Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Pretoria-based CiPS carries my brief commentary on Hamas and 1967 borders: Enough to induce Obama?. For full text please click here

Monday, December 1, 2008

Obama Foreign policy Challenge

Pretoria-based CiPS carries my brief commentary on Obama's real challenge: Iraq, Stupid. For full text please click here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Delink terrorism from religion

November 10 issue of South Asia Monitor carries my brief commentary on the need to delink terrorism from religion. For the full text please click here

Thursday, November 6, 2008

India Obama Victory

It may be premature to rejoice

New Indian Express,07 Nov 2008 12:14:00 AM IST

HISTORIC. Landslide. Popular.
Whichever way you say it, one thing is certain. The much-awaited change has occurred with the spectacular victory of Barack Obama, and the disinherited of the world celebrate his arrival. But should India be elated or worried over the return of a Democrat to the White House? At least in the short run, the bonhomie that marked Indo-US relations under the Bush administration will be missed in New Delhi. Though improvements in bilateral relations began with the visit of President Bill Clinton in March 2000, post-Pokhran India had to invest considerable political and diplomatic capital to overcome bilateral tensions, misgivings and sanctions.

In recent days anti-Bush voices in the US got a new boost: Economy stupid! Naturally the economic meltdown and fears over recession will be the top priority of the new administration.

For India this financial crisis means that its economic clout will be significantly dented.

Given his limited international exposure, foreign policy would be the last thing on Obama’s mind; South Asia far less so. The importance of the region emanates from the travails of Afghanistan and the need to keep the Taliban at bay. So the critical question Obama might ask would be: Who can serve me better, is it India or Pakistan? News on the Kashmir front is also disturbing. Media reports suggest that Obama wants to appoint a special mediator. This would make Pakistanis feel happier especially after Obama’s comments about terrorism and jihadi elements, not India, being the serious threats facing Islamabad at present.

Likewise, the traditional Democrats’ agenda — democracy, human rights and minority treatment— would become vocal and intrusive, causing some unpleasant moments for India. But the overall picture is not bleak. On the critical issue of Iran, New Delhi will heave a sigh of relief. The Bush administration’s anti-Iran obsession will be a thing of the past as the Democrats are eager to open direct talks with the Islamic republic. Even if US-Iran normalisation is not imminent, there will be a lessening of tension between the two erstwhile allies. This should enable India to be more ‘independent’ while dealing with Iran. And anti-American rhetoric within India may be considerably muted and less shrill.

The wider world will be watching the new shifts on Iraq. During the campaign Obama harped on his opposition to the Iraqi invasion. As president he will have to come up with a workable strategy. How does he plan to get the boys home early when regional powers are apprehensive over a post-withdrawal political vacuum in Iraq? American policy on Iraq would remove the enigma surrounding Senator Obama.

Obama’s decisive electoral victory is thus a huge responsibility. Having raised public expectations within and outside the US, he will have to deliver, and swiftly. Otherwise the massive mandate will become a millstone around his neck.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Peace Camp in Israel

Pretoria-based CiPS carries my brief commentary on Peace camp in Israel: Strong ideas but weak stomach. For the full text please click here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Terrorism: All are entitled to live

All are entitled to live
New Indian Express,
24 Oct 2008 12:36:00 AM IST

The ongoing debate over the police encounter in Batla in New Delhi on September 19 highlights the partisan nature of the Indian polity.

Not just political parties, even mainstream intelligentsia abandoned their responsibilities and took refuge under political correctness. It has become fashionable to treat terrorism as yet another form of violence and belittle its devastating consequences.

Lives are important, rights are important but only that of those accused of terrorism. Victims of terrorism die in vain for they have no such rights. At least that is how mainstream India behaves.

We need to take a second look at this kneejerk trade union mentality. Camaraderie is vital for a society but there are times thismy- member-right-or-wrong attitude needs to change. Rallying around the flag should not be taken to absurd limits.

People holding public offices need to recognise that their responsibility is much wider than their immediate jobs. Social responsibility is larger than their responsibility to a particular institution.

The ongoing debate over terrorism exposes the narrow mindset of the political parties in the country. Moving the goalpost is their mantra. They would demand the banning of Hindutva outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal but take a different stand when it comes to SIMI or vice versa. The Bharatiya Janata Party demands the dismissal of the government of Assam for its failure to curb communal violence but sings a different tune over Karnataka and Orissa.

Thus the demand of the BJP for the resignation of the Vice Chancellor of the Jamia Millia Islamia, Professor Mushirul Hasan, over his stand on the police encounter was accompanied by a deafening silence of its stalwarts over the spat of anti-minority violence that were taking place under their very noses.

But partisanship is not the prerogative of only the politicians. Same is true for a large number of the intelligentsia. Professor Mushirul Hasan, for example, explicitly condemned the New Delhi blasts only after, and not before, the BJP demanded his resignation. Similarly, those who vociferously argued against the ‘demonisation’ of Jamia would refer only to ‘events of 19th September’ and not of 13th September that rocked the streets of New Delhi. This leads to the next question: guilt by association.

No institution, organisation or group should be held responsible for the activities of all its members. Even members of the same family are not accountable for the activities of other members of the family.

By no cannons of law, logic or moral standards, can one hold Jamia responsible for the alleged crimes of three of its members.

Guilt by association will take us back to the Stone Age.

At the same time one cannot ignore a similar situation faced by Saudi Arabia following the September 11 terror attacks on the US. Riyadh could not escape the harsh reality: fifteen out of 19 hijackers who carried the terrorist acts were Saudi nationals.

Many used the terror attack to launch a diatribe against the Gulf state, vilified Saudi society and even sought to demonise Islam.

The Saudi state could not be held responsible for the actions of its citizens yet it could not escape from the negative consequences of their actions.

Despite its initial defences, eventually the House of Saud saw the episode as an opportunity for a serious introspection. It did not settle for ostrich-like self-denial. Much of the ongoing internal debate in Saudi Arabia over Islam, reforms in the education system and even dialogue with other religions initiated by King Abdullah have to be traced directly to the negative repercussion of the September 11 attacks. Likewise, if the Jamia were to escape from the consequences of the alleged actions of his students, it needs serious introspection.This leads to the next question: human rights.Yes, all citizens have equal rights. Those charged with terrorism have rights to a fair trial and to be treated as innocent unless proven otherwise. They have to be provided adequate legal defence and an opportunity to clear their name.Without this the idea of India would disintegrate.

But in their eagerness to defend the rights of those accused of terrorism, mainstream political parties and intelligentsia alike, ignore some larger issues.

While everyone is innocent unless otherwise proven, those who are charged with terrorist violence could not be placed on par with ordinary citizens. They face serious charges of involvement in the slaughter of innocent civilians. Let us not forget that serial blasts in New Delhi, for example, killed 24 ordinary civilians who were going about their daily routine.

Those charged with terrorism have legal defence, political support and even media limelight. But what happened to those whose lives were taken without any rhyme or reason.

Didn’t they have any rights? Let us not vacillate or look for an escape clause. Terrorism is not an impulsive road rage. Nor is it unintended manslaughter.

Terrorism is a cold-blooded, pre-mediated murder of innocent civilians. Just like the rights of the accused, one should also recognise the rights of the victims.We also need to go beyond parochial calculations in speaking out for everyone’s right to live: rights of victims, even if they happened to members of other caste, colour, race, religion and even nationality. One can be a critic of the Congress party and its dynastic politics. But one can still recognise late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s right to life.

His life was cut short by a well-planned, well-organised and well-executed political murder carried out by the LTTE. His children were orphaned for no fault of theirs.

