Sunday 26 February 2012

Saif knows that family matters (Sunday Guardian)

Saif Ali Khan addresses a press conference on the assault case filed against him by an NRI businessman in Mumbai on Wednesday.
By Madhav Nalapat
Can Malaika Arora, Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan ever be wrong? By now, phone lines must be afire with highly-placed friends of the three working on getting Maharashtra's film-crazy politicians to ensure that the Mumbai police (again, a reasonable bunch, very open to persuasion) get the correct story of what took place in Mumbai's Taj Mahal hotel a few days ago. Saif must have been severely injured during the encounter, as it took him almost a day to leave his bedside and rustle up the energy to register a complaint before the Mumbai police authorities, giving the "true" version of the facts. Saif being a young man obedient to elders, this move must have been prompted by advice from political and official bigwigs in Maharashtra, who must be aghast at the injustice involved in forcing a helpless citizen to spend hours in a police station defending himself against a complaint by — and let us not use understatement here — the cruel culprits of that evening, the 40-ish South African businessman and his 68-year-old father-in-law.
Going by Malaika, Kareena and Saif's version of the incident, the only question was just who mauled and pummelled Saif so ruthlessly. Was it the son-in-law or the father-in-law? Could it be that the younger man is protecting the older, and that it was actually the elder person who pounced on Saif? In sifting through the evidence, we must not ignore one obvious fact. The two (son-in-law and father-in-law) were apparently so expert in their pugilism that they landed blows on the movie star that were wholly invisible to the naked eye, or to other naked parts of the human body. Although the blows clearly did immense bodily harm to the distinguished descendant of Rabindranath Tagore (enough to make his two lady escorts apoplectic), the attack was so stealthy in its skill that no bruise, no discolouration, was seen afterwards. Poor Saif suffered inwardly, in silence. That the attack was grave is borne out by Saif filing a police complaint. One does not file such complaints, unless the blows inflicted are life-threatening. Fortunately for Saif's producers, the injuries sustained by the delicate star do not seem to be life-threatening, although of course he will need to be kept under observation for at least a year to make sure that this is indeed the case.
So expert were the two Malaika-identified assailants that not only did they not make even the slightest external mark on Saif (although of course his internal organs, including those involving the digestive tract, must be close to pulp), but they managed to give the impression that they themselves were injured, in fact to the extent of a broken nose. Knowing the reputation for truthfulness and ethics of Kareena and Malaika, not to mention the humble lad they tried but failed to protect against two violent experts in martial arts, it is clear that such injuries must be a sham. Or, if they be real, must have come about because of the "boomerang" technique, by which a blow apparently directed at another comes back and hits the person making the blow, in a transparent bid for public sympathy. Saif, of course, could never have been responsible for even a single blow, except perhaps a soft one, knowing the sort of person his is. Clearly, the two attackers apparently injured themselves to throw the blame on an innocent filmstar who was in the company of others even more innocent than himself. Malaika and Kareena, tell the truth! The public must know the facts that only you both do. Even Saif cannot know the whole truth, so traumatised was he by the repeated blows he endured that awful night.
The Mumbai police, especially because this yeoman force is certain to be guided by various influential "uncles" of the stars in question, can be relied on to ensure that the pathetically wronged thespian suffers minimum inconvenience from his horrible encounter with two individuals whose proficiency in martial arts seems better than a US Navy SEAL. For the latter certainly cannot inflict invisible blows, nor do the "boomerang attack", that Malaika and Kareena are witness to on that fateful day. But what was the motivation for the spasm of violence against the Pataudi scion? Could it be starry rivalry, with some unknown film personality secretly goading the two martial arts specialists to visit the same restaurant that poor Saif chose for a quiet evening?
Of course, the complaint of the father-in-law and the son-in-law was that it was hardly a quiet evening. Indeed, the accusation was that a lot of noise was emanating from the Saif table. However, it is very likely that the reason for this — assuming the suggestion of loud noise is correct — may be that Saif, Kareena and Malaika are auditorily challenged, that they cannot hear very well, and had collectively left their hearing aids at home when visiting the Taj. Were this the case, it would explain the loud conversation, for the three would not even know that they were speaking a bit louder than people other than politicians do. And going by the principle of "Mens Rea" and "Actus Reus", if they were not aware that they were speaking loudly (and how could they, if their hearing aids were absent from the table?), then they certainly cannot be held guilty of making a "loud noise". Instead of sending a chit to restaurant staff protesting at the joyful sounds coming from Saif's (then happy) table, why did the SEAL-like duo not amble over to the Saif table themselves, and offer to procure hearing aids from a nearby medical store, given the obvious reason for the slightly loud speech? Most inconsiderate.
Saif is not alone. Pedestrians inconveniently get in the way of expensive automobiles driven by other representatives of India's "innocent" youth, and it is the poor boys and girls behind the wheel who get blamed. No one cares to ask just why those hit had committed the crime of being at the exact spot that the car was, that too when Junior or Junioress had had a few strong drinks, to forget the fact that India is in crisis. Finally, of course, all is usually well, with the minimum time served in prison (usually a police room where clandestine home food and visits is the norm). And thus it is likely to be for Saif. Because it is Kareena, Malaika and Saif who have the "uncles", and not the two pugilists. And in India, family and friends matter. In fact, nothing else does.

