China may have put a full stop to India’s aspirations to becoming a serious power by effectively blocking its bid to join the world’s exclusive nuclear club, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), but in the debris of self-examination that will now follow in Delhi, only one question remains to be seriously asked : Was it political hubris on the part of Narendra Modi’s government that prevented it from seriously evaluating the ground beneath China’s feet?

The morning after the extraordinary session on Thursday night of the NSG plenary in Seoul, Korea, China’s arms negotiator Wang Qun declared to the press, “We don’t back India or Pakistan until they follow the rules.”

Wang was, of course, dismissing India’s application to the NSG, on the grounds that it could not become a member without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

India believes the NPT is a discriminatory document which limits the definition of nuclear weapon states to only five powers – the US, China, Russia, France and Great Britain – which are also the only five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

A disappointed spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup, said, “We understand that despite procedural hurdles persistently raised by one country, a three-hour long discussion took place last night on the issue of future participation in the NSG. An overwhelming number of those who took the floor supported India’s membership and appraised India’s application positively.”

While Swarup’s reference to “one country” blocking India’s ambitions was to China, the Middle Kingdom’s negotiator had other things to say.

Delhi must wait, Wang was effectively pointing out. Any pretensions it may have had of joining hands with that other global power, the US, to gate-crash the NSG and try and change the world’s nuclear architecture would not be allowed to succeed.

Certainly, India’s most ambitious bid to become the world’s newest big power, has failed, if only for the time being. Fact is, the NSG plenary has confirmed the arrival of China as a pre-eminent power on the world stage. By standing up to the US, which was said to have exercised its diplomatic muscle in persuading other NSG members to approve of India’s application, the Chinese have put the rest of the world on notice.

This is a significant moment in global power relations. It also shows how the world has changed since 2008, when then US president George Bush called then Chinese president Hu Jintao and requested him not to stand in the way of the NSG waving the rules for India so it could participate in international nuclear commerce.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at the Tashkent International Airport in Uzbekistan on Thursday to attend the SCO Summit (PTI photo)

In 2008, Hu Jintao acceded to America’s request. In 2016, Xi Jinping turned down Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plea as well as ignored America’s diplomatic initiatives on India’s behalf.

Some will argue that China’s rejection of India’s application was done on behalf of its “all-weather friend and ally” Pakistan (when leaders from China and Pakistan meet, they begin their conversations with the mantra, “our friendship is higher than the mountains and deeper than the seas”), which had also applied to become a member of the NSG.

Both China and Pakistan realized that the rest of the world would certainly not accept Pakistan’s application, because of its inadequate non-proliferation record. So if Pakistan couldn’t get in, India shouldn’t be allowed to either, must have gone the thinking in Islamabad and Beijing.

In fact, Pakistan’s foreign policy advisor Sartaj Aziz – the same man who came to Delhi in the middle of the Kargil conflict in 1999, one day before he flew to China – has been publicly chortling to the international press these last few days that Islamabad and Beijing have succeeded in stopping India in its NSG tracks.

But the nay vote in Seoul means much more than China’s simple defence of its client state. It also signals a weakening of American pre-eminence.

Meanwhile, as the rest of the world began to see the shifting tides of global power, countries like Brazil, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland and even New Zealand decided that it was important to stand up, assert their own non-proliferation credentials – and signal to China that it was willing to kowtow to the arrival of a new power on the horizon.

Just look at the gallery of nations which stared India down. Brazil is a card-carrying member of BRICS – the conglomeration of aspiring powers,Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – while New Zealand is a stated ally of the US.

Perhaps the unkindest cut has come from Switzerland, which Modi visited only a few weeks ago, and whose President, Johann Schneider-Ammann, told the Prime Minister that Switzerland would support India’s bid at the NSG.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting in Tashkent on Thursday on the sidelines of SCO Summit (PTI photo)

So the question is, did Narendra Modi’s India indulge in some spectacular hubris by pitching for a seat on the NSG in the first place? Did the Prime Minister really think that by personally requesting Xi Jinping, on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Tashkent two days ago, Xi would simply smile and courteously say, “Pehle aap?”

Foreign policy, for those who came in late to the party, is a brutally cold and calculated exercise of power. Narendra Modi has certainly charmed the world with his extraordinary drive and ambition these last two years, but the fact is that there’s only so much his own magnificent oratory can do. The global NRI or Indian-origin hordes which support NaMo on Twitter cannot be expected to change policy in their chosen countries of adoption.

