Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The truth behind Kandahar

Was it really an ‘abject surrender’ by the NDA Government?

There have been innumerable communal riots in India, nearly all of them in States ruled by the Congress at the time of the violence, yet everybody loves to pretend that blood was shed in the name of religion for the first time in Gujarat in 2002 and that the BJP Government headed by Mr Narendra Modi must bear the burden of the cross.

Similarly, nobody remembers the various incidents of Indian Airlines aircraft being hijacked when the Congress was in power at the Centre, the deals that were struck to rescue the hostages, and the compromises that were made at the expense of India’s dignity and honour. But everybody remembers the hijacking of IC 814 and nearly a decade after the incident, many people still hold the BJP-led NDA Government responsible for the ‘shameful’ denouement.

The Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi, designated IC 814, with 178 passengers and 11 crew members on board, was hijacked on Christmas Eve, 1999, a short while after it took-off from Tribhuvan International Airport; by then, the aircraft had entered Indian airspace. Nine years later to the day, with an entire generation coming of age, it would be in order to recall some facts and place others on record.

In 1999 I was serving as an aide to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO, and I still have vivid memories of the tumultuous week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Mr Vajpayee had gone out of Delhi on an official tour; I had accompanied him along with other officials of the PMO. The hijacking of IC 814 occurred while we were returning to Delhi in one of the two Indian Air Force Boeings which, in those days, were used by the Prime Minister for travel within the country.

Curiously, the initial information about IC 814 being hijacked, of which the IAF was believed to have been aware, was not communicated to the pilot of the Prime Minister’s aircraft. As a result, Mr Vajpayee and his aides remained unaware of the hijacking till reaching Delhi. This caused some amount of controversy later.

It was not possible for anybody else to have contacted us while we were in midair. It’s strange but true that the Prime Minister of India would be incommunicado while on a flight because neither the ageing IAF Boeings nor the Air India Jumbos, used for official travel abroad (in those days), had satellite phone facilities.

By the time our aircraft landed in Delhi, it was around 7:00 pm, a full hour and 40 minutes since the hijacking of IC 814. After disembarking from the aircraft in the VIP bay of Palam Technical Area, we were surprised to find National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra waiting at the foot of the ladder. He led Mr Vajpayee aside and gave him the news. They got into the Prime Minister’s car and it sped out of the Technical Area. Some of us followed Mr. Vajpayee to Race Course Road, as was the normal routine.

On our way to the Prime Minister’s residence, colleagues in the PMO provided us with the basic details. The Kathmandu-Delhi flight had been commandeered by five hijackers (later identified as Ibrahim Athar, resident of Bahawalpur, Shahid Akhtar Sayed, Gulshan Iqbal, resident of Karachi, Sunny Ahmed Qazi, resident of Defence Area, Karachi, Mistri Zahoor Ibrahim, resident of Akhtar Colony, Karachi, and Shakir, resident of Sukkur City) at 5:20 pm; there were 189 passengers and crew members on board; and that the aircraft was heading towards Lahore.

At the Prime Minister’s residence, senior Ministers and Secretaries had already been summoned for an emergency meeting. Mr Mishra left for the crisis control room that had been set up at Rajiv Bhavan. In between meetings, Mr Vajpayee instructed his personal staff to cancel all celebrations planned for December 25, his birthday. The Cabinet Committee on Security met late into the night as our long vigil began.

Meanwhile, we were informed that the pilot of IC 814 had been denied permission to land at Lahore airport. With fuel running low, he was heading for Amritsar. Officials at Raja Sansi Airport were immediately alerted and told to prevent the plane from taking off after it had landed there.

The hijacked plane landed at Amritsar and remained parked on the tarmac for nearly 45 minutes. The hijackers demanded that the aircraft be refuelled. The airport officials ran around like so many headless chickens, totally clueless about what was to be done in a crisis situation.

Desperate calls were made to the officials at Raja Sansi Airport to somehow stall the refuelling and prevent the plane from taking off. The officials just failed to respond with alacrity. At one point, an exasperated Jaswant Singh, if memory serves me right, grabbed the phone and pleaded with an official, “Just drive a heavy vehicle, a fuel truck or a road roller or whatever you have, onto the runway and park it there.” But all this was to no avail.

The National Security Guards, whose job it is to deal with hostage situations, were alerted immediately after news first came in of IC 814 being hijacked; they were reportedly asked to stand by for any emergency. The Home Ministry was again alerted when it became obvious that after being denied permission to land at Lahore, the pilot was heading towards Amritsar.

Yet, despite IC 814 remaining parked at Amritsar for three-quarters of an hour, the NSG commandos failed to reach the aircraft. There are two versions as to why the NSG didn’t show up: First, they were waiting for an aircraft to ferry them from Delhi to Amritsar; second, they were caught in a traffic jam between Manesar and Delhi airport. The real story was never known!

The hijackers, anticipating commando action, first stabbed a passenger, Rupin Katyal (he had gone to Kathmandu with his newly wedded wife for their honeymoon; had they not extended their stay by a couple of days, they wouldn’t have been on the ill-fated flight) to show that they meant business, and then forced the pilot to take off from Amritsar. With almost empty fuel tanks, the pilot had no other option but to make another attempt to land at Lahore airport. Once again he was denied permission and all the lights, including those on the runway, were switched off. He nonetheless went ahead and landed at Lahore airport, showing remarkable skill and courage.

Mr Jaswant Singh spoke to the Pakistani Foreign Minister and pleaded with him to prevent the aircraft from taking off again. But the Pakistanis would have nothing of it (they wanted to distance themselves from the hijacking so that they could claim later that there was no Pakistan connection) and wanted IC 814 off their soil and out of their airspace as soon as possible. So, they refuelled the aircraft after which the hijackers forced the pilot to head for Dubai.

At Dubai, too, officials were reluctant to allow the aircraft to land. It required all the persuasive skills of Mr Jaswant Singh and our then Ambassador to UAE, Mr KC Singh, to secure landing permission. There was some negotiation with the hijackers through UAE officials and they allowed 13 women and 11 children to disembark. Rupin Katyal had by then bled to death. His body was offloaded. His widow remained a hostage till the end.

On the morning of December 25, the aircraft left Dubai and headed towards Afghanistan. It landed at Kandahar Airport, which had one serviceable runway, a sort of ATC and a couple of shanties. The rest of the airport was in a shambles, without power and water supply, a trophy commemorating the Taliban’s rule.

On Christmas Eve, after news of the hijacking broke, there was stunned all-round silence. But by noon on December 25, orchestrated protests outside the Prime Minister’s residence began, with women beating their chests and tearing their clothes. The crowd swelled by the hour as the day progressed.

Ms Brinda Karat came to commiserate with the relatives of the hostages who were camping outside the main gate of 7, Race Course Road. In fact, she became a regular visitor over the next few days. There was a steady clamour that the Government should pay any price to bring the hostages back home, safe and sound. This continued till December 30.

One evening, the Prime Minister asked his staff to let the families come in so that they could be told about the Government’s efforts to secure the hostages’ release. By then negotiations had begun and Mullah Omar had got into the act through his ‘Foreign Minister’, Muttavakil. The hijackers wanted 36 terrorists, held in various Indian jails, to be freed or else they would blow up the aircraft with the hostages.

No senior Minister in the CCS was willing to meet the families. Mr Jaswant Singh volunteered to do so. He asked me to accompany him to the canopy under which the families had gathered. Once there, we were literally mobbed. He tried to explain the situation but was shouted down.

“We want our relatives back. What difference does it make to us what you have to give the hijackers?” a man shouted. “We don’t care if you have to give away Kashmir,” a woman screamed and others took up the refrain, chanting: “Kashmir de do, kuchh bhi de do, hamare logon ko ghar wapas lao.” Another woman sobbed, “Mera beta… hai mera beta…” and made a great show of fainting of grief.

To his credit, Mr Jaswant Singh made bold to suggest that the Government had to keep the nation’s interest in mind, that we could not be seen to be giving in to the hijackers, or words to that effect, in chaste Hindi. That fetched him abuse and rebuke. “Bhaand me jaaye desh aur bhaand me jaaye desh ka hit. (To hell with the country and national interest),” many in the crowd shouted back. Stumped by the response, Mr Jaswant Singh could merely promise that the Government would do everything possible.

I do not remember the exact date, but sometime during the crisis, Mr Jaswant Singh was asked to hold a Press conference to brief the media. While the briefing was on at the Press Information Bureau hall in Shastri Bhavan, some families of the hostages barged in and started shouting slogans. They were led by one Sanjiv Chibber, who, I was later told, was a ‘noted surgeon’: He claimed six of his relatives were among the hostages.

Dr Chibber wanted all 36 terrorists named by the hijackers to be released immediately. He reminded everybody in the hall that in the past terrorists had been released from prison to secure the freedom of Ms Rubayya Sayeed, daughter of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, while he was Home Minister in VP Singh’s Government. “Why can’t you release the terrorists now when our relatives are being held hostage?” he demanded. And then we heard the familiar refrain: “Give away Kashmir, give them anything they want, we don’t give a damn.”

On another evening, there was a surprise visitor at the PMO: The widow of Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, whose plane was shot down during the Kargil war. She insisted that she should be taken to meet the relatives of the hostages. At Race Course Road, she spoke to mediapersons and the hostages’ relatives, explaining why India must not be seen giving in to the hijackers, that it was a question of national honour, and gave her own example of fortitude in the face of adversity.

“She has become a widow, now she wants others to become widows. Who is she to lecture us? Yeh kahan se aayi?” someone shouted from the crowd. Others heckled her. The young widow stood her ground, displaying great dignity and courage. As the mood turned increasingly ugly, she had to be led away. Similar appeals were made by others who had lost their sons, husbands and fathers in the Kargil war that summer. Col Virendra Thapar, whose son Lt Vijayant Thapar was martyred in the war, made a fervent appeal for people to stand united against the hijackers. It fell on deaf ears.