Sadly, unlike the slain Indian leader, Nalini Sriharan enjoyed legal defence and was tried and convicted under due process of law. On ‘humanitarian considerations’ her original death sentence was commuted tolife imprisonment.Now even this is not sufficient, and she and her supporters demand early release. Nalini’s conviction was neither an act of vengeance nor retribution but merely her harvest for her role in the coldblooded murder. Did anyone give a second chance to Rajiv Gandhi? Rather than worrying about rights of terrorists and the need to protect them against draconian laws, responsible people have to recognise a higher value.Victims of terrorism also have rights. They had no opportunity to hear the charges against them. They enjoyed no legal defence. They are not agents of the state and nor are they linked to the supposed ‘injustice’ meted out to those indulging in terrorism.

This is not politically correct. The Indian society should first and foremost recognise the rights of the victims of terrorism.

They also have the right to live, something that the terrorists do not recognise. Yes, even as an ordinary individual, Rajiv Gandhi also had the right to live!

About the author:
Professor P R Kumaraswamy teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and his co-edited book South Asia: The Spectre of Terrorism is being published by Routledge

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Terrorism, political incorrectness

South Asia Monitor carries my brief commentary where I argue that victims of terrorism also have rights, something the ongoing debate within the country ignore. For full text please click here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Islam and the Dhimmi

Pretoria-based CiPS carries my brief commentary on Islam and Dhimmi. For the full text click here.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Caught in Crossfire: Civilians in Conflicts in the Middle East

Ithaca has just published my edited volume on Caught in Crossfire: Civilians in Conflicts in the Middle East. It has contributions from Avraham Sela, Meron Medzini, Dalia Gavriely, Samir Khalaf, Stuti Bhatnagar, N. Janardhan, Amira Hass, Girijesh Pant and William Haddad.

For details click here

Monday, September 22, 2008

Iran undermines Israel's regional interests

Electonic Briefing Paper published by Pretoria-based Centre for International Political Studies carries my brief commentary on how Iran has been challenging Israel's regional interest. For the full text please click here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Islam and Indian foreign policy

Islam and foreign policy
New Indian Express (Chennai), 19 September 2008

Is there an Islamic dimension in India’s foreign policy, especially towards the Middle East region? The obvious answer would be elusive. For many, such a question is preposterous and an affront on India’s secular fabric. To suggest that religion played a role in shaping India’s policy towards the citadel of Islam is not merely unacceptable but is nothing short of a rightwing conspiracy.
The foreign policy could be indifferent to Islamic influences if India fulfils three basic conditions; one, Muslims living outside the Middle East are not stirred by political developments in the Islamic heartland; two, India does not have a sizeable Muslim population and that India is not wedded to democracy and pluralism.
None of these conditions are true. For a Muslim, whether religious or secular, the Middle East is not like any other piece of territory. The city of Jerusalem is not Berlin which could be divided along ideological lines and unified due to political expediency.
Even non-practising Muslims do not deny, let alone reject, the religious sanctity of Al- Aqsa situated in the old city of Jerusalem.
Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, Indian Muslims have strong emotional bonds with the region and its holy places. These feelings transform into political voices especially during violent upheavals in the region. Actions by non-regional or non-Islamic powers generate far wider interest and anger than Islamic players.
For long rightwing parties such as the erstwhile Jana Sangh and later the Bharatiya Janata Party, have been critical of the Congress policy towards the Middle East.
The pro-Arab bias did not go down well with a section of the population. Critics of the Nehruvian policy at times depicted India as the ‘chaprasi’ of the Arabs or the ‘14th Arab state.’ They felt that the Congress government was pro-Muslim domestically and pro-Arab externally.
At the same time, it is impossible to overlook the anti-minority attitudes of the Hindu right. Driven by their anti-Muslim mindset they looked to Israel as an ally. The pro- Israel bias of the Hindu right is often attributed to its anti-Muslim agenda. Many scholars and political pundits have argued that the rightwing parties are pro-Israel because they are anti-Muslim.
To suggest the converse, however, is not politically correct. Not many would accept that the Congress party was pro-Arab because it was pro-Muslim. Suggestions that the Congress party viewed the Middle East through an Islamic prism are vilified as conspiracy, blasphemous and of late, part of the neo-con agenda.
That India’s policy is devoid of any religious inputs have many takers. Driven by the need to ‘secularise’ the foreign policy some even ‘secularise’ the foreign policy of the BJP. They argue that while in power even the Hindutva forces did not ‘communalise’ foreign policy. Their desire for closer ties with Israel, the argument goes, was accompanied by a significant improvement in relations with principal Islamic countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. For them, not just Nehru but even the BJP is secular when it comes to foreign policy!
Such revisionist portrayal may be self-satisfying but a closer examination of India’s stand on a host of issues pertaining to the Middle East would reveal an indelible mark of Islam. During the nationalist phase this was marked by the political rivalry and competition between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. It is often forgotten that the Congress party needed the substantial support of Indian Muslims. This was natural and inevitable. Otherwise, the Congress party could not call itself ‘Indian’ and ‘national,’ Hence since the days of the Khilafat struggle when Indian Muslims rallied around the Caliph then the Ottoman emperor, Indian foreign policy has had an Islamic flavour.
The opposition of the Indian nationalists towards the demand for a Jewish national home in Palestine was also partly, not wholly, influenced by the Islamic factor.
Though couched in nationalist terms and humanitarian considerations, religion did play a role in Indian leaders adopting a not so sympathetic view of Jewish political aspirations. On the eve of Partition, some like historian and future diplomat K M Panikkar felt that after Independence India would be less burdened by the Islamic factor and would be ‘free’ to adopt an explicitly pro-Israeli position.
This never materialised principally because the erstwhile Congress-Muslim League rivalry transformed into an Indo- Pakistani competition for the support of Arab and Islamic countries.With the Kashmir issue dominating its diplomatic battle, India feared that establishing normal ties with the Jewish state would be counterproductive.
The manner in which influential sections of the intelligentsia respond to admissions of Islamic inputs exposes their duality.In the summer of 2000 Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh told an audience in Jerusalem that the prolonged absence of diplomatic relations was due to domestic compulsions involving Muslims.
In September 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the media in New York that India’s Iran policy would also be guided by the Shia factor. This was parroted when National Security Adviser M K Narayanan justified the stopover visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in April this year. Of late even the communist leaders have joined the chorus. During the Lok Sabha vote in July over the nuclear deal, communist M K Pandhe warned Mulayam Singh Yadav that the Muslims would abandon the Samajvadi Party if he voted with the government.
However, the manner in which Indian intellectuals read and respond to these observations vastly differ. Both Jaswant Singh and Manmohan Singh discussed an explicitly domestic issue on foreign soil and unabashedly admitted Islamic inputs in key foreign policy issues.
The Indian intelligentsia vilified Jaswant Singh for communalising India’s Israel policy. Their response to a similar move by the Prime Minister was a deafening silence. If Jaswant Singh ‘communalised’ foreign policy, so did Manmohan Singh. If the Prime Minister merely highlighted an objective reality, so did the BJP leader.
This duality goes a step further. Having vehemently denied any Islamic influence in India’s foreign policy, the same section does not hesitate to recognise and condemn the ‘Jewish lobby’ upon the American policy.
They have openly and warmly embraced the arguments that the Jewish lobby has dominated American policy towards the Middle East and in the process undermined American interests. Similar suggestions of Islamic influence let alone domination upon India’s Middle East still remain taboo.
That three per cent Jews influence American foreign policy towards the Middle East, but 15 per cent Muslims of India do not. Therein lies their ‘progressive’ world view!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

India and ILSA

On September 11, 2008 South Asia Monitor carried my commentary on India, Iran and the US Sanctions: Time for Stock Taking. For the full text click here.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Lebanon Syria normalisation

A New Dawn in Lebanon
New Indian Express (Channai), 2 September 2008
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman made history when he visited Damascus on August 13.

The visit not only marked an end to recent tensions in the region but also transformed the very nature of relations between the two Middle East neighbours. Despite some scepticism the visit is truly historic and signals a formal end to Syrian denial of and disregard for Lebanese independence. During the visit Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Suleiman agreed to establish normal diplomatic relations and initiate the process of border demarcation.

Even though Syria and its leadership have to take a lot of concrete measures, a good beginning has been made.

