Friday, October 25, 2019

Choice Before BJP: Hindu Rashtra Demands One Course, Elections Another

Choice Before BJP: Hindu Rashtra Demands One Course, Elections Another
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

After the Maharashtra, Haryana elections, when I reverted to friends and acquaintances, my personal pool for an opinion survey, a majority heaved a sigh of relief. This was at variance from the response of this very group during the 2019 Lok Sabha election. There was an unnerving consensus for Narendra Modi. Why? I had asked then. “Well, the Hindu sentiment” said a very friendly member of my welfare association.

Now that the BJP is diminished, why this sigh of relief? Mixing up “pride” in Hinduism with demonstrable “arrogance” of Hindutva power may be the cardinal mistake the Modi-Amit Shah duet have made.

Ultranationalism will give a platform an initial boost to take-off but ultranationalism cannot be sustained over long distances. Boosters en route to stoke nationalist temperature will begin to look like the handiwork of tricksters. One surgical strike on Pakistani terror camps will work wonders in one set of elections. But repeat it on the eve of another election and folks will screw up their noses: “again?” There is, in other words a decline in credibility as frequency of requirement for nationalism “boosters” increases. In fact even article 370 turned out to be a dud cartridge in this electoral round.

The Congress will be justified in taking heart from the results, but it will have to accept many qualifications. Its relatively decent performance in both the states is despite the Gandhi family. That is a problem congressmen do not like to talk about: how do they discard a dynasty?

Remember how Haryana strongman Bhupinder Singh Hooda inaugurated the Haryana campaign while the party high command, Hamlet like, was sunk in thought. Whether he forms the government or not, on this electoral showing, Hooda is looking a much taller Congressman than, say, Ahmad Patel, Anand Sharma, Ghulam Nabi Azad, etcetera.

In Maharashtra, the Congress is having to digest a principle it refused to accept during the Lok Sabha elections. It refused to be a junior partner to Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati in UP, to Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, or Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. Instead of joining them, on whatever terms available, to fight the BJP, it turned upon them, hoping to come up trumps. I heard the BJP sing in chorus: “With such enemies, who needs friends.” The Congress was clobbered in the three states.

I wonder what the “janeudhari” Brahmin, Rahul Gandhi is upto these days other than temple hopping? (Or, has he given up the practice). Two cameos come to mind. There was Rahul, flanked by Ashok Gehlot and Randeep Surjewala, addressing a post campaign press conference on the fifth floor of Ahmedabad’s Radisson Blue hotel. Someone asked where was the senior most Gujarati Congressman, Ahmad Patel? He had been advised not to appear at the press conference. His presence might give BJP the ammunition to polarize the vote.

The Supreme Court judgment on Sabrimala lifted the ban on women of childbearing age to enter the shrine. The RSS smacked its lips. Here was an issue of “aastha”, faith. The cadres would whip up an almighty frenzy if an abiding tradition was breached by the Supreme Court. Congress, which had initially supported the judiciary found the Hindu card alluring. So, helped by nimble footed leaders like Shashi Tharoor, the Congress recalibrated its stand until it was indistinguishable from the RSS position. The CPM Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stood his ground, mobilized the Ezhavas and so badly undercut the RSS’s very own Nair Service Society, that he became unbeatable in two elections where the Nairs were once powerful.

What should the Congress do other than give up? It can call an All India Congress session and hold elections to elect its various bodies including the Congress Working Committee. It does not adopt this obvious route because the spectre of the Tirupati session in 1993 haunts it. P.V. Narasimha Rao heard those results in glum silence. His arch rival Arjun Singh had polled the largest number of votes, followed by Rajesh Pilot, Sharad Pawar, a slate bereft of Brahmins except for the Prime Minister’s Secretary, Jitendra Prasada. The results were promptly annulled.

There are plenty of wise men in the Congress who, alas, have brought the party to this sorry pass. Some ideas can be tossed up: hold party elections followed by a conclave to chart out a new, realistic course for the party. It must give up its dream of “reviving” to the glory it began to lose as early as 1967, when eight states had non Congress governments. Now, by its own ineptitude, its mimicking of the Hindu platform, it has caused the BJP’s dramatic ascent, indeed, dominance. Its first task should be to strengthen regional forces – exactly as it has done with Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra. Its perspective should be a larger federation of regional parties. It will be federalism that will check the phenomenal rise of the BJP. That is the only way to whittle down the idea of a unitary system.