Italy eyes ‘Nato immunity’ for escape (Sunday Guardian)

Members of the security crew of the Italian ship arrive at a government guest house in Kochi on Monday. PTI
few days ago, Frank Wuterich, the Marine Corpsman guilty of leading the group that shot dead 24 unarmed Iraqi men, women and children in Haditha in 2005 was "honourably discharged" from the US military. He was the only one of the killer squad to have been arraigned before a court of enquiry, and the lenient punishment given to him is typical of the lack of punishment meted out to Nato personnel engaged in operations in "uncivilised" parts of the globe. Thus far, not a single Nato soldier has been called to account by the UN human rights machinery in Geneva or the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The alliance, which is dominant in both these institutions, has essentially given itself a free pass, even while using the excuse of "attacks on civilians" to justify interventions in locations such as Libya and now Syria. Online, several former and present Nato soldiers have posted detailed accounts of how they "accidentally" killed civilians — including several women and children — in Iraq, Afghanistan and other theatres. Thus far, no effort has been made to subject Nato to the same standards prescribed for "uncivilised" militaries. By definition, troops of a Nato member cannot be guilty of a crime, only of a "mistake". Whenever the incidents of killing of civilians has been too egregious to overlook, a Nato commander steps forward before television cameras and expresses his "deep regret and sorrow" for the loss of human life. In some cases, a small payment is given to the families of victims.
This tradition of immunity from punishment for the taking of innocent lives has led to a "shoot first and ask questions of the dead later" mindset within the ranks of the men and women serving Nato. The collateral damage that such immunity causes has been exacerbated by Nato's Rule One, which is to avoid casualties, even if this involves a steep price in "collateral damage". So nervous are Nato members of negative reactions back home to the coffins of their "heroes", that commanders often order strikes on the merest suspicion of hostile intent. For example, US ground forces in Iraq have been told to regard the act of running as a sign of hostile intent, and to bring down the person or persons involved, even if they be running away from troops. That flight would be the normal reaction of a rational human being at the sight of heavily armed, aggressive aliens coming towards him seems to have been overlooked, with fatal consequences for several unarmed Iraqis. Even speaking back in a loud voice has been judged to be sufficient provocation for an order to fire. As the case of Wuterich (or the presidential pardon given to the man who led the My Lai butchery in 1968, William Calley) indicates, members of Nato are unwilling to inflict penalties even on those soldiers who clearly indulged in actions incompatible with military necessity or honour. "Protection of one's own" has been extended to mean protection against criminal acts carried out on "uncivilised" people as well.
Small wonder that the Italian authorities are seething at the effrontery of the Government of Kerala in insisting that the two marines alleged to be guilty of the murder of two fishermen off the Kerala coast on 15 February be subjected to the same process as other killers. Italy is a member of the European Union, and if one were to go by the records of the International Court of Justice or the UN human rights panels, the EU is incapable of conducting a human rights violation, even when it bombs, shoots and torpedoes human clusters. The Catholic Church is proof of this saintly quality of Europe, as more than 99% of Catholic saints are either from Europe or of European ethnicity. Clearly, those from the European Union are many, many times more saintly than the rest of the world combined, a fact reflected in their zero rate of international prosecution for human rights abuses. It is this knowledge in the exceptionalism of the European Union that seems to have generated the aggressive Italian moves to get the two alleged killers released and "sent for trial to Italy". If the Italian media gives any indication of what authorities there are saying, it is that the men "acted in self-defence", as they had an impression (and in a rare concession, the Italian side admits that such an apprehension may have been mistaken) that the fishermen on board the tiny "St Antony" were pirates armed to the teeth and minutes away from attacking the huge "Enrica Lexie". Similar mistakes, usually resulting in considerable loss of innocent lives, have been made by Nato units before. Indeed, they are commonplace. If thus far no country — such as Iraq or Afghanistan — has dared to contest the "right" of Nato members to have their personnel tried in courts at home, how can an exception be made for India, clearly a country that is neither European nor a member of Nato?
Had the Italian ship truly been in "international waters" as claimed by authorities in that country, it is unlikely that the captain would have agreed to the request of the Coast Guard that the ship come to Kochi for further investigation. Unfortunately, thus far neither the GPS systems, nor the ship's logs, nor the weapons involved in the incident, have been handed over to the Kerala police by the Italians. It would not be unfair to surmise that such reluctance would have been absent, had such evidence showed that the Italian Navy shooters were guiltless. Perhaps as part of Tourism Promotion Year, or Love Italy Decade, the Kerala police have thus far not dared to take charge of the evidence on board the ship, thereby opening the real possibility of this having been destroyed or otherwise tampered with.
