress, as Rahul must know, was implacably opposed to the “Two Nation” theory i.e. Hindus and Muslims constitute two distinct nations. Maulana Azad, President of the Congress from 1939 to 1945, had arrived at an agreement for an undivided India with the Cabinet Mission. He was unequivocal. “Partitioned India will be unadulterated Hindu Raj”.

It may have sounded rhetorical in the earlier years but where we have arrived is exactly what Azad had predicted. The Congress Working Committee meeting of June 3, 1947, accepted Mountbatten’s Partition plan. Why was Maulana Azad the only leader to have had serious misgiving? Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, wept. “You have thrown us to the wolves.” Only these two Doubting Thomases? All the others swallowed Partition hook-line-and sinker? With some reluctance, even Mahatma Gandhi accepted Partition. Atleast this is what Azad writes in “India Wins Freedom”.

An endorsement of Mountbatten’s plan to divide India implied that the two nation theory had been accepted. The creation of Pakistan was one step in that direction. Just as the neighbour was called Pakistan could we not have been named Hindustan? In reality, we glided seamlessly from British Raj to Hindu Raj but, ridden by a guilty conscience, hesitated to spell it out. It is this hesitation which created room for the BJP to step in and grow.

If I were a Hindu, I would ask, as the late Vinod Mehta, my friend of 60 years, asked me in his Nizamuddin apartment: “800 years of Muslim rule, 200 years of the British and next door there is now a Muslim state. Against this backdrop, would you grudge me a Hindu state?”

Volumes would have to be written to focus on the nuances embedded in Vinod’s query but for purposes of a quick column this may be the appropriate moment to touch on issues now that the Indian National Congress has, with unprecedented honesty, embraced its Hindu credentials. And, on current showing, the switch has been accepted by the people.

Nehru would have been uncomfortable with “Hindu Raj” for a variety of reasons but the overriding reason for keeping aside “Hindu Raj” was realpolitik: what principle would then be cited to keep Kashmir?

When the founding fathers charted a course of neutrality, tolerance, respect for all religions without priviledging any one of them, they had probably not taken into account the crucial reality: a multi religious, multi ethnic, multi lingual, society frozen for centuries in a caste system, suddenly exposed to notions of democracy, upward mobility egalitarianism would create upheavals. A society inherently unequal was being set on a path of equality. The way ahead had to be unspeakably turbulent.

Add to this the following: the world’s largest minority and third largest Muslim population which had no role in the creation of Pakistan found itself unable to produce that certificate of nationalism which is not available without a compulsive hatred for Pakistan. This hatred, tied with the televised image of Kashmiris as terrorists and Indian Muslim as a potential fifth column is a lethal mix, custom made for a societal wreck, which is what we are today.

How can Rahul calm this cauldron? By deftly upping the ante for the BJP? While the Hindutva brigade is busy changing names of lanes and culverts, should he sail above the BJP? Should he insert in the Congress manifesto “Hindustan” as the official name to replace the ambivalence of “India that is Bharat”?

All of this flounders against the logic that Muslims and other minorities may not be comfortable with the overt Hinduization of a party which has so far pretended to stand on a secular platform. There is an abundance of warped minds who are obstinately attached to labels like secularism without critically examining where this bogus secularism has landed them.

I constantly give the example of a society like Britain. Christianity is the official religion. This fact has not stood in the way of Sadiq Khan being the Mayor of London, Sajid Javed, Home Secretary and Moeen Ali as a regular man of the match and so on. This is not because the Anglo Saxon is inherently secular. This is so because the rule of law prevails resulting in social harmony.

The Sachar Committee report on the socio economic condition of Muslims was bad enough. In 70 years they have been brought down to the lowest rung. Hysterical focus by the electronic media on Pakistan, Kashmir and by inference, Indian Muslims, has fouled up the atmosphere so much as to justify the Washington Post headline “Modi’s India is a living nightmare for Muslims”.

The results from the three northern states will serve as a balm. Let Rahul build upon it.

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Friday, December 7, 2018

Kartarpur: What Went Before It And What Might Follow

Kartarpur: What Went Before It And What Might Follow
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

The controversy surrounding Navjot Singh Siddhu’s pilgrimage to Kartarpur Sahib must have amused President Ram Nath Kovind whose visit to Pakistan in August 2003 as part of a 30 member delegation of political leaders and journalists was one of the most high profile visits in the history of exchanges between the two countries. Kovind’s fellow BJP comrade in the delegation was Balbir Punj whose sense of wonder at the warmth and hospitality from the official to the street level was one of the features I remember. Restaurants would offer food gratis, shops would not accept payments from “our guests from India”.

