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Analysis

BJP needs to rein in the Hindutva hotheads

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The rise in the growth rate to the moderately satisfactory 6.3 per cent from the depressingly low 5.7 per cent is good news for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at a time when the Prime Minister reminded the audience at a function organised by a media house about former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s observation about the negativism which generally marked newspapers and magazines.

Narendra Modi’s case for a more positive outlook in the media and the country will seem more credible in the context of the latest growth figures if only because they highlight the mistake of those like former Finance Minister Yashwant Singh of the BJP, who have been lamenting (perhaps with a touch of schadenfreude) about the economy’s free fall.

As Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has said, the country’s emergence from the recent slump means that it has got over the twin blows of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which were expected by Modi’s critics to spell his doom.

The turn for the better in the economy has come at the right time for the BJP when its frenetic campaigning in Gujarat with Modi addressing 30 meetings in a fortnight and with as many as 40 cabinet ministers camping in the state, pointed to a measure of uneasiness in the party about its prospects in what is widely regarded as its bailiwick.

However, considering that the BJP’s success in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh is almost a foregone conclusion, one can say that the rise in the growth rate will not make much of a difference to the outcome. All that it can do is to dampen some of the ardour of the ruling party’s opponents.

Even then, the point remains that the BJP will face its real challenge not in Gujarat or Himachal Pradesh this month, but in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh next year. It is in those elections, where the BJP will encounter the anti-incumbency factor, that it will become clear whether the rise in the growth rate has helped the party or is of little consequence.

The reason for the doubts is that it is not clear to what extent the unemployment problem will be mitigated by the climbing growth rate in these days of automation and artificial intelligence.

Equally uncertain is the quantum of the impact on the BJP’s hopes as a result of the prevailing tension and uncertainty caused by the crime rate — and especially the safety of women and even children.

The effect of the rampaging Hindutva hardliners declaring bounties on the heads of actors and directors is another unknown factor whose effect will be known only after the votes are counted.

Up till now the BJP has been sitting pretty because its “vikas” (development) plank still has many takers even if it hasn’t made a perceptible dent on the unemployment scene. In addition, Modi’s personal popularity remains high because of his oratorical skills and the impression he conveys about the seriousness of his intent to take the country forward.

In contrast, his opponents lack an agenda which can have an inspiring effect and are bereft of leaders capable of drawing enthusiastic crowds although Rahul Gandhi is showing signs of the old Nehruvian appeal.

The opposition depends therefore on, first, the economy continuing to be sluggish and, secondly, on the Hindutva hotheads creating a ruckus. But such an approach is obviously a negative one, as is also banking on the anti-incumbency factor to undermine the BJP-run state governments. There is little hope, therefore, for the opposition if it cannot adopt a positive attitude with a clear projection of the kind of India which it envisages.

For the BJP, on the other hand, it is a tug-of-war between vikas and the hotheads. As long as the economy shows signs of buoyancy, it can expect to be home and dry. It is of the utmost importance for it, therefore, to ensure that the recovery doesn’t flag and that the country regains its status as the fastest-growing economy in the world.

At the same time, the party cannot allow the loonies in its ranks, who include ministers, to run amok. It does not reflect well on a government when the apex court has to direct the states to check cow vigilantes or tell senior politicians in the ruling dispensation to keep their mouths shut on yet-to-be released films lest they influence the censor board.

As it is, the impression persists that the government is not too comfortable with the autonomy of established institutions as could be seen from the official directive to the University Grants Commission (UGC) to ensure that students and teachers did not miss Modi’s “life changing” speech on the occasion of Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s centenary celebrations and Swami Vivekananda’s 125th birth anniversary last September.

If the government does not want the UGC, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and other autonomous bodies to become “caged parrots”, as the Supreme Court once called the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), then it has to desist from enforcing regimentation and stopping the saffron extremists from targeting artistes and all those who are not with the BJP. Otherwise, growth rate alone will not prevent the erosion of its popularity.

By : Amulya Ganguli

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected] )

Analysis

Trump’s decision to cut troops in Afghanistan creates policy vacuum

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Afghanistan-terror-attacks

New York: President Donald Trump’s decision at his administration’s sunset to pull back US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq is among his final attempts to keep his original campaign promise, but creates a policy vacuum and complicates the transition to Democrat Joe Biden in January.