First and foremost, Suleiman’s visit and his earlier meeting with Assad in Paris a few years ago clearly indicate a fundamental change in Syrian attitude towards Lebanese existence as a sovereign entity.

Syria had a historic grievance against the French when the Mandate authorities carved out Mount Lebanon and its surrounding areas to form an independent Lebanese state in 1943.

Such historic claims over others are not new to the Middle East. For long, other countries such Egypt, Jordan, Iran and Iraq had coveted their weaker neighbours. What however made the Lebanese case rather unique was the steadfastness with which Damascus maintained its opposition to recognising Lebanon as a sovereign entity .

For over six decades Damascus had political influence, economic interests and strategic presence in Lebanon but not diplomatic representation. When the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Damascus found an opportunity. In the name of preventing a virtual blood bath, the Ba’athist leadership consolidated its presence. As the factional fight ended in 1989, Syrian presence and influence was legitimised and guaranteed.

Damascus ended up having thousands of troops in Lebanon but never an embassy . Its emissary in Beirut was ironically called ‘Governor’, thereby symbolising Syrian claims over Lebanon.

Such was its influence, Syria set the Lebanese domestic agenda and according to seasoned observers Bashar Assad was personally looking after the ‘Lebanon file’ prior to his election as president in June 2000. Disregarding popular sentiments in Lebanon, he ensured the re-election of President Emile Lahoud in 2004 through a constitutional amendment. Subsequent disputes over this election led to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. This was followed by the killing of a number of politicians and other Lebanese personalities who were critical of Syria and its domination. The needle of suspicion continues to point towards Damascus.

Popular revulsion over Hariri’s assassination eventually made the Syrian military presence untenable and forced it to pull out its troops from Lebanon in April. Despite this, as highlighted by the prolonged delay in the election of Lahoud’s successor, Syria continues to wield considerable clout in Lebanon, especially through its erstwhile proxies such as the Hezbollah.

Syrian recognition however was not forthcoming. Keeping up the pressure, in May 2005 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1680 that explicitly called on Damascus “to establish full diplomatic relations and representation” with Beirut. The resolution was endorsed by 13 members of the Council while China and Russia abstained.

Syria also faced criticisms from its erstwhile friends such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Hezbollah’s military activities culminated in the second Lebanon war of 2006 that brought further death and destruction.

Syria was not prepared to abandon the Hezbollah.
Syrian inflexibility over Lebanon dis pleased many Arab countries and resulted in their boycott of the Arab summit hosted by President Assad in March this year. Soon accusations were flying between Damascus and other Arab capitals. However, the Syrian leadership recognised that reconciliation with the wider Arab world depends on meaningful progress on Lebanon.

For its part, France the former colonial power, has been active in promoting Lebanese-Syrian reconciliation. As part of the Mediterranean summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy hosted Lebanese and Syrian leaders in July . Though his dream of a photo opportunity involving Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Assad did not materialise, the Suleiman-Assad meeting broke the ice. This paved the way for Suleiman’s visit to Damascus a month later.
A modicum of relations with Lebanon would not only enhance Syrian influence in that country but also would increase its regional status.

For its part, this is a historic moment for Lebanon. The Syrian recognition is far more valuable than India’s recognition by Great Britain, Pakistan by India, Bangladesh by Pakistan in 1974 or the Israeli recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993. Indeed one could even suggest that this is far more historic than the unlikely recognition of the breakaway Taiwanese republic by the People’s Republic of China.

To be meaningful, however, the Syrian recognition has to be formal and substantial. Recognition and normalisation would have to be accompanied by a formal Syrian renunciation of its territorial or other claims over Lebanon. Such an abandonment of past claims would have to be internalised through significant revision in the educational system. Otherwise, recognition would be no more than a political gimmick and would be a Damocles’ sword over Lebanon. Since Syria took more than six decades to recognise the independence of Lebanon, such a decision would have to be endorsed and guaranteed by the international community, especially the United Nations.
Likewise demarcation of borders would not be easy . For long Damascus has argued that the disputed Sheba farms currently held by Israel is a Syrian territory. However, during Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, both Syria and Lebanon claimed this to be a Lebanese territory. Syria even claimed that it had ‘transferred’ this to Lebanon. So far Syria has not provided any legal documents substantiating this claim. Given the recent tension and acrimony, Damascus would be in no hurry to resolve the problem.
Syrian recognition, normalisation of diplomatic relations and the presence of a full-fledged embassy would not however change the fundamental problem facing Lebanon. It is haunted by factional interests and infighting among the three principal groups, namely, Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims. Hence, Lebanese ability to enjoy the fruits of this historic moment ironically depends on the leeway and space provided by Damascus. Hence, at least in the short run, Lebanon would continue to be at the mercy of Syria.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Islamic Attitudes to Israel

Routledge (UK) has just published my co-edited volume on Islamic Attitudes to Israel. It has contributions from Beverley Milton-Edwards, David Menashri, Efriam Karsh, Eliezer Schlossberg, Eyal Zisser, Jacob Abadi, Livnat Hotzman, Meir Hatina, Michael Bishku, Moshe Yegar and Rivka Yadlin.

For additional details please click here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

India, Iran and the Arab Prism

Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Center for Strategic Studies Research (ECSSR) has just published my monograph on Indo-Iranian Relations and the Arab Prism.

To order a copy click here.

Arab factor in Indo-Iranian ties

For a brief commentary on the role of the Arab factor in Indo-Iranian ties published in South Asia Monitor on 19 August 2008 click here

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

India and the Middle East

The August 2008 issue of The Round Table carries my article on "Realism replacing rhetoric: Factors shapping India's Middle East Policy"

vol. 97, no.397, pages 575-587

Monday, August 11, 2008

Communist Foreign Hand

Communist foreign hand
Tuesday August 12 2008 00:58 IST

New Indian Express (Chennai), 12 August 2008

Foreign financial contributions to political activities in India have always been controversial and many have used this to settle personal, organisational and ideological scores with their political rivals and competitors. At one time or another, various foreign countries have been accused of patronising their supporters and fellow travellers in India. Many were seen as ‘agents’ of this or that power.

While the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union hogged much of the attention, others were not far behind. Oil-rich countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia have been accused of funding extremist Islamic groups in India. Likewise at the height of the Ayodhya controversy, wealthy Indians in the West were charged with transferring funds to Hindutva forces. Indeed at times, ‘foreign agent’ has become a too common refrain in Indian politics.

Unfortunately, most of them remained allegations with little documentary evidence and far little follow up actions. Hence, they were quickly dismissed as nothing more than a political blot or external conspiracy to discredit a particular individual, group or political party.

This however is changing. The end of the Cold War has opened up a wealth of credible archival materials of the bygone era. As part of the Cold War Project, the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre is publishing large quantities of declassified Soviet documents. One such document throws some interesting insights into the question of the Soviet financial contribution to the then united Communist Party of India (CPI) just before the 1962 Lok Sabha elections.

On 17 January 1962 the Soviet ambassador in New Delhi I A Benediktov wrote a brief note on his meet earlier that day. It presents a summary of his meeting with Bhupesh Gupta, the Secretary of the National Council of the CPI. The meeting took place on the day the CPI ended its two-day meeting of the Secretariat in New Delhi to chalk out plans for the impending elections to the Lok Sabha.

Gupta was greatly disturbed by the sudden demise of Ajoy Kumar Ghosh. The death of the Secretary General of the CPI could not have come at a worse time because it deprived the party of not only its greatest organiser and orator, but also its important fund-raiser. Bhupesh Gupta had a twin-objective in initiating this meeting with the Soviet envoy. One, to ensure the continuation of close ties between the CPI and the Communist Part of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and two, to work out a mechanism for uninterrupted Soviet financial contribution to the CPI.

According to the Soviet ambassador, Ghosh candidly admitted that the party was suffering from “an acute insufficiency of funds for the pre-election campaign” and was apprehensive that “with the death of Ghosh, the source for receiving means for the communist party” from the CPSU might be closed.