Let us say it, clearly. Narendra Modi believed that he would pull off an Indian membership at the NSG because he thought that he had the backing of the still-most powerful nation in the world, the US. The Prime Minister over-extended himself and India’s case. He simply didn’t realize the extent to which the Chinese had succeeded in shifting the ground beneath its feet.

So how and why did Modi end up make such an extraordinary strategic blunder? After all, his own Foreign Office, led by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and several other officials have the institutional memory of those nail-biting days days and weeks in 2008, when Delhi mounted an enormous campaign to get itself an exception at the NSG.

Truth is, Modi didn’t talk to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and discuss the political and foreign policy implications of such an important move. If foreign policy is above partisan domestic politics, then the Prime Minister should have reached out to his predecessor, who in fact had wagered his own government at the time to raise India’s nuclear profile – in China’s face.

Perhaps it is not kosher to slam Modi’s breathless foreign policy manouevre at the NSG. After all, there’s nothing like confronting your opponent – nay, enemy, as several decision-makers in Delhi currently describe China – and telling him that you now know exactly what he’s thinking.

Brajesh Mishra, National Security Advisor to Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998, had had the exact same argument when India went nuclear, when he invoked the “bitter hostility” from the neighbour in the north for India’s reasons to go nuclear.

It seems some things haven’t changed that much, 18 years later.

As Modi returns from Tashkent and Jaishankar from Seoul, a post-NSG examination will show that the world has changed. But it would be a mistake for Delhi to think that it can gang up with the US to take on Beijing. Or try and punish the Chinese by withdrawing from trade and economic arrangements and initiatives. The BRICS nations are meeting in Goa in October – that will give Modi the opportunity to play the perfect host and create a new strategy to allow India to rise from the ashes.

Perhaps Delhi should go back to conducting a much quieter foreign policy and focus on the other world-changing events at hand, including the UK’s exit from the European Union.

When Modi became Prime Minister two years ago, he gave fair warning that he believed in the Chinese metaphor, “May we all live in interesting times.”

Perhaps he should have paid equal heed to the other Chinese saying: Be careful what you wish for, it might just come true.


Teach your children well ! A CSNY song that remains my anthem after 32 years !

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.

And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.

Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,

And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick, the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

Modi has won Round 1 against Pak Army

Published on April 8, 2016, on

Nothing is what it ever seems in the India-Pakistan relationship, not even when new beginnings are made, like in the case of India accepting the presence of a Pakistani ISI officer as part of the Joint Investigating Team or JIT that visited Pathankot.

Even the fact that the Pakistani establishment (read, its all-powerful Army and intelligence agencies) is now trying to trash the JIT visit to Pathankot is not really new. After all, no one in Delhi seriously expected Rawalpindi (where the Pakistani army and ISI headquarters are located, a few kms away from the capital in Islamabad) to reciprocate the compliment by giving an Indian team access to Masood Azhar, the head of the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror group which Delhi believes masterminded the Pathankot attack.

The fact remains that Pakistani army chief Raheel Sharif continues to run Pakistan’s India policy (as well as other important relationships like Afghanistan, China and the US), notwithstanding Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s firm and unwavering belief that Pakistan has no option but to improve ties with its large neighbor, India.

So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi “dropped in” on Christmas at Raiwind, Nawaz Sharif’s home just outside Lahore, to wish him on his grand-daughter’s wedding, the alarm bells must have rung loud and strong in Rawalpindi. The incredible truth – which any casual visitor to Lahore will strongly vouch for – is that despite 70 years and several degrees of separation, the ordinary Pakistani citizen craves the return of normalcy with its “hamsaaya mulk” or “fellow nation”, meaning India.

