Friday, January 25, 2019

Priyanka’s Entry Makes For Riveting Triangular Pre Election Pirouette

Priyanka’s Entry Makes For Riveting Triangular Pre Election Pirouette
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

The image of Priyanka Gandhi that has stayed with me is of her campaigning for her mother and brother in Rae Bareli and Amethi in April-May 2014. It was a desperate bid to keep the family in play.

The extraordinary element in the campaigning was that it took place at all. For weeks, months if not years, Kishori Lal Sharma, assigned by Congress President, Sonia Gandhi to keep a watch on the two family constituencies, would wait for Priyanka Gandhi to turn up. Sharma, with a moustache like Hardy’s (as in Laurel and Hardy), would mobilize crowds, Panchayat leaders, teachers in schools and colleges to be addressed by Priyanka but on most occasions shamianas had to be dismantled after the invitees had tea and samosas. Priyanka, ofcourse, had not turned up.

Sharma, handpicked by Satish Sharma, Rajiv Gandhi’s pilot friend, was the local incharge. Priyanka Gandhi had been given the task in overall, political control of the “fiefdoms”. But her long absences and repeated non arrivals led to irresponsible speculations about her health.

Her disinterest or disability must have alarmed the family as Modi mounted history’s most expensive media campaign. The media was comprehensively under Modi’s spell. Reports reached Sonia Gandhi that the Congress score in UP was likely to be zero. Never having lived without power, the family pressed panic buttons to atleast keep Sonia Gandhi and Rahul in play in the Lok Sabha. That is when Priyanka galvanized the campaign so effectively that the family’s “izzat” was saved in the two constituencies. The credit must go entirely to her for the two elections.

Her husband, Robert Vadra’s business misdemeanours were, in popular expectation, the vulnerable points where the opposition might choose to strike. But Priyanka turned the game around. She raised the subject herself. “I am confident like my grandmother always was that the truth will eventually come out”. What saddened her was not that the opposition had tried to humiliate (she used the expression “zaleel kiya”) the family but that her “bewildered” children had to be explained what they were hearing.

Indians are nothing if not a feudal people, holding on to their hierarchies adoringly. It is the dream of the lowest in the land to enact the “princely” image and come riding a horse as a bridegroom on marriage day. Imagine, then the “princess” from the country’s premier family, taking “her” people in the family pocket borough into confidence on the humiliations that the opposition has tried to heap upon her. How evocative. Will not the people be moved?

Priyanka has what in Hindi is called “chhab” or elegance, in the way she carries the sari on her tall frame, just like Indira Gandhi. In her public engagements she follows the stately dictum:
“Favours to none, to all she smiles extends,
Oft’ she rejects but never once offends.”

In her speech she comes across as someone who has grown up among Kashmiri aunts and uncles, with clear diction. It is possible that she picked up the cadences of her diction from limited exposure to her extended Kashmiri family. In this she is far removed from Rahul’s blandness of tone and expression.

Priyanka’s persona is potentially a very promising package for public life but with two caveats. There is no assessment available of her intellectual or cultural pursuits, areas that were reasonably cultivated in Indira Gandhi. The second caveat is on her ability for hard work. What her brother, the party President, said while announcing her candidature is fairly ambitious. Priyanka and Jyotiraditya are not being sent to UP for two months but for much longer. “We want to have our Chief Minister in UP.” That will require staying power.

All the empirical data we have so far confirms one fact: she has the stamina for one short burst of energetic campaigning. There will be a question mark on her stamina as a long distance runner. She has demonstrated strong instincts of self-preservation. Towards this end she can work for the family. The unknown quantity is this: can political ambition be ignited in her breast. Her status as Mrs. Vadra may be an obstruction.

For the Mayawati-Akhilesh combination Rahul’s move comes across as:
“Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault and hesitate dislike.”

