Friday, November 26, 2021

Farmers And Post Taleban Region: Will PM Be Equally Supple?

Farmers And Post Taleban Region: Will PM Be Equally Supple?

                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

There have been two game changing events in the region demanding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focused attention – the farmer’s agitation and the ascent of Taleban in Kabul. The way he has switched gears on the three controversial farm laws has caused raised eyebrows.

The Prime Minister has a reputation for being tough, firm, uncompromising, determined, even obstinate, secure in the massive mandate of 2019. And yet he paused after having pitted the government against the farmers almost to the point of no return. Ofcourse elections are round the corner in UP, and elsewhere, and the outcome of these elections will have a bearing on the 2024 General Elections.

Whatever the compulsions for the PM to make a tactical withdrawal on the farmers’ demands, he has, in the course of doing so, signaled something Modi watchers had not expected: the Prime Minister can change. He has demonstrated a suppleness and this, precisely, is what will be required in full measure in coping with the regional challenges precipitated by the messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Clearly Modi’s men had such faith in the Americans and their handpicked Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, that they chose not to notice much else the, Taleban, for instance, who they saw as an extension of Pakistan. This gloomy, self defeating appraisal, imposed a kind of immobility on policy. This would inevitably have led New Delhi to a dead end.

One purpose of the Regional Security Dialogue organized by the National security Adviser, Ajit Doval, was to break out of this isolation. No one expected Pakistan to attend the meeting but their National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf could have refused in better language. In a situation of such flux all doors should be left ajar, by Pakistan as well as India and others in play.

At the New Delhi conference, Iran’s NSA Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani had a field day, tearing into the US military training skill: look how the much touted 3,00,000 strong Afghan National Army collapsed. Indeed, they spread out the red carpet for the Taleban to take over.

Apart from anti American invective, there was much else in Shamkhani’s presentation which Doval must have highlighted for the Prime Minister’s consideration – that Islamic State or Daesh mercenaries were being flown to Afghanistan. This was not new. For several years now Iranians, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been giving details of Afghanistan being readied as a centre for terrorism.

More recently Vladimir Putin gave similar details to a group of ex military officers. His foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2016 that the US was training militants in Syria. Donald Trump corroborated all of this in his conversation with CNN’s Jake Tapper. In fact he named Obama and Hilary Clinton: they were spending millions in arming militants, he said.

Is the centre of gravity for Islamic terror shifting to Afghanistan? In the recent past, these stories were emanating from the West Asian theatre, countries like Syria which were relatively “remote” from South Asia. Militancy gestating next door, in Afghanistan and in the notice of closest friend, the Americans, places New Delhi in an awkward bind.

The situation today is exactly the opposite of what it was on 7 October 2001 when the US launched missile attacks on Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda and its head, Osama bin Laden. It is an amazing coincidence of history that it was exactly on that date, basking in the post 9/11 Islamophobia, that Modi arrived in Ahmedabad to take charge as Gujarat Chief Minister. The Gujarat pogrom of February 2002, almost blended with the hysterical global anti Islamism unleashed by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and a host of others.

In 2001 New Delhi’s plaint was against the Americans having incorporated Pakistan as “the” frontline state in the “global war on terror”. It was painfully ironical because New Delhi’s much amplified chant was against “cross border terrorism” from Pakistan. New Delhi’s tormentor was now being chaperoned by the US as democracy’s protector. The 13 December 2001 attack on Indian Parliament was a terrible event, but it went some distance in restoring New Delhi’s self image as a victim of Pakistani terror.

In the past 20 years, the world and the region have changed radically. It was its “sole super power” moment which propelled the US to attack, invade, occupy Afghanistan. The departure from that country showed the US at its Nadir.

Imagine a tennis racquet. The round frame with a network of tight strings is, for our image, Afghanistan surrounded by Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Russia and Pakistan, all shoulder to shoulder, quite literally on the Afghan issue. Even Kazakhstan, which does not have a border, has been holding military exercises with Uzbekistan on the Afghan border.

At the end of the racquet’s handle, across two oceans, is the US. That leaves us somewhere near the “Y” holding the racquet’s head. The geography, the contiguity of the states peering into Afghanistan, dictates its own policy of convergence.

In the recent three hour long virtual summit between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, there is nothing for the hawks to celebrate. Biden reiterated the “one China” policy and the two leaders talked of “managing” their “competition”; they will not allow it to spiral out of control.

It would be foolish to expect any ostensible change in neighbourhood policy until the February-March state elections. But there has to be an inevitable quest for a co-operative approach post the state elections. Some good signs may already be there. A junior Pakistan hockey team is in India. Prime Minister Imran Khan has made an exception: Indian trucks can carry food assistance to Afghanistan via Pakistan territory.