Acting Defence Secretary Christopher Miller’s announcement that the US troop strengths in those two countries would be reduced to 2,500 each by January 15 – just five days before Biden takes over – creates a policy vacuum there.

Miller said on Wednesday, “In the coming year, we will finish this generational war and bring our men and women home.”

The war that began in 2001 to root out the Al-Qaeda that carried out the 9/11 attack on the US, and the Taliban than allowed to operate from Afghanistan, has claimed about 2,350 US lives and left more than 20,000 wounded.

Trump had promised in his 2016 campaign to bring all US troops home.

The troops remaining in Afghanistan and Iraq are to defend the US diplomatic and other facilities there.

There was a confluence of views between Trump and some Democratic leaders and opposition from Republicans and the NATO.

The House of Representatives Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith, a Democrat, said, “Reducing our forward deployed footprint in Afghanistan down to 2,500 troops is the right policy decision. At the same time, this reduction must be responsibly and carefully executed to ensure stability in the region.”

But the committee’s Republican leader Mac Thornberry warned Trump, “These additional reductions of American troops from terrorist areas are a mistake.”

“Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing – met no condition – that would justify this cut,” he added.

The peace agreement with the Taliban, which was seen as a precondition for troop withdrawal, has yet to materialise and the terrorist group has continued attacks in Afghanistan.

“The price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels.

He warned that Afghanistan risks becoming again the centre of international terror with the Islamic State (ISIS) moving there to rebuild “the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”

While Biden has committed to end the “forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East” and to “narrowly focus our mission on Al-Qaeda and ISIS,” neither he nor his transition team has reacted to the preemptive move by Trump.

Trump’s action would make policy-making and implementation difficult as soon as he takes over. It is compounded by him and his transition team being cut out of briefings and denied access to officials and information.

As vice president, Biden had been sceptical of his President Barack Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, when the force-strength was increased from about 30,000 when he assumed office in 2009 to nearly 100,000 in about a year as he attempted to decisively crush the terrorists in hope of a pull out.

Pakistan has been a key figure in the region, playing all sides. It has benefited from the US invasion of Afghanistan after the 2001 attacks on the US the Al-Qaeda, which was protected by the Taliban and Islamabad, which gave that group’s leader Osama Bin Laden asylum.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Kabul for the first time on Thursday, a day after the US announced the troop cutback, but according to reports did not say anything about it.

The US-backed Kabul government has been suspicious of and critical of Pakistan for its backing of the Taliban.

But now President Ashraf Ghani will have to come to terms with Islamabad, which had facilitated the peace between the Taliban and the US, with nominal participation of the Kabul government in the process.

As the patron of the Taliban, Khan will wield more direct influence over Afghanistan as Washington winds down its involvement.

But on the other hand, when the US involvement is minimised and troops are no longer active beyond the protection of US resources, Islamabad’s leverage is also reduced because US troops would no longer be vulnerable to cross-border terrorism and terror attacks by Pakistan’s proxies and therefore will not have to be deferential to it.

Nor would Islamabad be able to exert influence by manipulating Taliban diplomacy.

The danger for Pakistan and the world will be the rise of the ISIS in an Afghan vacuum. Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) group has been a threat to both Afghanistan and Pakistan and Islamabad will have to contain it and similar groups for its own protection – and not make a deal with them lest it face a backlash from the US.

There has been no signs of opposition in the Pentagon to the troop withdrawal.

After Miller took over the defence portfolio when Trump fired Secretary Mark Esper days after the November 3 election there has been a change in personnel at the top level to douse dissent.

(Arul Louis can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)

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Analysis

American democracy loses when most popular candidate is kept from race twice

Sanders’ popularity is now recognized, but after he spelt out the scenario on October 23 in a talk show on how the drama will unfold when votes are counted in these elections, he is well on his way to being prophetic.

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Bernie Sanders

It was nice to receive mails from friends who had assembled at Lucknow boy Nusrat Durrani’s Dumbo apartment under the Brooklyn Bridge on November 3, 2016, election night, armed with champagne bottles to be uncorked as soon as Hillary Clinton pipped the post.

In the event, the champagne bottles stood in one straight line on the dining table like a row of brooding bishops. Trump had shocked all the guests. A submarine sandwich hurled as a missile by a despairing guest knocked the lamp over.