Rahul has explained it nicely. “I respect Mayawatiji and Akhileshji and we shall defeat the BJP together.” If requested, he said, he was open to talks with the SP-BSP combine. What else he said in the same sequence expresses either pique or determination. “We shall not be on the back foot.” Playing on the front foot would entail a leadership role in the UP alliance. This would be an outlandish negotiating gambit. Ofcourse, the Congress is the country’s premier upper caste party. That the state of Ganga, Jamuna, Triveni, Kashi, Mathura, Ayodhya, should be timidly conceded to the lower caste formations, is anathema to the party. The prospect makes it feel hollow in the pit of its stomach.

Nothing can be done about the discomfort because the party’s performance in recent elections has been dismal. The formula for seat distribution in UP was straightforward: BSP, SP, Congress, RLD would be entitled to the number of seats in which they came second, that is, 34, 31, 5, 2 in that order. Against this backdrop the Priyanka shock may be designed to pressure BSP-SP to open negotiations for more. Seat adjustments placing a premium on winnability against the BJP is one way to go. But that will not gain it seats – it will have to search beyond the formula. Otherwise will it play spoiler. Can it? Or will it sting the BJP by weaning away the Brahmins from the arch Thakur, Yogi Adityanath?

Mamata Banerjee’s alliance jamboree in Kolkata did not sideline the Congress but it sidelined Rahul Gandhi by inviting Sonia Gandhi instead. The former Congress President is aiming at retirement. Not only did she not go to Kolkata (Mallikarjun Kharge and Abhishek Manu Singhvi were sent instead) but it is believed she has also decided not to contest from Rae Bareli. Will Priyanka inherit that seat? That will change the whole game.

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Friday, January 18, 2019

How Is The Electoral Game Shaping Up In Key States

How Is The Electoral Game Shaping Up In Key States
                                                                                           Saeed Naqvi

The BJP in Kerala may have boosted its saffron image on the Sabrimala issue but is unlikely to gain much electoral advantage in 2019. That has been the pattern for decades: it has zero conversion rate even though it has a vote share of 10 percent. It would certainly like to weaken, harm, destroy the CPM. Towards this end it has to direct its cadres to quietly help the Congress. But in this instance it is not inclined to augment Congress numbers in New Delhi.

K. Karunakaran, as the Kerala Congress maestro had mastered the art of playing “footsy” under the table with the RSS. Victory margins in Kerala were generally slim. Whenever it suited both the parties, the RSS cadres were injected into the process, thus improving Congress chances. In 1989, the wily, Karunakaran went one better. Holding the BJP with one hand, he gripped the Muslim League’s hand with the other.

Kerala-UP linkages were brought into play even in the aftermath of the “Shilanyas” or the brick laying ceremony in Ayodhya. On November 10, 1989, Rajiv Gandhi was the darling of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad because in violation of the Allahabad High Court order, he allowed the Shilanyas to take place on disputed land, precisely what the VHP demanded. His officials were instructed to put out the story that the brick laying ceremony was done “a good 100 metres from the disputed area.” But the truth was leaked by the VHP, out to prove its muscle.

The VHP, in seventh heaven because of the turn in Ayodhya, paid Rajiv Gandhi back in Kerala by instructing its cadres to help the Congress. But despite all exertions, Rajiv Gandhi, who had won 400 seats in 1984, lost the 1989 elections.

This somewhat extended focus on an election this reporter was witness to may help understand facets of the electoral battle ahead. Note how the Congress mistakes tactics for strategy with unerring frequency.

For UP 2019, a seat sharing formula had been suggested some months ago. BJP’s stunning victory in the state for Lok Sabha in 2014 had not been with wide margins. Based on this fact a formula was suggested. The Samajwadi Party, SP, Bahujan Samaj Party, BSP and Rashtriya Lok Dal or RLD and the Congress would be given tickets for seats wherever they came second in 2014. By this formula the BSP, SP, Congress and RLD would be entitled to 34, 31, 5 and 2 seats give or take a few. That Congress performance in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh entitles it to more seats in UP is now purely theoretical because the BSP, SP (and possibly RLD) deal has been sealed and delivered. By announcing its intention to contest all 80 seats the Congress is helping nobody except possibly the BJP.