The media made out that the overwhelming majority of Indians were with the relatives of the hostages and shared their view that no price was too big to secure the hostages’ freedom. The Congress kept on slyly insisting, “We are with the Government and will support whatever it does for a resolution of the crisis and to ensure the safety of the hostages. But the Government must explain its failure.” Harkishen Singh Surjeet and other Opposition politicians issued similar ambiguous statements.

By December 28, the Government’s negotiators had struck a deal with the hijackers: They would free the hostages in exchange of three dreaded terrorists — Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Omar Sheikh — facing various charges of terrorism.

The CCS met frequently, several times a day, and discussed the entire process threadbare. The Home Minister, the Defence Minister and the Foreign Minister, apart from the National Security Adviser and the Prime Minister, were present at every meeting. The deal was further fine-tuned, the Home Ministry completed the necessary paper work, and two Indian Airlines aircraft were placed on standby to ferry the terrorists to Kandahar and fetch the hostages.

On December 31, the two aircraft left Delhi airport early in the morning. Mr Jaswant Singh was on board one of them. Did his ministerial colleagues know that he would travel to Kandahar? More important, was the Prime Minister aware of it? The answer is both yes and no.

Mr Jaswant Singh had mentioned his decision to go to Kandahar to personally oversee the release of hostages and to ensure there was no last-minute problem. He was honour-bound to do so, he is believed to have said, since he had promised the relatives of the hostages that no harm would come their way. It is possible that nobody thought he was serious about his plan. It is equally possible that others turned on him when the ‘popular mood’ and the Congress turned against the Government for its ‘abject surrender’.

On New Year’s eve, the hostages were flown back to Delhi. By New Year’s day, the Government was under attack for giving in to the hijackers’ demand! Since then, this ‘shameful surrender’ is held against the NDA and Mr Jaswant Singh is painted as the villain of the piece.

Could the Kandahar episode have ended any other way? Were an Indian aircraft to be hijacked again, would we respond any differently? Not really. As a nation we do not have the guts to stand up to terrorism. We cannot take hits and suffer casualties. We start counting our dead even before a battle has been won or lost. We make a great show of honouring those who die on the battlefield and lionise brave hearts of history, but we do not want our children to follow in their footsteps.

We are, if truth be told, a nation of cowards who don’t have the courage to admit their weakness but are happy to blame a well-meaning politician who, perhaps, takes his regimental motto of ‘Izzat aur Iqbal’ rather too seriously.

(This was originally published in The Pioneer on December 24, 2008.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Linking 'Palestine issue' to 'Kashmir issue'

Assuaging Arab Islamism
Faced with Arab rage after it abandoned its Palestine mandate, a cynical Britain decided to undermine India’s stand on Jammu & Kashmir to contain incipient Islamism. With Obama as President, the US may be tempted to similarly use the ‘Kashmir issue’ to deal with Muslim rage against America
By Kanchan Gupta
After Britain took the Palestine issue to the United Nations in April 1947 and announced its decision to abandon its mandate by May 1948, resulting in the General Assembly adopting a Resolution for the creation of separate Jewish and Arab states, thus unleashing Arab rage against the West, especially the United Kingdom, the British Foreign Office embarked on a duplicitous and dangerous course. It convinced the British Government, struggling to cope with the rapidly changing post-War geopolitical realities, that the only way Britain could contain — and reduce — Arab anger was by adopting a policy on Jammu & Kashmir that would be perceived as weighing in favour of Pakistan, a Muslim state. It believed this would assuage enraged ‘Arab nationalism’ (which the British Foreign Office, to its credit, had the far-sight to recognise as incipient radical Islamism). A second factor that propelled British policy in this direction was Britain’s oil interests that had become crucial in post-War Europe’s search for energy sources that would reduce dependency on coal.
British Foreign Office records, including minutes of discussions approved by Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Ernest Bevin, substantiate this assessment. For instance, a Foreign Office minute prepared for Prime Minister Clement Attlee said, “The Foreign Secretary has expressed anxiety lest we should appear to be siding with India in the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir which is now before the United Nations Security Council. With the situation as critical as it is in Palestine, Mr Bevin feels that we must be very careful to guard against the danger of aligning the whole of Islam against us, which might be the case were Pakistan to obtain a false impression of our attitude in the Security Council.” If six decades ago the Attlee Cabinet was keen to appease Islamists by short-changing India on Jammu & Kashmir, Mr Barack Hussein Obama’s Administration may be tempted to do something similar to establish its credentials in the Islamic world since it won’t dare to push around Israel.
Interestingly, Louis Mountbatten, who had played no small role in steering the Jammu & Kashmir issue to the Security Council, found the British Foreign Office policy harmful to larger Commonwealth interests. In one of his reports he recorded: “Everybody here (in India) is now convinced that power politics and not impartiality are governing the attitude of the Security Council... Indian leaders counter this (attempts to dispel this conviction) by saying that the Anglo-American Bloc apparently attaches so high a value on the maintenance of Muslim solidarity in the Middle-East that they are even ready to pay the price of driving India out of the Commonwealth into the arms of Russia...”.
Not known for being tolerant of Indian sensitivities, Philip Noel-Baker, the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, was easily persuaded by Bevin’s perspective and he took it upon himself to pro-actively lobby with the US and non-permanent Security Council members to toe a pro-Pakistan line in enforcing a solution to the Jammu & Kashmir issue through a UN-sponsored plebiscite. Noel-Baker had his way with Resolution 39 adopted by the Security Council on January 20, 1948, on the setting up of a three-member UN Commission for India and Pakistan which would visit the two countries, study the ground situation, and report back to the Security Council.
Noel-Baker followed this up by aggressively pushing a draft resolution that was crafted in a manner to favour Pakistan. The US representative was initially hesitant to go along with Noel-Baker’s draft, but was soon won over. Surprisingly, at this stage the Chinese representative came up with an alternative draft that was comparatively more balanced. In a change of tactics, necessitated by his being reprimanded by Attlee who feared ‘irreparable damage’ to relations with India, Noel-Baker seized upon this draft and cunningly had it amended to such an extent that it bore no resemblance with the original draft; the Noel-Baker version of the Chinese draft came to be adopted as Resolution 47 by the Security Council on April 21, 1948.
Resolution 47 set out the terms of reference in two parts. Part One increased the number of members of the UNCIP from three to five (Noel-Baker believed that a larger team would enable a report more in tune with his perspective) and instructed the UNCIP to “proceed at once” in order to “place its good offices and mediation” at the disposal of India and Pakistan with the twin goals of restoring peace and order and holding a plebiscite. Part Two comprised the Security Council’s recommendations to India and Pakistan for achieving these goals:
i. Pakistan should “use its best endeavours” to secure the withdrawal of the raiders (tribesmen and other Pakistani nationals) from Jammu & Kashmir;
ii. India should withdraw its forces and reduce them to the minimum level required for the maintenance of law and order; and,
iii. UNCIP might employ troops of either dominion “subject to the agreement of both the Government of India and the Government of Pakistan”.
Pakistan rejected Resolution 47, demanding an amendment that the deployment of Pakistani troops should not be subject to the agreement of the Government of India. The amendment was defeated. India rejected the Resolution on the ground that it was weighed in favour of Pakistan and that it skirted the main issue as contained in India’s reference to the Security Council — that of vacating the Pakistani aggression. India also pointed out that the Security Council had failed to issue a clear call to Pakistan to withdraw the raiders before going into the plebiscite arrangements. However, both India and Pakistan accepted the setting up of the UNCIP and agreed to receive the Commission.
The UNCIP visited India and Pakistan in July 1948. By May 1948, the ground situation had undergone a radical material change with Pakistani Army regulars being deployed in the occupied areas of Jammu & Kashmir. Zafarullah Khan admitted to the UNCIP that Pakistani Army regulars had been deployed since May 1948. This was seen by the UNCIP as a violation of earlier Security Council Resolutions that had insisted on there being no material change in the ground situation.
The UNCIP’s findings and its subsequent Resolutions (of August 13, 1949, and January 5, 1948) were not influenced by Noel-Baker primarily because there was no British representative in the commission. Also, by then India had launched a diplomatic offensive as well as demonstrated its determination to force out the Pakistani invaders militarily. Therefore, the UNCIP reports and Resolutions, unlike the Security Council’s Resolution 47, did not reflect a deliberate pro-Pakistan tilt; recognised that the entry of Pakistani Army into Jammu & Kashmir was a violation of Security Council Resolution 38; demanded that Pakistan must withdraw its forces from Jammu & Kashmir since their presence constituted a “material change in the situation”; and, conceded primacy to a ceasefire based on withdrawal of the invaders.
The rest is history.

