Sunday, September 27, 2015
Friday, September 25, 2015
Friday, September 18, 2015
Friday, September 11, 2015
Israel is understandably proud of its Tel Aviv University, which has, in recent years, emerged as a foremost non-American centre of technological innovation. A combination of Jewish creativity and financial acumen has allowed it to be at the centre of Tel Aviv's aggressive bid to project itself as another start-up hub where improvisation and entrepreneurship go hand in hand.
For Israel, a country whose image has, in recent years, been marred by political controversy centred on its perceived rough and ready handling of the Palestinian question, particularly in the Gaza strip on its southern frontier, this alternative projection of the country is important. The sight of purposeful twenty-somethings working on a hi-tech improvisation that could earn them either millions of dollars or years of wasted effort is truly energizing and helps shift focus from Israel's other image - as a doughty defender of its national interests against overwhelming odds.
Tragically, however, it is impossible for a first-time visitor to Israel to be insulated from the pitfalls of a very troubled and dangerous neighbourhood, not even in the care-free cosmopolitanism of Tel Aviv. While attending a presentation on life sciences and geopolitics organized by the TAU in one of its ultra-modern conference rooms, I came across a bold sign on the wall opposite the lift. In bold red letters it simply read 'Shelter', with arrows pointing in two different directions. It was a sad reminder of the unending dangers that this small nation - born in controversy and nurtured by war - faces on a day-to-day basis. The 'shelter', I was informed, was now a statutory requirement in homes, offices and public buildings - an elementary safeguard against the deadly rockets that now have at least the potential of hitting targets in Tel Aviv. For Israelis, the battle to extend the frontiers of knowledge has to coexist with a more basic war to survive as both a people and a nation.
This past week, however, the ongoing troubles of the Israeli state with Hamas and its resourceful international backers has abruptly taken a back-seat and been overshadowed - in the world media, at least - by an unfolding refugee crisis that has manifested itself in Europe but whose epicentre is neighbouring Syria - or rather, the land mass that came to be known as Syria since the post-Ottoman settlement of the region in the 1920s.
As Syria tears itself apart in a civil war involving the remnants of the Assad-controlled Baathist regime, the Islamic State, which now exercises barbaric control over the oilfields and the Sunni Muslim areas, and a local chapter of the Global Jihad that controls some 80 per cent of the area around the Golan Heights adjoining Israel, the world community may have arrived at two inescapable conclusions.
The first conclusion is a realization that, having endured for nearly 100 years, the settlement worked out by the European powers after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 is now on its last legs. Whether in Iraq, Syria, Libya or Yemen, the national boundaries that defined the 20th century are now becoming history. Regardless of whether Russia or, for that matter, Iran succeeds in salvaging the pride of the Assad regime, it seems pretty clear that a united Syria controlled from Damascus will no longer be possible. There may be disagreements over whether or not the Kurds, divided between Turkey, Iraq and Syria, manage to carve out a new, viable state. There is also some mismatch of views over the ability of Islamic State to endure the international retribution that may well become unavoidable. But, like Iraq and Yemen in the Arabian peninsula, Syria is witnessing a return to primordial identities based on a blend of ethnicity and faith. The map of West Asia is being dramatically redrawn in the 21st century with an accompanying toll of human suffering whose effects are being felt far beyond the region. At least half the population of Syria, for example, have voted with their feet and are either temporarily or permanently resident in places that they didn't earlier count as home.
The second conclusion, which may be equally troublesome for analysts and activists, is the emergence of Israel as an area of stability and, indeed, civilization in a region that is witnessing a return to medievalist human behaviour. This may sound offensive to those who see Israel itself as an affront to common decencies based on its refusal to succumb to what some regard as 'international pressure' on the Palestinian question. However, viewed in the larger context, Israel's unwillingness to succumb to the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions mounted by non-governmental bodies and campuses in the United States of America and Europe, seems an entirely justified response considering the turbulence in the Sunni Islamic world. The manner in which the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in Gaza was eased out of reckoning by Hamas, an organization that bases its claim to a Palestinian state on the complete destruction of Israel, was an early indicator of the upheavals that have crippled other countries of the region. Had Israel, for example, succumbed to earlier pressures to abandon its gains in the 1967 Six-Day War by abandoning the Golan Heights and sharing control over Jerusalem, the situation in the region would have become even more complicated. It would certainly have made Egypt and Jordan, the two neighbouring states Israel can loosely describe as non-hostile, far more vulnerable to radical pressures.