The Congress cannot have forgotten the panic which gripped it when all assessments indicated the party might be a cypher in UP, in 2014. Week after week, Sonia Gandhi’s side-kick in Rae Bareli and Amethi Kishori Lal Sharma twiddled his thumbs waiting in vain for Priyanka Gandhi’s promised visitations. To look after the two family fiefdoms was the therapy assigned to her. But she would not show up. Only the fear of her mother and brother losing in their citadels spurred her to action. In a week of effective campaigning, beaming an Indira Gandhi like charisma, she did help keep her family in Parliament.

That was just four and a half years ago. To play spoilsport in UP now will diminish the party. There is so much else to play for. Look, how ham handedly the BJP has played its hand on the Citizen’s Bill in Assam. Here is a chance for Rahul Gandhi to try recover its turf in the North East. It is generally believed that the Congress lost the brilliant organization man, Himanta Biswa Sarma to the BJP by treating him high handedly when Sarma came to consult the Congress President. Apparently, the duration of the meeting was spent with Rahul feeding biscuits to his dog.

There is a profound lesson for the BJP and an opportunity for the Congress opening up in the North East. There will be far reaching consequences for the BJP in the lesson it is about to learn. There are limits to Hindu consolidation that can be affected by targeting minorities. The party’s hands were more or less forced when Prime Minister V.P. Singh dusted up the Mandal committee report providing reservation to other Backward Castes (OBCs). That was the context of L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra and the movement to build the Ram Temple. The rest is familiar history.

The RSS and its creatures like the BJP have never quite accepted the centuries old caste pyramid being exposed to western notions of democracy, upward mobility, social justice. There is a huge, visceral resistance to ideas of equality in a system which, in this life, is inherently unequal, where upward mobility is only possible in a series of lives hereafter. Communalism, therefore, does not only feed on imagined or real historical wrongs alone. It is, in effect, also a strategy to keep the caste pyramid from keeling over.

In Assam and the North East, the faultline is not caste but Bengalis versus Assamese and plainsmen versus the tribes. The situation is custom made for constructive intervention by the Congress.

In West Bengal the Congress presents a confused picture. A small section is willing to go along with Mamata Banerjee. Of the 44 Congress MLAs, eight have crossed over to Mamata’s Trinamool Congress. At her rally in Kolkata, Mamata pointedly invited Sonia Gandhi, ignoring Rahul Gandhi. The upshot is that the Congress will send a senior leader to the rally. In other words the party will remain on talking terms with Mamata without letting her dictate the terms of endearment. But if the Congress is on talking terms with Mamata so far, CPM Secretary General Sitaram Yechury’s insistence to hold the Congress hand in Kolkata must await clarity. Also, the Congress is fighting the CPM tooth and nail in Kerala. Should that also not require some clarity?

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Friday, January 4, 2019

Remembering 40 Years Ago When Afghanistan, Pakistan, The Region Changed Forever

Remembering 40 Years Ago When Afghanistan, Pakistan, The Region Changed Forever
                                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

“Problems” like Afghanistan, even Iran, created in the thick of the Cold War, are now in the lap of a declining sole super power in a withdrawal mode. Since I was witness to both, the Saur and Islamic revolutions, I thought the New Year might be a good occasion to ferret out material from my notebook focusing on the Genesis. To synchronize with the arrival of 2019, let us revert to New Year’s Day, 40 years ago, 1978 when President Jimmy Carter accompanied by his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski arrived in New Delhi. Morarji Desai was Prime Minister and Atal Behari Vajpayee the Minister for External Affairs.

The two events need not be bound together by conspiracy theories but within four months of the Carter visit, the Saur revolution on April 28 brought Communists to power in Kabul. The next morning my story was banner headlines with Indian Express. That communists had taken over in Afghanistan. It was a world scoop. And I owed it to one impeccable source.