TV anchors are not busting their lungs out on a new Chinese village in Arunachal Pradesh. This allows cool headed policies to take shape. The US is a good enough friend to tolerate a shift in nuance from fixation to consistency.

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Friday, November 19, 2021

Decisions By A Prime Minister Which An Ambassador Could Reverse

Decisions By A Prime Minister Which An Ambassador Could Reverse

                                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

Not many ambassadors have lived to tell the story but Ambassador to Washington, Shankar Bajpai, who died from Covid last year, can claim the credit for having two of Rajiv Gandhi’s dramatic foreign policy initiatives reversed. Since I was the journalist covering both instances, let me begin with the first story.

Suddenly last week Polisario, or Western Sahara was across two pages of The Economist. This triggered my memory. America’s willingness to stand with its friends, in this instance Morocco, was on test. I had visited Polisario country after disengaging myself from the media team which had accompanied the Prime Minister to Algeria in June 1985, on his way to meet President Reagan in Washington.

Just the previous month, Gandhi had visited Mikhail Gorbachev, the new Secretary General of the Soviet communist party. Algerian President, Chadli Bendjedid, totally in the Soviet camp, discussed the non-aligned movement and, holding Gandhi’s hand, stressed the importance of Western Sahara and the liberation struggle waged for nine years by the Polisario Front. Gandhi was obviously impressed.

Until the death of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco in 1975, the territory was named Spanish Sahara. After Franco it became the most hotly contested real estate between a West backed Morocco and the Polisario, the latter supported entirely by Algeria at a time when the Cold War was at is fiercest.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s meeting with Bendjedid when the Polisario decision was tacitly taken, I decided to stay back in Algiers. Next morning I caught the flight to Tindouf, 1900 kms south-west, deep in the Sahara desert. The capital of Polisario was a fairytale city consisting of rows upon rows of tents. It was a poor man’s version of the tented township Shah of Iran had erected near Shiraz to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian civilization.

My quarter was a tent in exquisite taste. Mercifully it had an attached toilet. Others, highest and the lowest, went to the sand dunes for their ablutions. The purest rays of “Shams”, the sun, burnt everything, which then became indistinguishable from the sand. The leader of Polisario, Mohamed Abdelaziz was a charismatic figure and something of a favourite with Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Polisario recruits were being trained in Cuba.

Though short on cash, the Saharwi Republic opened an embassy in New Delhi. But within months, a very shaken Polisario representative came to me. “Your government does not talk to me.” It would have been embarrassing to close the embassy, but a defacto de recognition was on. The Polisario story faded out slowly from 1985 to 2000 when Jaswant Singh as foreign minister finally closed the embassy.

Well, the Polisario man who came to me with tears in his eyes, may today find his spirits uplifted. The powers that backed Morocco’s case on Western Sahara are giving out signals that they may no longer be interested in playing imperialism. In fact, Russia and the US are inching towards a referendum in the territory.

A hilarious image in my mind is that of Ambassador K.V. Rajan, trapped right in the middle of this sport of recognition and non recognition. After Gandhi had communicated his positive decision to Bendjedid, a high powered delegation of the Polisario floated into the Prime Minister’s chambers to thank him. It was all sealed but the decision would only be announced after the Washington visit for obvious reasons.

During the return journey, Foreign Secretary Ramesh Bhandari called up ambassador Rajan. “Hold your horses on the Polisario issue; there has been a change of heart.” But before the “change of heart” had been communicated, an elated Bendjedid invited Rajan and kissed him on both his cheek in true Arab style. When an ambassador is in the embrace of the President of a country of his (the ambassador’s) accreditation, he must not flinch. Just as Bendjedid began to celebrate, word reached Rabat. King Mohammad V was hopping mad. Former foreign secretary, M.K. Rasgotra, was flown to Rabat to mollify the King. It was an opera on a high scale.

John Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis yielded a classic, Essence of a Decision, by Professor Grahame Allison. What kind of scholarship would be possible on the decision and indecision under South Block’s masterly handling of the Polisario affair?

Today, let me add in parenthesis, the Polisario story is on a cusp of a change once again. And this change is a function of basic rethinking in Washington the first glimpse of which was available in President Obama’s interview to Atlantic magazine in March 2016. He talked of “America’s inability to be everywhere.”

Another dramatic decision which was abruptly reversed also carried Rajiv Gandhi’s imprimatur. Ambassador Bajpai played a key role in having this decision reversed too.

A year after the Polisario fiasco, the US bombed Benghazi and Tripoli in April 1986, killing among scores of others, Qaddafi’s baby daughter. This somewhat inexplicable military action caused the foreign ministers of non aligned countries in conference in New Delhi to sit up and take note.

