Friday, 28 March 2014

US-Saudi ties: Iran is just one of the elephants in the room

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (Left)
and Barack Obama
United States President Barack Obama really has his task cut out for him. On a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, he will have to delicately balance human rights issues and realpolitik in Riyadh, where he will be meeting King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. More than 50 representatives, both Republicans and Democrats, have signed a petition asking Mr Obama to publicly address human rights violations in the desert kingdom. One of the suggestions by Amnesty International is that Mr Obama has a female Secret Service personnel drive his car. While there was much debate, and rightly so, about the Twitter ban in Turkey, little focus has been given to the way the Saudi authorities have been harassing citizens who have been critical of the government. A group of three lawyers, who had criticised the legal system, have been sued by the justice ministry and have been accused of ‘defying the regime’.
Though human rights are a major issue the US would like to talk about, it is unlikely that the ban on women drivers or policing of public opinion in Saudi Arabia will be on the top of the list. Washington-Riyadh ties have run into rough weather ever since the former eased up on Tehran over its nuclear programme. Washington’s perceived support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Washington saying no to airstrikes on Syria have worsened the ties. Rebuilding confidence and whittling down differences would be Mr Obama’s priority. Moreover this meeting takes place at a time when there is not one but at least four countries waiting for a power change in the region — Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. The US and Saudi Arabia have varying interests in these countries. Put into the picture the interest Iran has in these four nations and its conflict with Saudi Arabia.
Bashar al Assad (Left), Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani
Mr Obama’s meeting is expected, in ‘word and deed’, to shape a new phase of engagement in West Asia. How well it will succeed is yet to be seen. Peace and stability in West Asia are very important not only for the US but also for many countries, India included. Any tension in the region can cause a spike in oil prices, adversely affecting economies around the world.

Monday, 24 March 2014

NDA in TN: Captain to give Modi the Dravidian push

L to R: Vaiko, Vijayakanth, Rajnath Singh, Anbumani Ramadoss
Creating a “new political history” in Tamil Nadu as BJP president Rajnath Singh put it last Thursday while unveiling a new NDA coalition might be to overstate the case. But nevertheless, it is a significant achievement for the saffron party. Unable to reach a pre-poll alliance with its erstwhile ally, the AIADMK — notwithstanding the bonhomie between chief minister J Jayalalithaa and the BJP’s PM candidate, Narendra Modi — the BJP has brought together five regional parties on the same platform. What the BJP has achieved through this coalition is unique and commendable. It is unique because for more than four decades Tamil Nadu has seen bipolar politics between the main two Dravidian parties — the DMK and the AIADMK. Other parties, including the Congress, have been relegated to the margins. The NDA alliance in Tamil Nadu — including Vijayakanth’s DMDK, Vaiko’s MDMK and Ramadoss’ PMK — has the potential to challenge this two-party dominance. This is commendable because the BJP has virtually no presence in the state. In 2009, the BJP did not get a single one of the 39 seats and today it is spearheading the third political option in the state. Compare this to the Congress, which in 2009 won eight seats while in an alliance with the DMK, but today finds itself alone with no alliance partner.
That said, the BJP’s alliance comes with many built-in limitations. In the event of the BJP requiring the support of either the AIADMK or the DMK to form a government at the Centre and given the bitter differences among  the regional parties, it is to be seen how a Vijayakanth-led DMDK and a Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK can be accommodated on the same side. A contradiction in this coalition is the coming together of the DMDK and the PMK as both parties have been at loggerheads. The absence of PMK founder S Ramadoss from Thursday’s function has also created a lot of speculation. But, to quote Otto von Bismarck, “Politics is the art of the possible…” and in the past we have seen unexpected twists and turns during government formations.
A lot can happen between now and April 24 when the state goes to polls and even after the results are announced on May 16.  Nevertheless, it would be safe to say that the BJP has made the right moves by extending its alliance in the South and thereby getting closer to its target ‘Mission 272+’. These developments, if nothing else, will impart the colour and dynamism that will make elections in the state all the more interesting.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Sooner or later Hitler had to come in

