Sunday, July 18, 2010

Barbarism of our times

On April 19 this year, the 62nd Independence Day of Israel, US President Barack Obama reiterated his country’s “commitment” to protecting Israeli’s security. The US, Obama said in a White House statement, shared an “unbreakable bond” with Tel Aviv and was confident that the ties “will only be strengthened into the future”. This Bush-style statement came from a President who had promised a “new beginning” for the Muslims amid reports that Israel’s blockade of Gaza had caused a humanitarian catastrophe. Barely one-and-a-half months later, Israel stormed a convoy of ships carrying aid to the Gaza strip, killing at least nine people. President Obama called the incident “tragic”, but stopped there.

Even while expressing concern over the “loss of lives” in Israeli raid on May 31 of the aid ships in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea, the President was cautious to avoid any harsh words against Israel. No direct criticism, no moral outrage!

What Obama said was that such acts (read killing of those who want to help the Gazans) would not serve the long term security interests of Israel. He further said Israel has “legitimate security concerns” as it’s living under the “threat” of missiles from Gaza (fired by Hamas). In the UN Security Council, the US blocked an anti-Israel resolution and helped the passage of another that doesn’t even name Israel, but just condemns the “acts that led to the nine deaths”. Going a step further, Vice President Joe Biden defended Israeli Premier Binyamin Netanyahu, who supported outright the military onslaught against the aid workers. Israel has “absolute right” to defend its security interests, Biden said on June 2. “It's legitimate for Israel to say, ‘I don't know what's on that ship. These guys are dropping eight – 3,000 rockets on my people,’” he added.

If the US can’t condemn Israel now, then when will it do? One might ask after seeing these direct and indirect efforts the Obama administration has taken in defence of Israel. Most of the world leaders came strongly against Israel’s “act of war” against the six-ship flotilla – three cargo and three passenger ships. The ships, sent by the Free Gaza Movement, an international coalition of activist groups, carried tonnes of cement and other aid materials for the blockade-hit Gaza.

The blockade imposed by Israel doesn’t allow any ships to reach the Gaza coast. Israeli troops have also sealed all entry points of the Gaza, a small strip of land that houses around 1.5 million people. Israeli forces even restrict the movement of people to and from Gaza. Israel’s point is that the Hamas is posing a serious threat to Israeli’s as the Islamic resistance movement fires rockets and short range missiles into the Israeli territory. The international community (read the US) failed miserably to persuade Israel to lift the blockade. Instead, the top administration officials of Obama repeated time and again about the so called security concerns of the Jewish state. Even Obama, who pressed Netanyahu for a freeze of new settlement activities in the West Bank, did not annoy Israel by raising the Gaza blockade issue.

Gaza is now more or less a prison camp, or the world’s largest concentration camp. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched a lethal offensive against the Gazans in George W Bush’s last days in office in January 2009. Obama was the president-elect. He did not utter a word when Israeli forces massacred around 1,500 Palestinians. Since then, Israel turned Gaza into a hell on the earth. Since the blockade started in 2007, the economic infrastructure has been virtually dismantled. “Mass unemployment, extreme poverty and food price rises caused by shortages have left four in five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid,” says a report published by the Amnesty International on June 1, 2010. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the number of refugees living in abject poverty in the Gaza Strip has tripled since the blockade began. It adds that more than 60 percent of households are currently “food insecure”. A veteran Indian diplomat, who had lived almost three decades in the Middle East, told this author last month that even the science labs of all colleges in Gaza have been shut as no chemical is available in the strip due to the blockade. “The science students are nowhere. They can’t continue even their studies,” he said.

