Saturday, 25 February 2012

Manmohan Singh's Koodankulam Moment

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement that the protests at the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant have been motivated and encouraged by United States-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has given credence to a long-held view that foreign vested interests are orchestrating protests by fanning among the people a sense of hysteria and thus stalling the nation’s growth. Earlier also speculations were raised about the way massive protests have been undertaken to stall the commissioning of the 9,200 MW Indo-Russian nuclear energy venture.

While the anti-nuclear protesters have rubbished the prime minister’s statement, made to American journal Science, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the principal opposition party at the Centre, has rightly asked the government to disclose the details based on which the statement was made. The natural step for the Congress-led government would be to place the facts before the nation for the people to see and decide. If found to be true, strict action should be taken against the NGOs for trying to act against our national interests. This also stresses the need for more accountability into the running and funding of NGOs — especially those with international connections — across the country.

Indian economy is passing through a turbulent time and for the economy to grow, the present level of power generation is not sufficient. Power plants, like the one at Koodankulam, are essential for meeting this challenge. Any force, within or outside the country, conniving to hamper the realisation of this should be treated as working against national interest. However, this being said, it is the government’s responsibility to address the genuine fears of the people living around the plant about their safety, especially after what was witnessed at Fukushima in March 2011. The government is duty-bound to meet the growing demand for power in the country and at the same time win the confidence of the people. The question is: will the UPA be able to rise up to the occasion?
(This appeared as an editorial in The New Indian Express on Saturday February 25)

Friday, 17 February 2012

India Should Not Succumb to Pressure Over Iran

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government has showed unusual tenacity is holding its cards close to its chest and not succumbing to growing pressure from the United States and Israel to blame Iran for the February 13 bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi. Not only has the government refrained from airing its doubts but has also approached the scenario with maturity. This is evident in the statement made by Union commerce minister Anand Sharma on Wednesday that India will be going ahead with its planned trade delegation to Tehran, and that terrorism and trade are “separate issues”.

While India has strong defence ties with Israel, India annually imports crude oil close to $12 billion. Iran is important not only because of oil but also access it provides to the region. The Port of Chabahar, in Iran, is vital for India’s access to Afghanistan, especially in a scenario where a US pullout from the country will leave India with little support in the region. New Delhi will have to factor this aspect as well while taking a call.
Without doubt India finds itself in a spot as both Israel and Iran are important allies. But New Delhi should see this as an opportunity to present itself to the world as a responsible nation capable of taking mature decisions even if it means not toeing the US line. Such an independent stand will also prove that India’s claim for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council is one that is earned over the years and not one doled because of the benevolence for ‘right conduct’. India’s stand that it will abide by a United Nations resolution, be it against Iran or Syria, and not favour unilateral moves is the right approach.
India should go ahead with its investigation and not be influenced by outside pressure. If the trail leads to Iran, New Delhi should condemn Tehran in no uncertain words — but should not allow itself to be used as the stick by Israel or the West to beat Iran.
(This article appeared as an editorial in The New Indian Express on February 17, 2012)

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Indian Economy’s Reverse Loop

An economics professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi brought to notice that the government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) or rather the haphazard way in which the scheme is being carried out has cost a little girl her life in Manika, Jharkhand on February 15. This is a serious issue because the MGNREGA is one of the flagship programmes launched by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and it is plagued with problems. If this programme continues with these flaws, by around a few years or a decade the burden on the then government would be to undo the damage done by the scheme.
There is no doubt that this scheme, in spite of the massive corruption that has been taking place, has been a blessing to lakhs of people in the rural areas. But the merits it possesses are not substantial to overlook the flaws it has deep embedded in it. To highlight one of the problems: The scheme has drained the labour pool and has led to an alarming shortage of farm hands, mainly in Punjab and Maharashtra (especially around harvest time).

If such a scheme has been continuing with little scope of reform from the government’s side, the blame should be squarely put on the Opposition, especially the BJP (one can’t expect the Congress to highlight the flaws in the scheme it has introduced). For all the noise and grandstanding it does, including that it is a viable alternative to the corrupt Congress, the ‘party with a difference’ has not been able to highlight the flaws in a scheme that will probably lead to the wrecking of the country’s economy. 
The government seems unlikely to change its stand, partly because the scheme has reaped benefits (for the people as well as for the party) and partly because it is a prestige issue for the government. A rollback at this time, especially with many State Assembly elections around, is unlikely.
The scheme at this point, with the flaws in it, is acting as a reverse loop in India’s economic algorithm; like a go-back-to-square-one button. Not many in the ruling Congress might agree with this view; but I’m sure there is one gentleman, sitting huddled over books in the South Block and pulling out the little hair that’s left on his head, who will concur with this in the deepest recesses of his mind – Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Syria Question Divides the World

On Saturday the United Nations saw Russia and China vetoing a West and Arab League-backed resolution against Syria demanding President Bashar al-Assad to step down because of the bloody crackdown on his people. Hours before the UN meeting deadly attacks carried out by Syrian security forces (Syrian authorities have blamed the opposition) killed more than 200 people in Homs, 160 kilometres north of Damascus. Though Russia and China acted on expected lines, India voting in favour of the resolution was a surprise. Known to usually abstain from such moves, India has asked for a peaceful resolution that sees Syria also being involved in the process. India has done the right move by showing that it is capable of taking tough decisions at an international forum. This is also a statement that it has earned its UNSC seat.