A contributory fact for exposing the BJP’s vulnerability has been rural distress, unemployment, nervousness on collapsing banking system, all functions of neo liberal economic policies mingled with a swadeshi urge – neither here nor there. The Congress must consult progressive economists to give shape to a left of centre platform, without which distributive justice is not possible in a country which is now globally accepted as 102 in the Global Hunger Index.

Have these results been accepted by the opposition without grumbling about the ruling party’s capacity to manipulate EVMs? Not really, because at least 850 EVM related complaints have been registered with the state election commission. But there is no evidence of a combined opposition movement to abandon EVMs in favour of paper ballots.

Has the Hindutva brigades trot towards its transformational agenda of a Hindu Rashtra by 2025, centenary of the RSS, been retarded by these results? There is Kashmir and Ram Temple yet to be played, but how and when? Election results demand one course, Hindu Rashtra another.

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Friday, October 18, 2019

Prophet Mohammad at Hudaybiyyah: Lesson For Muslims Coping With Ayodhya?

Prophet Mohammad at Hudaybiyyah: Lesson For Muslims Coping With Ayodhya?
                                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

Should the Supreme Court verdict enable the building of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Muslim fears about the security of mosques in Kashi and the Idgah in Mathura would appear to have been taken care of by the Places of Worship Act of 1991. The act spells out that all places of worship “except Ayodhya” will be maintained and respected as they were in 1947. Assurances, however, have value only when there is rule of law which has been a retreating value in recent years. In these circumstances what is the wise course for the Muslims to adopt when the Ayodhya verdict is delivered before November 17?

Already, intemperate whispers are afloat that should the verdict favour the Mandir some members of All India Muslim Personal Law Board would go in appeal. Years ago, a radically different way out for Muslims was spelt out by my mother, Atia Naqvi. She had accompanied me to Ayodhya not specifically to watch the brick laying ceremony in August, 1989, but to be able to spend time with me because soon after the Ayodhya assignment I would catch the flight to New Delhi from Lucknow where she lived.

She made three observations: First, she found a mosque on a high ground jarring in a patently Hindu, temple town. Secondly, by her understanding of Muslim names, Mir Baqi, who is supposed to have built the mosque, was quite clearly a Shia. Why then was there no agitation in the Shia enclaves of Lucknow? And finally, and most importantly, if the Hindu had claimed it to be the birth place of Ram, why had the Muslim raised their objection to the highest pitch. Let me try to quote her verbatim from memory:
“A Muslim can spread out his prayer-mat anywhere facing the Kaaba and say his “namaz” (prayer). A Hindu consecrates the idol which is then alive eternally for worship.”

It is not wise for Muslims to argue against the Hindu claim that Ram Lalla was born under what became the central dome of the mosque, now demolished. What archaeologists say is, in political terms, not as important as what the vast majority of people have been induced to repose absolute faith in. Since this faith is being exploited by political interests towards their agenda of “Hindu Rashtra”, the Muslim opposition to this transformational plan provides grist to the Hindutva mill. It enables Hindutva to sharpen Muslim-Hindu polarization on an even larger scale.

The boost from two BJP seats in 1984 in Parliament to 350 now would not have been possible without the Muslims having been ensnared into opposing the agenda. This posture of Muslim ironically, served Hindutva’s purpose.

Muslims were first led into faulty politics by Syed Shahabuddin, a brilliant officer of the Indian Foreign Service whom Atal Behari Vajpayee, as Foreign Minister in the first Janata government (1977-80) handpicked as a “Muslim” face of the Janata Party. Shahab fell into the trap of wanting to be a leader of Indian Muslims rather than being a “Muslim leader”. Communal polarization is built into the approach. Little wonder he found himself digging his heels in for the mosque when the Ayodhya dispute erupted. The VHP, BJP had reheated an old issue as a strategy to neutralize V.P. Singh’s promotion of caste forces in the Hindi belt. L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra was intended to serve more than one purpose: to contain the ogre of casteism let loose by V.P. Singh and to accentuate the anti Muslim slant of the BJP. This is where Shahab’s fierce opposition helped the BJP. What Advani initiated has spiraled into the stratosphere which is where the BJP today is.