Gupta was also worried about further complications. Until his death, A K Ghosh had singularly handled the financial contributions from Moscow and according to Gupta, the late leader had never consulted other party stalwarts such as E M S Nambudiripad (India’s first communist Chief Minister). They merely assisted in the distribution of funds. Ghosh monopolised funding to such an extent that he withheld this issue “from other leaders of the party and members of the National Council.” Because of this ‘strict secrecy’, Gupta proudly claimed, “not a single report on this question has appeared in the press.”

Admitting his own limitations, Gupta disclosed that unlike Ghosh, he would not be able to “single-handedly take on responsibility in questions of assistance” but would involve other leaders such as Nambudiripad. He confided that trade union leader Shripad Amrit Dange once sought exclusive responsibility for “all matters connected with foreign aid.”

Gupta vehemently denied suggestions that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was giving financial assistance to the CPI. Proclaiming that the CCP was not aware of the Soviet aid, he declared that the National Council “has not received, is not receiving and will not receive assistance” from the Chinese Communist Party but admitted that the party was receiving some aid from Sikhs living in England.

In the words of Benediktov, “Gupta repeated several times that the aid is needed precisely now” because the election campaign must be completed by the first week of February 1962. During this campaign, the main task of the CPI would be “to make clear to the population that the Soviet Union is giving selfless aid to India, is its true friend.” After the elections however, “we would like to receive your support in the matter of theoretical preparation of party cadres.”

Gupta held another round of meeting with the Soviet envoy on January 27 and expressed his gratitude for the readiness of the CPSU to assist the CPI. Both documents however are silent about the quantum and modus operandi of the Soviet “financial assistance” to the CPI. Interestingly, the party only marginally improved its tally and won 29 seats as against 27 seats five years earlier.

It is common knowledge that the Soviets had provided more than ideological and theoretical support to the communist movements in various countries including India. Through a host of outlets such as friendship societies, media outlets and cultural associations they befriended influential segments of the public. The rupee-rouble trade was also used to prop-up a pro-Soviet constituency within India. Nonetheless, it is safe to assume that the CPI was not the only Indian recipient of foreign contributions.

Thanks to the end of the Cold War, however, there are documentary evidences to prove that the Communist leadership had sought and received funds from Moscow for its political activities in India. These Soviet documents cannot be dismissed as an imperial conspiracy merely because they were obtained, translated, annotated and published by a Washington-based think tank.

What is the need to address an archaic issue that is more than three decades old, especially when the country is facing more serious problems of today? Likewise, it is too tempting to dismiss the issue as a manifestation of McCarthyism.

However, by definition political parties including the communist parties, shoulder a heavier responsibility than individuals, organisations or lobbying groups that receive foreign financial contributions. Furthermore, the Communist parties often project themselves as role models in the otherwise corrupt Indian political climate.

One cannot expect much from the political parties, partisan scholars or activists. They all will be dismissive and condescending. India still has some non-partisan Sovietologists who should ponder over the central issue: What was the nature of Soviet 'financial assistance' to the Communists?

Web link:

Iran: Sanctions are best option

Despite hype about military options, sanctions still remain the most effective American instrument against Iran. If interested in the commentary published in Gulf News on 8 June 2008, clink here.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Muslim factor in foreign policy

For a brief commentary on The Muslim Factor in India's Foreign Policy published in The Japan Times on July 30, 2008, please click here.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Freedom at 1957

What would have happened if India gained freedom in 1957 and not 1947? For the text of a brief commentary in New Indian Express (Chennai), 10 August 2008, click here.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Terrorism: Need for a non-partition debate

The question of terrorism in India needs a non-partisan debate. If interested in the brief commentary published in South Asia Monitor on 6 August, click here.

Monday, August 4, 2008

India's Persian Problems

July issue of Strategic Insights carries my article on India's Persian Problems. For the full text click here

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lanka's Israel Dilemma

Lanka's Israel Dilemma
South Asia Monitor, June 9, 2008
The high profiled visit of Prime Minister Rathnasiri Wickramanayaka to Israel in late March underscores the long-standing Sri Lankan dilemma towards the Jewish State. At one level, it wants to benefit from Israel's military and security expertise but strong domestic and regional compulsions drive Colombo in the opposite direction. The need to balance the two became apparent in Wickramanayaka's recent visit to the Middle East, which also took him to the Palestinian areas and Jordan.
In tune with the current policy regarding ethnic violence within his country, Wickramanayaka played up the terrorism card and drew a parallel between the Tamil Tigers and various other "terrorist groups such as PKK, Taliban, Islamic groups in the Philippines and even some affiliates of Al-Qaida." He even maintained that some of the Tamil militants are being trained "in Palestinian camps in Syria and Lebanon." He sought to please his hosts by harping on terrorism and suicide bombings that have caused havoc in the island republic.
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urged the visitor not to "give in to terrorism because it will only destroy your country ... It is forbidden to surrender to it." Despite such high public rhetoric, more than anyone else Olmert knows the inevitability seeking political settlement with militant groups.
It is fair to argue that Israeli military security assistance was high on Wickramanayaka's agenda. The importance of his visit was marked by the host of meetings he had in Israel and among others met President Shimon Peres, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. In a rare gesture he addressed the Jerusalem-based Israel Council on Foreign Relations.
A couple of recent developments provide an interesting backdrop to Wickramanayaka's visit. Of late Colombo has been upbeat about its military victories in the North and some even visualized a total collapse and annihilation of the Tamil Tigers. The mutual abandonment of the ceasefire merely increases the possibility of Colombo harping on the military option.
Furthermore, as part of this outlook, Colombo has been unsuccessfully seeking military assistance from New Delhi. The week-long visit to India of Commander of the Lankan Army Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka in March was part of that strategy.
New Delhi however, operates under different compulsions. The bitterness of the past and political compulsions of the present prevent it from entertaining such Lankan requests. As the refusal of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to attend the Independence Day celebrations in February highlighted, Sri Lanka continues to be a major issue in Tamil Nadu politics. With not many countries able and willing to help, Wickramanayaka's visit has to be viewed within the context of the ethnic conflict.
For Israel, this visit forms a part of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the State. By hosting leaders from different parts of the world during the yearlong celebrations, Israel is seeking to highlight and consolidate its growing international acceptance and recognition. The celebrations culminated on May 14 with a ceremony attended by US President George Bush and various other world leaders. More over Wickramanayaka was the highest Lankan official to visit Israel since 1948.
While Sri Lankan Prime Minister might not be a prize catch, Israel cannot hope to attract other leaders from South Asia. Ideally it would have liked to have hosted the Indian President or Prime Minister. Alternatively a high profile visit by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi would have been a diplomatic coup underscoring Israel's growing importance to India.
Unfortunately however, since normalization of relations in 1992, senior Indian leaders have been extremely wary of visiting Israel. Even when rolling out a red carpet welcome to President Ezer Weizman in December 1996 and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in September 2003, India avoided similar visits to Israel. If late President K R Narayanan was reluctant to visit Israel, the tenure of A P J Abdul Kalam was marred by the onset of al-Aqsa Intifada.
Kalam's personal preference became apparent when he went to Israel a few weeks ago to attend a scientific conference. Indeed, in his earlier avatar as scientific advisor to the Defence Minister, Kalam was in Israel in the mid-1990s. With Lok Sabha elections not far away, political visits to Israel could be an electoral liability for the UPA.
Leaders of the two Islamic countries of South Asia, namely, Pakistan and Bangladesh going to Israel is rather unrealistic. Nepal, a country with whom Israel has long standing relations, is too pre-occupied with its domestic problems to contemplate a state visit to Israel. The country's Foreign Minister Sahana Pradhan however, was in Israel last July.
Domestically not everyone was happy with Wickramanayaka's visit. The internal tensions within Lanka's Israel policy once again came into the open. Some have adversely commented about the idea of Israel being a "model" for Sri Lanka. Others drew favourable parallel with the Palestinians and their struggle against Israel. Indeed, just days before Wickramanayaka's visit, President Mahinda Rajapaksa meet a delegation from the Sri Lankan Committee for Solidarity with Palestine and assured them that "he would never visit Israel" though "his Prime Minister would be leading a delegation to that country shortly."
As a balancing tactics during the current visit the Lankan leader went to the Palestinian Areas and met President Mahmoud Abbas. The Lankan media also highlighted a street in Ramallah being named after its president underscoring his longstanding commitment to the Palestinian case. Any lingering doubts about Lanka's Israel policy were dispelled when Colombo hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the last week of April, soon after Wickramanayaka returned from Israel.
While military supplies and training facilities can't be ruled out, Israel is unlikely to get involved in ethnic conflict. The reason has to be located within the context of the traditional Sri Lankan policy vis-à-vis Israel.
In March 1949 Sri Lanka granted de facto recognition to Israel but choose to maintain a distance. In 1960, in an unexpected move, it withdrew its non-resident Minister to Israel even while allowing the latter to maintain its diplomatic mission in Colombo. In July 1970 keeping in tune with her electoral promise, Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike suspended diplomatic relations with Israel. This happened well before the 1973 oil crisis when a number of Third World countries broke off relations with Israel.
In the 1980s, at the height of the ethnic conflict, Colombo once again moved closer to Israel. Besides military supplies, it sought and obtained Israeli expertise in counter-terrorism. To facilitate the training of its armed forces, Colombo allowed an Israeli "interest section" within the US embassy. Refusal of other countries, especially India, to provide security assistance was explained as the reason for moving closer to Israel. According to former Foreign Secretary J N Dixit the Israeli presence played a pivotal role in India's involvement in Sri Lankan ethnic conflict. The military ties ended abruptly in 1990 and bi-lateral relations were once again established in 2000.
Thus by adopting a zigzag policy on Israel, over the years, Sri Lanka has eroded its credibility and hence, despite the media hype in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, Israel will be highly sceptical about moving closer to Colombo, especially on the military-security front.
web version:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Israel Diary