However, it is not Israel alone that will be decisive in coping with the new challenges posed by the redrawing of national boundaries. One of the factors that propelled the US into negotiating the agreement on nuclear capabilities with Iran was the belief that Tehran could be persuaded to play a more responsible future role. The US believes, maybe with a measure of naiveté, that 15 years of exposure to the world market forces will blunt the rough edges of the Shia theocracy. Such an assertion is contested by Israel that holds the view that the US has no conception of larger civilizational issues and particularly the irrelevance of a 15-year wait for an old country that, like India and China, is accustomed to longer historical cycles.
Whether the Israeli scepticism of Iran's intentions are valid or mischievously alarmist, there can be no denying the larger feeling in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that the coming decade will see both Iran and Turkey play larger roles in the troubled region. Maybe this, in turn, could lead to fratricidal, intra-Islamic conflicts and even a united front against the Jewish state. But even if Islamic State is decimated and Hamas and Hezbollah co-opted by the bigger Islamists, the constellation of forces will not be in the larger interests of India, unless of course it chooses to reduce itself into a non-Islamic supplicant or subordinate ally of Islamic hegemonism.
What should concern India is the larger trend of a pusillanimous Europe retreating into effete moralism. Germany's U-turn on the refugee question may have been guided by purely tactical considerations: accepting domestic discomfiture for the sake of retaining a leadership role in the European Union. But unless Germany moves quickly to fill the void created by the US's wariness of assuming a larger global role, the developments in West Asia may cast a menacing shadow on a larger region.
The turbulence in West Asia has left the region in a state of flux. Apart from Israel, there are, it would seem, few certitudes left. India will have to negotiate its way in this darkness and find partners that share some of its basic civilizational ground rules.
The Telegraph, September 11, 2015
Sunday, September 6, 2015
Sunday, August 30, 2015
By Swapan Dasgupta
The election of the Narendra Modi government in May 2014 has seen many changes in governance, the economy and even society. The question often asked is: how much?
Those who believe that the mandate was revolutionary—a vote to effect a radical break with the past—have often complained that the government is too wedded to continuity. There has, for example, been an interesting debate on whether the government should have opted for ‘big bang’ economic reforms—including the dismantling of the public sector and massive subsidy cuts—or pursued incremental changes that can be managed by an essentially status quo-loving bureaucracy.
Likewise, there are Left-inclined individuals and those affected by the curbs on the foreign-funding of NGOs who feel that the India of 2015 is different from the one bequeathed to his successor by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Some have described the shifts as moves towards authoritarianism or even fascism, while still others have detected a creeping erosion of state secularism.
The debate has inevitably spilled over into foreign policy where Modi’s aggressive global outreach with a strong economic underpinning has been favourably juxtaposed with the unending muddle over the nuisance along the western borders. That Modi is determined to use India’s economic potential to emerge as a major regional power (with a global footprint) has been obvious. This despite the cussed comments his foreign visits have invited from courtiers of the former durbar for who the history of Independent India is the history of one family.
One feature of Modi’s global outreach has been India’s deepening engagement with its diaspora and a conscious bid to make Overseas Indians co-partners in the larger mission of nation reconstruction. Whether in New York, Toronto, Sydney and Dubai, the Prime Minister has spoken to packed gatherings of Indians elated by the knowledge that the Prime Minister acknowledges their importance. For many Overseas Indians, detached from home, Modi has created an environment that permits a deep emotional bonding with the cultural motherland.
The response to the Prime Minister has been nothing short of overwhelming. After the Dubai event that touched a chord among Indian workers accustomed to being shabbily treated both by their employers and the country that benefits immeasurably from their remittances, it will be the turn of San Francisco and London. Modi will speak to the large, prosperous and influential Indian diaspora in the Silicon Valley on September 27. Then, just after Diwali, he will address Overseas Indians (including a large contingent of Gujaratis who came to Britain from East Africa but still maintain their India connections) at the iconic Wembley Stadium that can accommodate nearly 80,000 people. Both occasions will be an opportunity to simultaneously demonstrate the political clout of the diaspora in California and the United Kingdom.