Is it this Gaza that poses a “genuine security threat” to the mighty Israel? Bibi Netanyahu might say yes. So does the powerful Jewish lobby in Washington. The Obama administration, which invoked hope at its early days in office, has disappointed all peace loving minds in the world. President Obama doesn’t have the strength at least to criticize Israel even after such a horrible act. The international community never goes beyond issuing statements when it comes to Israel. The UNSC is dysfunctional whenever Israel mocks at the international law. It seems peace is a strange word in the Middle East. The barbarism is set to rule forever. And the US interests, irrespective of who is sitting in the White House, will never antagonize that barbarism. (Zeenews, June 7, 2010)

A year marred by inflation

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while addressing reporters in New Delhi to mark the completion of one year in office of the second UPA government, was overtly cautious. His answers were brief and he did not make any tall claims about the government’s performance.

"I believe that the record of our first year of UPA-II is a record of reasonable achievement. I am the first person to admit that we could have done more," the Prime Minister told reporters in his first national press conference since the UPA was re-elected in May last year.

What made the Prime Minister take such a cautious if not critical path while talking about his own government? Perhaps, the first question he faced at the conference could clarify this. “Why is the Prime Minister, himself a well-known economist, not able to manage the country’s food economy properly?” asked a journalist opening the press conference.

One year into the second UPA government, this could well be the core question or challenge the ruling coalition faces. Despite the government’s achievements on maintaining high economic growth, it failed miserably to contain high prices. The Prime Minister knows price rice is a highly sensitive issue in a poor country like India. So he blamed international factors for the problems in the domestic economy and repeated the government’s view that the prices are falling and inflation would be contained by year-end.

Growth without Equity?
The UPA was re-elected in 2009 May at a time when the country was still under the clouds of the worst economic crisis in decades. The country’s financial industry was battered by the global crisis and the economy was slowing down. The growth rate fell sharply from around 9 percent to 6.7 percent in 2008-09. Most of the advanced economies were still in recession.

The main promise of the UPA was growth with equity, or simply put, “inclusive growth”. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee presented the first budget of the UPA-II by giving importance to public spending and domestic demand. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) cut down key interest rates to ensure credit flow did not get hit. These combined efforts by the government as well as the apex bank, meant to take the economy back to the growth track, seem to have paid off.

The economy, as the key government officials predicted, fast returned to high growth rates even as the equity markets returned to healthy levels. Against an IMF forecast of only 5.1 percent GDP growth in 2009, actual growth was 7.2 percent, despite a major drought. The Sensex rose from 14,000 points to 16,875 in 12 months. But is that enough?

Though growth is back, it’s not yet clear whether the country’s economy is totally out of woods. The global economy still faces risks. Nobody has a clear idea about how much India will be affected if the Eurozone debt crisis spawns another global debt squeeze. The markets still stand vulnerable. And above all, inflation is hanging like a Sword of Damocles over the economy.

India has one of the highest inflation rates among the major economies of the world: Wholesale price-based inflation is close to 10 percent and consumer price inflation is an astronomical 17 percent. In many other countries, inflation is just 0-3 percent.

According to many economists, the government should have given utmost importance to curbing prices as it affects the daily lives of millions of poor Indians. Instead, the second budget of the UPA put more focus on financial discipline. The government cut down fuel and fertiliser subsidies to reduce the fiscal deficit. It increased fuel prices several times to help the oil marketing companies overcome under-recoveries. This was a double blow to the common man who was already hit by high prices.

The Agriculture Minister could not come up with effective steps to tackle prices. Neither could the Finance Minister keep the headline inflation under check. They also failed to keep their promise on tax reforms. It postponed the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) from April 2010 to next year. Even telecom reforms were moving at snails pace. It was after a long wait, the auction of third generation (3G) airwaves finally took place in May.
Whither roadmap?
It’s true that the government has four more years in office. Ample time to correct wrong policies and initiate new projects. But as the Prime Minister himself said the government could have done more in the first year. Singh expressed hope that inflation would come down to 5-6 percent by December this year. Even the most optimistic economist would say this is an ambitious target. But what options that the government has to tackle inflation is still unclear. Neither the Prime Minister nor his Finance Minister has spoken about it yet, though both claim that inflation would fall.