OPEDITORIAL The Pioneer, November 14, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

American interventionism as policy
By Kanchan Gupta
US President-elect Barack Hussein Obama’s utterances on Jammu & Kashmir, indicating that the so-called ‘Kashmir issue’ will figure on the agenda of his Administration, just as it featured on the ‘To Do’ list of Mr Bill Clinton during his first term as President, have raised more than eyebrows in India. To his credit, President George W Bush had steered clear of the ‘Kashmir issue’; he snubbed Pakistan each time it tried to push for a revival of American interventionism, insisting that Islamabad had to deal directly with New Delhi. Even Gen Colin Powell, with his pronounced pro-Pakistan bias, could not get Mr Bush to change his view and send in Nosy Parkers from the State Department to play their insidious games. Recall a busybody called Ms Robin Raphael whom Mr Clinton promoted during his first presidential term to ‘solve’ the ‘Kashmir issue’. She used the opportunity to forge the All-Party Hurriyat Conference with disastrous consequences in Jammu & Kashmir, and colluded with Benazir Bhutto to create the monster called Taliban in the hope Mullah Mohammed Omar would look after Unocal’s business interests.
With the shadow of American interventionism as policy looming large, it would be instructive to scan the past, if only to figure out the genesis of the West’s proclivity to interfere in an issue that neither impacts it directly nor does it understand entirely. Interestingly, much before the US decided to get into the act, it was the UK which manipulated events in a manner that whetted Washington’s appetite. Equally interesting is the reason that shaped Anglo-American perception and policy on Jammu & Kashmir, which does not figure in much of the discourse on this issue but has been presented in great detail by former diplomat C Dasgupta in his path-breaking book, War and Diplomacy in Kashmir — 1947-48.
First, some bare facts. Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession on October 26, 1947, making Jammu & Kashmir an integral part of India. Simultaneously, Indian forces were airlifted to Srinagar to evict the Pakistani invaders and establish India’s sovereignty over its territory. The accession was — and remains — entirely valid in terms of the Government of India Act of 1935 and India Independence Act of 1947; it is total and irrevocable in international law. Speaking in the UN Security Council on February 4, 1948, the US representative, Warren Austen, said: “The external sovereignty of Kashmir is no longer under the control of the Maharaja... with the accession of Jammu & Kashmir to India, this foreign sovereignty went over to India and is exercised by India and that is why India happens to be here (at the UNSC) as a petitioner...”.
India went to the UN in good faith after Pakistan refused to vacate territory occupied by its armed raiders. In its formal reference, lodged with the Security Council on January 1, 1948 under Article 35 of the UN Charter, which permits member states to bring any situation whose continuance is likely to endanger international peace and security to the attention of the Security Council, India asserted: “Such a situation now exists between India and Pakistan owing to the aid which invaders, consisting of nationals of Pakistan and of tribesmen from the territory immediately adjoining Pakistan on the North-West, are drawing from Pakistan for operations against Jammu & Kashmir, a State which has acceded to the Dominion of India and is part of India... The Government of India request the Security Council to call upon Pakistan to put an end immediately to the giving of such assistance which is an act of aggression against India.”
In the reference, India also asserted its right, under international law, to self-defence by initiating military action against Pakistan by way of what is today termed as ‘hot pursuit’: “In order that the objective of expelling the invader from Indian territory and preventing him from launching fresh attacks should be quickly achieved, Indian troops would have to enter Pakistan territory...”.
In addition to the five permanent members, the UNSC in 1948 had Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Syria and Ukraine as non-permanent members. The instant reaction of the UNSC was to issue a Presidential Statement on January 6, 1948, making an “urgent appeal (to India and Pakistan) to refrain from any step incompatible with the (UN) Charter and liable to result in an aggravation of the situation”. This was followed by Resolution 38 on January 17, 1948, reiterating the Presidential Statement and requesting both countries to immediately report to the Security Council any material change in the situation.
Across the Atlantic, the Commonwealth Relations Office entered the picture at this point, formulating a political perspective that came to greatly influence the Security Council’s subsequent handling of the ‘Kashmir issue’, at least up to the formation of the UN Commission for India and Pakistan. The CRO’s perspective was rooted, and strangely so, in the British Foreign Office assessment of the emerging political crisis in West Asia. Britain in those days stood accused by Arabs (and their sympathisers in Europe and the US) of having abjectly failed in its Mandate over Palestine as it had been unable to control the immigration of Jews. Britain was also seen as having failed in its responsibility to prevent or contain the outbreak of what was then referred to as ‘civil war’ (which still continues to rage between Palestinians and Israelis).
Britain took the Palestine issue to the UN in April 1947 and announced its decision to abandon its mandate by May 1948. The UN General Assembly immediately adopted a Resolution for dividing Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, paving the way for Israel’s re-birth as the homeland for Jews in Palestine and the Diaspora. The Arab reaction was vicious, instantaneous and directed in bulk against Britain.
(Tomorrow: Linking the ‘Palestine issue’ to the ‘Kashmir issue’.)

OPEDITORIAL The Pioneer November 13, 2008

Preparing for shift in American policy

Dealing with change in US
Coffee Break Kanchan Gupta
On Thursday, July 10, 1969, at 4.30 pm the then Minister for External Affairs, Dinesh Singh, called on Richard Nixon for preparatory discussions prior to the American President’s visit to India. The ‘RoD’, or record of discussion, of the brief meeting (Nixon didn’t think much of India and the conversation was desultory) which took place in the Oval Office of the White House is instructive of how New Delhi conducted its diplomacy in those days and the distance we have travelled in the last four decades, emerging as a key player in regional and global affairs. The real break with the past, when foreign policy was no more than received Nehruvian wisdom, came during the NDA years when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee brought about a tectonic shift in the manner we see the world, thus forcing an irreversible change in the way the world looks at India. But we digress from the meeting between a surly President Richard Nixon and a prim and proper Raja Dinesh Singh.Let me quote from the official record of the discussion, recently declassified by the US State Department. “The President said that he wanted to note one serious problem that would affect our (American) ability to cooperate — the Vietnam war. Speaking quite candidly, he felt that Asian nations ultimately have a great stake in how that war ended. If the mass of Americans are disillusioned with the costs of the war and what it will have achieved, they will be unlikely to support extensive American cooperation with Asians in the future...”. After hearing out Nixon’s gripe, Singh responded with an amazing one-liner: “India does not wish to see frustration or defeat on either side.”For those who were born much after the dramatic fall of Saigon in 1975 and the chaotic evacuation of American troops as the triumphant Vietnamese guerrillas prepared to storm the last bastion of US military power in Indochina, it would be worthwhile to recall that India had routinely criticised the war as a display of Asian solidarity and to prove its ‘non-aligned’ credentials. This must have weighed heavily on the minds of both politicians and their flunkies in South Block while preparing for Nixon’s visit. They knew that the Americans would raise the issue of India’s position on the Vietnam war and point out that New Delhi had to choose between Washington, DC and its foes. Mr George W Bush is not the first American President to subscribe to the two-option theory — “Your are either with us or against us” — nor shall he be the last; it’s just that he made a public declaration of what till then was conveyed in the privacy of one-on-one meetings. So, in anticipation of Nixon raising the issue during his meeting with Singh, an official response had to be drafted and kept ready.We can be sure that much deliberation, discussion and debate went into formulating the response — “India does not wish to see frustration or defeat on either side” — and the Minister was tutored accordingly. We can also be sure that there was much mutual back-slapping after the Oval Office meeting: Everybody must have gloated over how India had craftily warded off taking a position by indulging in waffle. Neither the US nor its critics could fault us — after all, we had not wished defeat for either the US troops or the Vietcong, never mind the fact that no war is without a winner and a loser, even if it ends as ignominiously as it did for the Americans in Vietnam.There has been a sea change in our responses since that July afternoon meeting in the White House. India now does not hesitate to vote along with the US against Iran, nor does it feel compelled to abuse Israel just because Nehru willed against diplomatic relations with the Jewish state to please his friend Gamal Abdel Nasser and to keep Moscow in good humour. From being dependent on American wheat shipments during the humiliating PL 480 years when American aid prevented mass starvation, we are now able to engage the US as equals.The geo-political realities of the post-Cold War world, the blossoming of Indian enterprise at home and abroad, the opportunities that have come our way in the 21st century, and our being in the forefront of the information technology revolution have contributed to this shift in foreign policy formulation, as has the emergence of China and the looming threat it poses to the region and beyond. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would not have had the chance to hug President George W Bush and declare his “deep love” for the man who has contributed the most to strengthening India-US relations had his predecessor not set the stage for two estranged ‘natural allies’ to come together in a strategic partnership. Pokhran II was much more than sending out mushroom cloud signals to the world; it was an unequivocal announcement that India had broken free of the shackles of Nehruvian consensus.As a new regime prepares to take charge in Washington, DC and the US celebrates the ‘change’ it has voted in, South Block should get down to the task of dealing with the Obama Administration. If the ‘change’ that has been promised comes true, then there will be many subtle and overt shifts in American foreign policy, which will demand a matching response from India. Even on domestic issues like outsourcing of American business processes to Indian firms, New Delhi cannot afford to be taken by surprise. Of course, it is too early to try and figure out the contours of Mr Barack Hussein Obama’s foreign policy thrust, but given the fact that he has opted for the ‘inside-the-beltway’ establishment, the Washington ‘insiders’ for whom he showed nothing but disdain during the campaign but who have invariably found a place in his team, it should not be difficult to imagine the blueprint. More so because most of them have served in the Clinton Administration — Mr Obama’s choice of Mr Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff is symbolic of the change we can expect.While Mr Obama will no doubt be preoccupied with shoring up the rapidly collapsing American economy during his early months in office, sooner or later he will have to focus on two wars being waged by America. The pullout of US troops from Iraq over the next 18 months is now a foregone conclusion. But what about the war against terror in Afghanistan? And what if we were to be asked about our position on this war? Would we then say, “India does not wish to see frustration or defeat on either side?” America’s victory or defeat in Vietnam was of no consequence to us. But a ‘tactical’ though abject surrender to the Taliban, as is being talked about increasingly in Europe and America, so that Pakistan’s ‘strategic depth’ is restored and Islamabad sufficiently appeased to help smoke out Osama bin Laden, will be disastrous for India. The time for equivocation is over.