The conspiracy theorist will point out that the Pathankot attacks may have been an attempt at sabotaging Nawaz Sharif and Modi’s fresh exertion of peace. While the seriously seditious analyst – and there are a few on both sides of the border – has come to the conclusion that the horrendous blasts in Lahore’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal park on Easter were aimed at not only destabilizing the Sharifs (Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz is the Chief Minister of Pakistan Punjab), but also so weakening the Pakistani PM that he becomes an ineffectual interlocutor with Modi’s India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in New Delhi in May 2014 (AP photo)

This is where a story in a Pakistani paper on Indian engineers visiting Ramzan Sugar Mills in Pakistan’s Jhang district becomes interesting. It is common knowledge that the sugar mills are owned by Nawaz Sharif’s family. The report goes on to add, “Sensitive departments will conduct an investigation into the visits by using the record of cellular phones of the Indian visitors who were hosted by the Ramzan Sugar Mills during the last eight years…”

By leaking a story of Indian engineers overhauling the Sharif family-owned sugar business, it is clear that the Pakistani establishment is aiming to paint the Prime Minister and his family as being easy on Indians. From there, it’s a short haul to pointing out, as the Pakistan Today newspaper did this week, that “the JIT report has concluded that the Indian authorities had “prior information about the attackers” and that India used the attack as a tool to expand its “vicious propaganda” against Pakistan “without having any solid evidence to back the claim”.

Predictably, Indian government sources were acerbic in their reaction, pointing out that the JIT had actually collected evidence in Pathankot in accordance with a Pakistani law which applies to Pakistani citizens committing offences abroad.

A five-member team from Pakistan visited the Pathankot air base that was attacked by terrorists in January this year (PTI photo)

Truth is, the tone and tenor of the Pakistan Today report isn’t new at all. In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, some Pakistani journalists had the gall to suggest that the attacks had been carried out by Indian intelligence agencies – although, fortunately, that charge didn’t go far, as other Pakistani journalists courageously exposed the fact that Ajmal Kasab was a Pakistani citizen and belonged to Faridkot village in Depalpur tehsil of Okara district in (Pakistani) Punjab.

So what is the Pakistan Today report trying to do today? Remember, the story has been leaked in the wake of the capture of alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav, who has been accused of trying to destabilize Balochistan. It is clear that Pakistan’s security agencies are trying to build a case of moral equivalence between the Mumbai attacks and between Kulbhushan Yadav’s alleged misdeeds on the one hand, and on the other trying to show that the Nawaz Sharif family continues to hire and break bread with Indian engineers.

This blatant attempt at undermining Pakistan’s elected Prime Minister has been underscored in two important ways. First, the Pakistan army’s amazing successes with its Zarb-e-Azb operations in the Waziristan region against the Taliban (despite the fact that thousands of civilians have been killed in collateral damage) has shown to the people that the Army has the capacity and willingness to go after terrorists. Second, the naming of the Nawaz Sharif family in the Panama Papers gives credence to the belief that the fabulously rich Sharifs don’t think twice before parking some of their wealth in offshore accounts.

Meanwhile, the omnipresent noise in the India-Pakistan relationship continues. Pakistan High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit was at first quoted as saying on Thursday that the bilateral peace process was suspended, except that it turned out later that he never meant what he said. As for Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal and the Congress’ Anand Sharma, attacking Modi on his Pakistan policy seems par for the course, especially since elections in Punjab are less than a year away.

The truth is that Modi has already won the first round in this particular chess game between The People Vs the Generals. By risking a complete about-turn in his own and the RSS belief that Pakistan is the “enemy”, which is to pursue an opening-up between the two nations, the Prime Minister must now take the long view. If he were to unilaterally open up trade and travel links over the next few months before he attends the SAARC summit in Islamabad in November, he will have succeeded in up-ending the Generals at their own game.

India-Pak cricket match is key to Modi’s Pakistan policy

Published on March 19, 2016, on

If India beats Pakistan tonight, March 19, at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, it would have avenged itself for the Pathankot attacks.

If Pakistan beats India tonight, it would have survived to fight another day – to tell the world that notwithstanding its decades-old affliction with terrorism et al, it is still in the game to becoming a normal country, and sports is one sure-shot way of getting there.

The hoarse cries and cheers of 66,349 people – that’s how many Eden Gardens can hold – and the scores of thousands of others on TV and radio and the internet will sublimate their purest emotions at the India-Pakistan T20 match. Jaw-jaw instead of war-war. Much better this way.

Dharamsala’s loss has been Kolkata’s gain, of course. But Dharamsala – a tiny Himalayan town, better known for the peace and love emitted by the Dalai Lama’s presence than its cricketing stadium built by BJP leader Anurag Thakur – should never have been given a T20 face-off between the two cricketing giants in the first place.

There’s much too much friction in the air when these two sub-continental nuclear powers meet. Dharamsala would never have been able to handle the stress.