Rahul Gandhi
In the heat and dust of ‘Election 2014’, allegations and counter-allegations have been dominating primetime in news studios, headlines in newspapers and posts on social networking sites. Leaders, cutting across party lines, have been trying to satiate the enormous political appetite of the electorate, often with half-truths and white lies. Allegations, even personal attacks, on political rivals have become a part of discourse in Indian politics. While it is often the old guard that has been involved in name-calling, the younger leaders have shown more restraint. Of course, there are exceptions.
And this is why Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s veiled attack on BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi while comparing leadership styles comes as a surprise. Gandhi, while speaking at a rally at Balasinor, in central Gujarat on Tuesday, said there were two types of leaders: One, who meets the people, understands them and their problems and is humble and not arrogant. The other type is like Hitler who believed that they do not have anything to learn from the people. While the Congress scion might not have used Modi’s name, the inference, given the context and that he was speaking in Gujarat, is hard to miss.
Gandhi has made the political equivalent of an Internet truism — Godwin’s Law, which states that ‘if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism’. The campaign for the 16th Lok Sabha has been on for a long time but that’s not an excuse. However, political niceties and courtesy are not something one expects from our netas.
Vladimir Putin (left) with Hillary Clinton in 2012
With his ‘Hitler’ comment, Gandhi is in the esteemed company of former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the state media in North Korea. Clinton, last week, pointed out the similarities between Nazi Germany’s actions in the 1930s in Czechoslovakia and Poland to Russia’s actions in Crimea. Never mind that she later tried to clarify her comment saying that she wanted everyone to have a ‘little historic perspective’ and that she was not making a ‘comparison’. The North Korean news agency KCNA in an editorial in February compared Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Hitler for his plans to revise Tokyo’s pacifist constitution opening the frontiers of the military.
Salman Khurshid (left) and Mani Shankar Aiyar
In attacking Modi, Gandhi joins party colleagues Mani Shankar Aiyar and Salman Khurshid, among the many others who have done it in the past. If Aiyar called the Gujarat chief minister a ‘chaiwalla’, Khurshid, while addressing people in his constituency Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh, referred to Modi as a “napunsak” for not protecting the people of Godhra. Gandhi had disapproved of both Aiyar’s and Khurshid’s comments.
Gandhi’s ‘Reductio ad Hitlerum’ or ‘playing the Nazi card’ can be interpreted in many ways. There were a lot of issues that could expose the much-talked-about ‘Gujarat Model’ — as was done by AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal a few days ago. Gandhi, in his speech, focused on the plight of the farmers; that Gujarat was shining only for a few people; accused the state government of taking credit for the Amul story and for appropriating the legacy of Sardar Patel.
Then why would Rahul Gandhi, who is otherwise careful in choosing his words, use the ‘H’ word? The answer to this, perhaps, lies in a 2007 article that appeared in The Economist. While discussing citizenship policies in Estonia and looking at the tone of discussion on the Internet in Russia, The Economist had said that ‘A good rule in most discussions is that the first person to call the other a Nazi automatically loses the argument’. Now that’s some food for thought.
(This appeared in the Hindustan Times on March 13, 2013)