AGENDA Sunday Pioneer November 9, 2008

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Church now touts 'casuist' Gandhi!
Coffee Break: Kanchan Gupta
Jomo Kenyatta had a sharp tongue and a sharper mind, both of which he used to devastating effect while lashing out at the 'civilising' West. The White man's fictional burden of taming the savage East and enlightening the 'dark continent' was no more than a convenient cover to hide his role as the master of the subjugated races. Colonialism and Empire-building were inspired as much by a sense of racial superiority as driven by greed; it was a complex social, political and economic enterprise facilitated in no small measure by Christian missionaries who helped deracinate the indigenous people -- the 'heathens' -- and convert them into loyal subjects of an alien Emperor.As in India, so in the African colonies were people uprooted from their ancient cultural moorings in preparation for their political suppression and economic deprivation. They were accorded the 'privilege' of embracing a strange faith and genuflecting at the altar of Christ in exchange of what they possessed and held dear till then: Their land, their language, their rites and rituals, and their religion. By the time the natives realised that all this was no more than a con job to disinherit them and enrich their foreign rulers, they had invariably lost most, if not all, of what once belonged to them. Jomo Kenyatta, not given to niceties and asphyxiating political correctness, put it succinctly: "When the missionaries came, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray'. We closed our eyes. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible!"At a recent gathering of Christian missionaries, I made bold to recall Jomo Kenyatta's famous comment which fetched a fusillade of denial and denunciation. I was accused of trying to divert attention from the depredations of 'rapacious' and 'murderous' Hindu mobs which have brought a 'bad name' to the land of Mahatma Gandhi, the "apostle of peace" as one of them described him. That's a Christian description, I protested, to which the response was: How else would you describe him? Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a crafty politician who made a fetish of non-violence; so call him a 'man of peace' if you must, but don't describe him as a follower of Jesus, as were the 12 apostles of Christ, which he definitely wasn't.In any event, the Mahatma the Church now holds up to shame those who object to proselytisation and conversion through allurement and deceit, the harvesting of the souls of the poor and the vulnerable, was mercilessly denigrated and lampooned in his lifetime by Christian missionaries in keeping with their loyalty to the Empire. Charles Freer Andrews was an exception and his association with Gandhi did not exactly make him welcome in mission drawing rooms. Many years ago, while researching the Goa Inquisition, I had chanced upon material about the attitude of Christian missionaries towards Gandhi. Those notes resurfaced while I was clearing out the accumulated, fraying papers in my study; they make for interesting reading, especially when Gandhi is being touted by Christian missionaries in an effort to silence their critics.Gandhi's politics of peaceful resistance to colonial rule had found expression in the non-cooperation agitation. This in turn set alarm bells ringing -- the colonial establishment, including the Church, was quick to realise his potential. It retaliated in full force, using its arsenal, including missionaries and their publications. In September 1919, the Christian Missionary Review fired the first salvo, but was circumspect. A year later, it described Gandhi as an "extraordinary casuist", an "unscrupulous and irresponsible demagogue" responsible for the disturbances in Punjab. Urging India's colonial masters to "adequately" deal with Gandhi's "egotistical mysticism", the Christian Missionary Review said that unless put down, Gandhi and his nationalism would emerge as "one of the dangerous phenomena of present day politics in India".The terrible misdeeds of the British administration in Punjab, of which the Rowlatt Act is but only one example, found ample support among the missionaries. Bishop Henry Whitehead not only supported the Act but went on to denigrate the nationalist agitation against it as a "striking illustration of the incapacity of a large section of Indian politicians to face facts and realities, or to understand the first principles of civilised Government". Those 'principles' were on display at Jallianwala Baag. Marcella Sherwood, speaking on behalf of the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, and Rev Canon Guildford, representing the Church Missionary Society, were to later applaud Gen Dyer's brutality, saying it was "justified by its results". The Christian Missionary Review, describing Gen Dyer as a "brave man", said his action was "the only means of saving life". Another missionary publication, rather disingenuously named The Young Men of India, heaped praise on Sir Michael O'Dwyer, the Lt Governor of Punjab during those bleak and brutal days, saying that he was "the strongest and best ruler the country has had in modern times". The Harvest Field, another missionary journal, was quick to point out that during the nationalist uprising against the Rowlatt Act, Indian Christians were not found "wanting in loyalty to the (British) Government". The International Review of Missions was clear in its pronouncement that the means and methods adopted by the British to put down the uprising in Punjab were neither un-Christian nor a blot on British rule. On the other hand, the Christian Missionary Review described Gandhi's political agenda as dangerous, predicted that it would lead to violence, chaos and anarchy. The Young Men of India, commenting on Gandhi's concept of satyagraha, declared: "Though Mr Gandhi may have satisfied his conscience as to its morality, to plain common sense it means playing with fire, with the certainty that if used with masses of Indian people, the fire will become a conflagration...". The Harvest Field, in its May 1921 issue, put on record its belief that "Mr Gandhi's teachings" would result in "chaos and anarchy only". Gandhi, it said, had brought a "sword to his beloved land". The Madras Christian College Magazine, in its October 1921 issue, declared, "We have always regarded the doctrines he has been preaching and the policy he has advocated as pernicious." The journal then went on to offer a homily: All those who want "peace and sobriety of life and progress" should reject the "sophistry of non-violence"Yet today we are told by Christian missionaries to follow Gandhi's doctrines, pay heed to his philosophy of non-violence. Amazing sophistry!

AGENDA Sunday Pioneer, November 2, 2008
If Sardar Patel was a ‘terrorist’, so am I

Coffee Break: Kanchan Gupta

Ever since Azamgarh hit the headlines in newspapers and grabbed prime time on 24x7 news channels after the police tracked many of the bombers responsible for the slaughter of innocent people in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Delhi to this district of Uttar Pradesh, mullahs and politicians who trade in Muslim votes have been flocking there to record their indignation that those guilty of mass murder should be brought to justice.Earlier, Azamgarh would provide the cannon fodder for Mumbai’s vicious and bloody gang-wars with Azamgarhis offering their services as ‘hitmen’ to Dawood Ibrahim and others of his ilk. The argument one would often hear in justification of their carrying out ‘supari’ killings was two-fold: The lure of Mumbai’s glittering lifestyle and easy money; and, the frustration of unemployed Muslim youth discriminated against in ‘Hindu’ India.Those who terrorised Mumbai’s rich and famous, ran extortion, betting and hawala rackets, killed defaulters and the defiant in cold blood, and took delivery of contraband ferried to the city’s shoreline from Dubai in dhows were not to blame for their crimes — they were victims of an elaborate ‘conspiracy’ against Muslims and an ‘uncaring’ system. Any effort to tame the mafia was resolutely met with howls of protest and cries of ‘Muslims are being targeted’.Few people would remember today that when Mrs Indira Gandhi introduced what was then considered a tough law to fight organised crime and money-laundering under the guise of the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act, popularly known as COFEPOSA, she was accused of ‘targeting Muslims’ and trampling on ‘civil liberties’ because most of the high profile arrests were those of Muslim gangsters like Haaji Mastaan. According to an apocryphal story of that time, when the police went to arrest a notorious racketeer in Gujarat’s Jamnagar his henchmen claimed their boss was praying and hence could not be disturbed. When the police insisted on entering the house, a huge crowd gathered to block their way, raising slogans similar to those heard in Jamia Nagar in Delhi after Atif and Sajid, two members of the murderous Indian Mujahideen, were killed in an encounter on September 19. Later it transpired that the wanted man was busy burning incriminating documents; what could not be destroyed, including wads of high denomination currency notes, was cleverly concealed under the burqas of the women in the house.Riding the crest of the ‘Muslims-under-attack’ protest, Haaji Mastaan floated the Muslim Majlis Party; that it sank without a trace soon after bears testimony to the fact that most Indian Muslims are as repelled by criminals who use the cloak of Islam to justify their crimes as the rest of India. If they falter, it is on account of cynical politicians and rabid mullahs, though not necessarily in that order, of the variety that has been travelling to Jamia Nagar and Azamgarh to genuflect at the altar of jihadi Islamism.To take note of the utterances of politicians like Mr Amar Singh and Ms Mamata Banerjee, who have been visiting Jamia Nagar and denigrating the supreme sacrifice of MC Sharma, a Delhi Police anti-terrorism expert, with the sole purpose of instigating a Muslim blowback which they hope will fetch them votes, would be tantamount to elevating them as those worthy of comment. But it would be a grave mistake to ignore the statements of the mullahs because embedded in them is the sinister strategy to radicalise India’s Muslims and thus make them a part of the global surge in Islamism; they also indicate a design to reiterate and reaffirm Muslim separatism anchored in bogus grievances and imagined victimhood.Last Monday, the Ulema Council organised an Ajimoshaan Ehtazazi Ijlaas-e-Aam, a conclave that was attended by 100 Muslim clerics from across the country, where mullahs made two points through their fire-and-brimstone speeches, listened to with rapt attention by 15,000 people. First, Akbar Ahmed ‘Dumpy’, BSP MP from Azamgarh and a former Sanjay Gandhi crony who recently appeared in Parliament with his face covered with an Arabic kaffiyeh much like Osama bin Laden’s foot soldiers, Mr Iliyas Azmi, BSP MP from Shahbad, and Mr Abu Azmi, SP member of Rajya Sabha who openly preaches hate and worse, would not be allowed to enter Azamgarh unless they conveyed to the world the ‘outrage’ over the arrest and killing of Muslims from the district, never mind the fact that they went about setting off bombs in bazaars and hospitals. Second, they “resolved to teach a lesson” to those who had renamed Azamgarh as ‘Atankgarh’: The credit for this goes to the atankwadis or terrorists who seem to flourish in the gullies and mohallahs of Azamgarh but as always, pretending victimhood, the mullahs have sought to place the blame on the victims of the Indian Mujahideen. All this was of a piece with what Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, had said while commiserating with the jihadis of Azamgarh: “We have lost faith in the administration and the police of the country and are feeling insecure.” What was not mentioned but disingenuously implied is that having lost their faith in the Indian state, India’s Muslims must now look elsewhere.But it was Taslim Rehmani, the chief mullah of Muslim Political Council, Delhi, who made the most startling declaration at last Monday’s Ajimoshaan Ehtazazi Ijlaas-e-Aam: He described Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as a “terrorist”. Later, when contacted by this newspaper, he lashed out at Sardar Patel for “forcibly annexing Hyderabad” and reiterated his assertion: “Sardar Patel was responsible for all the riots after Partition, for lakhs of Muslims who were killed in the riots. He deliberately allowed them to be killed. He was a terrorist.”There are those who would scoff at Rehmani as an inconsequential mullah and urge others to ignore his rant. This is the usual response to every offensive statement, each hateful allegation, and all despicable calumny that we get to hear from the spokesmen of the community, berating Hindus, shaming the Indian state, belittling the nation, and denigrating national icons. To listen to the counsel of those who are not perturbed because they do not wish to see their vote-bank go the way of Lehman Brothers would be to toe the line of least resistance. As a nation we must stand up and counter such insidious propaganda that nourishes jihadi Islamism and confront the preachers of hate and peddlers of fiction as fact who masquerade as ‘learned men’, or ulema. To prevaricate would be to delay the inevitable clash between those who are with India and those who are against the idea of India. The cost then would be enormous.

