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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Friday, October 26, 2018

Khashoggi, Saudi Crown Prince, Thomas Friedman And Lamb Kebabs

Khashoggi, Saudi Crown Prince, Thomas Friedman And Lamb Kebabs
                                                                                           Saeed Naqvi

I interviewed Jamal Khashoggi in Jeddah in December, 2001, months after 9/11. What struck me were his strong opinions on the Palestinian issue. Since US military action in Afghanistan, following the destruction of the twin towers in New York, was the big story, that naturally was the focus of my interview (it can be seen on but Palestine is what riled Khashoggi.

The manner in which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has upturned his country’s policy on Palestine may have been one of the issues on which Jamal Khashoggi differed with the Prince so sharply in his public talks that he had to pay for with his life. He was unhappy with MBS’s opposition to the Arab Spring, his growing authoritarianism, but Palestine was an angst he carried. If he changed his views in his last years I would not know.

Khashoggi was valued by visiting journalists for a simple reason: he was well informed. He was plugged into the kingdom’s caverns of power. His role as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, South Sudan, various news spots in West Asia and elsewhere, enhanced his own level of interaction within the Kingdom. His field reports made him interesting to practitioners of power. This had a multiplier effect when he met journalists outside – Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, for instance.

Friedman has, more or less, admitted that Khashoggi was his “Deep Throat” on the Kingdom, except that Friedman was unable to protect his “Deep Throat” the way Woodward and Bernstein protected theirs. How na├»ve could Friedman have been. He writes:
“Jamal had come to my office a few days ago for a long talk about Saudi Arabia and MBS.” Are we to understand that a high profile Saudi informer, visits a higher profile New York Times columnist in the iconic NYT building and intelligence agents from the Kingdom, Israel, the US missed the story? MBS had personally invested in Friedman; his revisionism rankled.

Pressure was applied on Khashoggi to return to Saudi Arabia. He had left the country in September 2017 just before MBS arrested Princes, business tycoons and other influential Saudis and parked them in one of the world’s most luxurious hotels, Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh. He obviously had an inkling of what was to happen.

Immediately, MBS’s propaganda machine went into top gear. Early kudos for the reform minded Crown Prince came from none other than Lyse Doucet of the BBC. She walked on tip-toes, through the hotel’s chandeliered corridor, speaking in whispers lest the incarcerated Princes were disturbed. Peering through the grill were CNN’s John Defterios and Richard Quest. The most powerful in the Western media had turned up to blow trumpets. It was command performance on an epic scale. There you had the world’s “free press”, captive to petro dollars.

Khashoggi’s macabre end is great tragedy and yet the convulsions in which the world media and nodal points of global power are remains a puzzle. Hundreds of journalists are killed each year even in functioning democracies. Saudis are not even known for free speech.

In MBS framework the pride of place was reserved for Friedman, who was invited to the Royal Family’s (in his words) “ornate adobe-walled palace in Ouja” where “MBS spoke in English, while his brother Khalid and several senior ministers shared different lamb dishes and spiced the conversation” which lasted four hours. The succulence of the Kebabs inspired Friedman to purple prose on MBS.

Just when the 33 year old Crown Prince was beginning to wallow in all the manufactured publicity, Friedman began to worry about his credibility. The information base for revised versions was presumably provided by the likes of Khashoggi.

It turns out that MBS is not the only Saudi Crown Prince Friedman has savoured lamb dishes with. Remember the late Saudi king Abdullah? Well, he was Crown Prince in February 2002 when Friedman turned up:
“I am currently in Saudi Arabia on a visit – part of the Saudi opening to the world in light of the fact that 15 Saudis were involved in the September 11 attacks. So I took the opportunity of a dinner with the Crown Prince” – lamb kebabs again.

Friedman drew Abdullah’s attention to a column he had written on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse: in return for a total withdrawal by Israel to the June 4, 1967 lines, and the establishment of a Palestinian state, the 22 members of the Arab League should offer Israel full diplomatic relations, normalized trade and security.

“Have you broken into my desk?” asked Abdullah on hearing the proposal. He was ready with his own speech spelling out exactly the ideas in Friedman’s column. This became famous as Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace proposal. As we now know they went nowhere.

The ideas in the Abdullah package had been in the works when I met Khashoggi. The reason they lay in Abdullah’s desk was because there were no takers for the ideas in Israel. Indeed, Ariel Sharon’s actions against the Palestinians were generating anger even among the Saudi ruling class. Prince Turki bin Faisal was the most consistent critic. Khashoggi had been the closest to Turki bin Faisal, having been his spokesman when the Prince was the Intelligence Chief.

There remains a divide in Arab ruling circles, including in Saudi Arabia: one section of the elite is unwilling to accept the primacy of the Shia-Sunni divide as the principal faultline defining the Arab world. The contrived faultline, this group believes, is an effort to devalue the Palestinian cause.

Khashoggi’s mentor, Prince Turki, told a gathering in New York recently: there is a large Shia minority in the oil bearing eastern part of Saudi Arabia. Likewise there are Shia minorities in all the Gulf States. “How then can we endorse Shia-Sunni as the basic conflict?” This was Khashoggi’s line too.

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