With Rajiv Gandhi’s “wholehearted” endorsement, a delegation of four foreign ministers, with India’s Bali Ram Bhagat as leader, left for Tripoli to commiserate with Qaddafi. After what Bhagat thought was a successful meeting in Tripoli, Bhagat possibly expected to be feted by the Prime Minister. May be the foreign office would hold a press conference.

Unbeknown to Bhagat, another script was being played out between Shankar Bajpai and the foreign office. Bajpai posed the question starkly: was India willing to forego a flourishing relationship with Reagan who, having laid the red carpet for Gandhi in June 1985 was laying yet another one in October 1987? And all in exchange for a “sentimental visit to Tripoli”? The answer to Bajpai’s query was contained in Rajiv Gandhi’s decisive action: Bhagat was shown the door out of the foreign office.

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Friday, November 12, 2021

US’s Afghan Terror “Assets” Will Weaken New Delhi’s Anti Pak Plaints

US’s Afghan Terror “Assets” Will Weaken New Delhi’s Anti Pak Plaints

                                                                                        Saeed Naqvi


National Security Adviser Ajit Doval must be given credit for resuming the Regional Security Dialogue to consider the radically new situation in Afghanistan after the messy US withdrawal. The initiative signals New Delhi’s entry in the playfield of Afghanistan from where its ambassador had hurriedly walked away at the first sight of the Taleban in Kabul. We were too deeply embedded with President Ashraf Ghani’s establishment, particularly former spy chief, and Tajik leader Amrallah Saleh.

And now reports suggests, the US may be proceeding towards a de facto recognition of Taleban, something Russia and countries around Afghanistan have been suggesting with one major proviso: the Taleban must include all ethnic groups in the government.

That Taleban was the ascendant power in Afghanistan was clear to New Delhi’s patron saints in Washington for years. Why else would the US Representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad sign a peace deal with Taleban in February, 2020? Surely the US had shared every detail with New Delhi on the navigation of the Doha talks. Nothing less should have been expected by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after his stellar performance at the Howdy Modi event in September 2019 at Houston, Texas. “Abki baar Trump Sarkar” Modi had proclaimed.

True, Pakistan and China, key players, were not present in the New Delhi meet. But so was not the US which, had it attended, would have got an earful from the Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, NSA from Iran.

“The whole world saw how the US military – based army and security system collapsed, like the US itself, causing the US to flee the country in disgraceful defeat. It is a lesson for everyone: instead of relying on their own resources they rely on a ‘weak power’ like the US.” He continued at his invective best. “The US has been deceitful in prohibiting Afghans access to what is their property”, namely the assets frozen in the US. Shamkhani pulled no punches on what he alleged was the US handiwork: the presence and expansion of Daesh (Islamic State) and other Takfiri terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

Others, like Russia and China have said it quite as openly elsewhere, but the Iranian NSA laid all the blame for “relocating terrorist groups” at the US door in a conference hosted by New Delhi.

I have in recent columns written about the US establishment’s role in promoting terrorism as an unstated asset. The distillate of this wisdom is available extensively in the columns of the New York Time’s Thomas Friedman.

The Friedman line of punditry maintains that fighting a group like the ISIS or Al Qaeda is self defeating because such outfits are sworn enemies of Assad in Syria, Shia militia’s in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and, their ultimate trophy, the Ayatollahs in Iran – all “our enemies” says Friedman. Shall we add China to Friedman’s list to complete this narrative?

New Delhi must have a view on this particularly now that the centre of gravity of the terrorism-as-an-asset doctrine is shifting next door to Afghanistan.

“Ab yeh sholay tere rukhsar tak aa pahunchey hain.”

(Now these flames are about to singe your face.)

The traditional belief in South and North block has been that this particular menace emanates from Pakistan. I generally fall back on an incident as a kind of parable to point out the conceptual limitation in New Delhi’s appraisal of terrorism.

Robert Blackwill was the US ambassador when George W Bush’s fireworks in Afghanistan began in October 2001. President Musharraf made a U-turn to fight the creatures and progeny of the very militants Pakistan had helped create, along with Saudi Arabia and the US to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. By 1989 that mission was accomplished.

Unemployed Mujahideen (plural for jehadis) fired by Islamic zeal, barged into Kashmir, Egypt, Algeria. They expanded and found a wholesale market for themselves in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan. In Afghanistan they gestated, mutated, fought a fierce civil war until, under US patronage once again, they found their feet and overran Afghanistan. TAPI or the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline began to look like a feasible proposition. Incidentally, at the NSA’s meet in New Delhi, Charymyrat Amanov of Turkmenistan hawked TAPI again, now that the territory is “hopefully” stable under Taleban.