AGENDA Sunday Pioneer, October 26, 2008

Bogus Booker Award!

Adiga's ‘truth’ about India would shock Indians
Kanchan Gupta
The morning after Aravind Adiga won this year's 50,000-pound Man Booker prize with his novel The White Tiger, British newspapers — as also some published in India — were ecstatic. The Daily Telegraph described Adiga's debut novel as the "savage and brilliant tale of Balram, the son of a rickshaw-puller trying to escape poverty." The author's tale is in the form of letters from Balram to China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, written on the eve of his visit to India.The judges who selected The White Tiger for this year's top honour described it as a "complete novel". Two obvious choices, Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies and Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence, were markedly overlooked. Ghosh made it to the short list; Rushdie was not so lucky."In the opinion of these five people (the judges) taken together, Salman Rushdie's was not one of the top six books for us. We didn't have a huge debate about it," Michael Portillo, chair of the judges, told mediapersons. "I can say that the discussions we had about Salman Rushdie, as with all the other books, was a discussion about the book and not about the author," he added.We don't know what either Portillo or his fellow judges had to say about Ghosh and his Sea of Poppies. We do know, however, that Rushdie, apart from presenting Fatehpur Sikri as a steaming, scheming seraglio also portrays an Akbar who is neither great nor tolerant but as human (or inhuman) as the Muslim rulers who preceded or followed him. Britain's lib-left intelligentsia would not be comfortable with such an idea of Akbar the Great.We also know that Ghosh has been scathing in exposing the 'free trade' promoted by John Company between India and China as no more than illegal drug-running. The profits of the opium thus traded kept the Empire in the black. That lives were ruined here and in China were of no consequence and remain none of Britain's concerns. In this age of neo-colonialism sustained by the West's concept of 'free trade', Sea of Poppies is an anachronism and a subversive text.The publishers of The White Tiger are ecstatic; they hope to sell 100,000 copies of the book in India alone. That may well be possible but studies have shown that people who buy books that have won prizes never get down to reading them cover to cover; it is unlikely Adiga's novel will meet a better fate.So they will never get to know of its contents, which in any case have been smothered by hyperbolic praise that really means nothing. Few will discern the sneering tone, the deliberate though sly denigration of all that is India today and which, Adiga's fans claim, has been captured in The White Tiger. Just how shallow this claim is proved by excerpts from those portions of the book that have been splashed in British newspapers.Here's a sample of the ‘truth about India laid bare' by Adiga. "It is an ancient and venerated custom of people in my country to start a story by praying to a Higher Power… I too should start off by kissing some god's arse." And then Balaram asks, "Which god's arse, though? There are so many choices. See, the Muslims have one god. The Christians have three gods. And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods. Making a grand total of 36,000,004 divine arses for me to choose from."And while he does the choosing and kissing, he asks the Chinese premier for time. "Bear with me, Mr Jiabao. This could take a while. How quickly do you think you could kiss 36,000,004 arses?"We are not told what Wen Jiabao had to say to this.

FRONT PAGE Sunday Pioneer, October 26, 2008

Friday, October 24, 2008

Effete Congress tells Colombo to go easy on terrorists

May Lanka succeed in destroying LTTE

Coffee Break/ Kanchan Gupta

As India flounders in its pretentious war on terror and an effete Prime Minister touts the emasculating nuclear deal he has negotiated with the Americans as evidence of his derelict Government’s robust health, a resolute Sri Lanka led by a determined President is on the verge of smashing the last stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam which has terrorised that country for the last 25 years. Reports emanating from the battlefront in the north say that the Sri Lankan Army is within striking distance of Kilinochchi. According to Col R Hariharan, who was the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force during our ill-advised and disastrous entanglement with Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990, “Six divisions of the Sri Lankan Army have gheraoed Kilinochchi. The situation is critical for both sides.” For the beleaguered LTTE chief Prabhakaran this is possibly the last big battle of his life; for a decisive President Mahinda Rajapakse, Kilinochchi is the last barrier to re-establishing Colombo’s authority on Tamil-majority northern Sri Lanka.

Even while you are reading this, the LTTE’s ‘administrative headquarters’ may have fallen and the Sri Lankan Army could well be on its way to Paranthan and Elephant Pass, the strategic land bridge that allows access to Jaffna. Once the battle is over, so shall be the bloody saga of the LTTE which, in the guise of fighting for Tamil minority rights in Sinhalese majority Sri Lanka, has inflicted death and misery on both communities. Jihadis looking for a shortcut to zannat and its nubile houris did not make suicide-bombing fashionable among terrorists; that credit goes to an LTTE ‘Black Tiger’ who blew himself up along with 40 Sri Lankan soldiers on July 5, 1987. Since then, ‘belt-bomb assassins’ have been the LTTE’s main weapon of assault, often resulting in ghastly outrages against civilians. Recall the terrible night of May 21, 1991, when Dhanu, a LTTE suicide bomber, pulled the trigger of her belt-bomb while bending to touch Rajiv Gandhi’s feet at a public meeting in Sriperumbudur.

Whatever be New Delhi’s public posture — preferably studied silence — it should at this moment be hoping, if not praying, for Colombo’s victory. The LTTE is listed as a terrorist organisation in India and Prabhakaran is wanted for ordering Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Since the pusillanimous Government we have at the moment can neither annihilate the LTTE (in fact, it is incapable of busting terrorist sleeper cells on India’s territory) nor bring Prabhakaran to trial, it should rejoice at the sight of the Sri Lankan Government moving close to its goal of making the ‘Tamil Tigers’ an extinct species. Yet, this is not the case. Faced with the prospect of the DMK deserting the Congress-led UPA to show that its sympathies lie with Sri Lanka’s Tamils, who are undoubtedly caught between a rock and a hard place in Colombo’s all-out war against LTTE, it has decided to play the same tattered card that has in the past fetched us nothing but grief.

On the Prime Minister’s instructions, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon summoned Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India CR Jayasinghe and conveyed to him New Delhi’s concern over the “humanitarian situation” in the island nation’s northern region. Lest it be construed as blatant interference in a sovereign nation’s internal affairs, Mr Menon also mentioned New Delhi’s displeasure over the harassment of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy. No mention, however, was made of these so-called ‘Indian fishermen’ ferrying fuel and supplies to what Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK boss M Karunanidhi has described as “our brethren”. Mr Menon is believed to have told Mr Jayasinghe that India is “gravely worried over the situation arising out of the conflict” and that “Sri Lanka should ensure the rights of its civilians are respected and they are protected from attacks”.

The airing of the Government’s ‘displeasure’ has not been limited to diplomatic channels. Mr Manmohan Singh and his Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee have also expressed “concern over the situation”, particularly the “humanitarian effect” of the conflict. Mr Singh, sanctimonious as ever, has deemed it fit to express his anguish and demand that Sri Lanka should seek a “negotiated settlement” rather than a “military victory”. Mr Mukherjee, so as not to be seen as lagging behind his Prime Minister, has said India will do everything “in its power” to ensure a political settlement to Sri Lanka’s “ethnic problem”. For good measure, he has added, “It is essential that their (citizen’s) rights be respected, that they be immune from attacks and that food and other essential supplies be allowed to reach them.” On October 6, National Security Adviser MK Narayanan had summoned Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner GGAD Palithaga-negoda and “stressed that Colombo should act with greater restraint and address the growing insecurity in the wake of killing of unarmed people there”.

Such noble thoughts can occur only to those who refuse to learn from history and cannot distinguish between what is good for India and what isn’t. Mr Mukherjee’s comment revives memories of Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to airdrop ‘relief supplies’ on LTTE-controlled Jaffna in June 1987 and thus help Prabhakaran stave off imminent defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan Army which had laid siege to the peninsula. That was not a humanitarian gesture but an outright military intervention which was to pave the way for Rajiv Gandhi’s subsequent folly by way of the India-Sri Lanka Accord and the despatch of Indian soldiers to that country’s killing fields where many of them died horrendous deaths. That particularly dark chapter of the Congress’s proclivity for misadventure has never been fully made public; the bits and pieces that are known are sufficiently revealing of how horribly wrong Rajiv Gandhi and his advisers were in framing India’s response. We appear to be on the verge of repeating that ghastly mistake.

It is unlikely that Colombo will be bothered about New Delhi’s treacly concern “over the situation” or be impressed by Mr Singh’s demand for a “negotiated settlement”. What is more than likely is that those who view India’s claim on Jammu & Kashmir as that of an ‘occupying force’ will quote Mr Singh to express their concern over the situation in the Kashmir Valley and demand a ‘negotiated settlement’. And if one of them decides to airdrop ‘relief supplies’ to ease the plight of Kashmiri separatists and terrorists we will be expected to treat it as a ‘humanitarian gesture’. It may not be entirely incorrect to suggest that those who have short-changed the country on the nuclear deal are now preparing the ground for such intervention.

