Monday, October 27, 2014

Modi's popularity & power are re-inforced. How will he use them to conquer the challenges facing him?

Now that the festival of lights and fireworks is behind us (with a bonus ban on Chinese crackers), we can return to our customary festival of political fireworks. The excitement produced by the Assembly election results is yet to die down although Maharashtra has a semblance of unity after tortuous oneupmanship games. It was yet another Narendra Modi triumph, no doubt about that. For the rest, what we see is a maze of interpretations, explanations and anticipations. Ploughing through this labyrinth, we can see at least six lines of thought. Take your pick.

The era of coalitions is over and so is the relevance of regional parties, say BJP circles emboldened by the party going solo and doing well. But this is a premature claim. In Maharashtra a tactical understanding amounting to a coalition became necessary so that the BJP could proceed towards forming a government. Haryana got an all-BJP government, but a completely local party, the INLD, won enough seats to become the main opposition. This in spite of the INLD being a decrepit party steeped in corruption and with its top leaders in jail.

Ideology has nothing to do with the rise of the BJP or the fall of the other parties. The BJP did well because of people's disgust with the dynastic Congress and the popular oratory of Narendra Modi that offered the promise of a change. The strong Modi personality towered over the feebleness of Sonia Gandhi and her son. Rahul Gandhi's proven incompetence is finally provoking several Congressmen to criticise the leadership openly.

Modi is the winner rather than the BJP. The party won spectacularly in the elections in which he campaigned, and fared badly in the state byelections in which he did not campaign. No one in the BJP can win votes the way Modi can. This uniqueness must be seen in tandem with Modi's tendency to to be the pivot around which power revolves. Even cabinet ministers do not take decisions on their own or speak out of turn. This can be a good thing from the governance angle, but it is in the tradition of the banyan tree under which no grass grows.

The Modi style of control worked well in Gujarat, but can it be equally effective in the bewilderingly diverse landmass that is India? The dissensions within the party over the Maharashtra chief minster's post were an indication of power lust afflicting BJP leaders as much as other party leaders. Eventually of course Narendra Modi's word prevails. How is this different from Sonia Gandhi's word prevailing over infighting Congressmen?

There is general agreement that the Congress is finished and will remain finished for a while. It will remain finished because it still does not try to escape from the curse of dynastic control. The current thinking is that Priyanka Gandhi will save the party. She won't. She might in fact bring further ignominy to the party with her husband entangled in scandals that can turn, to put it mildly, inconvenient. This does not mean that the BJP can achieve what it calls a Congress-eradicated India. That means in effect an opposition-eradicated India which would be disastrous. Besides, the old party has, especially at the younger levels, a great deal of talent, clean and capable. Someday somehow they will have to come out of the dynastic stranglehold and make something of themselves -- and of their party and their country.

Perhaps the most important sentiment that has emerged is hope. There is a perceptible feeling that Modi has re-invented himself yet again and is trying genuinely to become acceptable to all. He is known to isolate the hardliners in his own party if they interfere with his policy ideas. But then hardliners are an easy problem compared to corruption. Modi's corruption-free image is his greatest asset, but his party has been anything but corruption-free. The initial willingness to make a deal in Maharashtra with the NCP, a den of corruption at the top, was indicative of a tolerant attitude to the corrupt for political bargaining.

Modi can afford to rise above such short-term tactics because he has a popularity rating higher than that of any living politician in the country. The question is, will he use it to conquer the challenge of corruption? Modi has more power than any Prime Minister before him, not excluding Indira Gandhi and he has the will to use it. The question is, will he use it to conquer the politics of polarisation? The nation waits.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Is winning elections all that matters in democracy? What about values and the rules of conduct?

For a pregnant Sunday morning, only hours before history opens a new page, some timely queries: Is the NCP a Naturally Corrupt Party as Narendra Modi says it is? Is Narendra Modi lowering the dignity of prime ministership by resorting to cheap electioneering as Sharad Pawar says he is? Has the BJP betrayed Hindutva by ditching the Shiv Sena as Uddhav Thackeray says it has? Is Modi a street-level operator as the Congress says he is?

Elections are the feather on India's democratic cap, but the electioneering style of our leaders and parties often turn the cap into a crown of dishonour. In the last election, a Congress spokesman called Modi Yamaraj. Sonia Gandhi had called him a merchant of death. Karnataka's Deve Gowda once called B.S. Yeddyurappa a b...d. Degradation reached its nadir when Congress spokesman Manish Tiwari described Anna Hazare in 2011 as "corrupt from head to toe". He didn't stop at that. Addicted to bombastic language, he called Anna Hazare's associates "armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists funded by invisible donors". Tragic fellow, he had to swallow every one of those words later.

Electioneering is not meant to go below the belt. In fact its central principle is respect for opponents and dignified conduct in both action and words. Candidates explain their position on various issues, and then leave it to voters to make their choice as they deem fit. One political figure who strictly adhered to this principled approach was V.K.Krishna Menon. Honed by prolonged exposure to politics in St.Pancras, London, where he was a popularly elected Borough Councillor for several years, his campaigns in Bombay never saw an adverse remark against his opponents, even when the opponents attacked him personally.

