Sunday 28 November 2010

Khamenei bats for Pakistan (PO)

M D Nalapat

Iran has figured significantly in the Indian strategic calculus for a considerable period of time. Although relations with that important country were strained during the period when the Shah of Iran ruled the Peacock throne, they became better when Mohammad Khatami was President. He succeeded in ensuring an increase in the number of Iranian students studying in Indian universities, and presided over an increase in trade and in other contacts. As President, Hashemi Rafsanjani also paid a lot of attention to India, a link that has continued even after he stepped down from that post. However, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has not been as attentive towards the importance of India, and ties have become weaker since he took office. Part of the reason has been the rise in tensions between Iran and two allies of India, the US and Israel. During his first visit to Tehran, this columnist saw several banners and signboards wishing death to Israel and the US, and in his talk to students at Shahid Behesti University, began by pointing out that India regarded both Israel and the US as very close allies, and if anyone in the audience objected to listening to a speaker admitting that fact, she or he was welcome to leave. However, the natural good manners of the Persian people asserted themselves over the hatred for the US and Israel that forms an intrinsic part of some elements of Iranian society, and nobody left the hall. This great culture, one that has lasted for thousands of years, is one of the major reasons why India and Iran are likely to remain close to each other.

The Shah of Iran was a close ally of the US, which is probably why he took a very strong pro-Pakistan position during both the 1965 as well as the 1971 conflict between India and the world’s second-most populous Muslim country (after Indonesia). As a result of the clear tilt of the Shah of Iran towards Pakistan, relations with Delhi suffered, and remained chilly till the Shah abdicated in 1979. Soon after that, the war between Iraq and Iran started, and this became the cause for India to withdraw its military trainers from Iraq, as there was no intention to take sides in a conflict between two of the most important countries of the Middle East. The withdrawal of military cooperation by India annoyed Saddam Hussein, especially as the Iraqi strongman had been as close a friend of India as Egypt’s Gamal abdel Nasser had been in the past. However, the gesture did not lead to any improvement in ties with Iran. These had to wait till Rafsanjani and Khatami took over.

Sunday 21 November 2010

False morality in midst of immorality (PO)

M D Nalapat

During her younger days, the present Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha (House of the People, or Lower House in Parliament) Sushma Swaraj was a modern woman, definitely in step with the most progressive elements of the 20th century. Originally a Socialist before she joined the conservative Hindu-centric Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 1990s, Swaraj championed the right of a woman to her own lifestyle, earning for herself condemnation from those who believe that a woman’s role is what has been described by the ancient Indian lawgiver Manu: as a slave of first her father, then her husband and finally her own son. She dressed soberly but attractively, and refused to observe “purdah” and avoid contact with men. In the modern world, men and women need to work closely together, so it was understandable that Ms Swaraj (who is happily married) functioned in close proximity to such socialist giants as former Defense Minister George Fernandes and former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, steadily rising in stature as a woman politician who understood the need for India’s society to modernize and move away from ancient restrictions and prejudices. However, once she took over as Information and Broadcasting Minister in the BJP-led government in 1998, Sushma Swaraj had a transformation, even demanding that female newsreaders in the state-run broadcasting service cover their arms fully while on air.

Clearly, this new avatar of a once-progressive woman politician would have been comfortable with the dress code enforced in Iran, where a woman has to be fully draped even in the privacy of her own home when men are present who are not husbands and sons However, Ms Swaraj should not be blamed for such a return into the medieval past. She naturally wishes to someday become the second lady PM after Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi, and has calculated that only a Saudi-style adherence to “modesty” and to its enforcement will gain her the support of conservatives in the BJP, many of whom marry off their daughters at a young age and are against the teaching of English to the young. These days, she demurely covers her head and modestly lowers her gaze when men are present, a very different avatar from her bold, pathbreaking past, a past that energized and motivated hundreds of thousands of young Indian women to follow her example and break free from the fetters of convention into a lifestyle that is closer to that followed in Europe or China.