Even though the delegation had been invited by the South Asia Free Media Association, President Pervez Musharraf’s Foreign Minister Khurshid Mohammad Kasuri was the unmentioned behind the scenes.

From the Indian side, the All Party Goodwill delegation was part of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s push towards tranquilizing the Line of Control in Kashmir. That was the period when the two countries moved towards the only feasible arrangement – territorial status quo but movement of people and goods across the line.

The “goodwill” part of the visit was boosted sky high by the sheer presence of Laloo Prasad Yadav in the delegation. It became something of a mobile comedy from the moment Yadav was mobbed as soon as he crossed Wagah. Which other leader would create a traffic jam in the middle of a vegetable market comparing prices of potatoes, onions, radish etcetera on both sides of the border – and with complete authority of the rural economy. With his lilting Bihari speech and folksy humour Yadav monopolized prime time TV across the board and front pages of all newspapers without exception.

The BJP duet coped with the Laloo show in ample humour, but the Congress MP from Karnataka, Margaret Alva was livid. When President Musharraf, fascinated by the Laloo circus, seated him on his right at the banquet, Alva threw a fit. She represented a party with 110 seats, she declared for everyone to hear. “And you have promoted in the seating order the leader of a party with only seven seats in Parliament?” Alva’s tandav caught everyone by surprised. Laloo saved the situation by exchanging seats with her. This dramatic act of humility became a cause celebre. Alva’s tantrum and Laloo’s humility became prime time fare all over again.

The delegation’s visit, a huge public relations success, was followed up in January 2004 by Vajpayee himself. Yashwant Sinha, as Foreign Minister, was able to issue, not an agreement but only a press statement which contained the crucial commitment: “President Musharraf reassured Prime Minister Vajpayee that he will not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner……”

The contents of the press note had to be tentative in nature. The Pakistan bureaucrat, receiving impulses from Army Headquarters, was aware of the gamble involved. General elections were round the corner in India. Pakistan’s hesitations would in retrospect appear to be justified: Vajpayee lost the election.

Having travelled with Vajpayee on most of his foreign trips, including his journeys as Minister for External Affairs (1977-80), one observation is unmistakable. For a leader as thoughtful as him, he was often persuaded by his secretariat to undertake foreign initiatives without a careful study of the pros and cons of the proposed visit that the Indian embassy in the country to be visited may have prepared. Sometimes these assessment were made by outstanding ambassadors. The result of underprepared visits were often disastrous. Sometimes the host country was inadequately prepared for a meaningful dialogue.

Take, for instance, Vajpayee’s much touted bus journey to Lahore in February 1999. It was never a journey to Lahore. I was in that bus. I should know. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Information Minister, Mushahid Hussain received Vajpayee in the no-man’s-land between the two border gates. A helicopter flew the two Prime Ministers to the Government House in Lahore. The Pakistan establishment could not risk driving Vajpayee because of anti-India demonstrations in Lahore organized by the Jamat e Islami. In other words public opinion in Pakistan had not been prepared for a visit which New Delhi was advertising as “historic”.

As a great symbolic gesture of embracing the idea of Pakistan, Vajpayee even visited Minar-e-Pakistan. Jamaat volunteers washed the Minar that afternoon. The official banquet at the Lahore Fort was delayed by hours because demonstrators disrupted the traffic.

There will be great willingness in the present mood in India to blame the disastrous visit on the persistent anti-Indian venom in the Pakistan psyche even at the street level. It would be a flawed conclusion. The moral of the story is that Vajpayee turned up in Lahore with Indian intelligence not having it ears close to the ground on how divided the Pak establishment was on the Lahore visit. The visit was in February; Kargil happened in May. Musharraf, the author of Kargil, later had a change of heart. How else does one explain his fruitless visit to Agra in July 2001? Vajpayee’s visit in 2004 did not set the Ravi on fire because the hosts knew that Indian elections were due in few months. Islamabad did not quite swallow the “Shining India” pitch.

Vajpayee’s visit as External Affairs Minister to China in February 1979 was likewise a casualty of South Block not having heeded words of caution from the embassy in Beijing. When China decided to teach Hanoi “a lesson” and initiated a war without as much as a hint to the Indian External Affairs Minister who happened to be their guest. The next morning the Indian delegation, their faces in the lower mould, caught the passage to Hong Kong and thence to New Delhi.