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

DMK: An arena for political fratricide

The good ol' days: MK Alagiri (left),
M Karunanidhi (seated) and MK Stalin
With the call for clean politics getting louder with every passing day, one would expect political parties to tailor their decisions keeping this in mind. However, the DMK, under the leadership of its president M Karunanidhi and MK Stalin, has chosen to ignore such signals. The party released a list of 35 candidates it wishes to field in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, and its decision to field A Raja and Dayanidhi Maran, both former telecom ministers under the scanner for their alleged role in the telecom scams, shows that the DMK is not in tune with the public mood in the country. At a time when the people, especially the youth, are demanding accountability and transparency from political parties and when the judiciary is taking steps to keep tainted politicians away from fray, the move to field Mr Raja and Mr Maran could backfire on the party. On expected lines, MK Alagiri, Mr Stalin’s elder brother who was earlier suspended from the party on disciplinary grounds, was not given a ticket.
Of the many inferences that can be derived from the DMK’s list of candidates, the most evident is Mr Stalin’s stamp of authority on the selection. The majority of the candidates are Stalin loyalists, while Alagiri loyalists, like former minister D Napoleon, have been denied a ticket. Mr Stalin has closed the door on his brother’s chances of returning to the party and contesting the polls by announcing the candidature of V Velusamy, a Stalin loyalist, from the Madurai constituency — Mr Alagiri is the sitting MP for Madurai. Caught in infighting, the party seems oblivious of the changing reality in Tamil Nadu. The ruling Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK is showing no signs of fatigue and Vijayakanth’s DMDK is gaining momentum, especially after its alliance with the BJP. Rather than focusing on important issues the DMK is washing its dirty linen in public.

In the recent past: Dayanidhi Maran (left)
and A Raja (right) with Alagiri
Whatever be the verdict on May 16, one thing is clear: The DMK, today, is a far cry from a party that was founded on  social goals. The Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), born out of the Neethi Katchi in 1944, was the DMK’s parent organisation formed to protect the interests of the Dravidian people. It aimed at social reform and ending upper-caste dominance. The DMK, which was formed in 1949 because of personal differences between its founder CN Annadurai and DK leader Periyar EV Ramaswamy Naicker, continued the DK’s mission of safeguarding the rights of the people of Tamil Nadu. It is unfortunate that what started as a social revolution and later metamorphosed into a political movement is today reduced to an arena for political fratricide.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Crimea: The West must watch as Russia flexes its muscles in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Moscow does not seem to be able to put behind its past as a great power. The decision by the Russian Federal Council or the upper house on Sunday to unanimously approve President Vladimir Putin’s request to send troops into the Crimean peninsula is a clear sign of Moscow’s inability to accept Ukraine as an independent and sovereign state. That Ukraine is divided in its response to Russia’s actions in the Crimea is evident in pro-Russia forces marching across cities in the south and east of Ukraine and navy chief Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky swearing allegiance to the government of the Crimea region. Russia is unhappy with the pro-European government in Kiev after president Viktor F Yanukovych, who was close to the Kremlin, was ousted recently. Russia’s “uncontested arrival” — to quote Washington — in the Crimea reflects Putin’s unrealistic ambition in Eurasia, where he sees Moscow lording it over the former Soviet states. However, tension in Ukraine can be traced back to the trouble Russia is facing. Many see Putin’s actions as an effort to deflect attention from Russia’s ailing economy and breakdown of social systems. With rampant corruption, oil prices set to stay low and with its growth crawling along, Russia is crumbling from within. Russia, though still a superpower, is a shadow of the erstwhile USSR. Putin refuses to acknowledge this reality and that Russia’s days of supremacy are long gone.
US secretary of state John Kerry
The West has condemned Russia’s actions and the United States, Britain and France have threatened to boycott the G8 summit to be held later this year in Sochi. US secretary of state John Kerry warned that if Russia did not pull back its forces Putin may not “even remain in the G8”. Though hues of a Cold War US-Russia face-off is being projected, a war-weary West would do well to address this threat through diplomatic channels by imposing sanctions and bans, and not use force on the ground.
With more than 17 bilateral agreements and cooperation in the fields of defence, nuclear energy, science and technology, space research, etc, India cannot ignore the rising tension in Ukraine. Trade relations with Kiev have increased almost 50% from $1.93 billion in 2010-11 to $2.86 billion in 2012-13. The Indian community in Ukraine is relatively small but it has about 3,500 students studying in various medical and technical institutions. It might be too early for India to comment on the situation in the Black Sea, but it should use its good ties with both Ukraine and Russia to ensure the safety of Indians in Ukraine.