Saturday 13 November 2010

A US-India war on corruption? (PO)

M D Nalapat

During the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidential term, “Billary” ( Bill and Hillary Clinton) has been his motto. More than 90% of his policies, and his staff - those not Republican -come from the ranks of those who supported Hillary Clinton and husband Bill in their personal attacks on the charismatic African-American who overshadowed them. Within his administration, he formidable trio of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke saw India as a troublesome country that ought to be told to behave (in other words, accept US diktat) before being given any concessions. Their condescension towards India was in contrast to the stand taken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who backed Indian independence even while Winston Churchill said that the “Hindoos were a beastly people” who do not deserve freedom.Of course, Churchill believed that Muslims too ought to remain British subjects for eternity. President Roosevelt (and his idealistic spouse Eleanor) disagreed, pointing out that the Atlantic Charter to which both the UK and the US was committed stood for freedom. Of course, Churchill’s reply was that only those of European origin deserved to be free. The rest should remain in the same way as several European peoples were under the occupation of Hitler-led Germany.

Although they pass themselves off as “liberals”, there is a subliminal prejudice beneath the “tolerant”l veneer of several of the East Coast intellectuals who form the bulk of the Clinton cohort. They are people who would like to freeze “primitive” societies into their present lifestyles, the way anthropologist Verrier Elwin got Jawaharlal Nehru to do to the North-east. Because of Nehru’s policies, the Northeast of India was denied development, so that “the people may continue in their pristine way”. Even today, the standard of roads and other infrastructure in that region is way below that of other parts of India. While George W Bush embraced multiculturalism - especially as it related to the vibrant Hispanic community - Bill Clinton sought to impose solutions on the rest of the world in partnership with Europe. To the Talbotts and the Holbrookes, the only way a country can be a “responsible stakeholder” is if it accepted the US-EU position on all major issues. Small wonder that many were sceptical of the faith of Manmohan Singh that President Obama would not come to India empty-handed, but would announce several major agreements in a Rooseveltian spirit.

Saturday 6 November 2010

An Obama defeat not bad news for India (PO)

M D Nalapat

Over the past month, a troupe of Obama backers have descended on India, seeking to soften opinion in the country ahead of President Obama’s visit. The English-language media in India, both print as well as television, have given continuos coverage of such non-events as former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott discussing issues centering around the braid theme of “what India can do for the US”. Apart from a few retired diplomats and civil servants, as well as the participants themselves, there has been no viewer interest in such fare. Then why air on television or print so many such “debates and discussions” featuring an army of retired (but hoping for re-employment) Clinton-era officials and their Indian clones? In large part, such coverage is a tribute to the public diplomacy skills of the huge US embassy in New Delhi, that networks intensively with not only the journalists working in these media outlets but ( much more crucially) the proprietors. Getting the US ambassador over to dinner is a social coup for Delhi’s glamorous society ladies, and all of Timothy Roemer’s charm and gift of the gab are being put to good use in a context where the Obama administration has been largely hostile to India.

This columnist visits the Information Technology (IT) hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad often, and in both there is anger at the shabby way in which Indian IT professionals are being treated in matters of visa and entry into the US. These days, visa interviews for software professionals has turned nasty, with the (normally polite) consular officials clearly under instructions from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discourage Indians from going on work assignments to the US. Interestingly, the Republican Party has turned to Indian-Americans, especially in the conservative south. Some years ago, India-born Bobby Jindal became the Governor opr Louisiana, defeating his Democratic Party opponent despite the fact that she belonged to the (Caucasian) majority. Now, another Indian-American, Nikki Randhawa, has been elected the Governor of South Carolina, defeating her Democrat rival in a campaign marked by numerous personal attacks on her. Both Nikki and Bobby have married within their communities, and that fact has not stood in the way of conservative white voters overwhelmingly preferring them to white Democratic opponents who have near-total backing from local African-American communities. Although it is not considered politically correct to mention this, it is a reality that several African-Americans resent the economic success of the Indian-American community. This is unfortunate, for India has been a consistent backer of racial equality, being for long the only non-Communist country to give assistance to the African National Congress while Nelson Mandela was in jail. Within the African-American community, leaders such as Martin Luther King have been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, and they in turn have inspired many Indians, including this columnist, who once wrote a short biography of Dr King in his mother tongue, Malayalam. By his numerous negative actions on India, President Obama seems to be reacting more as a sectional leader than as the elected head of the entire American people, which is perhaps one reason why his party has suffered so badly in the 2010 polls, just two years after he was elected as the first African-American President of the US. In this respect, Obama;s election has put his country on a higher moral plane than India, which has yet to see a Muslim Prime Minister emerge, despite having been free for 63 years.