The Kartarpur Sahib was not by any stretch of the imagination a comparable diplomatic initiative. But it does give clues to a post-election look at possibilities that one or other of the coalitions in New Delhi might be tempted to explore. It makes logical sense that the one party habit of looking at Indo-Pak tension as a useful ploy for vote consolidation would be a matter of the past in the expected era of balancing coalitions.

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Friday, November 30, 2018

US Congress Must Block Trump Selling For A Handful Of Silver

US Congress Must Block Trump Selling For A Handful Of Silver
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

Who would have imagined that the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo in June, 1914 would signal the beginning of the First World War. The conflicting empires and the balance of power were so precariously positioned that an assassination triggered the war.

Today Syria, Gaza, Iran, Jordan, Yemen, Israel, US, Russia, UK, France, Turkey, Qatar, Russia, US – all are on edge, any ignition can flare up. There is a temptation to exaggerate the aftermath of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s macabre dismemberment with bone saws and eventual liquefaction in acid in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Yet, a plausible scenario can be constructed that powerful interests, determined to protect the embattled Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman will go to any lengths to save him. Any diversionary adventure will do. This diversion will not be easy now though that the US Congress is deeply involved and is already reacting to Trump’s insensitivity. Most unexpectedly, there is egg on MBS’s face in Argentina where he has turned up ostensibly to attend the G20 summit. Ostensibly, because his purpose is to plead with leaders and soften Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan who has, drip by drip, been leaking embarrassing intelligence details implicating MBS with the murder.

An Argentinian Prosecutor has taken up the case against MBS for alleged crimes against humanity, war in Yemen and the Khashoggi murder. Advocacy group Human Rights watch had petitioned Argentinian authorities to proceed against MBS when he turns up for the summit. It is terrible publicity.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made MBS the central column in his West Asian architecture and will go to any lengths to protect him. Towards this end he could embark on risky, diversionary expeditions. Netanyahu was the first one to warn President Trump.

He completely glossed over the Khashoggi murder. It was immaterial to him whether MBS was guilty or not. The cardinal point for him was that the Crown Prince is an indispensable “strategic ally”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may well have taken the cue from him. Pompeo wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
“The Trump administration’s efforts to rebuild US-Saudi partnership isn’t popular in the salons of Washington, where politicians of both parties have long used the Kingdom’s human-rights record to call for the alliance’s downgrading. The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile on.” It is a cunning draft, implying that the Washington elite was always averse to the Saudis and that the Khashoggi episode has only provided some grist to the mill. The thrust of the article is straightforward: a malignant power, Iran, has to be neutralized with MBS’s help – murder or no murder.

Most of the wordage is directed against Iran which according to Kissinger (quoted by Pompeo) is a “cause, not a nation”. To impede the advance of this “cause”, MBS was an essential requirement.

The tone of the defence is not that Saudi-US relations must be preserved at all cost. The unstated emphasis is that MBS has to be protected within Saudi Arabia vis a vis other possible aspirants.

It was to snuff out this narrative that Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel al-Jubeir invited BBC’s Lyse Doucet to spell out the Kingdom’s red line. “Any speculation on the Keeper of the Holy Shrines King Salman and the Crown Prince will not be tolerated.”

To save MBS, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi personally pleaded with Trump. It must ofcourse be remembered that a panic stricken MBS had personally turned up in Cairo to plead his case.

All manner of speculations are rife but one possibility stands out starkly: should the world’s power centres allow Saudi impunity to pass, the next phase in West Asia will be frightening, because tracks have to be swiftly covered. Khashoggi forgotten preferably in the din of some military action. Already, US Defence Secretary Gen. James Mattis has met chiefs of GCC Armed Forces in Kuwait and Bahrain. These are two GCC countries with substantial Shia populations. Sports exchanges have been reported between Israel and Oman – and other GCC countries.

Recently Arab diplomats in Europe have been openly discussing such subjects as: does the Arab League serve a purpose? GCC came into being soon after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Can it be wound up. What is being proposed is a tidy division of the Arab World into Sunni versus Shia. The project is as old as the hills. The last I heard Henry Kissinger and the late Zbigniew Brzezinski publicly talk about the idea was at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Oslo in December 2016. The great merit in giving primacy to the Shia-Sunni faultline is supposed to be that it will subsume the Palestinian story.