AGENDA | Sunday Pioneer, October 19, 2008

Security Council is not for criminal states

Absurd to consider Iran for UNSC seat

Coffee Break/ Kanchan Gupta

Since news from the United Nations rarely finds space in our newspapers or mention on television news, not many people are aware of the fact that on October 17 the General Assembly is scheduled to select five countries as non-permanent members of the Security Council for a two-year term beginning 2009. Among the competitors for the Asian seat are Iran and Japan. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Japan is the natural choice, but P5 politics, which determines the course of events in the General Assembly and the Security Council, is driven by factors that have little to do with logic or reason, leave alone global concerns. Hence, it is not surprising that China, which is reluctant to see Japan sharing space at the Horse Shoe Table, is believed to be slyly campaigning for Iran's membership. Beijing's economic and energy interests take precedence over those of the region, hence it is not bothered about Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons nor is it concerned about the implications of such lethal acquisition.

Russia, after effectively blocking any further action against Iran despite new damning evidence, this time collated by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which shows Tehran is close to stockpiling sufficient weapons-grade uranium to make a nuclear bomb, is lobbying for Iranian representation in the Security Council. Moscow is clearly motivated by the urge to poke Washington in the eye and the strategic imperative to regain space in what the Americans now refer to as the 'extended Middle East'. As the contours of a looming 21st century Cold War take shape, a resurgent Russia sees President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran as a substitute for Gamel Abdal Nasser's Egypt. The Kremlin's claim that it has put off the planned supply of state-of-the-art military hardware to Tehran need not be taken seriously.

If, and it is admittedly a very big if, Iran does make it to the Security Council as a non-permanent member, it would be a mockery of all that the UN professes it stands for. Iran has not only violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory, it has also held up the IAEA to ridicule, refusing to abide by any of its rules. The Security Council has passed three resolutions imposing trade sanctions on Iran to bring it to heel; thanks to Russia and China, the efforts have gone to waste. That the sanctions have had no deterrent effect can be gauged from the contents of the latest IAEA report, which says, "As of 30 August 2008, 5930 kg of uranium hexafluoride had been fed into the operating cascades since 12 December 2007... This brings the total amount of uranium hexafluoride fed into the cascades since the beginning of operations in February 2007 to 7600 kg. Based on Iran's daily operating records, as of 30 August 2008, Iran had produced approximately 480 kg of low enriched uranium hexafluoride."

Strategic affairs experts say this means "under optimal conditions, Iran could use between 700 and 800 kg of low enriched uranium to produce 20-25 kg of weapons grade uranium, enough for a crude fission weapon". Gary Milhollin of Iran Watch, writing in the New York Times, has predicted that Iran will have the low-enriched uranium necessary to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb by mid-January 2009. There is further evidence to suggest Iran is not too far from putting together a weapon of mass destruction -- recently it tested long-range missiles and tried to retrofit them to carry nuclear warheads. If you are still unconvinced, you only have to read the text of Mr Ahmadinejad's rabid, rabble-rousing speech at the General Assembly on September 26 in which he has reiterated Iran's determination to forge ahead with its uranium enrichment programme.

But Iran's violation of the NPT, its taunting refusal to abide by the IAEA's rules although it is legally bound to do so, and its seemingly inexorable march towards manufacturing the second 'Islamic Bomb' -- credit for the first goes to international smuggler (and later peddler) of nuclear know-how AQ Khan of Pakistan -- are not the only reasons why it is undeserving of being allowed entry into the Security Council. Mr Ahmadinejad's opening lines while addressing the General Assembly -- "Oh God, hasten the arrival of Imam Al-Mahdi and grant him good health and victory and make us his followers and those who attest to his rightfulness" -- were the least offensive of what he said that day. Deliberately ignoring the UN Charter, he misused the platform to indulge in rank anti-Semitism and heap abuse on Jews and Zionists, making a spectacle of his deep-seated hatred of the Jewish people. "The Zionist regime is on a slope to decline," he thundered, adding its disappearance is inevitable. It was of a piece with his repeated threats to "wipe Israel off the map" and his appalling denial of the Holocaust; worse, in a replay of crude Nazi propaganda to generate hatred towards Jews, he claimed that "a small but deceitful number of people called Zionists" dominate financial and political centres in Europe and the United States in "a deceitful, complex and furtive manner".

Sadly, the gathered assembly of world leaders listened to a fanatic's rant without so much as a whimper of protest; if Mr Ahmadinejad's appearance in the UN was a shame, the silence that followed his hate-filled speech was shameful. It required Israel's President Shimon Peres, incandescent with rage, to point out, "He is a disgrace to the ancient Iranian people. He is a disgrace to the values of Islam. He is a disgrace to this very house, the United Nations, its basic principles and values."

There's a third reason why Iran, so long as it is led by a fanatic anti-Semite in pursuit of illicit nuclear weapons, must be denied a place in the Security Council. Mr Ahmadinejad is directly responsible for promoting, funding and aiding Islamist terrorism. He has converted Hizbullah into a fearsome Islamist militia and divided Lebanon. He has made Hamas into what it is today, dividing the Palestinian territory and thus making a two-state solution that much more difficult to achieve. He is now trying to scuttle the Iraq defence plan since it does not envisage absolute power for the Shia militias he has nourished with the sole purpose of becoming the arbiter of that country's fate. He is a threat to not only those whom he derisively describes as 'Zionists' but also to all of 'extended Middle East' -- unless halted, he can unleash a fierce and bloody battle for supremacy in Sunni-majority West Asia and North Africa. The doors of the Security Council should remain firmly shut to Iran till such time it disowns Mr Ahmadinejad and discards forever his nuclear weapons programme.

AGENDA | Sunday Pioneer, October 12, 2008

Mamata Banerjee stamps out West Bengal's faint light of hope

Happy Durga Puja, Mamata Banerjee

Coffee Break/ Kanchan Gupta

It wasn't a lachrymose but a disappointed Ratan Tata who on Friday announced the "unfortunate and painful" decision of Tata Motors to pull out of West Bengal and shift its Nano project from Singur to a State not blessed by the presence of Ms Mamata Banerjee and plagued by her antediluvian politics. Nor was Mr Tata being needlessly melodramatic when, recalling his earlier declaration that he was determined to stay put in Singur and would not move out even if a gun were to be pointed at his head, he said, "I think Ms Banerjee pulled the trigger." Questions have been raised in the past as to whether the often-violent agitation led by Ms Banerjee, which has forced the Tata Group to abandon its Rs 1,500 crore project and dampened investor confidence in West Bengal, was entirely sustained by her grit and the brawn of Trinamool Congress supporters. By reiterating that a business rival may have funded the anti-Nano agitation, Mr Tata has revived those questions. Ms Banerjee will no doubt wave the slur away as no more than a canard to discredit her, but that won't silence her critics, of whom there are many -- the majority does not necessarily support the CPI(M).

Ms Banerjee's reaction to Tata Motors' formal decision to shift the Nano project, which was to have been the showpiece of 'New Bengal' meant to enthuse potential investors, out of Singur has been predictable. "It hardly matters to us. It is a joint gameplan of the CPI(M) and the Tatas to leave ... The allegation that our agitation was violent is bogus," she told her faithful. Only they would believe such bunkum -- there cannot be a "joint gameplan" because neither the CPI(M) nor the Tata Group stands to gain from Friday's decision; as for the agitation not being violent, it's her claim versus hard evidence to the contrary. But Ms Banerjee is being truthful when she says "it hardly matters to us". She and her party, as well as the rag-tag coalition of Naxalites past their revolutionary prime and Ford Foundation-funded subversives with whose help she has succeeded in 'pulling the trigger' not only on Mr Tata but also West Bengal's future, loathe the very idea of industrialisation and its concomitant prosperity for the masses. If the poor would cease to be poor, compulsive and professional agitators would find themselves twiddling their thumbs far away from the glare of television cameras. That's not a very happy prospect for either Ms Banerjee or those who mimic Arundhati Roy.

It could be argued that perhaps Mr Tata has been too hasty, that he should have been more pragmatic and cut a deal with Ms Banerjee. After all business, like politics, is about being sensitive to local realities and making compromises. Kalimati would not have become Jamshedpur had Sir Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata been impatient and impractical. His correspondence with his sons, Sir Dorab Tata and Sir Ratan Tata, bears testimony to his insistence that enterprise cannot be devoid of the human factor. In the closing decades of the 19th century, Sir Jamsetji believed that India's poverty was not on account of its lack of abilities but due to the lack of opportunities, and he set himself to the task of creating those opportunities. More than a century later, Mr Ratan Tata can claim that he too believes -- or should it be believed? -- West Bengal's poverty is not on account of the Bengalis' lack of abilities but due to the lack of opportunities, and that he tried to create those opportunities through the now-abandoned Nano project. No, it's not about altruism alone -- Sir Jamsetji never lost sight of profits; there is no reason why his descendant should be indifferent to the profit motive. Unlike many other entrepreneurs who couldn't give a damn about shareholders, Mr Tata has repeatedly asserted that he has to be mindful of their interests.

And it is this insistence on not short-changing those whose money is at stake -- shareholders, financial institutions and the Tata Group -- that forced him to take the "painful decision" to opt out of Singur. Persisting with the project would have meant dealing with agitators and those who revel in fomenting discontent; a settlement with the few farmers who have held out was no guarantee of peace in the future. Like Banquo's ghost, Ms Banerjee's shadow would have loomed large on Singur for a long time to come. More importantly, despite the efforts of a goody-two-shoes Governor to broker a settlement and a recalcitrant CPI(M) willing to climb down from its high papier-m?ch? horse, a deal really was impossible to achieve, made doubly impossible by Ms Banerjee's insistence that either she should have her way or Tata Motors should pack up and leave. The last of the farmers holding out against the West Bengal Government's compensation package had agreed to a land-for-land deal along with enhanced monetary compensation. Ms Banerjee would have nothing of it: She insisted that they must be returned their land. That, Mr Tata said, was not possible because it would scupper the project, being set up on 600 acres of land, which was dependent on dedicated vendor units located in its close proximity on the remaining 397 acres of land. That's how Nano remains cheap. Ms Banerjee was not interested in a solution; she wanted to celebrate the departure of Tata Motors as her victory over big capital, just as CPI(M) leaders had celebrated every time an industrial unit was shut down and workers rendered jobless in the 1960s and 1970s -- by the 1980s, there were no more factories left to shut down and West Bengal's economy had shrunk to Burrabazar. So, the Nano project had to go.