I must, ofcourse, add in parenthesis, that Shahab was far from being communal. He was a deeply religious gentleman. In amoral politics, devoid of honesty, such a person can easily be cast as “communal” by those on an agenda of majoritarianism. Shahab had the honesty to recognize his naiveté and withdraw from politics.

Shahab did not have the “tact” which Justice Sibqat Ullah Khan stressed in his 2010 Allahabad High Court Judgment on Ayodhya. Justice Khan gave the example of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah which prophet Mohammad signed with the hostile tribe of Quraysh in 628AD. It had been six years since the prophet and his followers had left Mecca for Medina.

After these years, the Prophet with a caravan of 1,000 men on his way to Mecca for Haj reached Hudaybiyyah. Quraysh had made it known that they would block Muslim entry to Mecca. The Prophet consulted his companions: should the caravan return to Medina or proceed, risking a battle? Intermediaries carried messages back and forth. All that the Muslims wanted was to perform Haj at Mecca. This, the Quraysh were determined to prevent. Eventually a truce was agreed upon. Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, drafted a treaty. The prophet dictated that it was a treaty between “Mohammad, the Prophet of Allah, and Quraysh”. Interlocutors for Quraysh objected. They did not recognize him as God’s prophet. Ali, his cousin, refused to drop the preamble. The Prophet intervened and himself deleted the phrase, thus paving the way for a Treaty which declared a truce between the two sides.

The terms of the treaty were considered a surrender. For instance, despite the compromise, Muslims would not be allowed to perform Haj that year. Next year they could, provided they stayed in Mecca for only three days and so on.

In modern military terms, the treaty turned out to be a sort of tactical retreat, because in a matter of a few years Muslims had conquered Mecca. At this stage, the story becomes a parable.

What “conquest” was Justice Khan recommending? If you study Hudaybiyyah as a parable alongside some of Iqbal’s couplets which Justice Khan so aptly quotes, his message becomes clear: “communal disharmony” is what has to be conquered.

But that precisely is what majoritarianism does not want. Its meteoric rise since 2014 is based on polarization and more polarization.

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Friday, October 11, 2019

Withdrawing From Syria: Trump Sets Cats Among Flocks Of Pigeons

Withdrawing From Syria: Trump Sets Cats Among Flocks Of Pigeons
                                                                                           Saeed Naqvi

When Dore Gold, one of the most powerful voices in Israel’s strategic community, raises his hands, skywards, and exclaims “today I feel as vulnerable as the Kurds”, who have been abandoned by Donald Trump, one fact can be cast in stone: West Asia has changed. A panic war cannot be ruled out. But war with whom? Situated in a comparable circumstance, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, on his knees in Yemen and the Aramco compound, is flourishing the flag of peace at Tehran. But then who hit the Iranian tanker outside Jeddah? These regional conflicts will not tamely wind down; they will zig-zag their way out.

The Saudi “messenger” to Tehran, happens to be Pakistan’s Prime Minister. Surely, Imran Khan will carry the peace message, but he will also unfurl his Jammu and Kashmir agenda before the Iranian leadership. This, when Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping will also be circling around that issue and addressing a host of others. It must be clear as daylight to New Delhi that Trump’s withdrawal from West Asia is synchronizing with his “pivot to Asia”, which means expanded conflict with China. Western media’s dedicated coverage of the disturbances in Hong Kong, human rights in Xinxiang, all signal a long term Sino-US standoff. Since the days of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, India has been active in the “Quard” with Japan, Australia and the US. Ambiguities in the international system made it possible to play both the options – quard and bilateral relations with Beijing. But Trump is likely to be more jealous as US-China tensions rise? New Delhi will have to toss up a coin with the same image on both sides.

It is exactly 33 years ago that President Ronald Reagan and the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev mooted such innovative arms control ideas at Reykjavik, Iceland, that even strategist like Henry Kissinger found them unacceptably radical. And yet, when sense sank in, the intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed the next year paving the way to a changed world order. Change is in air, but of a different order.