At this point, let me revert to my parable. A somewhat carelessly self assured Taleban became hosts to Osama bin Laden. After 9/11 Osama became the prime target for the US war machine now gearing up for the global war on terror. When bombs rained on Afghanistan, Taleban’s Supreme leader, Mullah Omar and Ambassador to Islamabad, Abdul Salam Zaeef would brief the world media on the Pakistan side of the Durand line. Quite abruptly these cross border press conferences ended.

Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage bullied Musharraf to fall in line for the global war on terror as the coalition’s “frontline state”. When Robert Blackwill informed guests at his routine round table lunch about the “cheerful” news, he never expected angry retorts from such guests as the late Pranab Mukherjee, then an opposition leader. “For years we have been plagued by cross border terrorism from Pakistan”, said he with anger. “How can you incorporate Pakistan as the frontline state in your war on terror?”

Instead of remaining quiet, Blackwill twisted the knife. “Your’s is a regional quarrel with Pakistan” he said. “Pakistan has joined us in the global war on terror.” And now that reports are picking up in frequency about export of terrorism to Xinxiang, are these part of the US strategic calculus?

This extended diversion is to focus on India’s post Taleban dilemma. New Delhi may habitually keep pointing fingers at possible Pak perfidy against us in coordination with Taleban. But which way will New Delhi turn when our best friend the US develops an abiding interest in its terror “assets” to destabilize Xinxiang, China, with whom we are enlarging our conflictual stakes? And China’s inseparable friend is Pakistan, our sworn enemy. We meanwhile are squarely in the American camp. Does all of this not make the head swim?

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Friday, November 5, 2021

Nostalgia For Real Ram In Days Of Full Page Ads

Nostalgia For Real Ram In Days Of Full Page Ads

                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

The diyas or earthen lamps with which we decorate our walls and cornices every Diwali, and are outshone by electric bulbs around us, may not be such an anachronism any longer because they can now be home delivered by Amazon.

Full page newspaper ads announcing new Ram temples everywhere cause me to recede into nostalgia of Ram of my childhood, memories of that short, squat man in white who walked past our house chanting:

“Kahu kahu ma magan

Kahu kahu ma magan

Hum apne Ram, Ram karey ma magan

Jaa se laagi hai lagan”

(People are happy with this, or with that

I am happy chanting Ram Ram

Because He has settled in my heart.)

Dawn was not dawn without this chant fading away towards the Gomti River.

Aseemun, that splendid singer who graced our house in Mustafabad, had, in her repertoire, a song in which the master of the house marches off to Ayodhya to place before Ram a dispute he cannot settle. The man’s sister is demanding his wife’s “kangan” or gold bangle because she, the sister, has been praying for her sister in law to give birth to a “Lallana”. Now that the birth has taken place, the sister insists on a “neg” or an auspicious gift. Her eye is settled on the bangle the sister-in-law has brought as part of her “dahej” or trousseau. “My father gave it to me” she resists. “I cannot part with the only sentimental gift from my father.” The dispute goes to Ayodhya.

How exquisitely the Rama and Krishna legends mingle in Aseemun’s song.

Sheikh Ali Hazeem of Isfahan, who settled in Benaras, could never free himself of its spell:

“Az Benaras na rawam

Maabade aam ast eenja

Har Barahman pisar e Lakshman

O Ram ast eenja”

(I cannot leave Benaras

It is the kaaba for all.

Every Barahman here looks like

the very son of Ram and Lakshman)

I doubt if all those taking out ads for Ram would know that Abdul Rahim Khan e Khana is the author of the following verse on Ram written in Sanskrit:

“Ahalya, who had turned to stone because of a curse, became human when you touched her, O’Lord.”

You created an army of the righteous, Vanar Sena, from the animal kingdom;

You elevated a lowly “chaandal”.

“Despite my boundless adoration,

Lord, why do you not bestow on me the boon of your affections.”

How Ram Bhakti transforms itself into Hindi chauvinism is one of the many distortions of our time. In fact it is not even Hindi chauvinism but brazen anti Urdu politics. Enthusiasts who objected to “jashn” in a Fabindia ad are clearly unaware that Bharatendu Harishchand, who was in the vanguard of Khari Boli, today’s Hindi, was an accomplished poet of Urdu and Persian ghazal.

Like much else in Hindu civilization, Ram is a continuous part of Urdu poetry written by Muslims and Hindus. Two of the greatest poets of Awadhi are, chronologically, Malik Mohammad Jaisi and Tulsidas. The scent of this cultural soil permeates marsias or elegies focused on the battle of Karbala. The master of this genre, Mir Anees, who wrote in musaddas or sestet, becomes a model for Pandit Brij Narain Chakbast’s description of Ram’s banishment.