Dairy Israel
New Indian Express (Chennai), June 4, 2008.
The Jerusalem Take on Muslims

Two-day academic conferences on Asian studies would be smack of chutzpah in any country in the Middle East. But not Israel. In the third week of May, the Hebrew University which started functioning in 1925, hosted the Seventh and the largest academic conference on Asia. Devoted to cultural, religious, social and literary aspects of the content, it attracted over a hundred scholarly papers spread over more than two-dozen simultaneous sessions. The result was a mixed bag. Some provocative and some pedestrian.

Though most were in Hebrew, my rudimentary knowledge of the language was good enough to appreciate the big picture. Besides the discussions, I got an opportunity to meet a number of my old friends, former colleagues and intellectual fellow travellers. The Malayalam-fluent Ophira, Raquel who specialises in Japanese energy policy or Sofia who lives in Chinese classical poetry, all under one roof.
Uneasy Money
One scholar used the troubles facing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and speculation about him receiving hefty envelopes filled with dollar bills to add some lighter moments. The Chinese government was uneasy about its missiles supplied to Iran reaching Hezbollah that used them against Israel during the Second Lebanese war in 2006. During the recent visit of the Israeli Prime Minister Chinese officials highlighted Iran's end-user commitments but the speaker mischievously observed: "I don't know if Olmert was given envelopes by the Chinese."
A matter of Apparel
What to wear for the occasion? I was in a dilemma. I remembered an incident involving veteran Israeli diplomat Abba Eban. The Labour Party was still identified with the working class and party stalwarts and members were assembled in Tel Aviv to elect the list for the forthcoming Knesset election. Eban being an outsider could not be more pronounced. Only he came in a bow tie and failed to get his name in a realistic slot on the party list. He soon bowed out the politics.
So I settled for informal attire. Seeing me in T-shirt for my session, my old friend and Sinologist Professor Yitzhak Shichor recollected an anecdote. "The ambassador from Japan had just arrived and he was new to Israeli customs. For his first official function he went in formal suit, only to found that he was the only one in the entire crowd to be dressed formally. Not to repeat the same mistake, next time he went in informally. He was foxed again as the entire gathering was dressed formally. The ambassador gave up worrying about dressing for the occasion." Then Professor Shichor added, "We are a crazy people. When it comes to dress, anything goes…"
Indians Absent
Representatives from China, Japan and Korea were present during much of the deliberations and partly supported the conference. Seoul's ambassador to Israel Shin Kak-Soo broke off from the original schedule and did a mini presentation comparing the nuclear controversies surrounding North Korea and Iran. A notable absentee was the Indian embassy. With six panels devoted to various aspects of India's diversity, the absence was rather conspicuous and strange.
Notable exception
"Don't bother us with intellectual nonsense." This does not appear to be the attitude of the Israeli foreign office. A number of retired as well as serving diplomats could be noticed through the conference. An uncommon sight in India. They were hopping from one panel to the other but they were there. Some are soon returning to India's neighbourhood.
Sachar was there
The UPA government would be extremely happy that the Sachar Committee report is popular not just in India but also among Indologists in Israel. It figured prominently in the panel on Religion, Society and State in India. Though Israel is considered a favourite of the Hindutva brigade, the panelists used the report to highlight the marginalisation of Muslims. The Hindu right came in for some severe treatment. Some on the panel felt Muslims are not protected in India and that 'secularism' is also a sign of the Indian state appropriating the cultural traits of the Hindu majority. An academic from Ben-Gurion University recalled a remark by Syed Shahabuddin who reportedly said: "Muslims in India are like the Jews in Nazi Germany!" The remark did not go unnoticed in a country that remembers the Holocaust.
Sad old home
During the lunch break I took time off and went my old home: the library of the Harry S Truman Institute at the northern corner of the Hebrew University campus. Over looking the far off Dead See, its dilapidated present condition is exemplified by a lonely reader from Europe.
The once lively place hectic with readers, researchers and students is badly in need of a PR to exhibit its hidden treasures. When the University budget shrinks, the library often is the first casualty and Truman Library, which has some of the best collections on Asia in Israel, had seen better days before the late 1990s. I went there to meet my old friend Amnon. Most of my academic sharpness of the complex Arab-Israeli conflict occurred during my daily coffee seasons with him in the café in Frank Sinatra plaza. Amnon still remains cheerful but not the library. It needs a few scholars to utilise its wealth!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