Thereby hangs the tragic tale of West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's ambitious plan to rejuvenate industry and attract investors. Despite his emotive slogan of 'Do It Now' and valiant efforts to refashion West Bengal's moribund economy by forcing a shift from agriculture to industry, Mr Bhattacharjee is now left looking as pathetic and pitiful as his favourite poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. His predecessor and veteran Marxist Jyoti Basu, I am sure, is smirking. The man who is responsible for turning West Bengal into a sprawling industrial wasteland was aghast at the thought of industry returning to the disinherited State. With Tata Motors pulling out and potential investors signalling their intention to look elsewhere, he can now rest easy -- his legacy shall remain untouched, undented. Neither Mr Basu nor Ms Banerjee could have hoped for a happier Durga Puja as the faint flicker of hope is extinguished in homes across West Bengal.

AGENDA | Sunday Pioneer, October 5, 2008

Chinese junk: It's cheap, it's lethal

Made in China? Just steer clear
Coffee Break / Kanchan Gupta
Great and mighty China, whose economic clout and runaway growth are the cause of much envy, if not fear, around the world, has been found to be feeding its newborn babies contaminated milk and dairy produce. No, this is not about accidental contamination on account of machine malfunction or human error, which could happen in any country, including those who flaunt foolproof quality checks and absolute health standards in the developed West. Nor is it about a dozen babies falling ill with a tummy ache. It's about tens of thousands of infants -- more than 50,000 according to Chinese Health Ministry officials who are known for being extremely economical with the truth -- suffering from renal failure and acute distress after consuming 'baby food', or 'infant formula', manufactured by the dairy firm, Sanlu Group Co, China's biggest producer of powdered milk. As it now transpires, the company used milk spiked with melamine, an industrial chemcal used for manufacturing plastics and fertilisers, for its dairy products, including baby food. Apparently, melamine was used to "make the milk seem higher in protein".The first case of melamine poisoning was reported as early as March and tests confirmed the contamination in early-August, but neither the company nor the health department bothered to alert the people or notify importers of Chinese dairy products. Beijing was busy suppressing the revolt in Tibet and organising the Olympics; it stands to reason that the scandal should have been brushed under the carpet in an effort to prove that everything about China is as impressive as the spectacular Games it hosted. In the event, China is now left battling a spectacular scandal whose victims are Chinese citizens. As for the health impact of tainted Chinese dairy products in countries which imported them, including India, we will get to know of it in the coming days. It is possible that doctors have failed to connect kidney problems among infants in these countries with melamine-spiked Chinese milk. In fact, Sanlu Group Co would not have gone public with the frightening facts had its New Zealand stakeholder not blown the whistle and the Government of New Zealand not taken up the issue with the Chinese Government. Unlike China, every country doesn't value pelf over ethics.Forced to admit that children had been fed a deadly industrial chemical on account of official indifference -- and perhaps corruption -- an official came up with a bland statement: "The serious safety accident of the Sanlu formula milk powder for infants has caused severe harm to many sickened babies and their families. We feel really sad about this." Sad? For an unpardonable crime, is that all that can be said by those who allowed criminals to go unchecked? We are not talking of a few babies, but more than 50,000 infants; officially, only two deaths have been confirmed, but only the na?ve (apart from our Communists) will believe Chinese statistics -- they are as spurious as the baby food sold in and exported from China.According to an AP report, quoting the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, the Chinese "police have arrested two brothers, surnamed Geng, who ran a milk collection centre in Hebei province and are accused of adding melamine... They sold about three tonnes of contaminated milk a day". But this is not the first time that Chinese products have been found to be health hazards. Last year there was a huge scandal about the quality of the dye used for making children's toys (it was found to contain high levels of lead) sold under the famous brand name of Mattel. On that occasion China had claimed it was a conspiracy to defame its industry and give the country a bad name. Beijing used both financial and diplomatic clout to put a lid on the scandal. That did not help elevate the quality of 'Made in China' products. Complaints surfaced about Chinese toothpaste, tires and medicine -- the products were found to be either shoddy or contaminated, if not both. While China would rather forget it, this is not the first time that milk-based baby food has been found to be severely and wilfully contaminated. A similar scandal with ghastly consequences was reported in 2004.Revelations have invariably come from unofficial sources. For instance, Chinese activist Zhou Qing, author of the book What Kind of God, has spun what Newsweek has described as "one hair-raising tale after another. There's seafood laced with additives that lower men's sperm counts, soy sauce bulked up with arsenic-tainted human hair swept up from the barbershop floor, and hormone-infused fast food that prompts six-year-old boys to sprout facial hair and seven-year-old girls to grow breasts". According to Newsweek, "While the export scandals are new, Chinese consumers have had it so bad for so long that their casualty count is staggering. Bogus antibiotics produced in Anhui were blamed for six deaths and 80 people falling ill in 2006. In 2004, unsafe infant formula killed at least 50 babies and left another 200 severely malnourished. Virtually every product category is affected, from candy that has choked children to killer fireworks to toxic face cream. At least 300 million Chinese citizens -- roughly the same number as the entire US population -- suffer from food-borne diseases annually, according to a recent report by the Asian Development Bank and World Health Organisation."China would love to dismiss this as American propaganda, but the facts outweigh Beijing's defence of the indefensible. If there is any satisfaction to be drawn -- cold comfort, really -- it is in China's refusal to distinguish between domestic and foreign consumers of its products: It equally cheats both. It can be argued that for the price we pay for Chinese products, which are invariably less expensive than domestic produce, we cannot expect, much less demand, quality goods. There is a lesson in this for all those who admire China's ability to churn out anything and everything at a fraction of the price of goods manufactured elsewhere. Cheap labour and mass production are not the only reasons why China can hold the price line and run competitors out of the market. As the tainted milk scandal shows, it takes more than cheap labour and mass production to keep prices low. The next time you spice up your chowmein with 'Made in China' soya sauce, please remember you could be consuming liquefied human hair with a dash of synthetic essence of soya. And do spare a thought about your child before buying a 'Made in China' toy.

AGENDA Sunday Pioneer, September 28, 2008

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Arab headgear as symbol of Islamism