It is claimed that Minister of State for External Affairs Preneet Kaur has been keeping Congress president Sonia Gandhi informed about the incident, for example after her meeting with the junior Italian minister on 22 February, and that Principal Secretary to PM Pulok Chatterjee has been taking "daily interest" in the fate of the Italian marines and their treatment. Mr Chatterjee need not worry. The two are in lodged in a luxurious suite of rooms at the CISF Guest House in Kochi, and are being fed the best Italian food available in Kochi, with their own choice of menu and aperitif. An unintended consequence of such concern for the culinary rights of the two Nato marines may be to encourage others to shoot at Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast, now that the Kerala police seem so determined to make the incarceration of such offenders so pleasurable. Reports are that Chief Minister Oommen Chandy is unhappy at the kid glove treatment given to the two marines, and that he has been in favour of strong action against the alleged killers from the start. However, his views do not seem to have prevailed with his own authorities, for reasons unknown. However, it is largely because of the Kerala CM's strong stand that those within the Indian establishment who have been in favour of the Italians sailing away to safety have not had their way so far.
Apart from the fact that the Enrica Lexie was in waters under the control of the Indian Coast Guard when the incident took place, and the fishing boat as well as those killed were Indian, the "Law of the Sea" does not in any way support Italy's claim that simply because the firing took place on an Italian ship by members of the military, only Rome has jurisdiction over the matter. Such a stand implies that India has signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Italy, that gives that country the right to try its own military personnel, no matter how grave the offence. However, Italy's stand is consistent with that of other Nato members, all of whom are united in demanding that only their legal systems have the competence needed to try their personnel. Of course, it is precisely these systems that have led to the culture of impunity which suffuses Nato military action across that part of the world which is not part of the alliance. Should the two marines be found guilty by a court in Kerala and put away for a long stretch in an Indian prison, the example may be a warning to Nato about the ill-will being caused across the world by its claim of sovereign immunity across the globe.
According to former diplomat K.C. Singh, Italy has in fact suffered a "disadvantage" because of the fact that a daughter of that country, Sonia Gandhi, is now in charge of the ruling coalition. Such a state of affairs is not obvious from the large number of contracts that have gone to Italian entities and the treatment given to Italian banking, airline and other interests in India. If Singh is correct, reports that the Italian ambassador and several of his staff have regular and privileged access to 10 Janpath is wrong, as must be reports of telephone calls from the Congress president's Italian relatives to her giving their recommendations about the stand the Government of India ought to take about the fate of the two marines. Let us accept Mr Singh's statement that it is not Sonia Gandhi who is preventing the Kerala police from getting their hands on vital evidence on board the killer ship, and who is ensuring five-star treatment to the alleged culprits. It is still a mystery as to why Italian authorities seem so confident that the alleged killers will be released soon after the Piravom bypoll on 18 March. Should this happen, and India join Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other countries as a location where Nato personnel can get away with murder, this country would deserve to be known henceforward as a "Pizza Republic".
Questions for the Italians
1. The Italians are claiming that the incident took place in the international waters and hence the two alleged murderers cannot come under the jurisdiction of the Indian Penal Code. If the Italian ship was on the high seas how did it end up in Indian custody? Did it voluntarily come here for its killers to get arrested?
2. Territorial waters, as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, extend at the most to 12 nautical miles (22 km) from the coast. Is a small fishing boat capable of travelling this distance?
3. If the Italians thought that St Antony was a pirate boat, didn't it occur to them that it was too small a vessel for the pirates to travel all the way from Somalia to the Indian coast?
4. What would the Italian reaction be if an Indian ship had killed two of its natives off its own coast? Would they have let the culprits off or subjected them to trial in Italy?
5. Italian media claims that the Vatican intervened to ensure that the arrested marines be released into Italian custody. Is it proper to misuse the name of the Catholic Church for partisan purposes, just because Vatican City — an independent state — is located within Rome?