The linkage made between India’s economy and culture with a diaspora that, for a change, feels proud to be linked to India, is important in the larger diplomatic game. By making it clear to the world that it regards the diaspora as an extension of its soul, it is assuming some moral responsibility for their larger well-being. This, in turn, will enhance the stature of the Indian diaspora in their respective countries, not least because India now counts as a force for the good and a rising economic power. The image problem faced by Pakistan in the non-Islamic world doesn’t extend to India.
The engagement with the diaspora has an additional dimension. By facilitating the emotional connect with India and, not least, the Prime Minister, India is preparing the ground for elevating the diaspora to the status of a permanent India lobby. It was Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government that first utilised the diaspora to offset some of the sustained pressure on India after the Pokran-II tests in 1998. The story of how the US sanctions were neutralised using the good offices of Overseas Indians is a story that needs to be documented and narrated. It is reassuring that Modi is building on this legacy and, indeed, enlarging its scope.
It is in this context that a petition signed by various US-based academics to many Silicon Valley technology companies assumes some significance. Ever since the likelihood of Modi winning the 2014 general election sunk in, various petitions by the Left-liberal lobby to like-minded newspapers painting him as the Indian incarnation of Attila the Hun and Vlad the Impaler did the rounds. Earlier, some academics at the University of Pennsylvania forced the cancellation of a video talk by Modi to students. What marked these interventions was that the attacks were directed against Modi the individual. It was their visceral hatred of him that was paramount.
This time it is different. The galaxy of historians, post-modernists, gender studies experts and sociologists—I didn’t detect physicists or other ‘science types’ in the long list—have basically called upon IT companies in the Silicon Valley to opt out of any engagement with the ‘Digital India’ programme of the Indian government. These guys are unhappy with the developments in Nalanda University, with the ICHR appointment and “constriction of the space of civic engagement, ongoing violations of religious freedom and a steady impingement on the independence of the judiciary.” Therefore, “these alarming trends require that we, as educators, remain vigilant not only about the modes of e-governance in India but about the political future of the country.” Their solution: US companies must shun business links with the Indian state.
The academics-imposed sanctions on India will in all likelihood not even be seriously considered. But that is not the point. What we are witnessing is the willingness of an intellectual diaspora to actually wage war on India’s development. From political opposition to Modi they have moved to sabotaging India in the world.
If I didn’t think their paranoia suggest a deep disconnect with Indian realities, I would have called them treacherous. In any case, it is always worth remembering the names of all those who are ready to subvert India because they didn’t like the way Indians voted.
Sunday Pioneer, August 30, 2015
Friday, August 28, 2015
By Swapan Dasgupta
Ever since President Bill Clinton decided that Kashmir was the “world’s most dangerous place”—a realisation that abruptly dawned after the nuclear tests of 1998—the quest for an India-Pakistan settlement has been transformed into a thriving cottage industry. Fuelled by a mixture of genuine concern and generous international patronage, an army of ‘strategic thinkers’, think-tankers, retired generals and diplomats and, of course, journalists have jumped into this 21st century variant of the Great Game. From international conferences to Track-II and people-to-people initiatives, a great deal of energy and resources has been expended in Aman ki Asha.
It would be needlessly cynical to debunk the active players in the IndPak chatter league as sub-continental counterparts of those George Orwell once described as “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.” There may be a small minority of romantics for whom the ultimate ‘high’ is a meaningful exchange of recondite Urdu shairis with the like-minded across the Radcliffe Line or even a dying breed who look back wistfully at a genteel culture corrupted by either commerce or even religious orthodoxy. In the main, however, the IndPak engagement is not entirely bereft of hard-headedness and even realism.
The belief that 69 years of territorial antagonism, not to mention the longer period of political and cultural complications, will suddenly evaporate is essentially the prerogative of a shrinking generation that harbours happy memories of a united India. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s fond hope of breakfast in Amritsar and lunch in Lahore was essentially a generational response of someone personally affected by Partition; it was a vision that, despite its nobility of purpose, failed to excite the popular imagination in either country. Seven decades may be a blip in human history but it is sufficiently long for shared memories to fade away.
Yes, there is a generation of young Indians and young Pakistanis who have shared memories of life in British or, more likely, American universities and friendships that are unaffected by cross-border tensions. Alas, a fraternity of cosmopolitans are powerless in the face of uninterrupted shelling across the Line of Control and terrorist attacks.