“Rukhsat hua woh baap se lekar khuda ka naam,

Raahe wafa in manzil e awwal hui tamaam”

(Head bowed, he parted from his father, it was God’s will

This was the first step on his fourteen year long journey)

I have found an excellent compilation by Rakhshanda Jalil. She quotes some poets I had not heard of –– Zafar Ali Khan, for example:

“Naqsh e tehzeeb e Hunood aaj numayan hai agar

To woh Sita se hai, Lakshman se hai aur Ram se hai.”

(Much that shines in Hindu civilization

Derives from Sita, Lakshman and Ram.)

There are plaints galore when politicians misuse Ram.

“Rasm o rivaj e Ram se aari hain shar pasand,

Raavan ki nitiyon ke pujari hain sher pasand.”

“Shar pasand” means those who derive advantage from conflict.

(Those promoting conflict have abandoned Ram’s message of love.)

Much before the Mandir-Masjid issue exploded, Josh Malihabadi describes a distraught Lakshman at any sign of social strife.

“Lakshman ka dil hai shiddat e ghum se phata hua,

Hai dar pe Ram Chandra ke Raavan data hua”

(Lakshman’s heart is shattered at the spectacle of hate;

The gate to Ram’s palace in Ayodhya is guarded by Raavan)

The phenomenon of Raavan doing duty at the gate has been particularly pronounced since December 6, 1992 when the Babari Masjid was demolished. There is no better footage of the immediate aftermath than a VHS copy of Newstrack, a pioneering effort by the India Today group. There is no relationship between the two, but Economic Liberalization and Babari Masjid demolition happened more or less at the same time.

Except Doordarshan, there was no independent TV channel. Liberalization boosted the market for consumer goods. Multiple channels were required to support the burgeoning advertising. But none of this was in place when the mosque was demolished. India Today launched a VHS Newstrack for home viewing. On one such cassette is an extraordinary record of celebrations in the vicinity of the rubble.

The first scene shows girls seated in a circle, clapping rhythmically to a song “Ab yeh jhanda lehrayaga saare Pakistan pe.” (This flag will flutter over Pakistan.) Next is a shot of fierce looking young men, virtually thrusting their lances into the camera” Bum girega Pakistan pe.” (Bombs will fall on Pakistan.) Next a Swami with wavy hair booms, “Abhi hamein Lahore jaana hai; Rawalpindi jaana hai.” (We have to reach Lahore, Rawalpindi) Where in all this is Ram?

That Ram Bhakt of my childhood in Lucknow, chanting his way to the Gomti River, would never have understood all that was happening in the name of his adorable God.

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Friday, October 29, 2021

US Expects No Terrorism From Afghanistan But Russia, China, Iran Do

US Expects No Terrorism From Afghanistan But Russia, China, Iran Do

                                                                                     Saeed Naqvi

Terrorists cannot be trained with the fanciest weapons, pillowed with cash, drugged for violent killing and, after the assignment, expected to resume their lives as tax paying citizens. They have mutated into a different kind of life.

That is why Joe Biden has to be taken with a pinch of salt. “We withdrew from Afghanistan because our mission was over: Afghanistan would now never be used for terror attacks against the United States.” Maybe not against the US, but trained terrorists are in the drill for action against Iran, China, Russia, countries which are quaking with fear that Islamic extremists may target them. What on earth is going on?

Anyone watching the Syrian tragedy since 2011, cannot forget Abu Sakkar, the Free Syrian Army’s “heart eating cannibal”. Sakkar had actually ripped open an official Syrian soldier’s body, pulled out the liver and heart and bit into it. He became a prize item for TV features. Paul Wood of the BBC looked like a concerned psychoanalyst interviewing him. How do “independent” western journalists so quickly reach a Muslim cannibal in a war zone?

It was precisely to boost the Free Syrian Army’s ability that the CIA/Pentagon created a budget running into billions. Candidate Donald Trump told Jake Tapper of the CNN as much. In fact he went onto name his favourite culprits for the lavish budget President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Trump may have exaggerated but he was not entirely wrong. After all there were TV clips of Obama’s Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter chocking in front of cameras. He admitted that arms meant for the Free Syrian Army had landed with terrorists. To Gen. Lloyd Austin’s lot fell the ignominy of being grilled by the Senate Armed Services Committee about one of the many boo boos the US made in Syria. He is now Secretary of Defence. A group of “good terrorists” in one theatre for whom a project of $500 million had been budgeted simply walked away with loot in arms and cash. Asked how many hands trained on his watch were still in battle, Lloyd mumbled “four…..five”.