Friday 24 February 2012

West and Wahabi vs. Shia (Gateway House)

While there was a strong and overt congruence of interests between the NATO powers and Wahhabi extremists during the 1979-94 Afghan war, 9/11 reversed the situation, leading to a pullback from the earlier policy of coordination between the two, and NATO support to armed Wahhabi groups. The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and the UK had the unexpected effect of creating the grounds for a fresh partnership between the NATO powers and Wahhabi extremists. Both loathed Saddam Hussein, although post-Saddam, several extremists groups turned on NATO, angered by that alliance's call for democratic processes that would place the Shia in Iraq in a dominant role that till then had been the monopoly of the Sunnis. 
By the close of the last decade, Iraq joined Iran as the other large Shia-dominated state, eclipsing Lebanon. The case of Bahrain has been different thus far, in that the country's estimated 70% Shia majority is ruled by the Sunnis. In Saudi Arabia, however, the 20% Shia population suffers from serious discrimination at the hands of the Wahhabi-oriented administration. Only in Kuwait do the Shia (who form a quarter of the citizenry) enjoy the same civic rights as Sunnis. Outside the Arab states, Sunnis in Shia-dominated Iran suffer from several forms of discrimination, although not to the extent seen by the other sect in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq, the influence of the US has helped to ensure that Sunnis are given rights greater than their proportion; this situation may slowly change, once the effects of the US military withdrawal become more obvious. The US has been deeply solicitous of Sunni/Wahhabi interests in Iraq in a way that it has never been about the plight of the Shia in Saudi Arabia or in Bahrain.
Still, the fact remains that it was mainly US firepower that toppled the secular Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and after an interval of six years, ensured the takeover of the centre of gravity of governance by the Shia. But this was never followed by other Shia-specific policies. The result is the goodwill created within the Iraqi Shia by the toppling of Saddam Hussein, has been almost entirely dissipated. The constant demonization of Iran (as distinct from the mullahcracy, which is not at all representative of the people of that country) and now the moves against Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, have helped feed a perception that NATO has joined with the Wahhabis in the latter's war on the Shia.
A perusal of either Shia or Wahhabi literature would reveal the distaste each feels for the other, although the ideology of Khomeinism (which at its root is a repudiation of the basic tenets of Shia Islam) shares many common characteristics with Wahhabism. Both fuse the state and religion into a single entity. Both use the bitterest terms to describe rivals. And both are authoritarian, with no pretence at democracy or matters such as gender justice.
The 1980s Afghanistan-oriented alliance between the NATO powers and Wahhabi extremists was as beneficial for the former as backing from the UK was for followers of the creed in the early part of the last century. But for such support, it is doubtful that the Al Saud would ever have succeeded in driving away the Turks from the Hejaz, and in taking over what has since been named as Saudi Arabia.   
This fusion of interests took place despite an existing (Wahhabi) world-view that was in absolute contradiction with that of the West. Its restrictive, regressive vision makes it impossible for Wahhabis to ever be genuine partners of the West, in a way that India (and its 300 million English-speaking population) has the potential to. Any partnership between them can only be opportunistic, discarded once the need for it is extinguished.
Once the Wahhabi extremists saw the blowback from 9/11, they understood that the West had the capability to comprehensively humiliate them. From 2001, the year the Taliban fled from NATO and its newfound Afghan allies, the course of action propagated by Al Qaeda (of using violence against the West in an effort to get them to retreat) has become discredited. Today, Ayman Al Zawahiri has become a joke, even an embarrassment, when he joins with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in calling for the immediate overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
Even as Al Qaeda has become a ghost organisation, visible mostly in the virtual world, the philosophy of Wahhabism - especially its extreme variants - remains a long-term security risk to the civilised world. In particular, through the spread of Wahhabi education in tens of thousands of religious schools across the globe, the practitioners of this creed are breeding tens of millions of youth who are certain to remain outside the productive economy, and as a consequence, seethe with resentment and anger against the rest of society.