I have repeated the above story because that is what history is supposed to be — a continuous repetition of facts. So indelibly etched on my mind is that party in Brooklyn that every US election will bring alive that episode.

There is another reason for that episode to be so etched on my mind. I did not wish to be the only one out of sync with the general mood that evening, but I was in a minority of one who expected Hillary to lose. Having arrived in New York a fortnight ago for a discussion in the various campuses of my book, ‘Being the Other: The Muslim in India’, kept me away from a 24X7 bombardment of punditry on elections.

A cluttering of detail tends to push out of focus the simple, plausible outline conditioning of electoral behaviour. Experience from most electoral theatres had taught me a simple lesson: people were tired of two parties, one indistinguishable from the other.

This was happening at local levels too, even in India. The Aam Aadmi Party’s record 67 out of 70 seats in 2015 was one such wave, smothered by the media which is controlled by the corporates whose key projects in New Delhi were threatened by the untried party. It did not have the ideological spine to withstand the assault from the main political parties and the corporate media. Therefore, the bubble burst. AAP is now an ordinary party circling around power.

There are comparisons between Joe Biden scraping through and Hillary Clinton losing in 2016: neither were popular candidates. They were candidates that the Democratic Party “manoeuvred” as front-runners because on both occasions Bernie Sanders was the most popular candidate, but his democratic socialism was anathema to the establishment.

As soon as it became clear that Sanders was leading the field, the establishment came out, all guns blazing. Thomas Friedman, whom the New York Times values as its star columnist, forgot all decencies of independent journalism and wrote two full columns rooting for former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg and a billionaire several times over, as one of the Democratic front-runners. There was no hope in hell that Bloomberg would win (buy) the nomination but, by spending a billion on TV, he would disrupt the game sufficiently for Sanders to advance. “This is a capitalist country,” thundered Bloomberg. To protect his credibility, Friedman admitted in his column, that his wife worked for one of Bloomberg’s charities. This was just one of the umpteen tricks employed to obstruct Sanders.

There was a straightforward reason why Clinton was the wrong candidate. The velocity given to globalization after the Soviet collapse gave a fillip to rampaging capitalism. Inequalities broke all barriers. It did not require Thomas Piketty to enlighten as that even in India barely one per cent of the rich had cornered 51.53 per cent of the wealth. The picture in the US was worse. Occupy Wall Street became a popular movement. It invited a capitalist riposte — the Tea Party. People were disgusted with Washington, which symbolized the US establishment. A quest began for an anti establishment candidate. Just one such candidate appeared to be Bernie Sanders. People were looking for social welfare, universal healthcare, education — exactly what the Bloombergs of the US thought would kill the initiative which made America great. Quite unabashedly, the Democratic Party gave the impression that it was preferable to lose the White House than lose corporate support.

One hoped the shock reversal of 2016 would have taught the Democrats a lesson. Across the Atlantic, Jeremy Corbyn was being likewise thwarted by New Labour. One of their leading lights, Lord Peter Mandelson, had sworn to “undermine” Corbyn. The other day they suspended him. Corbyn was to Mandelson what Sanders was to Bloomberg. This in June 2017 when the latest opinion polls projected Corbyn as the possible Prime Minister. Another example that the establishment trumps the popular will. Whither democracy, then?

At this very time, another reality was allowed to go unnoticed. A Fox News poll showed that Sanders has a +28 rating above politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. At that time, the Guardian’s Trevor Timm wrote, “One would think with numbers like that, Democratic politicians would be falling over themselves to be associated with Sanders, especially considering the Party as a whole is more unpopular than the Republicans and even Donald Trump right now. Yet, instead of embracing his message, the establishment of the party continues to resist him at almost every turn, and they seem insistent they don’t have to change their ways to gain back the support of huge swathes of the country.”

Sanders’ popularity is now recognized, but after he spelt out the scenario on October 23 in a talk show on how the drama will unfold when votes are counted in these elections, he is well on his way to being prophetic.