Kolkata, on the other hand, is a past master at handling the whimsies of powerful men and women. It was at the heart of Empire for more than a century, until the Empire shifted to Delhi in 1911. More recently, it has learnt to deal with the caprices of Trinamool leader and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Parts of the city are still painted an Asian Paints cobalt blue, and if your car is waiting at a traffic light, you will hear Rabindra Sangeet emanating from microphones installed nearby.

Eden Gardens nearby is like a caged tiger, tonight, waiting to roar. The last time India played here against Pakistan on January 3, 2013, it lost by 85 runs, so the Indian team surely has a point to score. On the other hand, the last five encounters between the two countries tells you how evenly the nail-biting has been spread: soon after that Eden Gardens encounter, on January 6, 2013 at the Feroz Shah Kotla grounds in Delhi, India avenged its defeat by 10 runs. Then in June 2013, in Birmingham, India won again, by 8 wickets. At the Sher-i-Bangla stadium on March 2, 2014, Pakistan won by one wicket, while in February 2015, at the Adelaide Oval, India scored over Pakistan with 75 runs to spare.

Even the most languid of cricketing enthusiasts – like me – have to admit that there’s something about an India-Pakistan match. The neon glare from the stadium lights is a little bit more blue. The grass seems greener. For those of us who aren’t avid gamers, the silly points or the batting order or even whether Anushka Sharma is in the stands or not – is she? – is hardly worth a shrug. What is truly exciting is that despite the wars (two) and the limited conflicts (Kargil) and the several terrorist attacks (Mumbai, Pathankot), Indians recognize, somewhere, that the Pakistanis are perhaps as much victim as they are, and therefore, similarly besieged, in all the worldly matters – terrorism, unemployment, as well as the Brahminical order.

Certainly, Kolkata is special. If not for the sting against several Trinamool leaders conducted by Narada News, Mamata Banerjee would have surely taken full credit for hosting the game tonight, and happily used it as a sub-text of her leadership qualities in the coming elections – remember, West Bengal has a Muslim population of 25 per cent, of its 90 million people. Win or lose, Mamata Di will definitely take the kudos for pulling off a match between two countries who are ostensibly enemies but actually, quite happy to compare notes and become friends.

In reality, the cricket match is a test case for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Pakistan policy. Only someone like him could have weathered the political criticism that came from the Pathankot attacks and still carried on the dialogue with Pakistan. If he was in the Opposition and the ruling party had refused to call off talks – just like he’s done – Modi and the BJP would have surely made political mince-meat of the ruling party.

But since he’s in the driving seat, Modi is using his massive majority in the Lok Sabha to silence the critics. Actually, the Opposition agrees with the policy to carry on talks with Pakistan, so Modi is safe on that score. If there is any real criticism, it will come from the RSS, and for the moment, the RSS is quiet.

The Pathankot attacks have also taught Modi a brutal lesson in realpolitik: Trust and Verify, as Ronald Reagan so famously said of his Cold War enemies, the former Soviet Union. Modi is using the same policy with the Pakistanis. Which means that he will slowly allow a relaxation of people-to-people measures, such as sporting links, but he will crack down on terror-related matters.

If, indeed, Modi follows up his own policy, the T20 cricket series should be followed by bilateral cricket matches, which the Pakistanis offered to play in the UAE, acknowledging that their own country was far too unsafe for foreigners.

The next natural steps would be to relax the visa regimes, allowing tourists to travel, and to open up trade between the two countries. As the roads open, not only across Wagah and Attari in Punjab, but also across Munabao and Khokhrapar in Rajasthan as well as the Line of Control in Kashmir, Indians and Pakistanis will slowly get reacquainted with each other.

Remember it is 70 years next year since the Partition of the sub-continent killed nearly a million people and uprooted another 10 million. Most people of that generation have passed, but many have also left behind their memories, both friendly and prejudicial. If India and Pakistan have to learn to put the past behind us, now is the time.

Remember, too, that this is the 30th anniversary of SAARC, an anachronism that is a mouthful – the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation – and the gathering of South Asian leaders will take place in Islamabad in November. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must represent India; it is a SAARC rule that if one leader can’t make it, the summit is postponed.

Modi has a few months left to walk the fractious India-Pakistan relationship back to a path of boring normalcy. Hosting a T20 cricket match is the perfect opportunity to break the ice that has been freezing over since the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Since then, each time both sides come together to gingerly reach out a hand – Modi’s Lahore visit was followed by the Pathankot attack, for example – someone doesn’t like it.