Consequently, the need of the hour is to engineer a broad-based rollback of Wahhabism, a position put in train soon after 9/11 but abandoned after the 2003 Iraq war. The young within the Sunni/Wahhabi population of the world need to be intellectually equipped to deal with the challenges of globalisation, something possible only if they are exposed to modern education. Unfortunately, in large parts of the world, the reverse is taking place. Wahhabi curricula are displacing modern teaching systems, with disastrous effects on the ability of students to compete in the global marketplace. Their inevitable failure is explained away as prejudice, thereby deepening their hatred against modern segments of society, most notably populations living in the West or more progressive developing societies in Asia.
Their philosophy and world-view make them the antithesis of the major thought systems in the West; yet sections of the Wahhabi fringe have shown dexterity in convincing key segments of Western opinion about the need to support them. This has usually been done by camouflaging their actual aims in a fog of talk about human rights, high ethical principles and self-determination. Press coverage of the Taliban was almost uniformly favourable in the Western world, until the militia showed the world exactly what kind of order they sought to impose on the people of Afghanistan. Even then, it took 9/11 before there was a comprehensive turning away from the Taliban.  
After the 1980s Afghan jihad, the 1990s Kashmir jihad too generated a considerable amount of favourable media coverage in the NATO countries, because of the way in which Wahhabi goals were concealed beneath a flow of idealistic words. Even the forced exodus of the Hindu Pandit community from the Kashmir Valley during the initial years of the 1990s, and the destruction of dozens of Hindu and Sikh shrines by the Wahhabis in Kashmir, failed to slow down the volume of laudatory coverage of what were portrayed as "freedom fighters" battling a cruel state. The small print - such as ethnic cleansing and the imposition of Wahhabi variants of Sharia law - were not noticed by the Western media, and to a considerable extent, are still not.
The "Kashmir Model" (of using the language of democracy and human rights to win Western support, even while adhering to a contrary policy in practice) was next widely used by the Libyan opposition to Muammar Gaddafi. The Arab dictator was loathed by the monarchies of the Middle East, because of his often-expressed contempt for such rulers. Wahhabis hated him for the fact that he ran a secular - albeit harshly authoritarian - administration, with no quarter given to such demands as the imposition of Sharia law or the banning of women’s dress other than the abaya. Once he was defeated and killed, those who took over (as a result of generous help from Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron) have lost no time in imposing a Wahhabi version of Sharia law across the parts of Libya controlled by them, and in executing or jailing those who disagree with their extremist world-view. Fortunately for them, Western media channels that were once filled with news about Libya under Gaddafi are now silent about the immense human rights violations taking place in that country after its "liberation" in 2011.
Seeing the success of such a pitch in Libya, groups in Syria which have a theological opposition (as distinct from political) to Bashar Al-Assad, have begun cultivating the Western media and public opinion, the way the jihadists in Kashmir or the elements loosely known as the Taliban, used to do in the 1990s.
So extreme has the identification with such elements become, that even the largest media outlets accept without question such "facts" as that Bashar Al-Assad bombed his own troops and facilities in order "to blame it on the Opposition." Such fantasies are in the same league as tracts which claim that 9/11 was a joint operation of the CIA and Mossad.
What is happening in Libya post-Gaddafi ought to be a wake-up call for those from the NATO countries analysing the Middle East. It is not. They remain easy targets for those who prey on western idealism by couching their own sectarian and extremist views in the language of democracy and human rights. Yes, there are indeed secular, sane elements in the Middle East. But these are not the ones getting favourable media attention in the West. Instead, those who in reality look upon the countries of Europe and North America as civilisational enemies are seeking to entice NATO into backing their theological wars of conquest - first against non-Wahhabi Sunnis, and thereafter against the Shia.
Backing them now will invite the same blowback that backing the fanatics did in Afghanistan.