How naïve this line of thinking is has been stressed by, among a host of others, one of the more experienced princes in Saudi public life: Prince Turki al Faisal. He was Intelligence Chief, Ambassador to US and UK. He has repeatedly warned the authors of Shia-Sunni faultline that the thesis was self-defeating: there are sizeable and influential Shia populations in most GCC countries. Nearly 70% of Bahrain, 40% of Kuwait and 15% of Saudi Arabia are Shia. Indeed Saudi Shias are concentrated in the oil rich Eastern Province, linked to Shia majority Bahrain by a 37 kms causeway. Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen are all Shia majority states.

There is a sort of amnesia against the entire Shia Fatimid dynasty which ruled most of North Africa and founded the city of Cairo in the 10th century. The name of the ousted ruler of Tunisia, Zine El Abidin Ben Ali is of Fatimid extraction. No Saudi will ever keep that name.

Palermo, the capital of Sicily, was once the seat of Ismaili Shia power, where Moharram processions were common from the 10th to 12th century. Tariq Ali’s novel “A Sultan in Palermo” covers this period.

Over 20 years ago, in his elegant salon on the Nile, Sid Ahmad, distinguished writer and public intellectual, confused me all the more on the question of Shia and Sunni in Cairo. He said, “Many in this metropolis follow the dictum: Sunna bil deen; Shia bil hawa” (Sunni by faith and Shia by culture).

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Friday, November 23, 2018

Cow Urine In Congress Manifesto: Hinduism Bar Raised Sky High

Cow Urine In Congress Manifesto: Hinduism Bar Raised Sky High
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

In a letter to her father written on December 10, 1949, Indira Gandhi threatened that she would be provoked to call herself “Zohra Begum”. Her defiance was in retaliation to senior Congress leader, Purushotam Das Tandon’s project of renaming names of places.

The occasion for the letter was Prime Minister Nehru’s visit to Farrukhabad, a place Tandon was keen to rename. Rather than changing names totally, Tandon recommended a gradual approach. All cities, towns, villages ending in “bad”, a Persian suffix (Mammudabad, Moradabad, Allahabad and so on) should end in “nagar”. In Tandon’s framework it would have been Allanagar. Prayagnagar would have involved total erasure, leaving no trace of Allahabad. Tandon’s was a step by step assertion of the new Hindu state. When he met resistance on this score from Nehru (and none other) he went all out on bigger issue like the national language – Devangari script and Sanskritized Hindi. Even Mahatma Gandhi had suggested “Hindustani”. That he had a following within the Congress became clear when he became President of the Congress in 1950 in direct opposition to Nehru’s wishes. Nehru may have prevailed eventually but not before Mahatma Gandhi had given Tandon the title – Rajrishi, the sage of the kingdom.

Narendra Modi, in his very first speech in Parliament in May 2014, said something which would have struck a chord with Tandon, indeed with a large segment of Hindus including a majority of Congressmen who nurtured the truth but only silently under some unstated party discipline. Modi said the country had to be freed from “1200 (twelve hundred) years of “ghulami” or subjugation. It was a historic statement, transformational in its intent. Never had a leader, leave alone a Prime Minister, referred to the “Muslim period” as foreign rule.

It was the beginning of Modi’s innings and one would have expected alert pundits to pick up every inflection and nuance. But no one did. Presumably because Modi had said what most of them believed in their deep heart’s core. Pardon me quoting Ghalib again:
“Dekhna taqreer ki lazzat ki jo usne kaha,
Mainey yeh jaana ki goya yeh bhi mere dil mein hai"
(Look at the wondrous flavour of his speech,
Whatever he says echoes thoughts that were in the recesses of my heart)

In other words, Modi had articulated what guilt ridden Congressmen never had the courage to say openly. Composite culture was attractive when it remained composed in a well preserved frame. After the fracture of 1947, it was destined to dither, decompose, decay. Terms of endearment had to change.

When the lynch mob in Haryana forced two Muslim boys to swallow a paste of cow dung and urine, they vomited. When I told this story to Murli Manohar Joshi, always civilized in his extremism, he looked at me stoically.

“The boys vomited because they did not know the medicinal qualities of “gobar” (dung) and cow urine” he said in a matter of fact way. “For certain kinds of fever my mother used to make me swallow tablets of fresh gobar.” It was not a story to be disregarded. In fact it opened my mind to accept with equanimity dietary rituals which have had a subterranean sanctity for heaven knows how many years, centuries, millennia. My yoga teacher has memories of cow’s urine keeping him warm in Bihar’s harsh winters. Having become shock proof, I did not bat an eyelid when my cook and cricket companion, a Brahmin to boot, listed a series of rituals which would be incomplete without atleast token consumption of the stuff. Two litres of cow’s urine is part of Congress leader and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh daily diet.