India Ahmadinejad

Only Ahmadinejad gains
New Indian Express (Chennai), Thursday May 22 2008 09:27 IST
“Re-energizing, Playing the great game or defining moment.” This is how seasoned observers described the recent stop over visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For some it was sign of ‘autonomy’ in foreign policy formulation and a reminder to Washington of its desire to pursue a policy that serves Indian and not American interests.
The visit was undoubtedly a diplomatic coup for Iran. Now the Iranian leader can claim his country’s increasing acceptance by all major non-Western powers. Was it due to the unexpected election of Ahmadinejad or growing Indian proximity with Washington? Either way for a while India remained the last Third World country which was trying to the Iranian leader. Hence, bilateral ties got into cold waters.
If the two votes at International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) were not sufficient, India gave a distinct impression that it was seeking to keep a distance from Iran. Tehran, however, was not disheartened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh avoiding the meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Council in 2006. In a calculated move in February last year, it ambushed visiting Foreign Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and suggested a summit meeting among the three leaders to resolve the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. Thus, Iran turned the technical need for a stopover from Sri Lanka into a diplomatic accomplishment. An insignificant state visit was transformed into a visit of the sub-continent, with Pakistan hosting him on the way to Colombo.
The subdued manner in which Indian commentators reacted both before and after the visit, tells an interesting story. It was a defining moment for Iran, yes.Was it a defining moment for India? Signs are they are not. What was India trying to convey to the outside world by hosting the Iranian leader. Iran cannot be ignored but nor can one be blind to the belligerent and confrontationalist stands of its leaders. Many anti-India elements within the US administration could see this as an unfriendly act, especially when President George W Bush is seeking closer ties with India. Should the anti-Iranian rhetoric intensify in Washington the handshake would be used to torpedo many pro-India moves.
In more substantial terms, what was accomplished during the visit? To expect miracles in seven hours is outlandish even for those with fertile imagination. But having kept a distance from someone who has been increasingly becoming controversial not just in the West, one is tempted to ask: what were India’s expectations when it rolled out the red carpet?
Was there a breakthrough on the energy front? The press conference of Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon let the cat out of the bag. After Dr Singh-Ahmadinejad meet, he told reporters that from India’s viewpoint, “most important is to construct an economically, commercially viable project, to have assured supplies and to ensure the security of supply in various ways. Discussions will continue. They both agreed that the officials would continue to discuss how to craft such a project which would meet the various criteria that we have mentioned.”
Simple English? More than a decade after the idea originally began the pipeline option is worth trying. Informed observers feel that with the kind of price demanded by Iran, the pipeline would be a pipedream.
On the LNG front, Menon felt that negotiations are on but added: “… of the conditions of the agreement have changed since both countries signed the agreement in 2005.” Basically he was confessing that India would have to pay a higher price than the $ 3.215 per million British thermal units (mBtu) that was agreed in June 2005 during the visit of the then Oil Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar.
One interesting development was that Menon’s press conference was dominated by the Israeli angle and the recent launching of an Israeli spy satellite by India. In the past such an obsession was confined to the Egyptians.
Is it a sign of independent foreign policy? For many, ‘independent’ foreign policy has been an euphemism for anti- Americanism. Not surprising, most of those who demand India to be assertive vis-à-vis Washington followed Kremlin during the Cold War. Not long ago those lamenting about the American quagmire in Iraq were justifying the Soviet ‘presence’ in Afghanistan.Above all, a single act rarely makes profound impact on foreign policy and the stopover visit is definitely not one of them. Onenight stands might bring fun but they never make an enduring relationship.
Is a sign of constructive engagement? Despite the official spin, it is essential to recognise the controversy surrounding Iran would be resolved without any role for India.
The problem primarily is between Tehran and Washington and having mishandled its vote at the IAEA, India is not in a position to mediate between the two. Iran cannot trust it and the US would take it for granted! Nor does India have the kind of leverages and incentives enjoyed by China and Russia especially their political clout in the UN Security Council.
Was it domestic politics? Unlike the past the UPA government has been more than willing to admit the role of domestic factors shaping India’s Iran policy. In September 2005 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters in New York that India’s decision at the IAEA would also be governed by the Shia factor. The same spin was used when the National Security Advisor announced Ahmadinejad’s visit at an international conference in New Delhi. The verdict on the cynical use of foreign policy for electoral considerations would be known very shortly in Karnataka.
Iran is not only a regional power in the Middle East but also an important player in the global energy scene. At the same time, Tehran, especially since the election of Ahmadinejad, is also a quarrelsome player. By reneging on its earlier price agreement, it has raised doubts about its reliability. Some of its belligerent actions and statements have unnerved its Arab neighbours.
While developing a policy towards Iran, New Delhi could afford to ignore American or other Western concerns. But it could not ignore one third player: the Arab neighbours of Iran. They are equally, if not more, important than Iran. In short, nearly four million Indians are gainfully employed in the Arab countries and not in Iran. Any short-sighted move on Iran would boomerang heavily on India’s ties with the Arab world.
Iran is thus an enigma. Depicting it merely as a friend or foe of India could be ideologically satisfying but intellectually dishonest.
Web version:

Friday, May 16, 2008

Bush Ambushes Israel

With good intentions Bush ambushes Israel
Rediff May 16, 2008 20:30 IST
Two State visits in less than five months are one too many for a world leader and more so if it is US President George W Bush. But that is what has happened when he came to Israel on Wednesday to take part in Israel's 60th Independence Day celebrations.
Unlike his previous visit in early January, this time Bush did not visit the Palestinian areas. Both sides were keen to make it an exclusive visit to a friendly country. Israel could not have asked for a friendlier American leader.
During the first term the American president consciously kept away from the complex Middle East peace process. Unlike his predecessor Bill Clinton, he was not keen to invest any political capital in the peace process. If Clinton could not accomplish much, why even try. Taking cue from their leader, senior American officials also opted for a hand-off policy towards the Arab-Israeli peace making.
Israel at 60: Surviving the odds
With the trauma of the September 11 attacks consuming much of his time and energy, President Bush had little interest in the peace process. His primary attention was devoted to fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Subsequently, Iran and its suspected nuclear programme garnered his attention.
As a result, more than any other American leader, President Bush largely left the peace process to Israel and its leaders. He was quick to embrace Ariel Sharon who was elected prime minister weeks after the American election. They worked in tandem. Bush echoed when Sharon said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was 'no peace partner' and soon Arafat became persona non grata at the White House.
When Sharon unveiled his unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip, the American leader was more than happy and conveniently forgot the more complicated West Bank. The security fence that Sharon ordered gravely violated the pre-June 1967 borders or the Green Line. But Bush would not take notice.
Even after Sharon left the political scene following a massive stroke in early 2006, Bush pursued the same course. Dismissing European advice, Bush joined Israel in isolating Hamas following the spectacular victory of the Islamic militants in the Palestinian election later that month. Bush found no contradiction between this and his campaign for democratising the Middle East.
During the second Lebanese war the US President gave a large leeway to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to 'clean up' the military operations against Hezbollah. He was not prepared to demand a ceasefire until the Israeli commanders admitted that they did not have a workable military option to secure the two Israeli soldiers captured by the Islamic militant group.
Furthermore, more than any other world leader, Bush has been taking a strong and belligerent position against Iran and its periodic outbursts against Israel. Suspicions over the Iranian nuclear programme brought Israel and the US closer.
Partly to regain credibility and party to secure Arab support for his policy on Iran and Iraq, he has been reiterating his support for a two-State solution; Israeli and Palestinian States living side by side with peace and security. With much fanfare last November he organised a Middle East conference in Annapolis where leaders from over 40 countries and organisations took part and reiterated their commitment to the Middle East peace process. With the sole exception of Iran every major player in the world was present at the jamboree.
To give an impression of seriousness, President Bush even promised tangible outcomes before he leaves office; in practical terms, before the US presidential election is held later this year. His two visits to Israel in quick succession have to be viewed within this self-imposed November 2008 deadline.
As many analysts have pointed out, by excessively identifying with the policies of Israel, Bush has actually worked against Israel's long-term interests.
Indeed, the Jewish State has become more unsure now than in it was in January 2001 when Bush became president. Since then Hamas and Hezbollah exposed the limitations of Israel's military options. The Palestinian Authority enamoured by Israel and Washington is friendlier, accommodative but ineffective. Since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2006, Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas is not even a paper tiger. Abbas promises friendship but Hamas delivers Qassam rockets.
Furthermore, Iran, Israel's principal adversary, has gained from Bush's Middle East strategy. He removed two most dreaded enemies of Tehran; the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. By 'democratising' Iraq and handing over power to the majority, Bush has also created as Arab Shia State. When Iranian officials speak of a Shia crescent extending from Bahrain in the Persian Gulf to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, they would secretly thank Uncle Sam.
In tacking Iran, both the US and Israel are clueless. Informed analysts in both countries dismiss a military option as ineffective and counterproductive. At the same time, Israel and the US have not been able to evolve a viable politico-economic strategy that would be acceptable to other major players.
Meanwhile, the US-Europe divide over Iraq came handy to Iran and like the resurgent Moscow under Vladimir Putin, Tehran has managed to exploit its energy resources to create a severe wedge between the US and other energy-dependent economies like India and China.
If these are not enough, the Iraqi saga continues and there appears no honourable exit for the US from the quagmire it had created. If its continued presence intensifies resistance, its early exit would have unpredictable consequences of many of Iraq's Sunni neighbours, most of whom are friends of the US. Dammed if you pullout and dammed if you don't.
Bush's newly-found involvement in the peace process is a typical case of too-little-too-late. With the US election just months away, no one expects anything dramatic. As Clinton found out during the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000, a century-old vexed conflict can't be resolved in a few weeks.
Meanwhile, what about the two-State solution? Wait for a more sober US president, if not the next generation!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

India Saudi Arabia

Wooing Gulf investments - End of Indian summer over Arabia?