Only someone like Modi, who has the confidence of the RSS, can pull off peace with Pakistan – even if it’s a cold peace, to start with.  That’s why it doesn’t really matter who wins at Eden Gardens tonight – especially if the frenzy over cricket paves the way for other, equally interesting people-to-people initiatives. Prime Ministers Modi and Nawaz Sharif both know that as they get ready to meet at the nuclear security summit hosted by US President Barack Obama in New York later this month.

Why Yechury fought his own party to tie up with Congress in Bengal

Published on April 9, 2016, in Scroll

Why Sitaram Yechury fought his own party to tie up with the Congress in Bengal

In 2008, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) withdrew support to the United Progressive Alliance government after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to sign the nuclear deal with the US. At that time, the Bengal unit of the CPI(M) begged and pleaded with then general secretary Prakash Karat to ignore the rumpus and continue to expand the party’s sphere of influence inside India. Who cares about America, the Bengal comrades said, when we have to constantly deal with the slings and arrows of our domestic (mis)fortunes?

Last month, the Bengal comrades seemed to have finally been vindicated.

The highest decision-making bodies in the CPI(M) – the Politburo and the Central Committee – had decided that the party would have no truck with either the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (known as “twin evils” in inner circles) in the West Bengal assembly elections. But the Bengal faction of the CPI(M) threatened a revolt if Delhi did not pay heed to its demand to tie up with the Congress, arguing that it was the only way to have a fighting chance of defeating Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. Delhi eventually gave in to Bengal.

Twin factors

The big difference between 2008 and 2016 is that the CPI(M) is a much weaker party today. In 2008, it had 62 Members of Parliament and ran three state governments – in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. Today, the party has just nine MPs and controls the tiny state of Tripura in the North East.

Kerala was lost by a narrow margin to the Congress-led coalition in 2011. In West Bengal, the CPI(M) was thrashed in its own backyard after 34 years, winning only 62 seats out of 294.

The other big difference since 2008 is that the CPI(M) has a new leader. Sitaram Yechury was unanimously elected to the all-powerful post of general secretary at the party’s conclave in Visakhapatnam last year. But there were a few heart-stopping moments as the Prakash Karat-Pinarayi Vijayan faction in the party withdrew their nominee, SR Pillai, from the contest.

A master theoretician and brilliant ideologue, Karat had run the party for ten years. Vijayan is said to be the most powerful Left leader in Kerala – but not the most popular, an accolade that must go to former Kerala chief minister Achuthanandan.

But both comrades had to bow to popular will in the Politburo and in the Central Committee, which leaned in favour of Yechury.

Survival tactics

And now, it was Yechury who was leaning in favour of the Bengal unit of the party (and against his own Politburo), which demanded a “tactical understanding” with the Congress against Mamata Banerjee.

While Yechury refused to be interviewed for this story, several Left leaders from Bengal explained that allying with the Congress, an erstwhile political enemy, had become a matter of survival.

“The Trinamool cadres have killed several of our comrades, especially those who were the link between the grassroots and the lower and middle rungs of the party,” said a Left leader from Bengal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “When the party’s top leadership cannot rely on its own grassroots, we know we are in serious trouble.”

The Left leader acknowledged that several CPI(M) comrades had switched loyalties to the Trinamool Congress when the Left Front lost power in Bengal after 34 years. This meant that the new Trinamool cadres were fully aware of the strategies they once employed to win elections in their earlier incarnation in the Left Front.

The math

On the face of it, the Left’s chief ministerial candidate Surya Kanta Mishra put the foolproof electoral math on the table, showing how its vote-share had diminished in recent years – from 48.4% in the 2006 assembly elections to 39.68% in 2011, to 29.95% in the 2014 general elections.

Even the Congress vote share declined, from 14.71% in 2006 to 9.79% in 2011 to 9.69% in 2014.

Contrast these numbers with the Trinamool Congress, whose vote share grew from 26.64% in 2006 to 38.93% in 2011 to 39.79% in 2014.

The numbers tell an interesting story. The Trinamool Congress’ vote share was actually lower than the Left Front in the 2011 assembly elections. Even so, Mamata Banerjee’s party won 165 seats more than the Left and formed the government courtesy the first past the post system.