Little wonder Singh, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia, gave pride of place to commercial production of cow’s urine in the Congress manifesto which they released to the press in Bhopal the other day. To ensure abundant supply, gaushalas or cow shelters will be opened in every Panchayat.

Large scale revival of an ancient drink will clearly require an entrepreneur with the genius of Varghese Kurien, the founder of Amul. When I saw videos on social media of dedicated consumers using palms of their hands as cups to drink directly from the source, I had my misgivings. I thought this was the usual fake news trying to denigrate Hinduism. Little did I know that they were promotional videos. Or, atleast that is the way they come across to me now that the truth has been placed before me at the historic press conference in Bhopal.

It is now clear as daylight that should the Congress win in Madhya Pradesh, and is as good as its word, bottled cow urine has a good chance of driving out other colas from the market, particularly if mahants and sadhus approve a variety of flavours to dilute the pristine purity of the original.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi will then have to take a call: should he or should he not? If the Congress comes up trumps in MP, it will become difficult for him to discard the beverage for the 2019 campaign. In fact it might be electorally useful for him to imbibe the stuff in full public glare. He will break records in global publicity if he can have a battery of TV cameras zoom on a janeudhari (one with the sacred thread) Congress President drink directly from the source. He has already set the bar of Hindu credentials so high by his Kailash-Mansarovar yatra and frenetic temple hopping, as to leave Modi panting far behind.

The real obstacle in the way of Rahul Gandhi leading a credible Hindu party is his ancestry, the popular suspicion that he may have in his genes his great grandfather Nehru’s secular distortions or his grandmother Indira Gandhi’s impulsive threat to rename herself Zohra Begum if Farrukhabad becomes Farrukhnagar. His promotion of cow urine as the national beverage will distance him light years away from both.

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Friday, November 16, 2018

Arab Turnaround: Saudi Crown Prince Tilts At Windmills, Assad Secure

Arab Turnaround: Saudi Crown Prince Tilts At Windmills, Assad Secure
                                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

The ghoulish murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi has set into motion a new dynamic in the Syrian, Yemeni, Palestinian and other incipient conflicts in West Asia. Popular perception globally has traced the macabre plot to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, even though the Saudi propaganda machine is deflecting guilt.

That the embattled Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has come out quite unambiguously in favour of MBS (as the Crown Prince is popularly known) without making any pretense to cover up his guilt, shows the tight embrace in which Tel Aviv and Riyadh arc. The jam in which MBS found himself he could only turn to his closest friends – President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Netanyahu. At this point Kushner is a much diminished figure after the White House Security Clearance review slammed on him by Chief of Staff John Kelly. He has been working on an interim clearance so far and after recent alleged misdemeanours is not expected to be granted full clearance.

Time was when MBS, Kushner and Netanyahu were the world’s most formidable trio. Alongside Kushner, Netanyahu too has his financial deals under scrutiny. And post Khashoggi, the third figure in the trio, MBS, is tilting at the windmills. The media is loathe to dwell on such truths, but Bashar al Assad, by comparison is looking secure and composed.

There is no reason why David Hearst, The Guardian’s former specialist on West Asia should not be given credence. In his new investigative forum, the Middle East Eye, he concludes that to deflect an avalanche of allegations linking MBS to the Khashoggi murder, the Crown Prince implored the Israeli Prime Minister “to go to war in Gaza”. This would deflect attention. The diversionary move is the brainchild of a new Emergency Task Force set up by the Royal Palace in Riyadh to counter facts that President Erdogan’s office is leaking drip by drip.

Netanyahu’s public utterances also betray a high level of nervous anxiety. Mistakes may have been made, he says, but Saudi Arabia must remain stable for the stability of the region and the world. With these words he hurtled headlong into lethal airstrikes against Gaza.

Gaza, Palestine, West Bank, these were concerns Jamal Khashoggi was most passionate about when I interviewed him in Jeddah a few months after 9/11. In this he was not different from Prince Turki al Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to London, Washington and the country’s intelligence Chief until a few days before 9/11. I mention Prince Turki in the same sequence because Khashoggi was a spokesman for Turki.

Hamas controlling Gaza was always under the spell of the Muslim Brotherhood. Khashoggi was not a card carrying member of the Brotherhood but like many educated Saudis, he was disheartened (privately) by the regime’s growing dalliance with Israel.