To be fair, the people who have acquired a stake in the IndPak engagement aren’t woolly-headed romantics. Most of them, with connections in the larger ‘strategic community’ don’t envisage an instant dawning of peace. The Indian players, most of whom are regulars in TV studios and the editorial pages of newspapers, are only too mindful of the complications arising from the overweight of the military in the Pakistan Establishment and the autonomous power of terror groups committed to jihad. Yet, despite this grounding in realism, they appear to have a commitment to what can loosely be called “uninterrupted and uninterruptable dialogue”, even if these fail to achieve anything tangible. Like academic contributions that are aimed exclusively at a peer group, the wordings of joint statements and non-papers have a special autonomous appeal, often quite unrelated to larger realities.
It is important to understand the exceptional importance attached to textual scrutiny by the ‘strategic community’, particularly those with a background of diplomacy, to get a sense of the fierce criticisms of the Narendra Modi government that followed last week’s cancellation of the talks between Ajit Doval and Sartaj Aziz, the National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan.
Broadly speaking, the attacks on the Modi government followed two streams. First, it was suggested that the Indian Prime Minister lacked any understanding or appreciation of the rules of diplomacy and was inclined to treat the IndPak game as an extension of confrontational domestic politics. The legacy of P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee was invoked to indicate alternative paths that Modi chose to not take. Secondly, it was argued that, unlike his predecessors, Modi reposed very little faith in the professional diplomats who are meant to conduct foreign policy. Instead, Modi was blamed for being intellectually over-dependant on the inputs of NSA Ajit Doval who, in turn, was decried for being a flat-footed policeman untutored in the ways of international diplomacy. Doval, in particular, was blamed for attaching needless importance to the Pakistan NSA’s planned meeting with an All Party Hurriyat Conference delegation—the same issue that had derailed the dialogue of Foreign Secretaries last year.
Whether or not India should have been more indulgent towards any Pakistan-Hurriyat meeting is an issue that is likely to divide the so-called experts and public opinion. For those who attach a great deal of importance to precedents, the proposed meeting had become a part of the Pakistani drill and there was little point turning the clock back and jeopardising a delicate process of dialogue. The government’s response that talks on terrorism couldn’t be enlarged by surreptitiously enlarging the agenda to include Kashmir is, however, worthy of consideration and more so since the Ufa agreement centred exclusively on terror.
However, at the heart of this divergence of views are two larger issues. First, the Ufa agreement was partially premised on the over-optimistic belief that India must do its bit in strengthening the hands of the civilian government vis a vis the military Establishment. As a general idea this may sound appealing but the reality is that the neither the Nawaz Sharif government nor India has the capacity to alter the balance of power inside Pakistan. Ufa was Sharif’s Sharm-el-Sheikh moment and there was an eerie inevitability that he would be tripped up by the military. Had India agreed to the subsequent terms set by Pakistan to include Kashmir in the dialogue on terror, it wouldn’t have strengthened the civilian government; it would have meekly caved in to the Pakistan military’s arm-twisting.
Secondly, the IndPak stakeholders proceed on the assumption that their business is to untangle a bilateral mess between two normal countries that have a shared love of cricket. Unfortunately, it could be a folly to regard Pakistan as ‘normal’. From its theft of nuclear technology and its role in generating counterfeit currency to its encouragement and export of terror, Pakistan has violated every rule in the book. On top of that, as Vajpayee discovered in 1999, it has a strong perfidious streak. There can be no question of any asymmetric relationship with it; it has to be judged with exceptional stringency. This may be what distinguishes the Doval approach from the earlier government’s endeavour to bring Pakistan to normal existence. Accepting as ‘normal’ its right to engage with players inside Jammu and Kashmir carried with it a corresponding danger of conceding to it a right in the internal affairs of India.
In the past week, the Modi government has drawn a set of new red lines for Pakistan. This by itself is not contentious—considering its shoddy record of waging both direct and proxy war. The real test will lie in India’s ability to persist with its new approach without either blinking or succumbing to pressure. In the coming months, Pakistan will redouble both military and diplomatic pressure to restore the linkages between terror and ‘self-determination’ for Jammu and Kashmir. By resisting this, India will have to be prepared for prolonged non-engagement. The combination of deterrence and ‘benign neglect’ may suit India but it will put the IndPak industry out of business for a long time to come. That, maybe, is the sustained internal pressure that the government will have to withstand. Hell hath no fury that experts spurned!