Trump has been characteristically blunt. “The United States has spent eight trillion dollars fighting in and policing the Middle East (West Asia). Thousands of our great soldiers have died or been badly wounded. Millions of people have died on the other side.”

“Going into the Middle East is the worst decision ever made in the history of our country. We went to war under a false and now disproven premise: weapons of mass destruction. There were none.” This is Trump’s rationale for “slowly and carefully bringing our great soldiers and military home”. He says his focus is on the Big Picture. “USA is now greater than ever before.” That is his line for the 2020 elections.

Trump has been making allegations against his predecessors even before. Watch his interview to Jake Tapper of the CNN on the eve of the 2016 elections. He was vehement that Obama and Hillary Clinton spent millions “in Syria which, in fact, went to terrorists”. Soon after this allegation, Obama’s Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, told a Congressional hearing before live TV cameras that a $500 million project to train militants had to be terminated because the “Jihadis” so trained had walked away with all the expensive equipment and joined some other group.

This was quite as mysterious as the origins of the Islamic State. The sudden establishment of the Islamic state in Mosul remains an uninvestigated whodunit. When the IS charged towards Baghdad in 2014, wielding the latest arms mounted on Humvees straight from the showroom, sources in Baghdad and Najaf were quite convinced that the IS was a US project.

What Erdogan has been offered is a poisoned chalice. This is clear as daylight in Trump’s own words. The tone is of malicious glee: “Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out.”

The recipe for the countries listed above to stew in their own juices is available possibly unknowingly even in Turkish statements. The Kurdish forces Erdogan is bombing had in their custody thousands of Islamic State detainees, many of them foreigners. State Department spokesmen are on record: “The US has pressed France, Germany and other European nations to take back captured IS fighters, but they refused.” In fact Turkish sources have amplified this statement. Some 12,000 IS fighters are distributed over seven prisons in north-east Syria. Of these, 4,000 are “foreigners”, which means neither Syrian nor Iraqi. List of IS members and their families taken back by western countries is almost comical: France (18 children), US (16 adults and children), Germany (fewer than 10), Australia (8 children), Sweden (7 children) and Norway (5 children). It is in the nature of groups like the IS to slip through even well laid nets. How many IS fighters are lying low in Syria’s north is anybody’s guess. But the Kurds along the Syria-Turkey border, who kept a steady gaze on the IS will now be hopelessly distracted by the Turkish offensive. Until the other day, the US was with the Kurds. What if these IS jihadis are let loose, say, across the border into Turkey? Erdogan will have to cope with trouble makers of a more lethal make than the Syrian Kurds.

Pundits like New York Times, Thomas Friedman, see West Asia exposed to a different kind of danger as a result of US withdrawal. Ever since the Iraq-Syria border was opened, the Iranians have an easy land bridge from Tehran, Iraq, Syria to Lebanon. Friedman’s anxiety is that this “tightening of the noose around Israel” will now go unchecked because that was one of the roles the US played in the region. “This brings the Iran-Israel shadow war into the open.” By the act of pulling out, Trump has set several cats among several flocks of pigeons all over the place.

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Friday, October 4, 2019

Netanyahu And MbS Have Lost Their Swagger: Has West Asia Changed?

Netanyahu And MbS Have Lost Their Swagger: Has West Asia Changed?
                                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

In West Asia, the tide has turned against Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump is doing nothing about it. So long as Trump’s “B” team kicked and ranted the smell of war lurked. John Bolton, Bibi Netanyahu, bin Sultan and bin Zayed reinforced each other’s war lust until enlightenment dawned: Trump was using them to beat the drums of war to a deafening crescendo in order to exert maximum pressure on those whom he was out to strike a deal with. The “B” team despaired” because Trump wouldn’t pull the trigger.