The late Saudi King Abdullah, even when he was Crown Prince had joined the Israeli chorus that Shia-Sunni, not Israel-Palestine, was West Asia’s defining faultline. But he had preserved some of the style of old world diplomacy. MBS has made brashness and a crude assertion of money power his style. Little wonder his statement before an American Jewish audience stunned the more reasonable Arabs. “For the past 40 years the Palestinian leadership has rejected all the offers it was given. It is about time that the Palestinians accept the offers …….or they should shut up.”

In February 2011, King Abdullah, came out of convalescence in Europe and rubbed his eyes in disbelief. He found an altered West Asia, his friends Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidin Ben Ali toppled in Cairo and Tunis by the Arab Spring. He swore that no monarchies or friendly dictatorships would now be allowed to fall. US, UK, France, Israel, Qatar, Turkey, responding to the Saudi initiative, fell upon Syria. Each one of the participants listed above have faced reversals.

MBS then dragged the US into a brutal war against the poorest Arab country, Yemen. Other than killing thousands of civilians including children and displacing millions, the four year old war has achieved nothing except inflating finances of American and British war industry. The Saudis had boasted that the Yemeni port of Hodeidah would be in their control. This would be a direct threat to Iranian ships seeking passage through the Red Sea. Iranian supported Houthis have doggedly held on to the port. And now MBS is on notice from the Americans to end the Yemen operations in weeks. Meanwhile the much touted “Deal of the Century” for Palestine remains something of a pipe dream. It created a scare in Amman because there is a subterranean Israeli dream to incorporate Jordan in a two state solution.

After the recent Merkel, Macron, Erdogan, Putin summit in Istanbul, MBS, Trump and Europe have cause for worry. Basically the two European leaders implored Erdogan not to allow European militants, holed up in Idlib, to be able to return via Turkish territory. Remember $4 billion were transferred into Turkish coffers in the past to compensate Ankara for keeping 3.5 million Syrian refugees. This time Erdogan is bargaining differently. He would seek autonomy of action on how he handles the Idlib militants provided he has a free run of the Kurdish enclave adjacent to Idlib and the Turkish border. This is anathema to the Saudis and Trump. The Kurds in this enclave are US and Saudi assets, a pressure on Bashar al Assad. But Erdogan holds the aces at this point: if he does not get the deal he wants he can open the sluice gates for European militant to return home. A Europe in convulsions on the immigration issue, would be in frightful frenzy if Erdogan carries out his threat.

As someone who has visited the region several times, I cannot help but wonder at the turn of events. It is astonishing that Assad in Damascus, Hassan Rouhani in Tehran and Hassan Nasrallah of the Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, even Erdogan have emerged from the seven year long mayhem with curable bruises. It almost seems that all those who stood by MBS when he was the shining new star in the West Asian firmament are distancing themselves from him, his incomparable oil wealth notwithstanding. Today, he is certainly not on the winning side.

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Friday, November 9, 2018

Congress President Who Sought United India To The Bitter End

Congress President Who Sought United India To The Bitter End
                                                                                        Saeed Naqvi

Sunday, November 11 happens to be Maulana Azad’s birth anniversary, forgotten this year as it has been in the pat. The Maulana is an inconvenient name to remember at a time when Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel towers above every national leader.

When former Vice President, Hamid Ansari, released Hindi, Urdu and Malayalam translations of my book: Being the Other: the Muslim in India, he quoted from a speech Patel had made on August 11, 1947, four days before Partition. Some TV channels went ballistic. The quote is actually quite well known: “To be United, India would have to be divided.” Patel was tracing how the consensus to “divide” India came about. No, but Ansari should not upturn conventional wisdom that “Jinnah was the culprit”. If it were the evil Jinnah who created Pakistan, it follows that the CWC, the Iron man included, were busting their guts to keep a United India and Jinnah outfoxed them.

Mountbatten’s June 3, 1947 plan sought a division of India largely along religious lines. The Congress Working Committee swallowed the plan hook, line and sinker. Of the two Muslim leaders present at the CWC, Frontier Gandhi Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan wailed, “you have thrown us to the wolves.” Maulana Azad smoked a box of cigarettes and said nothing. Supposing the two, vehemently opposed to Partition, had walked out of the meeting in protest, what interpretation would future historians have placed on the remaining CWC composition?

Jawaharlal Nehru valued Azad for his intellect. Some of Nehru’s admiration for Azad comes across even in his intimate letters from Ahmednagar jail to his daughter, Indira. “Maulana is an extraordinarily interesting person. The more I know him, and I have known him now for over 21 years, the more I find in him. He has an astonishing memory and his information on a variety of subjects is encyclopedic. He is soaked in the lore of the middle ages…… he has Plato and Aristotle on his fingertips and is perfectly at home at Cordoba of Arab Spain…….it seems such a pity that with such vast learning and a very unusually keen mind and a powerful style, he should have written so little”

At one point Nehru reveals he is keen to learn Sanskrit from Acharya Narendra Dev and Persian from Azad. Nehru then gives vent to his afterthought: “But Azad is too erudite.”