Another promising statistic for the alliance is that if the vote share of the Left and the Congress in the 2014 assembly elections is combined, it falls short of the Trinamool by a mere 0.15%.

As the Bengal unit told Yechury and Bengal Congress leaders told Rahul Gandhi, an alliance between the two could give Mamata Banerjee a scare.

Common cause

The math on paper may not mean much on the ground, especially given that the Congress stronghold is concentrated in the Murshidabad-Malda belt and it may not be able to transfer its vote to other parts of Bengal. But as things stand, the Left and the Congress have taken the unprecedented decision to fight in 200 and 98 seats respectively in the 294-member assembly.

Despite misgivings at the top in both parties, both Yechury and Rahul Gandhi eventually conceded to the demands of their Bengal units. Yechury realised that the key to his success as general secretary would be expanding the party’s power and influence, not diminishing it.

Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, went with the argument that all good men and women must come together to defeat the BJP. The approach ties in with the party’s strategy in other states. The Congress had joined hands with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal to bounce back in Bihar late last year. In Tamil Nadu and Assam, and later Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the Congress will tie up with other non-BJP parties to create a rainbow coalition.

As for Kerala, both Yechury and Rahul Gandhi agreed that it would be a separate matter. Fighting each other in Kerala and supporting each other in West Bengal was both necessary and natural.

As a Left leader put it: “If the Left is being slowly vanquished across the political landscape, what is the use of spinning ideological arguments against the Congress? If there is no party left at the end of the day, what will we fight for?”

How the wheel turns, albeit slowly. Twenty years ago, the CPI(M) did not let then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu become prime minister because it would involve allying with “bourgeois” parties like the Congress.

Basu had later termed the decision a “historic blunder”. Several party comrades today admit that if Basu had become prime minister, the Left’s influence would have spread far and wide across the land.

Today, they add, the party simply cannot afford to make the same mistake.


The parameters of Modi’s Muslim outreach are finally becoming clear

Published on March 28, 2016, in Scroll.inThe parameters of Modi’s Muslim outreach are finally becoming clear

On March 17, less than a week before the horrific terrorist attacks in Brussels, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the World Sufi Forum in Delhi. There, he eloquently spoke of the “… 99 names of Allah, none [of which] stand for force and violence, and that the first two names denote compassionate and merciful. Allah is Rahman and Raheem.”

Modi added: “Those who spread terror in the name of religion are anti-religious.”

Much has been said about the All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board’s maiden attempt at holding an international conference, with a little help from the Modi government. Some Muslim scholars, notably Tauqeer Raza Khan of the Barelvi school, have wondered why Muslims would want to sup with a man “accused of killing 3,000 Muslims in Gujarat”, while Arshad Madani, who heads the allegedly pro-Congress faction of the Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind, asked if one “section of Muslims is being held close and others being ignored,” by the state.

Several critics have also pointed out the obvious discordance at the heart of Modi’s policy, which is that it is very well for the prime minister to spend time with a few hundred Sufi scholars over an evening, but what was he planning to do about allaying the fear and insecurity of Indian Muslims?

Despite the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri last year, and Minister of State for Human Resource Development Ram Shankar Katheria’s recent demands that hate-speech related charges against local Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders be dropped, Modi continues to maintain a stony silence.

Muslim outreach

Nevertheless, the parameters of the prime minister’s Muslim outreach are slowly beginning to emerge from conversations with people who have knowledge about these initiatives.

First of all, Modi’s scheduled visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 3 on his way home from the nuclear security summit in New York (on the margins of which he will meet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) is a key link in the chain that connects Modi’s evolving views towards Islam, both at home and abroad.

Modi realises that when he breaks bread with the leaders of the House of Saud, which is also the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina, a powerful message will be sent back to Sunni Muslims in India who comprise about 120 million of the country’s 170 million Muslim population. This will significantly burnish his credentials.

At the Sufi conference, Modi not only spoke eloquently about the peaceful message of Sufi Islam (“Sufism became the face of Islam in India, even as it remained deeply rooted in the Holy Quran, and Hadis. Sufism blossomed in India’s openness and pluralism”), but also about the power of moderate Islam in countering the horror of terrorism that has been unleashed in its name.

“At a time when the dark shadow of violence is becoming longer, you are the noor, or the light of hope,” Modi said at the Sufi Forum. “When young laughter is silenced by guns on the streets, you are the voice that heals.”