In Maharashtra this time personal attacks were the norm. Actually they were not necessary in the light of a clear shift in the BJP's strategy. There was no Amit Shah domination in Maharashtra, there was only Narendra Modi. There was no Yogi Adityanath, there was only Narendra Modi. There was no love jihad, no Muzaffarnagar, there was only Narendra Modi. Modi's mass appeal combined with the imbecilities of rival parties to put the stars on Modi's side. The NCP projected the horror of the widely disliked Ajit Pawar becoming chief minister; the Shiv Sena's Uddhav Thackeray showed immaturity by insisting on chief minister nomination in advance unlike his smarter father who wanted the remote control firmly in his hand; the other bash-Biharis Sena outraged even the Election Commission by saying that non-Marathis wouldn't be allowed to enter Mumbai; and the Congress is still trying to figure out what's going on. Yes, the stars are on Modi's side.

In the long term, though, it is a question of culture. Politics diminishes the cultural worth of its practitioners. The need for votes is so overwhelming that morality becomes irrelevant. This is true of the supposedly mature democracies as well. It is part of political folklore that the 1960 US presidential race was decided by television. In the TV debate John Kennedy appeared cool and well-groomed while Richard Nixon looked unshaved and sweating. Both had cheated behind the cameras. There was an agreement that they would not use make-up for the programme. But Kennedy had a team of professionals to put on a layer of make-up. Nixon used a common product called Lazy Shave to conceal his 5 o'clock shadow - with little effect. Nixon was known to sweat easily, so his team kept the studio thermostats down. Kennedy's team secretly raised the temperature. Kennedy won.

Such tactics touched an alltime low in the George Bush years. In the primaries in 2000 the clean and upright John McCain was a formidable opponent, campaigning with a Bangladeshi daughter he had adopted from Mother Teresa's orphanage. George Bush's campaign strategists conducted a phony poll asking people: Would you vote for John McCain if you knew that he had fathered an illegitimate black child? That was the end of McCain's campaign. The victorious Bush went on to ruin Iraq and give an unprecedented fillip to the growth of terrorism in the world.

The moral is clear. What ultimately matters is not this party or that leader, but what happens to the quality of democracy. In the first quarter century of independence elections enhanced our democracy. After the Emergency, it has been down hill because the culture changed. First-past-the-post became literally the watchword, no matter what tactics were used. Winning alone mattered, morality be damned.

How will it be from now on?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Was Pakistan testing Modi? ISI's foolishness subverts collective progress that awaits South Asia

Suddenly reality is catching with Narendra Modi and India. We are learning that showmanship can go thus far and no further. The first hint came when the Chinese President's visit coincided with stepped-up Chinese incursions in Ladakh. The message was that China's Big Brother posture in Asia was not negotiable and all the Ahmedabad hoopla was just hoopla. Then, so soon after the Pakistani Prime Minister's attendance at Modi's swearing-in, a war-like crisis developed along the Jammu border. The message was that in Pakistan the army was the shot-caller and all the photo-ops of the country's ceremonial Prime Minister were just photo-ops.

What drives the Pakistani army is visceral hatred of India. It must have intensified with the rise of Narendra Modi whom they see as anti-Muslim. The audacity of the latest shelling was in all probability meant to test the Modi Government. If so, Pakistan badly miscalculated. For one thing, as the Home Minister said, there is a new reality in India and the Defence Minister spelt it out by saying that Pakistan would have to pay a price it could not afford. For another, despite all the divisiveness that marks Indian democracy, Pakistan will find that a threat it mounts will unite all Indians. Narendra Modi will then be the leader of India, not just a BJP Prime Minister.

Pakistan has got the message and the guns are falling silent. But that should not lull India into complacency because there are organic weaknesses in India's position. Chinese and Pakistani border incursions have been rather frequent occurrences, yet each time we are surprised and seem freshly hurt. The reason is that over half a century our defence and foreign policy establishments have not developed a comprehensive policy architecture to deal with issues of complexity. Ours is an ad hoc approach. China is famous for functioning with the stability of a hundred-year vision. Indian leaders' vision rarely extends beyond the next general election, party labels making no difference. Even Pakistan has a policy stability vis a vis India. Governments rise and collapse, civic upheavals come and go, but the ultra-efficient Inter-Services Intelligence remains consistently pro-active in its destabilisation strategy against India. The pattern never varies: ISI acts, India reacts.

The ISI is lucky, too, for opportunities come its way unasked. Kashmir's devastating floods were utilised to spread disaffection among the locals. An unexpected crump came from Narendra Modi himself. Carried away by his triumphalism in the US, the Prime Minister announced some timely and imaginative reforms for NRIs such as lifelong visas and lifting of harassment checks. Additionally, however, Modi also announced visa-on-arrival facility for every American citizen. It was an American citizen named David Headley who roamed India freely and frequently, working out the logistics for the Mumbai terror attack. Worse, after his guilt was uncovered, the US Government extended full protection to him. Criminals with an American passport will now find it easier to collaborate with the ISI. Of course all Americans are not criminals. All Indians are not terrorists either, but try saying that to US immigration officials.