The paradox is that despite such admiration for Azad, Nehru still found time to let him down repeatedly. It was a delicate package, that Azad, as Congress President, had negotiated with the Cabinet Mission and Viceroy Lord Wavell to keep India united. Nehru torpedoed it by raising contentious issues at a Press Conference in Bombay (Mumbai).

Azad was shocked when the entire CWC accepted the Mountbatten plan without fuss. “Partition over my body” kind of sham was instantly abandoned. In fact, Rajendra Prasad came down strongly on a suggestion Mountbatten and Azad had made: that a United Armed Forces for a short period would obviate the massacres which eventually followed. “Not for a day” after August 15, 1947 would the Congress government tolerate a United Army, Prasad thundered. He wanted Partition to be sealed irreversibly. It was no concern of the CWC that an army, abruptly separated along sectarian lines would be sucked into the horrendous violence that followed as a partisan force on both sides.

Mahatma Gandhi’s Secretary, Mahadev Desai wrote about Azad: “There was no other in the Congress to match Maulana’s insights and wise counsel.” Stalwarts like C.R. Das and Motilal Nehru deferred to him on many issues. On his wisdom and erudition, Sarojini Naidu was at her wittiest, “Maulana was 50 years old when he was born.”

It was this vast reservoir of wisdom that Nehru relied on when Home Minister Kailash Nath Katju decided to bar foreign missionaries in India, “if evangelism is their purpose.” The statement created a furore among Christian missionaries. Nehru singled out Maulana to handle the situation. The letter that Azad wrote to Cardinal Valerian Gracias is reproduced on page 79 of my book, Being the Other. It is a masterpiece of reasoning and logic on the question of conversion. Azad had settled the issue over 60 years ago.

He made a distinction between religious conversion, which requires deep reflection on issues of theology and what the constitution calls “mass conversions”. The latter is a response to a social and political provocation.

It is possible that Maulana was not suited to the rough and tumble of politics which demands fickleness generally dressed up as flexibility. Maulana was incapable of deviating from his core principles – Hindu-Muslim unity as the bedrock of Indian nationalism.

Dr. Rajesh Kumar Pruthi, Director General of National Archives published a rare collection of the Maulana’s letters in Urdu. The preface, by Dr. Pruthi is by itself quite masterly. As evidence of Maulana’s consistency he cites a passage from the Maulana’s address as President of the Congress at a session held in Delhi on 15 December, 1923:
“If an angel came down from heaven and, from the height of the Qutub Minar, announced that if the Congress abandons its platform of Hindu-Muslim Unity Swaraj or independence would be granted in 24 hours, I would turn my back on that Swaraj. Shunning it for the cost being demanded may delay Swaraj and harm India’s interest for a short period but abandoning our unity for good as a price for freedom will be a blot on all humanity.”

He maintained a decent silence on colleagues who had “blotted humanity”. But he did not cheat history. He kept away in the National Archives thirty pages which expose the men with feet of clay who faltered in the last lap towards freedom. Partition he wrote in a press note “would be unadulterated Hindu Raj”. These pages were made public in 1988 when he and all his colleagues had died. He may have had grievances with Nehru but that did not prevent him from dedicating India Wins Freedom to “Jawaharlal, friend and Comrade”.

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Friday, November 2, 2018

Sabarimala Lineup: BJP, Congress Oppose SC Judgement, Communists Uphold It

Sabarimala Lineup: BJP, Congress Oppose SC Judgement, Communists Uphold It
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

My own experience of Sabarimala causes me to rub my eyes with disbelief at the spectacle of what poet Niaz Haider called “badsoorat siyasat” not quite the same as ugly politics. I owe my visit to Sabarimala in 1982 entirely to Bob Murari, the distinguished IAS officer of Tamil Nadu cadre who, along with his brothers, undertook the pilgrimage annually to wash off his sins.

Would the faith into which I was born be an obstacle? Not at all, said Bob, quite the contrary. The Sabarimala deity, Lord Ayyappa’s favourite was a Muslim devotee named Vavar Swamy whose shrine, before Ayyappa’s, is visited by most pilgrims. The Murari brothers and I obtained our share of Vibhuti or holy ash from a Muslim priest, his long beard coming virtually upto his navel.