With the assault in Brussels at the hands of Islamist jihadists still ringing in the world’s ears, Modi definitely hopes to be representing the world’s third-largest Muslim population when he meets the Saudi leadership. Here it is worth noting that Belgium’s 11.2 million population has spawned 451 Belgian jihadists in Syria and Iraq in contrast with 23 jihadists from India.

“India’s 170 million Muslims and the uniqueness of Indian Islam could teach the 29 million Wahhabi Saudis a thing or two,” a government official said on condition of anonymity.

India’s Islamic inheritance

So as Europe grapples with terrorism, several intelligence chiefs have been trooping to Delhi to ask why and how India keeps its own Muslims safe.

“In the Indian sub-continent, Islam expanded not only against the blade of the invader’s sword, but also through roots that Sufi orders, like the Chishtis, put down in this soil,” said the government official. “[It kept] taking from Hinduism and giving back, until it emerged a uniquely syncretic religion that was inherently tolerant because it had to survive in an alien land.”

The Sufi conference, held at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan and at the Ramlila Maidan over four days, was attended by about 150 representatives of the Sufi khanquahs or orders, the Grand Muftis of Egypt, Baghdad and Syria, as well as a few thousand Muslims, who full-throatedly cheered Modi’s denunciation of terror in the name of Islam.

With the weight of this conference behind him, Modi believes his upcoming meetings in Riyadh will serve as a reminder to the world that India, not Saudi Arabia, is the leader of a much larger and much more diverse Islamic inheritance.

Certainly, there is a churning in the heart of Sunni Islam in West Asia as manifested in the Arab Spring revolutions as well as in the growing belief in several kingdoms that non-state actors (read, terrorists) cannot be allowed to hijack Islam’s moderate message. Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nayhan agreed with India during his recent visit to Delhi that “Indian and UAE models act as strong bulwarks against the forces of extremism and radicalism”.

Certainly, too, Modi has come a long way from the time he undertook a Sadbhavana fast in Ahmedabad in 2011 when he was Gujarat chief minister. There, he refused to wear a skullcap offered to him by Imam Shahi Saiyed, a Muslim cleric from a small dargah in Pirana village on the outskirts of the city. At the time, he explained away his refusal by saying: “If a skullcap is a symbol of unity, then why is it that Mahatma Gandhi didn’t wear any.” He also told the cleric to offer him a shawl instead, which the cleric did and which Modi accepted.

But since he became prime minister nearly two years ago, the Modi government has supported several religious-cultural initiatives, indicating his faith in the inherent strength and stabilising influence offered by India’s religions. Last year, the Vivekananda Foundation – formerly headed by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, a close advisor of Modi’s – held a conference on the confluence between Hinduism and Buddhism. Earlier this month, the prime minister spent quality time at Hindu spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s World Culture Festival in Delhi. The Sufi conference, said to have been supported by Doval, has been in the works for a while.

As to why the prime minister continues to maintain a stony silence around Hindutva groups targeting Muslims, BJP leaders have little to say. Many say that it is not his style to speak up publicly. Others believe that the successful Sufi conference and the Saudi visit are messages to the majoritarian right wing. “Samajhdar ko ishaara kafi hai (Intelligent people understand signals),” they said, adding: “By interacting with Muslim leaders for over two hours at the Sufi conference, the PM has indicated that he is the leader of all Indians.”

Is UK a third-rate power? When WillKat came calling

Published on April 12, 2016, in Daily O, India Today

Watching William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, sail down the lawn at the British high commissioner-designate’s residence on Monday evening brought back memories of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to India in 1997, when IK Gujral was prime minister – and he had been infamously quoted as saying on the eve of that visit that “Britain was a third-rate power.”

A refugee from Pakistan, Gujral had, of course, risen to the top political job because he was the agreed number two candidate of the Third Front — all the warring, non-Congress and non-BJP parties hadn’t been able to agree on anyone else, especially after Jyoti Basu was ruled out by his own party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Of course, Gujral was trying to put out that he, son of the soil in republican India, was equal to any royalty, both home-grown and “angrezi,” notwithstanding the fact that for more than half his life (Gujral was born in 1919) the British royals had been his ruler.

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Gujral’s quote was never fully denied by the government. As for the visiting British royal press, it seemed undecided about whether this was an insult to their Queen? Or, whether in the wake of Diana’s untimely, recent death and the numerous accounts of her unhappiness with her in-laws, perhaps Elizabeth deserved the criticism?