A year after Carter’s New Delhi visit, the Shah was dethroned by the Ayatullahs in Tehran. The youth in the vanguard of the revolution laid siege to US embassy from 4 November 1979 for 444 days until January 20, 1981. I still remember the tears of relief in Carter’s eyes as he embraced Vice President Walter Mondale when the hostages were released. The Carter Presidency was consumed by Iran. Soon murals of Uncle Sam went up with cryptic captions:
“Shaitaan e Buzurg” or Senior Satan. These incidents continued to cast a long shadow on the West’s fluctuating relations with Iran even during the bizarre Iran-contra deal when Iran, Israel and the US were in one amazing scrum.

The Shah’s notorious Savak agency, never secretive with the CIA, planned to eliminate the Left which was gaining in influence around President Mohammad Daud who had deposed King Zahir Shah in a coup in 1973. Thereafter, the King lived in exile, in Rome until the post 9/11 US occupation when he returned as Father of the Nation.

Two communist parties of Afghanistan, Khalq and Parchan corresponded more or less to India’s CPI and CPM. I was able to attend the historic press conference addressed by Afghanistan’s head of the government after the coup, Noor Mohammad Taraki. He was leader of the Khalq faction. It was on the margins of this occasion, where well informed middle level communist leaders were present, I picked up bits and pieces of how the coup came about.

On April 17, Mir Akbar Khyber, a trade union leader attached to the Parcham faction was murdered, exposing prematurely the plot to eliminate the Left. Thus alerted, Communist cells in the Army and the Air Force led by Aslam Watanjar and Abdul Qadir were activated. Reinforcement, entered the palace and killed Daud. Coming of the Communists to power paved the way for the Soviet invasion in December 1979.

Brzezinski was back in the region, this time in Pakistan, peering over the parapets into Afghanistan, plotting the world’s largest programme of breeding Salafists, arming them to the hilt, to wage war against Soviet occupation. After this war had been won, spare ultra-Islamic Jehadis, their morale boosted by having helped defeat a super power, flexed their muscles in Kashmir, Cairo, Algeria where the West blundered by helping the army upturn the result of the 1991 election which brought the Islamists Salvation Front in the lead. The cancellation of election results bred more Islamism. Another complicating factor has not been mentioned yet. Since 1990, the US egged on by UNICAL, the gas giant has developed a major interest in TAPI – Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India Pipeline. Brzezinski shrugged his shoulders: we wanted to bring down the Soviet Union; “we were not worried about some stirred up Muslims”.

I must put it down to lack of hard work on my part but the beginnings of the Islamic revolution have remained something of a haze. Was Ayatullah’s first instinct to give the new regime a civilian face? A few days after the revolution the person journalists like me were directed to meet was suave Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan. In form, feature, sartorial detail, he was the very antithesis of the Ayatullah. He looked very European in a bow-tie and spoke English like a French grandee. That he lasted barely nine months in that post was because of his strong opposition to the occupation of the American embassy and the taking of US hostages. Abolhassan Banisadr, who escorted Ayatullah Khomeini from exile in Neauphle-le-Chateau, 30 kms from Paris, was made President. He was exiled because of internal conspiracies.

From the holy city of QOM came stories of the civilians plotting to oust the Ayatullahs who required a civilian front because a true blue Islamic revolution cannot be deemed to have taken place in the absence of the 12th Imam whose appearance will impart legitimacy to the revolution. The concept of the awaited messiah is common to all Abrahamic religions.

Various interests jump into a revolutionary situation to extract advantage. Just the other day Marine Le Pen with her fascist agenda tried to move in sideways into the yellow vest agitation in Paris. The confusing chaos caused a strong wing of the Ayatullahs dust up the theory of Vali Faqih or the intermediate Imam who can guide the revolution pending the appearance of the Mehdi or Messiah.

Like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, one use of the Islamic revolution was to be the bulwark against the Soviets. But for them to play this role the pro Soviet Tudeh party, which had played a role in the success of the revolution, had to pay a price. They were no longer underground, as they had been during the Shah, and easy targets to be eliminated. A more radical Mujahideen e Khalq, crossed over to Iraq where Saddam Hussain nursed them as an anti Ayatullah force.

If the CIA had a hand in eliminating the Communists, well, by the same token they have helped consolidate the Ayatullahs. What joy in this outcome?

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