The trek from the base of the hill across Pamba River is through lush forests reverberating to the sound of Vavar Swamy songs sung by Jesudasan. That a pilgrimage so all embracing of religions should be transformed into a battle ground between devotees, the state and the Supreme Court is because of the very special talent for mobilization which is patent to the BJP alone.

Multiple strands harmonized in Sabarimala. But the pilgrimage has been transformed into a cauldron bubbling over with mischief with political intent.

The BJP President Amit Shah’s game is straightforward. He is eager to do a Tripura in Kerala. The Tripura results were the biggest shock I had experienced in 50 years of covering politics. I have on my shelf a book “Tripura’s Bravehearts” by B.L. Vohra, former Director General of Police in the state. It is an unbelievable document. Never will you find a decorated police officer shower praise with such enthusiasm on a serving Chief Minister. Vohra’s successor in Agartala took my breath away. He reported a solitary case of domestic violence as the only breach of law and order in the state capital in the past year. The state had the highest rate of literacy. It held a record for implementing central schemes in the shortest possible time. It was a dream government. The greatest achievement of the CPM government over the past 30 years had been the end to the country’s fiercest insurgency. The tribal-non tribal harmony was an architectural achievement. The BJP campaign excavated along this faultline, pouring huge sums of money in the process.

This extended narration on Tripura is with one purpose: to demonstrate the BJJP-RSS will be to win against impossible odds. In this chase, all means are kosher. Kerala is by comparison, an easier citadel to conquer because the Congress and the BJP are, on the Sabarimala issue, broadly on the same side. Amit Shah has chastised the Supreme Court for having ruled that young women, whose entry to Sabarimala was banned so far by ancient custom be allowed entry. The State Congress has in fact taken an even tougher stand. Ramesh Chennithala, Congress leader in the Assembly, is insistent that the BJP at the Centre bring in an ordinance to nullify effects of the SC judgement. BJP State President, P.S. Sreedharan Pillai throws up his hands. “It is a state subject – the Centre is helpless unless the State Assembly makes the demand.” His target is the CPM led Front.

“Rubbish” shouts Chennithala, it is in the concurrent list and does not require the State Assembly’s certificate. The implication is that the BJP government at the Centre is unwilling to open the ordinance route in such matters because the party would then come under pressure to bring ordinance elsewhere – Ram Mandir, for instance.

This one upmanship on Sabarimala casts both the parties as hardliners, opposed to the Supreme Court directive. The Congress is, in fact, following a folksy, Awadhi saying” “tum daal, daal to hum paat, paat.” (If you climb the branches; I shall climb the leaves). The Congress’s Chennithala says Ayyappa devotees be given the status of a religious sect under article 26, immunized from any legal interference. “My party is with the believers” he asserts.

Since the late K.Karunakaran’s Chief Ministership, the Congress has always been BJP-neutral, largely because its biggest political opponent is the Communist led Left Front. The BJP never entered the assembly, but it consolidated 0.5 to 1.0 percent vote across the State. Whenever this 1 percent vote was injected into the election process, the Congress led United Democratic Front generally wins. Margins of victory in Kerala are thin.

The post Sabarimala bonhomie is in a different context. The scales are different. An aggressive BJP at the Centre has, by sheer will to power, achieved the near impossible in Tripura. It is eager to repeat the performance in Kerala. Even if the BJP takes an electoral dip in the 2019 elections over all, Kerala by itself will be a great trophy. It was the first state in world history that brought Communists to power through the ballot box in 1957. Salvador Allende came to power in Chile democratically much later, in 1972.

While the Congress in Kerala has been tactically soft on the BJP, it has had to fight the BJP tooth and nail in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Diverse experiences institutionalized two broad Congress approaches to the BJP – the Karunakaran model and the Arjun Singh model, shaped by their politics in their respective states.

One of Karunakaran’s great ambitions was to remove any doubts about Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s caste, since his father Feroz Gandhi was a Parsi. He escorted a bare bodied Rajiv Gandhi several times to the Guruvayoor temple. These visitations must have had the appropriate effect. For this reason, Congress spokesman, Randeep Surjewala, was able to assert in the course of the Gujarat campaign that Congress President Rahul Gandhi is a Janeudhari (Thread wearing) Hindu, which means a Brahmin. Rumours are now afoot that itinerary for Rahul Gandhi is in the works to enable him to undertake the pilgrimage to Lord Ayyappa’s shrine in Sabarimala when the temple opens in November. Who knows the BJP may field Modi in the spirit of competitive piety.

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