Speaker Kumar visits Pakistan (PO)

By M D Nalapat
Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament in India, Meira Kumar, has a distinguished lineage, being the daughter of Jagjivan Ram, a member of the Union Cabinets of three Prime Ministers, including Jawaharlal Nehru. Although from a poor family in Bihar, and facing discrimination every day of his life because of having been born a “Dalit” (or low caste), Ram proved a success in every department that he headed, whether it was Agriculture or Railways. In 1977,he quit Indira Gandhi’s cabinet after elections were announced, forming the Congress for Democracy and fighting the polls together with those who had been sent to jail under the just-withdrawn 1975-77 Emergency. The newly-formed Janata Party unexpectedly came to power in 1977,defeating the Congress Party for the first time since 1947. Had Jagjivan Ram been made the Prime Minister, he may have succeeded in weaning away several more elements from the Congress Party, and may have ensured an efficient administration. Unfortunately for Meira’s father Ram, one of the top leaders of the new party was Charan Singh, who shared with others of his Jat caste a distaste for handing over India’s top job to a Dalit. He was joined by Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was born in the highest (Brahmin) caste, in his opposition to Jagjivan Ram, and the two succeeded in ensuring that the job of PM went to Morarji Desai, who began each day by drinking a glass of his own urine. Jagjivan Ram was given the ceremonial post of Deputy Prime Minister.

Unfortunately for Desai, his daily drink could not rescue him from the machinations of Charan Singh, who established contact with Sanjay Gandhi - the son of Indira Gandhi - during the middle of 1978. Shrewdly, the younger man took advantage of Singh’s immense hunger to be the PM, promising him support should he create a split within the Janata Party. Which was exactly what Charan Singh did in 1979,although immediately afterwards the CongressParty withdrew its support to him.

Aware that he was in a hopeless minority, Singh never once faced Parliament. All that he achieved was to disgust the voters of India with his power play, and make them turn once again to Indira Gandhi in the 1980 polls. Jagjivan Ram went into semi-retirement thereafter, his days ending in 1986. However, during his final years, he had the joy of seeing his only daughter Meira emerge as an accomplished diplomat, who on her own merit did very well in the Indian Foreign Service. In 1985,Rajiv Gandhi persuaded her to leave the IFS and contest from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh. She twice got selected before being defeated, and later re-entering Parliament in 2004,this time as a Union Minister. Before long, her tact and diplomacy made her the obvious choice for Speakership of the Lok Sabha (Lower House) of Parliament, a job she holds to this day.