With Syria being the vortex of the so-called Arab Spring, the West has got in its hand a crisis it wished had not begun. Not only has the West lost its set pieces on the board, it has seen the rise of ‘radical’ forces like the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. Add to this the chaos spreading to other countries and an all-too assertive Iran - the West (primarily the United States of America) is having what seems to be a series of nightmares.
However, anyone who has observed Syria over the decades will not be surprised at the turn of events. After all it is Bashar whom the US preferred to keep in spite of the atrocities he has carried out in the region and against the US. Bashar has killed thousands of his people and sent militants into Iraq to kill American contractors; he has armed the Hezbollah, supported the Hamas, is an Iran ally and has adversely influenced the developments in Lebanon. But Washington maintained the stand that the known devil is better than the unknown. The fear of a more radical outfit gaining prominence in Damascus or that of the country descending into chaos has vanished and now the US is in the forefront of demanding the ouster of Assad. The factors that have led to Washington’s change of mind are not clear yet. David Schenker, a former Levant director at the Pentagon, was of the opinion that America’s policy towards Syria has always been one that has not yet been developed.

The Survivor
Bashar al-Assad has been able to hold fort till date mainly because of two reasons. First is the relation he has maintained with the West and other countries, importantly Russia (see Russia Factor). The second is Assad’s minority plank. Assad, a Ba’ath Party member and Alawi has made sure to infuse pride among the minorities in the country that their president, ruthless as he may be, he is one among them and has protected them from the majority Sunni community which otherwise would have relegated them to the margins of society. There are also sections in Syria that feel that he has lend respect and honour to a country that was otherwise not taken seriously in the region. Bashar al-Assad is known to have told his close associates that he was of the view that if a ruler provides the people with what they want, he can rule without hassles. According to Bashar he would provide the people of Syria the basics - a home, a job and a car - and in return his rule will go on unopposed, unquestioned.

Lessons Learnt
The prolonged crisis (the unrest started in March last year) in Syria shows that unlike as was the case earlier when the United States (without considering the option of approaching the United Nations) thought it fit to invade Iraq on its hunt for non-existing WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), now the scene has changed. The economic slowdown, the rise of other economies and the international condemnation Washington has received for its exploits in West Asia, both from within the country and outside, has played a role in it mellowing down on its ways. It has realised that its trigger-happy enforcement of democracy around the world has earned it more enemies than friends.
The experience in Egypt and Libya has taught the world, especially the West, important lessons on how not to go about in Syria. While in Egypt (after initial reluctance) the US supported the opposition movement, the result is not what as expected. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, through the ballot, has caught them unawares. In Libya, the West managed to oust and capture Muammar Gaddafi but the Libyan Transitional Council has not been able to show the promise of stability and peace, vital for a country that has witnessed a revolution.

Russia Factor
Russia has been criticised for being the stumbling block for a UN Security Council resolution against Syria. Russia’s deputy foreign minister Gennadi Gatilov has said that the move to ouster Assad was a “doomed” one and instead the call should be to fight the opposition forces that are causing violence in the country. Syria is a big client of Russia’s arms industries and this lobby has a great sway over Kremlin. Syria yearly buys close to $700 million worth of arms from Russia. The unrest in the region has caused a dip in the sales and Russia has already cancelled lucrative deals with Iran after reaching an agreement with Washington.
Political analyst observing Kremlin believe that elections in Russia will change its approach towards Syria and any future UNSC resolution. Many say that President Dmitry Medvedev was ‘fooled’, by the West, into believing action was necessary in Libya. Moreover, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is likely to be the next president, has not been mincing his words while criticising the West (US) for creating unrest in Russia. He is also doubtful of the West’s intentions in West Asia. Russia is also not buying the argument put forward by the West that unless it supports the opposition movement in Syria, it will not be a frontrunner when the new government is formed in Damascus. Russia’s defense, and a valid one, is that if the current government falls it will be followed by a civil war and sectarian violence leading to chaos, as is witnessed in other countries in the region. Assad’s iron hand over the political system has rendered it without a visible and efficient opposition that can takeover once Assad is gone. The civil war will create large-scale migration into neighbouring countries further worsening the situation.

Arab League Report
As is the case with most of the developments in West Asia, the Arab League report submitted by its observers who toured Syria is mired in controversy. While the report was backed by Algeria, Egypt, Sudan and Oman, it was opposed by Qatar - the current president of the league. One of the arguments is that the observers were not able to extensively tour the affected regions and thus their report does not reflect the extensive damage done by the Assad regime. Damascus, in its defense, is arguing that violence was on the rise in many of the regions the observers toured because the government had pulled back its forces, according to the demand of the observers. Groups backing the Assad regime state that the government is fighting ‘shady armed gangs’ that are causing unrest in the country to bring down the government.
The Arab League report and the developments thereafter should be viewed from the fact that Syria was suspended from the league in November last. Also, among the more than two dozen countries that are calling for Syria’s ouster from two UN committees are Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The UNESCO executive board meeting convening from February 27 will take a call on this issue.

There is an urgent need for a plan to stop the violence and bloodshed in Syria because the longer the unrest prolongs more are the chances of sectarian wars breaking out between the Sunni majority and the Alawite, Christian, Kurd minority. The United Nations will not be able to bring peace to the country once things deteriorate to that level and we can expect something at par or even worse than what is now being witnessed in Iraq and Libya.
Given this one cannot sit idle and watch as Assad, or as he claims ‘extremist elements’, continue to unleash violence and kill innocent people throughout the country. The West has its interests and so do Russia and other Arab nations. There are pitfalls in a UNSC resolution against the Assad regime but if one were to weigh both the options, it is better than not taking any action at all. The world has to choose between the lesser of evils to check a brutal dictator and give Syrians the freedom and peace they deserve.

(An edited version of this article has appeared in The New Indian Express on February 6)