“In states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, Republicans are likely to go to the polling booths to cast their votes. Democrats, are likely to mail in their votes. When counting begins, the votes counted first will be Republican votes for that reason. So, by 10 pm on counting day, Trump will thank his voters and announce victory. But next morning when millions of mails will be counted, the trend will change. That is when Trump will scream murder: I told you they’ll cheat.” Mayor Rudi Giuliani has already elaborated the case in Philadelphia.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on [email protected])

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Analysis

The US presidential elections and future of India-US relations

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Donald Trump Joe Biden

As the coronavirus pandemic dominates global news in the United States, progress toward the next presidential election scheduled to be held on November 3 moves slowly forward. President Donald Trump had no real opposition in the Republican party and is running for re-election. And it has now become apparent that former Vice President Joe Biden will be his opponent as the Democratic candidate for president.

What would a Trump victory bode for the future of US-India relations? What would a Biden victory bode? Let me answer each of those questions in turn.

Given the love fests of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, Texas, in which Trump participated in September of 2019, and Trump’s ‘Namaste Trump’ event hosted by Modi in India in February of this year, it might be assumed that the future for US-India relations is a splendid one. This would be an incorrect assumption.

Both of these events were more symbolic than substantive. Trump’s participation in them undoubtedly helped to persuade some — perhaps many — Indian American Modi supporters who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to cast their ballots for Trump in 2020. Trump’s campaign team took steps to ensure this by holding an event at his Mar-a-Lago resort in which a group of prominent Indian Americans announced their plans to work for his re-election and to mobilize Indian Americans on his behalf.

To understand the future potential of India’s relations with the US. with Trump as president, however, it is necessary to look beyond these political moves and to examine the present state of those relations and Trump’s personal style.

In a word, the best way to characterize the current relations between the US and India is “functional”. The relationship was relatively good for the first two years of Trump’s presidency. In fact, near the end of 2018, Alice Wells, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, was quoted in the media s saying: “This has been a landmark year for US-India ties as we build out stronger relationships across the board.”

Then, in 2019, the relations went off the track in the first half of the year after the US and India got into a tit-for-tat tariff war after the US terminated India’s Generalized System of Preferences which allowed India to send certain goods to the US duty-free. There have been continuing efforts to structure a “modest” trade deal since then. It was thought there might be some type of deal done in September of 2019 while Modi was in the US by year’s end, and then during Trump’s India visit. But, as of today, there is still no deal.

This inability to get any meaningful trade agreement in place speaks volumes about India’s potential future relations with India with Trump as president. So, too does Trump’s style.

Trump’s campaign slogans this time around are “Keep America Great” and “Promises Made, Promises Kept.” Trump is not a policy wonk and most of his effort will go toward “America First”. This involves making the US more isolated by withdrawing from international agreements, restructuring trade agreements, emphasizing building walls to stop immigrants at the border, using tariffs to block trade with countries who are taking away American jobs, and confronting businesses who are allegedlly stealing American trade secrets.

This perspective suggests what India can expect for its relations with the US if it has to deal with Trump for a second term as president. The relations will stay functional at best. As I have said before, that’s because the words partnership, cooperation and collaboration are not in Trump’s vocabulary. Nationalism, isolationism and protectionism are.

Joe Biden stands in stark contrast to President Trump both professionally and personally. Biden is a strategic thinker and doer with a solid eight-year track record of leadership experience as Vice-President in forging alliances that have made a difference around the world and he has also been a long-standing friend of India.

He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading advocate for the Congressional passage of the Indo-US civic nuclear deal in 2005. At a dinner convened 10 years later in 2015 by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vice President Biden discussed the tremendous joint progress that had been made by the two countries in the past and declared “We are on the cusp of a sea change decade.”

Early in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in July of 2019, in laying out his foreign policy vision, Biden stated that the US had to reach out to India and other Asian partners to strengthen ties with them. The items on Biden’s foreign policy agenda for strengthening which are of importance for India include climate change, nuclear proliferation and cyberwarfare.

During his vice presidency, Biden worked side by side with President Barack Obama to do things that would contribute to achieving Obama’s vision stated in 2010 of India and America being “indispensable partners in meeting the challenges of our time.” In 2020, those challenges are even greater than they were a decade ago.

That is why it is so essential that India and the US develop a strategic relationship that enables them to become those indispensable partners. That can happen if Biden assumes the presidency on January 20, 2021. It cannot happen if Donald Trump remains as president for a second term.

The results of this upcoming election in the US matter greatly for the future of the United States. They matter greatly for the future of India-US relations as well. Time and the American electorate will tell what that future will be.

(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)

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