As Speaker, Meira Kumar has never failed to show tact and politeness, thereby ensuring that even those who disagree with her on rulings (or have political differences with the Congress Party stalwart) have cordial relations with her. Untouchability – the practice of shunning people because of political differences – is against the ethos of democracy, and Speaker Kumar ensures that she keeps an open house, where those of different political persuasions feel welcome. Small wonder that the lady in whom diplomacy is ingrained within her psyche was chosen to lead a multi-party parliamentary delegation to Pakistan, a country that Almighty has made a neighbour of India, and with whom therefore friendly relations are essential. Unlike in the past, when there was a near-total absence of information about each other, these days cable television and the internet have broken down many barriers to knowledge between India and Pakistan. Several tens of thousands of citizens of either country visit the other each year, many of whom bring back warm memories. Those who have been to Pakistan find no words to describe the warmth and hospitality of the people there. Clearly, just as in India, there is a strong desire within both peoples to live in peace with each other, so that third parties do not anymore gain from their rivalry.

Indeed, Speaker Kumar will hopefully meet with another charming lady olitician, one who - like her - has won friends for her country across he globe by her soft-spoken ways and polite demeanour. This is of course Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Kar, who made a very successful is it to India last year. Her confidence stilled perceptions in some quarters that Pakistan was turning into a Talibanised state, where women were forced to wear the veil and be barred from eductional and professional advancement. Minister Kar represents women, a group that has often been treated badly in the subcontinent. Speaker Kumar comes from a family background where oppression was the norm. Both have overcome obstacles to reach where they are, and in the process, have helped modernise their societies

Speaker Kumar must be delighted to visit Pakistan, for the reason that she loves Urdu poetry, and knows it well. She will definitely be meeting at least a few Urdu writers and poets during her six day visit, besides calling on President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. Incidentally, by standing up for the rights of the democratically elected (and implicitly calling for civilian primacy over the military),the Prime Minister of Pakistan has acquired a substantial fan following in India. The perception this side of the border is that the stronger the military in Pakistan is vis-a-vis the civilian leadership, the less chance there is for friendly ties between India and Pakistan. Such a stand is unlike that of the US, China and the EU, all three of whom give primacy to military leaders in their interaction with policymakers in Pakistan. Indeed, there is a much bigger rush to see General Kayani in NATO capitals or in Beijing than there is to have a discussion with President Zardari or Prime Minister Gilani. In Delhi, on the other hand, it is the latter two who are welcome, as indeed is another old friend of several Indian politicians, Mian Nawaz Sharif.

Another Pakistani leader, Imran Khan, is in a different category, being popular mostly among high-society ladies in Mumbai and Delhi, who are eagerly awaiting his next visit to these cities. Several of them have happy memories of the handsome Pathan, and are eager to acquire more Speaker Kumar’s delegation comprises of a broad cross-section of Parliament, and includes two prominent members of the main opposition party, the BJP. One of them, Tarun Vijay, is among the star ideologues of the BJP, very influential in fashioning the party’s views on important issues. The other, Shahnawaz Hussain, is one of the few Muslim leaders in that party, whose task is to ensure that more Muslims vote for the BJP than has been the case thus far. With 16% of the population, Muslims are now a very important voting bloc in elections, and no party aspiring to come to power at the national level can ignore them. No individual who hopes to be Prime Minister can be viable in his job unless he has their confidence and trust. Hence the effort to reach out to Muslims. Even Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and who is regarded as a “Hindu hard-liner”, has made a special effort to reach out to minorities during the past year. The importance of the visit comes from the fact that India has always sought to give primacy to the democratic political process in Pakistan, resisting the line taken by other players, who most reach out to sections that have not been democratically elected. Both policymakers and the public in India have been watching recent developments in Pakistan with interest, and following the fate of President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani, both of whom are seen as committed to civilian supremacy over the military wing of the establishment in Pakistan. Of course, policymakers in Delhi know that the Pakistan army has strong support from both the Pentagon as well as the PLA, both of whom may dislike each other, but are good friends of General Kayani and his team.

The Speaker and her team are gathering several warm and pleasant impressions of Pakistan, and are experiencing both the scenic beauty of the country as well as the good manners of its people. Hopefully there will be many more visits between policymakers on both sides, so that misunderstandings can get cleared and replaced with trust. Friends of Pakistan in India strongly support the civilian establishment, and the visit of a statesperson who may one day become the Prime Minister, President or Vice-President of India is a sign of such backing for those who have emerged through the democratic process.