Singh appeared convinced of what should be done to accelerate inclusive growth. “We have to invest more in infrastructure, take bold steps to remove chronic poverty and increase the productivity and efficiency of our agriculture sector,” he told reporters. Well said. But where is the roadmap? On the first anniversary, the government looks clueless on how to take ahead its inclusive agenda? It should first come up with a roadmap by clearly identifying its thrust areas like the first UPA government did. There has to be a better coordination between the Congress party and the government. And above all, the Prime Minister should lead from the front.

(Written for Zeenews, May 27, 2010)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Single-Pointed Khomeinism

Ayatollah Khomeini was one of the most influential political personalities of the past century. His interpretation of political Islam had the revolutionary zeal to topple a regime which enjoyed unequivocal support of the American empire. After three decades of the revolution, Khomeini’s legacy still lives in Iran and beyond. Con Coughlin, the best selling author of “Saddam: His Secret Life”, is taking a detailed effort to understand this legacy in his latest book, “Khomeini’s Ghost”.

What legacy did Khomeini bequeath to his heirs? For an independent historian, this is a complicated question as the ayatollah still remains perplexing subject. He was a puritan, but an anti-imperialist to the core. At the same time, he stood for empowering his people, and built a comparatively stable political system and undertook radical income distribution. For Coughlin, however, Khomeini’s legacy is single pointed. “Following his death in 1989, Khomeini bequeathed a legacy to his heirs, a legacy of militant Islam that is the cause of so many of the challenges the world faces today, whether it is the potential threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme or Iranian funded and trained Islamist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza.” He says even Iran’s quest for atom bomb was the “central part of Khomeini’s legacy.”

Through this biographical work of Imam Khomeini, Coughlin is actually trying to understand ideological underpinnings of the Iranian regime and how it’s related with Khomeinism. The ayatollah “accomplished his lifelong ambition of creating an Islamic state based on the strict interpretation of Shariah law,” writes Coughlin in an apparent effort to portray Iran as a conservative, rigid religious state. Despite being a theocratic state, it should not be forgotten that the Iranian constitution provides for an elected legislature and declares that the country should be run on the basis of “public opinion”.

The book is divided into two parts – Origins and Legacy. In the first part, Coughlin discusses Khomeini’s early life, his rise as a major critic of the unpopular Shah regime, life in exile and the eventful return to Tehran in 1979 February. It’s in the second part, Coughlin tries to define Iran black-and-white terms, saying it’s a rogue sate still led by the fundamentalist ideas of Imam Khomeini.

For the author, Iran is a state which helped al-Qaeda, trained terrorists in Iraq and militants in Lebanon and Palestine. Coughlin writes that Tehran masterminded the escape of operatives fleeing from Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden’s son Saad, and provided them safe haven. “The presence of such prominent Al Qaeda militants in Iran . . . was yet another issue that would undermine Khatami’s attempts to improve relations with the West,” he says. But he forgets to write that Iran offered help to the US during the Afghan war and the Khatami government actually hunted down Taliban operatives escaped from Afghanistan.

Khomeini’s Ghosts is an easy read. It is rich with historical facts and discusses the nuances of the Islamic revolution in detail. But it looks a one-sided anaylysis of Imam Khomeini, one of the most influential personalities on the Islamic street. Coughlin’s key argument that Khomeini’s doctrine “has made to the radicalization of the Muslim world” is untenable. There are different streams of Islamic radicalism in the world. Well before the Islamic revolution, the Brotherhood had inspired millions of Muslim youth across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) to organize on religious lines. Khomeini’s principles were based on the Shiite world view, while most of the Islamic radical groups of present era are Sunnis. So, Khomeini’s ghosts do not seem to be as dangerous as Coughlin says.

Con Coughlin, “Khomeini’s Ghosts”, Pan Books, 2009 (Reviewed for Purple Beret)