New Indian Express (Chennai), April 30, 2008.

FOREIGN Minister Pranab Mukherjee was luckier the third time. On two previous occasions his visits to Saudi Arabia were cancelled at the last minute. During his two-day visit he met a host of Saudi officials. He also had an audience with the King Abdullah. Besides the customary remarks about the Middle East peace process, situation in Iraq and regional stability Mukherjee flagged in the , economic agenda. He was enticing Saudi investment in India's massive infrastructure plans which he felt could absorb upto "$ 500-600 billion."

During the last February visit of his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal, both countries agreed to pursue investments in energy, petro-chemical and infrastructure. Mukherjee was also trying to capitalise on the momentum set by the landmark visit of the King as the chief guest at the 2006 Republic Day celebrations.

At the bilateral level, Saudi Arabia has been a major supplier of energy and accounts for about a third of India's total oil imports. With a total trade turnover of just under $ 16 billion, it is India's major trading partner in the Middle East.

Out of an estimated four million Indian workers in the region, at least 1.6 million are gainfully employed in the kingdom. Through their employment and homeward remittances these workers contribute not only to the welfare of their dependent families but also help mitigate India's perennial trade deficit with the region.

However, the manner in which India has approached the political aspects of its relations with Saudi Arabia has been abysmal. The last state visit to Saudi Arabia took place in 1982 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the kingdom. This was nearly quarter of a century after Jawaharlal Nehru's visit in 1956.

Mukherjee's visit came more than seven years after the visit of Jawant Singh in January 2001. Even the hype over King Abdullah's state visit did not usher in a sense of urgency.

In terms of education cooperation, the New Delhi-based Jamia Millia Islamia has emerged as the principal beneficiary of the Saudi largess. During his visit, King Abdullah was conferred an hon orary doctorate by Jamia for his contribution to peace and promotion of IndoSaudi relations. The Saudi monarch reciprocated this gesture by donating US $ 30 million for the construction of a library and research building.

However, the Indo-Saudi relations cannot be studied only through the energyeconomic prism. The desire of King Abdullah (since his earlier days as Crown Prince before ascending to the thrown in 2005), to reframe the traditional Saudi ties with the US through ‘Look East' policy also has security implications. Saudi Arabia would expect greater Indian transparency in dealing with the Gulf.

For example, did Mukherjee inform the King about the impending visit of Iranian President Ahmadinejad?

Furthermore, both are on a learning curve. The Saudi brand of Wahhabi Islam and Indian secularism are anti-thetical. Yet, geo-strategic compulsions and hardcore realism will force both to reexamine their past perception of one another. The ‘Look East' policy of Saudi Arabia fits well within the Indian desire for greater economic cooperation with the energy giant. While fundamental dif ferences would not be overcome suddenly both countries would have to make se , rious and concerted effort towards mutual understanding.

India has been extremely accommodative of some of Saudi sensitivities. During his State visit King Abdullah skipped the customary visit to the Rajghat. For the Saudi ruler, laying wreath on Mahatma Gandhi's memorial symbolised idol worship, something impermissible under the Wahhabi Islam.

Indeed, the Indian indifference is not particular to Saudi Arabia. Ever since Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister a host of rulers from the region including Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan were in India. The top leadership of the country could not find time or inclination to organise reciprocal visits. Indeed this neglect of the Middle East comes against the backdrop of highsounding rhetoric about energy security .

If once excludes the recent visit of Vice President M H Ansari, even the energy rich Central Asia had not figured in the radar screen of senior Indian leaders.

The lack of sustained follow-up after King Abdullah's visit has to be located in the absence of a foreign minister who can devote his attention and energy exclusively to external affairs. From the days of Nehru, prime ministers often doubled as foreign ministers, thereby imposing organisational limitations on follow-up measures.

Mukherjee, however, faces different problems. Besides his own prime ministerial ambitions, he is the principal firefighter in the government. He heads scores of committees of Group of Ministers and countless number of official panels and party responsibilities. Of late, mediating with the cantankerous Left parties over the nuclear deal has become his principal function.

With a powerful section of the Congress party now rooting for Rahul Gandhi as the next Prime Minister, Mukherjee perhaps will find more time and energy to the external area. Time has come for him to use his rich political acumen to provide a much needed but a long absent leadership to the South Block. Will he now the play the role Manmohan Singh played when heading the North Block in the 1990s?
Web Version:

Sunday, April 27, 2008

India and Ahmadinejad's visit

Friends with Iran or kiss of death?
Rediff News April 28, 2008 15:01 IST
As he touches down in New Delhi on Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be having the last laugh. Not long ago Prime Minister Manmohan Singh skipped a summit meeting just to avoid being seen with the Iranian leader. What began as a stopover en route from Sri Lanka has blossomed into a hectic State visit.
This is a compromise between a full-fledged State visit and keeping distance from Iran. Not to be left behind, Pakistan hosts the Iranian leader on his way to Sri Lanka. During the few hours in the capital, the visitor would be meeting top Indian leaders, including President Pratibha Patil, Vice President and former ambassador to Iran M H Ansari, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and perhaps Congress President Sonia Gandhi. It is still not clear if Leader of Opposition L K Advani would be meeting the visitor separately.

The visit marks an interesting phase in India's foreign policy. This is the first formal meeting between the mercurial Iranian leader and Prime Minister Singh. Ever since he was elected President in July 2005, Ahmadinejad has been trying to consolidate his stature and international acceptance. With Western criticisms and disapprovals getting louder, he needed to be seen in different parts of the world and courted by prominent world leaders.�He visited all major non-Western powers such as China, Russia and of course Venezuela, which has emerged as the torchbearer of growing anti-Americanism in the Third World.
Partly to further Indo-Iranian ties, but primarily to enhance his international profile and acceptance, Ahmadinejad has been keen to meet Indian leaders. Such an opportunity came in June 2006 during the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Council where both India and Iran are 'observers'. Timing, however, was bad. Photo opportunity with Ahmadinejad, the Indian leader feared, would have hardened the critics of the nuclear deal then on Capitol Hill. Hence, Dr Singh skipped that meeting and instead sent Petroleum Minister Murli Deora.
Indeed when Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee went to Teheran in February last year, the Iranian officials ambushed him by suggesting a summit meeting among leaders of India, Iran and Pakistan to sort out their differences over the gas pipeline.
Thus, by hosting the Iranian leader, what does India convey to the outside world? Going by the working of the UPA government, one can infer a few possible explanations.
The visit is most likely to be used by the government to exhibit its 'independent' foreign policy vis-a-vis the US. This would partially assuage the Left and its supporters within the establishment. Spin doctors might stretch it further and hope that by hosting the Iranian leader the government could make the Left 'flexible' on the nuclear deal.
The sudden silence adopted by the US following its initial displeasure over the Indian decision should also be seen within this context. Washington might see the visit as a small price for larger cooperation with India. Unfortunately, Ahmadinejad's visit would not turn things around.
It is more likely that the visit is a signal that the UPA government has given up on the nuclear deal. India courting the Iranian leader is the last thing US President George Bush needed to pacify the critics of the nuclear deal, especially when the Administration is preparing tougher economic sanctions against the Iranian banking system. With the American presidential elections only weeks away, New Delhi is perhaps least concerned about needling Washington.
Two, as a host of developments such as loan waivers, pay commission report, creamy layer debate etc indicate, India is definitely in election mode. Diplomatic parlays with Islamic countries are politically sensible and advantageous to the Congress party. This visit comes within days after Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee's much delayed trip to Saudi Arabia.
As National Security Advisor M K Narayanan unabashedly admitted, there is a Shia angle to Ahmadinejad's visit. In simple English, do not forget the elections in Karnataka!
Three, as Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi recognised in 1989, anti-Americanism plays well during Lok Sabha elections. A person who was keen to promote closer ties with Washington, he suddenly threw caution to the winds and publicly warned: naani yaad dilayenge. Hence, one should not rule out the possibility of negative reactions from the US after the visit playing a prominent role in electioneering in India.
Four, there are suggestions that outstanding disputes with Iran over the energy supplies could be resolved during the visit. All the three major energy deals with Iran -- namely, pipeline via Pakistan, LNG supplies and energy exploration -- are entangled in price disputes, technological difficulties or other controversies. They cannot be resolved amicably during the short visit but both sides might establish a mechanism for resolution and claim 'breakthrough or win-win deal'.
Whatever the outcome, India would be paying more for the LNG deal than what then Oil Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar signed in January 2005.
Five, Ahmadinejad is the third Iranian President to visit India since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The visits by Hashemi Rafsanjani in April 1995 and Mohammed Khatami in January 2003 happened when Iran abandoned its belligerency towards the outside world and was adopting a more conciliatory policy towards its Arab neighbours.