Kaffiyeh and the kafir

Kanchan Gupta

Friends, you must have seen these images (published in newspapers) which show three Muslim boys arrested in Delhi as 'terrorists' wearing the Arab headgear usually called Arab rumal..." This is an excerpt from an e-mail circulated earlier this week by Muslims outraged by visuals of three of their co-religionists, arrested after the September 19 raid on Jamia Nagar and suspected of being members of the terrorist organisation, Indian Mujahideen, being produced in court by Delhi Police. The outrage is over the claimed 'stereotyping' of Muslims as well as identifying what has been referred to in the e-mail as the 'Arab scarf' or 'Arab rumal' with Islamic fanaticism and jihadi terrorism.The 'Arab scarf' or 'Arab rumal' is the kaffiyeh which has three variants. The white kaffiyeh, with tassels that designate the social status of an individual, is worn by sheikhs with claims to nobility and is part of the dress code that sets the Arab palace apart from the Arab street. Colonel TE Lawrence, better known as 'Lawrence of Arabia', wore one, keeping in mind his exalted status. Rudolph Valentino made a fashion statement of sorts by wearing the white kaffiyeh in the 1921 silent film, The Sheik as part of his costume. Both Lawrence and Valentino contributed to the stereotyping of the Arab sheikh who would otherwise not be seen wearing a kaffiyeh in Monaco, Cote de Azure or the sleazy nightclubs of Phuket. But this version of the kaffiyeh need not distract us.What is of interest are the black-and-white and red-and-white chequered variants of the kaffiyeh. The first gained global prominence when Palestinian terrorists adopted it as a statement of their faith, initially in Palestinian nationalism and later in radical Islamism. Contrary to popular belief, it was not Yasser Arafat who made the once humble peasant and Bedouin headgear, meant to keep the scorching desert sun out, into a badge of Palestinian identity. That honour must go to Leila Khaled, a leading light of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was among the hijackers of TWA Flight 840. The flight from Rome to Athens was diverted to Damascus where it was blown up in a spectacular display of Palestinian fury. That was in August 1969. Leila Khaled tried to hijack an El Al flight from Amsterdam to New York on September 6, 1970, but was overpowered and captured by Israeli skymarshals.Between the hijacking of the TWA flight and her failed attempt to hijack an El Al flight, Leila Khaled became an icon of the Palestinian movement which by then had begun to embrace terrorism to further its agenda. The celebrated black-and-white photograph of Leila Khaled the Palestinian terrorist, which became the leitmotif of PFLP posters and Arab propaganda, reproduced here, shows her wearing a black-and-white chequered kaffiyeh and holding an assault rifle, a 1960s version of the Kalashnikov. Her demure appearance is as deceptive as the Orkut profiles of the Indian Mujahideen cadre -- between the perception and the reality lurks the mind of a terrorist who can slaughter innocent people without batting an eyelid. Little or no purpose is served by pondering over appearances and educational qualifications -- Mohammed Atta was a brilliant student of architecture at Cairo University and was rated highly by his teachers at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg -- or sympathising with parents who are unable to accept the bitter truth about their children having grown up into pitiless monsters.But let us return to the black-and-white chequered kaffiyeh. Arafat, taking a cue from Leila Khaled, was quick to realise the potential of the kaffiyeh as a visible, photogenic statement of Palestinian aspirations. After the first intifada inspired by his belligerence and the second intifada fuelled by the deadly cocktail of anti-semitism and Islamic fanaticism that forms the core of the ideology of hate preached by Hamas, the black-and-white chequered kaffiyeh evolved into an abiding symbol of 'Palestinian Islamism'. There is nothing innocent or demure about those who flaunt it -- it is an aggressive, often terrifying, assertion of militant Islam; for good measure, the Al Aqsa mosque has been incorporated into the chequered design of the kaffiyeh as a declaration of the final objective of those who wear it. Arafat's stylish arrangement of the kaffiyeh so as to form a triangle symbolising the Palestinian state as perceieved by Fatah, now exists only in fading memories of the man who gave political legitimacy to Islamic terrorism.Which brings us to the third variant of the kaffiyeh -- the red-and-white chequered version which is referred to as an "Arab rumal" by Muslims in India. Like the burqa -- referred to as the "Arab purdah" -- it has been popularised by the Tablighi Jamaat and adopted by many of India's Muslims, especially the clergy, to announce their religious identity and their allegiance to Wahaabi Islam. In Saudi Arabia, minor clerics and the muttaween, the religious police or members of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, who patrol the streets to crudely enforce shari'ah, wear the read-and-white chequered kaffiyeh, as do commoners.But those in India who have adopted this variant of the kaffiyeh -- you will find many of them in Muslim ghettos like Jamia Nagar and the area around Jama Masjid, as also in places as far apart as Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh and Malappuram in Kerala -- are not inspired by the Arab street. They identify it with Islam and the Arab origin of their faith. For them the kaffiyeh is a bridge that transports them from the reality in which they exist -- as a minority community of believers among the kafirs of Hindu majority India -- to that which they aspire for: An Islamic state, a Nizam-e-Mustafa, where shari'ah shall rule supreme.The kaffiyeh in India is a physical manifestation of the ongoing silent transformation of the country's Muslims. We do not get to see the changes that are taking place in their personal lives, the fanaticism that is rapidly replacing faith, the social codes that are being introduced to bring India's Muslim society in conformity with that which is held up by mullahs and maulvis as 'desirable' and 'sanctioned' by Islam, the precedence given to the Muslim ummah over the secular Indian nation. We occasionally get to read about an Imrana and a Gudiya, but such stories do not reflect the churning that is taking place, the rapidly increasing number of educated Muslims who, instead of logically pursuing the good life ensured by good jobs assured by their professional qualifications, are eager to throw it all away to serve what they are told, and convinced, is the 'cause' of Islam. For evidence, look at the profiles of the young men who have been arrested so far for their role in the horrific bombings in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Delhi, and probably also the earlier terror attacks in Mumbai and Hyderabad.There are two possible responses to this reality. Like most Muslims, we can slip into denial mode and refuse to acknowledge the harsh truth. We can lash out at Delhi Police for draping the faces of suspected terrorists with red-and-white chequered kaffiyeh and denounce the 'stereotyping' of Muslims. There are those who will discover merit in the demand that there should be no police raids on Muslim ghettos without consulting the community and taking it into confidence. They would also subscribe to the view that a commission should be set up to prove that the terrorists who bomb India's cities are "not Muslims" -- in other words, an inquiry with a predetermined finding!Or we could confront the truth and work towards halting the spread of radical Islamism and preventing an entire community from lurching towards fanaticism and embracing the sordid symbols of Wahaabi intolerance, for example the kaffiyeh or the "Arab rumal", which has fetched nothing but grief wherever it has been allowed to flourish. This is a task that cannot be left to compromised individuals like the Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia who, to prove his credentials with the extremists, has offered to siphon public funds to defend those accused of terrorism. The state must step in with its full might, and uphold the secular principles of our republic where the kaffiyeh and all that it symbolises clashes violently with the idea of India.

The Pioneer [OPED] Friday, September 26, 2008

Israel's most popular woman leader

The return of the 'Iron Lady'
Coffee Break / Kanchan Gupta
The writer with Ms Tzipi Livni at her office in Tel Aviv
Vijayalakshmi Pandit, impressed by the no-nonsense manner in which Mrs Indira Gandhi dealt with her Ministers and made them toe her line, had famously declared of her niece, "She is the only man in her Cabinet." That one-liner caught the popular imagination but it was not a terribly original idea. Years ago David Ben-Gurion had described Golda Meir as "the best man in the Government". But neither was Mrs Margaret Thatcher the first 'Iron Lady' to head a Government. This honour, too, was bestowed on Golda Meir after she turned adversity into victory during the Yom Kippur War of which she, and not Moshe Dayan, was the real hero. A framed photograph in one of the lobbies of the Knesset shows Golda Meir furiously puffing on an unfiltered cigarette, bearing testimony to both descriptions.More than three decades after Golda Meyer exited office, another 'Iron Lady' is on the verge of becoming Israel's Prime Minister. And, given Ms Tzipi Livni's track record as Cabinet Minister, especially her handling of the Foreign Office and the peace negotiations with Fatah led by Abu Mazen, she could well emerge as the 'best man' in her Cabinet. Fiercely ambitious and with amazing energy levels - she is believed to put in 18 hours a day and yet manages to look fresh as a daisy - last Wednesday she defeated her rival, Mr Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of general staff who has served as Defence Minister, to win the fiercely contested leadership of Kadima, albeit by a narrow margin. Mr Mofaz, after declaring that he is a "democrat at heart", has decided to take time off from politics. Apparently, he is sulking that the party should have elected a woman; his critics say he is a "murky political operator" and Israelis are looking for a break with the politics of the past, which in many ways is no different from politics in India. Such is the mood for 'change' a Haaretz columnist has compared Ms Livni with Mr Barack Obama. It's doubtful whether she would be pleased by this comparison, not least because her politics is shorn of the woolly-headed notions that endear Mr Obama to America's liberal fringe. Ms Livni has worked hard to acquire her formidable image of an incorruptible politician, a level-headed centrist who places Israel's long-term security interests above everything else, and a 'power woman' who deals with misogynist Arabs as an equal. Even her political foes within and outside Kadima would grudgingly concede that she deserves to be rated "Israel's most powerful woman". This image has been bolstered by delightful stories of her stint in the Army (in which she was a lieutenant), her job as a 'terrorist-hunter' in Mossad (she was employed to live in a Paris safe house to give it a 'domestic look'), and her dietary preferences (she is said to be a 'strict vegetarian' among avid flesh-eaters).After Wednesday's vote, she is one step away from taking over as Prime Minister after Mr Ehud Omert, buffeted by corruption charges, puts in his papers. Provided, of course, she is able to put together a parliamentary majority. She needs the support of Shas, but having shown little inclination towards pandering to the religious right all these years this may prove to be tricky. Ms Livni, however, is confident of putting together enough numbers to get a job she has been seeking ever since the financial scandals involving Mr Olmert came to light. Her detractors, meanwhile, are busy pointing out that while the departure of Mr Mofaz will rob Kadima of a prominent Sephardi, Ms Livni, an Ashkenazi, may not be able to maintain the broad support base of the centrist party. India, it would seem, does not have the monopoly on identity politics.But whatever the impact on Israel's internal politics, Ms Livni's emergence as the next Prime Minister cannot but impact West Asian politics in a profound manner, that is if she decides to live up to her image. She is an enthusiastic supporter of 'disengagement' from Palestinian territories and over the past year has come to be seen as a credible deal-maker, more so by Fatah and Abu Mazen. She worked overtime to make Annapolis more than just another photo opportunity and has made steady progress on all three contentious issues: The status of East Jerusalem, the final boundary and the right of return that so agitates Palestinian 'refugees'.As Prime Minister, Ms Livni could succeed in convincing the Palestinians, at least those in the West Bank, that wisdom lies in cutting a deal while a deal is still possible. Of course, much will depend on the outcome of next January's election in the Palestinian territories and whether Fatah is able to either trounce Hamas or enter into a compact of sorts that will provide for a power-sharing arrangement with Gaza and West Bank as two distinct entities of a Palestinian state. After all, a moth-eaten Palestine would be better than no Palestine. For the moment, the fact that the hudna still holds and the Hamas is not itching to return to its violent ways is good news. Palestinian 'plight' exercises Muslims abroad more than it does either Hamas or Fatah; the compulsions and exigencies of competitive politics, coupled with the changing concerns of Arab regimes, have forced a certain sense of pragmatism. The 'Wall' has also helped.No less important is the peace dialogue between Israel and Syria, brokered by Turkey. With the US and EU weighing in, the talks could lead to a peace agreement and thus lessen Israel's security concerns to a great extent. Damascus, considerably weakened in recent times, would not be averse to the idea of treading the path already taken by Cairo and Amman. A decisive Israeli Prime Minister could play a pivotal role in ending hostilities with Syria and thus end a chapter of both countries' history of shared turbulence. However, it's on Iran that Ms Livni will have to take a tough call. When I met her in Tel Aviv, she had no doubt about Iran's intentions to acquire nuclear weapons and was scathing in her criticism of countries promoting a soft line. Her views would have further hardened with subsequent revelations, including last week's IAEA assessment that Iran has been trying to refashion its missiles to equip them with nuclear warheads. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repulsive anti-Semitism and hatemongering has not helped Iran's case -- not with Israel, not with Sunni Arab regimes that are alarmed by Shia Iran's rise. Mr Olmert dithered on Iran as he lacked political support at home, although he did order the raid to destroy Syria's putative nuclear facility. His successor may not be given to procrastination. If, and that's a big if, Ms Livni were to decide to take pre-emptive action, she would live up to her description as the 'Lioness of Judea'.

The Pioneer [AGENDA ] Sunday, September 21, 2008