Against this perspective terrorism is something that “they”, the bad guys, indulge in, but when a peacenik President like Jimmy Carter, arranges for the Saudis to open their coffers for sums in excess of billions to fund hundreds of “madrasas” on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border, hundreds of thousands of Mujahideen are trained, stinger missiles are placed on their shoulders to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan and lo and behold the Mujahideen have acquired the halo of a martyr’s brigade.

Sometimes the problem for Americans is “American exceptionalism”. A number of clubs in the US play American football (different from Rugby), basketball, baseball and call it the World Series because in the American subconscious, the rest of the world is presumed beaten. Or it is irrelevant.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, keeps a steady gaze on the Americans as on a ticketless parade. For a non American journalist watching US affairs, the careless slip by, say, the US President, is priceless copy. Let me give you an example.

It is the summer of 2014. President Obama is livid with Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki for refusing to sign the Status of Forces agreement before US troops depart. Maliki has to be ousted.

On July 4, 2014, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi releases a video from Mosul’s main mosque. He declares the formation of the Islamic caliphate. Within months the Islamic state warriors in glistening new Humvees, hurtle towards Baghdad. I call up Iraqi contacts. “Yes US planes are pretending to bomb ISIS but the bombs are falling on the Shia militia.” And there are many of these in Iraq.

On August 14, 2014, Obama gives a wide raging interview to New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman. “Why did you not order air strikes against ISIS just when it reared its head in June-July?” asks Friedman. Obama gives the game away in his response.

“If I had ordered a bunch of airstrikes then, it would have taken the pressure off Maliki.”

In September 2014, Maliki is shown the door.

Obviously, Obama knew that he was taking a likeminded journalist into confidence. Like a good journalist, Friedman did not betray his confidence (nor his steadfast convictions) while later advising Trump on Syria. “Why should our goal right now be to defeat the Islamic State in Syria?” He then asks the key question “Is it really in our interest to be focusing solely on defeating ISIS in Syria right now?”

“There are actually two ISIS manifestations” he writes. One is “virtual ISIS it is Satanic, cruel and amorphous; it disseminates its ideology through internet. It has adherents across Europe and the Muslim world. In my opinion, that ISIS is the primary threat to us. Because it has found ways to deftly pump out Sunni jihadist ideology that inspires and give permission to those Muslims on the fringes of society, who feel humiliated from London, to Paris to Cairo – to recover their dignity via headlines grabbing murders of innocents.”

“The other incarnation is the territorial ISIS” he says. “It still controls pockets of western Iraq and larger sectors of Syria. Its goal is to defeat Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria plus its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies and defeat the pro Iran regime in Iraq, replacing both with a Caliphate.” which, by inference, is in the US interest. It would be tactless for an establishment columnist like Friedman to say it now, but he will at an opportune time. Are ISIS and its numerous variants not an “asset” even today in Afghanistan? Friedman gives you a clue into the thought processes in the US establishment.

On 13 October 2021, Vladimir Putin told a summit of ex-Soviet security forces that battle hardened terrorist are entering Afghanistan from Syria and Iraq. Iranian and Chinese leaders have said the same thing. Is it being pro American to ignore these warnings?

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Friday, October 22, 2021

This Hatred Hurts Because Tagore And Nazrul Walk Together In Bangladesh

This Hatred Hurts Because Tagore And Nazrul Walk Together In Bangladesh

                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

The fireball of hatred rolling in Bangladesh takes my mind back to the birth of that nation. When the war to liberate Bangladesh began, I was required to cover it for The Statesman, where I was a junior reporter. The instruction to proceed for the coverage was a puzzle: I would not go to the Bangladesh front. Instead, I would be chaperoned, along with a host of foreign correspondents, by Major Ram Mohan Rao to Chhamb, in the western sector, scene of a major battle in that war.

Why had I been singled out to cover the western sector? Why was I being denied the main theatre? Was I not being trusted?

It turned out that these were ogres of the mind, conjured up by me. The truth was much more revealing of the Bangladesh reality. The editor, in his wisdom, thought that in Bangladesh I would be mistaken for a Punjabi Muslim and killed.

The other reason was even more convincing. The Statesman was very much a Bengal institution, headquartered in Kolkata. I was in the paper’s New Delhi office, emotionally removed from the Bangladesh operations in which our Kolkata colleagues had a “proprietary” interest. It was, for them, an intra-Bengali affair. Reporters from Kolkata would harmonize much more with the emerging elite, which was wrenching itself away from the Urdu-speaking Punjabis of Pakistan.

Linguistic, cultural identity trumping religious identity was clearly in play even when Indira Gandhi placed Sheikh Hasina in Pranab Mukherjee’s care, virtually as his ward from 1975 to 81 when she escaped a threat to her life.