The disabling of units at Aramco and occupation of Najran are body blows. MbS, in the bleakness of his circumstance, is having to eat crow. Bibi is meanwhile hobbling with corruption cases and the elusiveness of durable power. I am not convinced that Trump is a wounded stag quite yet. In fact, by initiating impeachment proceedings against the President, the 79 year old House leader Nancy Pelosi may have over exposed a 76 year Joe Biden, leaving the way open for America’s first woman President, Elizabeth Warren, 70, now that the 78 year old Bernie Sanders must slow down with a serious heart condition. But that’s a digression although it has a bearing on the radically changing situation in West Asia. It may still be pre mature to fall back on the Marxist appraisal that the immense power of the Jewish lobby and petro dollars will turn to dross once Imperialism loses interest in the House of Saud and Israel. That stage may not have been reached but a trend has been noticeable.

Why did Riyadh and Tel Aviv panic at the prospect of Iran being brought into the tent by the US regularizing its nuclear intentions? The fact that Barack Obama-John Kerry team were creating a self-regulating balance of power in West Asia, meant that they were shedding their hands-on-interest in the region. “Pivot to Asia” was beckoning.

MbS’s meteoric rise was accompanying by such high wire acts as the detention of the kingdom’s billionaires in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel or the macabre dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. For seasoned observers of Saudi Arabia, the abandoning of the old style of diplomacy, furtive movements behind silken curtains, in favour of the recklessness of the Crown Prince, did foretell dangers ahead. A fall was feared, but not a nosedive.

MbS may have been able to cover up reversals in Syria particularly after Russians entered the proceedings. But it was universally acknowledged that the pointless war in Yemen was going disastrously, draining the kingdom’s coffers, building a humanitarian catastrophe and helping create a battle tested Houthi “Vietcong” enlarging their dependence on Iran. When future historians record the rise and fall of MbS, they will put down his hubris to endless supply of petrodollars attracting an endless and wasteful supply of US and British arms incapable of coping with simply configured drones. Carelessness induced in this fashion helped further consolidate the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq and Houthis in Yemen. This is the Shia arc Saudis should be worried about not the Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Hamas, which is Israel’s brainchild for its own reasons. And Hamas is true blue Sunni.

It is ironical that one should be tossing a Persian saying at MbS: Der ayad, durust ayad. Arrival of wisdom, however late is to be welcomed: the realization that the five year long war with Yemen has been a ridiculous waste in which American arm dealers and mercenary armies made unspeakable sums of money.

The artificial Shia-Sunni faultline was created for two reason: to scare the oil rich GCC with Iran’s rise and sell them arms and, secondly, to break the morale of Iran, the only county in West Asia which stands up for Palestinian rights, much to Israel’s annoyance.

On current showing, the trick has not worked. That which was never intended appears to be the outcome. Low key pilgrimages, confined largely to Shias, have, in the Shia-Sunni competition, demonstrably burgeoned. Arba’een, the 40th day of Hussain’s martyrdom, has become an annual walk from Najaf to Karbala, a distance of 80 miles, in which last year 20 million pilgrims from all over the world participated, far in excess of the annual Haj of Mecca. This cannot please the Saudis.

This year, the congregation is expected to be much bigger. Further, traffic from the shrine of Imam Raza in Mashad to Karbala and Najaf and onto Bibi Zainab’s shrine in Damascus is likely to be frenetic. This, because the Iraq-Syria border is now open, exactly what Riyadh and Tel Aviv were fiercely opposed to. By mid-October, this part of West Asia will have pilgrims in all directions, like a maze of flyovers.

One aspect of the recent disturbances in Southern Iraq is to deter attendance at Arba’een. These uncertainties will wax and wane so long as relations with Iran are not firmed up. Supreme leader Ayatullah Khamenei is firm: revert to the nuclear deal as it was on May 8, 2018 and lift sanctions before any dialogue is possible. The French have offered a compromise formula: that some of the countries who have had to impose sanctions against Iran lift restrictions to initiate an official level conversation which then prepares for a higher level engagement.

President Macron of France had taken the audacious initiative to invite Foreign Minister Zarif unannounced during the August G7 summit in France. But at the UNGA in September, President Hassan Rouhani made a strong pitch for “regional issues to be settled by regional powers”. This would tend to obviate a French role for the time being.

Recently UAE’s bin Zayed did send a delegation to Tehran. Is MbS chastened enough to tread the path towards regional peace without holding America’s hand? When that happens, West Asia will have changed.

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