The Indian media, on the other hand, certainly seemed to enjoy the British discomfiture. I remember how David Gore-Booth, the serving high commissioner to India at the time, had remarkably undiplomatically rubbed in India’s place in British consciousness by stating that when the Queen visited Amritsar, she would not apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.

Gore-Booth’s remarks had, of course, been followed by a minor furore. How dare the British treat with deliberate contempt a massacre – a turning point in India’s freedom struggle — they had perpetrated in the first place? I also remember how all those invited to meet the Queen one afternoon were told to either bow (by men) or curtsey (by women), with many of us exercising the third option of simply saying “Namaste.” (In the end, she was wearing gloves, so her fear of us, the natives, touching her was unfounded.)

So what is it that has made India so much more mature these intervening years, allowing it to treat Britain’s newest royals with both aplomb and equanimity? Remember that in 1991, India had to mortgage 100 tonnes of gold to the Bank of England, a modern-day equivalent of selling yourself again to the East India Company, causing a huge dent in its self-confidence levels…

Also read – Britain’s colonial India hangover is nauseating

So what was it that changed ?

The single most important answer to that question is the reform of the economy in 1991 and the consequent transformation of the three per cent Hindu rate of growth to the double digit figures of the tiger economies of China and South-East Asia, unleashing several waves of national self-confidence. And then when India went nuclear in 1998, signaling that it was equal to all those seated on the global high table, but would not necessarily crash the party, it gave fair warning that it could not be ignored for much longer.

A quick look at trade & investment figures are revealing : The UK is today the third largest investor in India, after Mauritius and Singapore (with Mauritius renowned for its round-tripping), but 16th biggest trading partner, far below China, US, UAE, Saudi Arabia and even Switzerland.

In 1992, India imported Rs 872 million worth of goods from the UK. By 2013, this had shot up to Rs 224,991 million.

Also read – EU referendum: Britain’s exit will be suicidal for its economy

Clearly, India had been taking a leaf out of the Chinese strategy, of tying in foreign investment at home and ramping up trade so that its fruits could improve the economy at home.

India’s biggest advantage over China, of course, is its ability to speak English, even if it is in several Indian accents. Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor’s speech at the Oxford Union last July, delivered in the Queen’s own impeccable version of the language (it was viewed three million times), on why Britain owed India reparations was so widely and popularly received because it articulated — “with respect” as Tharoor put it — India’s angst at being given serious short shrift by an unworthy Empire and its legatees.

Meanwhile, global power equations shifted visibly away from the UK, across the Atlantic to the US and more recently back to Asia. Certainly, Britain – and the rest of the Permanent Five in the UN Security Council – are keenly aware that if the Security Council were to be revamped as a reflection of today’s power structures, Britain would be the first country to be dropped.

The gin cocktails at the High Commissioner-designate’s reception for WillKat were pretty average and the rest of the short eats were par for the course. It was fun, though, to watch the royal twosome walk down the lawns, chatting with the gathered Indians. Former BJP member of parliament NK Singh, who stood right in front of the rope that divided royalty from plebeian, would not be denied and said “Hello and welcome to India!”, while Divya Chauhan of the Amity Group informed Kate about their common interest in education.

Prince William and Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton with Narendra Modi. (PIB)

And then there were these four white skinned and blond-haired women who Kate resolutely passed over as she shook hands with one lot of Indians and then another, who later told me that it was “quite clear that the British royals had been advised to spend time with Indians Only! “

That’s what the evening was about: Britain good-naturedly acknowledging that India was more than equal to her former master and sending two good-looking, fashion-conscious people to deliver the message.

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As for India, there have been enough well-dressed, good-looking people playing host over the last few days, beginning with minister of state for Information & broadcasting Rajyavardhan Rathore whose penchant for the tightly-fitted “bandhgala” over his flat stomach has hardly escaped notice. And then there was Bollywood, India’s truly egalitarian royals, perfectly air-kissing the future monarch and his wife.

It’s too cruel to break the mood, of course, but I suspect that what IK Gujral prophesied in 1997 has been true for some time: Britain is, really, a third-rate power, even if its newest royals are sweet and seemingly uncomplicated and admittedly, good-looking.

What more could one ask of a lovely, balmy pre-Baisakhi evening in Delhi ?