When Inder Gujral, as Prime Minister, was embarked on an audacious three nation summit (Sheikh Hasina, Nawaz Sharif, Gujral) in Dhaka, I received a surprise call from him: would I accompany him to Dhaka? I read his mind instantly. The contingent accompanying him did not have a single Muslim in a summit involving two full fledged Islamic Republics. A quest for a notional Muslim, it turned out, was a bogus one.

Never in my life have I been more lonesome with my Muslim credentials. My colleagues in the press contingent were suddenly lost to me once they were past immigration in Dhaka. The Chakravartys, Mukherjees, Ghoshals, Basus and one Karlekar (more Bengali than most because of his Bengali mother) merged quite indistinguishably with the Rehmans, Haqs, Mujibs, conversing in Bengali with a vengeance. High decibel sounds of “Ki Khabar, Khub Bhalo, Oray Baba” marginalized me completely.

“Illichh Maachh” was the flavour of the trip and my friend Tarun Basu actually returned with the biggest ice box packed with Hilsa, the world’s tastiest fish but so cluttered with bones that one has to be a born Bengali, from either side of the divide, to eat it without choking.

There is a discernable, sometimes pronounced, schizophrenia about Bangladesh. I experienced it during Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s visit to Dhaka when Zia ur Rehman, representing a streak quite different from Sheikh Mujib’s, was in power. New Delhi had complied with Dhaka’s request for food grains but Prakash Shah, Joint Secretary in Morarji’s secretariat, looked in vain for the gesture receiving any notice in the official media. There was a tendency not to be seen clasping India’s hand. In dealing with Sheikh Hasina, for obvious historical reasons, there was always a kind of furtive warmth. But even so, in international relations, particularly with neighbours, the word “obligation”, has a negative fallout. India’s role in 1971 sometimes boomerangs on the relationship.

Sheikh Hasina comes under inexorable pressure when citizenship laws in the contiguous state of Assam are twisted against Muslim migration. She is, after all, a politician, and will always take political steps to manage unsettling events at home. This may involve among a host of steps, accommodating a determined Chinese lobby that much more. So the Citizens issue does not only strain India-Bangladesh ties but it immediately opens up spaces for China.

It is a sub continental irony that the Chinese influence in the neighbourhood became that much more pronounced after India helped create Bangladesh. Until 1971, a large component of Indian diplomacy consisted in neutralizing Pakistan everywhere. Creation of Bangladesh altered the political geography of the sub continent. India became a large country surrounded by small ones. It is clear as daylight why President Zia ur Rehman floated the idea of SAARC. Its political purpose was straightforward: to balance India’s post 1971, enlarged presence in South Asia. Towards this end, each one of the nations bordering India, began to flourish a China card, almost in concert.

When Atal Behari Vajpayee, as External Affairs Minister visited Beijing in 1979, he thought that a thaw in Sino-Indian ties would be a step towards diluting the China card in the pockets of SAARC leaders. The visit ended disastrously. Beijing did not even take the visiting foreign minister into confidence that Vietnam was about to be “taught a lesson”. Under Premiers Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee, relations with China cruised and wobbled but never sank to levels prevailing after Narendra Modi brought Ladakh into bold relief having bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir.

Eastern Ladakh, Pakistan, emergence of Taleban in Afghanistan, a spike in targeted killing in Kashmir were all threatening enough. Reports of attacks on Hindu places of worship in Bangladesh are a multiplier to the menacing clouds gathering all around. What is happening is dangerous and sad. Polarizing communities in India for political reasons may have been somewhere near the ignition point and the world knows it.

The pity is that in its culture Bangladesh is quintessentially composite, incorporating many Hindu motifs into its social practices without in any way impairing its Islamic faith. Tagore, the author of Bangladesh’s national anthem, was influenced by the Brahmo Samaj: Gods and Goddesses do not leap out of his writings. But Shiva, Shakti, Tandav, Durga are integral to Qazi Nazrul Islam’s songs, so much an organic part of Bangladesh’s fabric. What is happening is frightening for Bangladesh’s 15 million Hindus and painful to all of us.

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Friday, October 15, 2021

Excessive Focus On Priyanka Will Help Congress Minimally, Disrupt Opposition Totally

Excessive Focus On Priyanka Will Help Congress Minimally, Disrupt Opposition Totally

                                                                                    Saeed Naqvi

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s presence in Lakhimpur Kheri, scene of recent ghastly BJP callousness, would have electoral potential if, in addition to her personalability, there was also in her makeup a quantity called political stamina. I pray to God that she does not, like the Hare in Aesop’s fable, go to sleep after a few promising hops. But I am afraid she may.

My skepticism is based on experience of her off-and-on style of functioning in both, Rae Bareli and Amethi, the two UP constituencies considered to be the Gandhi Parivar’s “pocket borough”. Erasing public memory is a device in electoral politics which is given acceleration by the magic of television. Priyanka’s resemblance to Indira Gandhi, the way she carries the sari, clear diction, combative demeanour, spontaneous anger, a capacity to connect with the audience, all these are useful attributes. But these also have the potential of blanking out from public memory the electoral reverses the Gandhis have heaped on the Congress party.

Some years ago friends from Rae Bareli turned up in white khadi gear and Bata jogging shoes, looking very athletic. Priyanka Gandhi has invited “carefully selected Congress leaders like us for a Chintan Baithak, or brainstorming.”

The occasion for the “Chintan” was the party’s humiliating defeat in the 2012 UP elections. Worse, in Rae Bareli the Congress lost all the five seats which form segments of a parliamentary seat. In adjacent Amethi, the party lost three out of five.

After the “Chintan Baithak” led by the redoubtable Kishori Lal Sharma, gifted to the Gandhis by the late Satish Sharma, Rajiv Gandhi’s fellow pilot during their Indian airlines days, Priyanka put up her feet and rested.

Just when the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign was warming up, grass root reports indicated a total rout for the Congress. Rae Bareli and Amethi too may be lost. This rang alarm bells. The prospect of neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul being member of the House would spell disaster for the family. They may lose 10 Janpath.

That is when Priyanka Gandhi jumped into electoral battle both in Rae Bareli and Amethi. Single handedly, she held onto the two seats for mother and brother by the skin of her teeth. These were the only two seats the party won from UP. After a spate of dismal performances, Priyanka’s solo notwithstanding, one would have expected the Gandhis to make alternative arrangements and bow out with dignity. They would have to be particularly thick skinned for staying on despite the embarrassments. “But a politician has to be thick skinned.” One of the acolytes chipped in.

Everywhere, in Indian conditions most certainly, politics is a 24X7 business. Party workers, constituents consider it their birthright to lounge on the lawns and amble along the corridor, often past the master bedroom. You cannot be part time politicians. You cannot campaign your guts out in Rae Bareli and Amethi and resume your razzmatazz lifestyle, occupying front row seats at Lakme or Rohit Bal fashion shows. That is not the culture of Indian politics.

Rahul, likewise, has a habit of packing up his bags and disappearing without notice, untraceable, presumably to some exotic locations. At the confederation of Indian Industry (CII) in 2013 he left the captains of Industry baffled, describing his journey from Gorakhpur to Mumbai by the Lokmanya Tilak express. En route he met Girish the carpenter and others whom Rahul described as symbols of India’s aspirations, who, like the billion other Indians, were remote from authority in the capital cities.

The Panchayati Raj system had to be given more teeth. That seemed to be the burden of his song. That was eight years ago. If there is any life in that manifesto, he has been unable to do anything about it because his party has been out of power. And, there is no power in sight for as far as the eye can see.

The drumbeating for the Trinity continues regardless. The party is once again blown to smithereens in 2019 but……but what is the alternative to the Gandhis? This becomes the chant after every debacle. Meanwhile, leaders big and small leave the party in droves and cross over to the BJP, confirming the party’s credentials as the BJP’s B team.

A group of 23 senior Congress leaders, a mixed bag of very successful professionals and some redundant has-beens, write a desperate letter to Sonia Gandhi in August 2020. Please take decisions on the party, its direction. No response. Ok, say the 23, five states will hold elections in May 2021. Maybe, the party will recover some ground. A slightly reassured party leadership may be inclined to bring about changes. Keep our fingers crossed. Come the May elections and, lo and behold, the party is hammered out of the park once again.

Why are you being so uncharitable to the Congress at such a critical time? (They will say) Look, Priyanka is getting so much attention in Lakhimpur Kheri. Who knows, this maybe the recovery curve for the Congress.

This grand delusion is custom made to disrupt any opposition game plan for the 2024 general elections. The delusion is a function of the ruling class dream that India is somehow inching towards a two party system – the two parties are mirror images of each other except for one difference: the Congress will look the other way on allegations of love jihad and oppose lynching alleged beef transporters.

It was a horrendous tragedy in Lakhimpur Kheri which first grabbed primetime attention. But the fact that the cameras have stayed on Priyanka for so long eventually helps the channels and Narendra Modi. By themselves, the sibling are no threat to Modi. To the contrary, excessive media focus on them will only boost their egos to a point from where they will make unreasonable demands of coalition partners without whom there can be no strategy for the 2024 elections.

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