Unfortunately, all the consistency and luck of the ISI will not help Pakistan because it is fundamentally flawed as a state. The ruling elite turned it into a self-defeating "warrior state". McGill University Professor T. V. Paul argues in his acclaimed The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World that Pakistan's enviable position as "the pivot of the world" (Jinnah's phrase) actually turned out to be its curse. The generous largesse from foreign aid-givers prevented the elite from seeking a more sustainable developmental path. Besides, the lack of domestic reforms, especially land reforms, and the inattention to education at all levels crippled Pakistan's ability to progress.

Correcting this course is what Pakistan should do for its own good. It must aim at economic growth as was done by other geostrategically located states such as Israel, South Korea and Taiwan. Nawaz Sharief, a businessman, knows this, hence his emphasis on normal trade relations with India. Narendra Modi knows that Pakistan's economic progress will be good for all of South Asia. Anxious to prove that he is not anti-Muslim, Modi will probably go beyond the extra mile for normalcy across the border. Which means that there has never been a more propitious time for collective progress. Even the Nobel Committee underlined this by linking Malala Yousafsai and Kailash Satyarthi in a historic peace gesture. The ISI has conceded that it's not up to a war. Why can't it settle for peace?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Brutal Jihadi terrorism, now a fashion among youth. US blunders helped; so did Wahabism and Pakistan

So it's out in the open: Terrorism is the issue of our times. It was a central theme in Narendra Modi's discussion with Israel's Netanyahu, a veteran on the subject. It was the main focus of attention during the Modi-Obama talks. The US President went to the extent of agreeing to make efforts to dismantle safe havens for terror and to disrupt financial and tactical support to terror outfits, naming some based in Pakistan.

Honourable intentions. If even half of it became real, the world could heave a sigh of relief. The problem is that both Israel and the US see the issue in terms of good terrorism and bad terrorism, a differentiation that makes a mockery of the fight against terrorism.Remember how America agreed with Pakistan that the "good Taliban" must be accepted? As for Israel, the first recorded terrorist putsch was by a Jewish political movement called Zealots in 66-70. As good terrorists resenting the occupation of their homeland by foreign forces, they organised a mass insurrection against the Romans. It failed and the Zealots committed mass suicide. The modern state of Israel is still engaged in eradicating bad terrorism, this time represented by the Palestinians. In the latest flareup a few weeks ago, it was merciless in bombing civilians in the Gaza Strip ignoring worldwide protests, including by Israelis. How sad that the job of good terrorists is often thankless.

The American record has hurt the world even more grievously. Its policies have repeatedly produced the contrary effect. Three years ago it started a "humanitarian war" to achieve a regime change in Libya. The goal was achieved leading to Muammar Gaddafi's murder. But the situation in Libya went from bad to worse with daily deaths becoming part of the political chaos. America built up Bin Laden's Al Qaeda in order to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. The goal was achieved but Al Qaeda became a Frankenstein's monster targetting America. America started the Iraqi war to eliminate Saddam Hussain. The goal was achieved but Iraq turned into a mess, culminating in the birth of the cruellest terrorist outfit in history, the Islamic State, the self-proclaimed Caliphate. Obama was forced to admit openly that American intelligence had underestimated the rise of the Islamic State (IS).

To say that it was underestimated is an understatement. More frenzied than the Zealots of old, the IS jihadists are unlike anything the world has ever seen before. US airstrikes have been destroying some lifelines of the IS such as gas plants and grain silos. But the jihadists keep advancing. A Sunni group, they give no quarter even to other Muslims; Shias, as well as non-Muslims, must either convert or die. This has alarmed even countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar who were suppliers of funds and weapons in the early days. Many Muslim authorities have gone public with statements that the IS is not representative of true Islam.

That has not stopped the IS from becoming a fashion among young men, however small in numbers. The hooded killer who beheaded Westerners in Syria recently was a British citizen. There is a Sharia4Belgium group in that small country. According to Western estimates, 300 Belgians, 400 Germans, 800 Russians, 80 Swedes, 70 Danes, 50 Norwegians and 60 Australians are among 30,000 IS fighters. Dozens of young Western women are joining their ranks to bear children for jihadists. A small group of ultraconservative Salafists, wearing vests with the words "Sharia Police", have been telling people in the German town of Wuppertal not to drink or listen to music. German media and official circles are outraged.

Fanaticism of this kind is irrational and therefore difficult to check. Yet, if the IS is not checked, much of the world's population may be beheaded. What the West can do is to learn from its blunders. It must know that concentration on military action alone will make matters worse. The US must recognise that its "allies" have been actively contributing to the growth of radicalism and, through it, the rise of terrorism. Saudi Arabia began the process some decades ago by providing funds to spread its version of intolerance, Wahabism. Pakistan, obsessed with India, has directly nurtured terrorist groups with American funds and equipment. Saudi evangelism and Pakistani adventurism provided outlets to a young generation disillusioned by the crass materialism of the West and by poverty in Asia. Corrective action can be meaningful only when the roots of the problem are pulled out. Pruning some branches will fool nobody.