Ahmadinejad is literally antithetical to both these leaders. Not only he is moving the country back to radicalism, but has adopted stands that unnerve a number of Iran's Arab and non-Arab neighbours. His periodic Holocaust denials have displeased even Khatami who publicly rebuked the Iranian President.
The nuclear bellicosity has put Iran on a confrontationist path not just with the West. The three resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council (two of them unanimously) do not speak well of Iran's international stature. Even friendly countries such as Russia and China are no longer willing to accept the Iranian version on the nuclear issue.

Six, though they could never say it in public due to geo-political compulsions, the Arab countries are equally worried about Iran. Even without the nuclear genie, Iran has not hesitated to be a regional bully and ready to play the Shia card whenever necessary. Many Iranian officials are gleeful about the failure of American policy in Iraq and the resultant Shia crescent that extends from Bahrain to Bekaa valley in Lebanon.
Not long ago Saudi King Abdullah accused Teheran of 'converting' Iraqi Sunnis into Shia faith. Indeed, Ahmadinejad's stopover which comes within days after Mukherjee's Saudi visit would cause anxieties in Riyadh.
The foreign policy establishment has often got things wrong, and its 'reading' of the Nepalese elections is the latest example. Wishful thinking often masquerades as assessment. Iran should not be different. Driven by short term gains, India is rolling out the red carpet to Ahmadinejad.
There is nothing wrong if the Indian government concluded that friendship with Iran is more important than the nuclear deal or closer ties with the US. One can recognise, discover and if necessary even invent Iranian virtues. But if India pretends that it would be business as usual the day after, then it would find Ahmadinejad's visit to be a kiss of death.
Web version:

Monday, April 14, 2008

Mubarak's Chutzpah

Cairo treating India with contempt
New Indian Express (Chennai), Monday April 14 2008 16:39 IST
On Thursday a section of the Indian media reported that Egyptian diplomats in New Delhi were hoping for a summit meeting between the leaders of the two countries before India goes to polls sometime next year. Following Tuesday Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the first summit meeting with a host of African heads of states. Later that evening an eminent panel headed by Vice President M H Ansari announced that the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding for 2007 would be bestowed upon India's long-time friend and President of Iceland Dr Olafur Ragnar Grimsson.
What is common to all the three developments that happened in the first week of April is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak! Cairo's hope for a summit "before" the next Lok Sabha election is an unconcealed euphuism for its leader being the chief guest at the 2009 Republic Day celebrations. If other Middle Eastern leaders such as Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (2001), Iranian President Mohammed Khatami (2003) and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (2006) were given such honours, how could India ignore Mubarak?
At the African summit, Egyptian President was the most noticeable absentee. Some leaders make powerful statements by their presence and some by their conspicuous absence.
Mubarak opted for the latter. His action is yet another reminder of not only the state of IndoEgyptian relations but also the contempt with which Cairo treats India and its leadership.
This is in quiet contrast to his attitude towards others where Mubarak uses his charm offensive. He was in Beijing 2006 when China hosted a summit meeting with African leaders in November 2006. Indeed just weeks ago, he had a highly successful visit to Moscow. For long New Delhi, however, has not figured in his radar screen.
Thirdly, the panel which announced the Nehru award for 2007 could not be unaware that for over a decade the prize money and citation for 1995 is gathering dust because Mubarak could not find time to come to New Delhi and receive the honour.
In July 1997 with much fanfare and also with some diplomatic calculations, a panel headed by the then Vice President K R Narayanan selected the Egyptian leader for the Nehru award for 1995. Besides recognising his contribution to international peace, especially to the Middle East peace process, the move was aimed at garnering some diplomatic mileage.
Ever since India normalised relations with Israel in January 1992, a chill wind was blowing from Nile as Cairo emerged a major critic of India's new-found fondness for Israel. Hence, New Delhi hoped that an award named after Nehru, who is still remembered and revered in the region, might mitigate and assuage Egyptian sensitivities. Partly for this reason soon after the normalisation of relations with Israel, it opened the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in Cairo.
More than a decade later, however, the Nehru award is yet to be conferred upon Mubarak. On two occasions his visit was cancelled at the last minute. Once President Narayanan was indisposed and on another occasion, turbulent events in the region prevented Mubarak from making his trip. But ten years is far too long even for genuine diplomatic excuses.
As per the procedure, the panel that selects the Nehru award is headed by the Vice President with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court functioning as the ex-officio member. Since July 1997 when the award for Mubarak was announced, India had three Vice Presidents and as many as ten new Chief Justices.
Avoiding names, in December 2002 the government told Rajya Sabha that the Nehru award for 1995 "was awarded in the year 1997. Despite concerted efforts having been made, the Awardee has not yet been able to come to India to receive the award."
For their part, the Egyptian diplomats were equally ingenious. Without offering any reason or explanation for the inordinate delays, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry proudly claims that New Delhi "continuously renews the invitation to President Mubarak to … receive the prize." Indeed, Mubarak has also skipped or avoided multilateral summits organised by India such as the G 15 summit in 1994.
The behaviour of Egyptian leader is in complete contrast to the attitude of many other leaders and figures. During the past decade New Delhi has become the favourite destination of many world leaders, East and West and Developed and Developing.
Among others, it has hosted two sitting US Presidents, heads of states of all the major powers, scores of western leaders and Third World personalities. Many countries of the Middle East have discovered the growing importance of India and want to capitalise on its economic growth through high-profiled visits. Egypt was not one of them. Even the highly publicised visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in September 2003 was insufficient to galvanise the Egyptian indifference.
By conferring honours named after leaders such as Nehru, India hopes to promote its interests and influence in different parts of world. Unlike political leverages and economic clout, cultural diplomacy resents the soft power and is both effective and harmonising. The attitude of Mubarak, thus, raises serious questions about the rationale behind such cultural diplomacy.
The Egyptian failure to arrange Mubarak's visit for nearly a decade also indicates the current status of Indo-Egyptian relations. This is in contrast to the heydays of friendship between Nehru and President Gamal Abdul Nasser. Both leaders met over a dozen times and Cairo was a constant stopover for many of Nehru's sojourns to Europe.
World has changed a lot and so is the Egyptian attitude. While Mubarak could not be forced to come to India, the latter could learn something out of this bitter experience. If India and its leaders are less important, there is no reason for New Delhi to be generous towards Cairo. Having treated the award named after India's first Prime Minister with such distain and contempt, Egypt now wants a sweetener.
But expecting Mubarak to be the Chief Guest at next year's Republic Day celebrations is nothing short of chutzpah.
Web version: