The Writing on the Minority Wall

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The Bharatiya Janata Party has proven it again. First in Maharashtra in October 2014, then in Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, then again in Gujarat in December of the same year, and now in Karnataka, the BJP has emerged the single largest party in the state elections and formed the government without fielding a single “minority” candidate or pandering to their vote banks directly. In the four major states of India where the party has even a slight presence, representing almost 29 percent of the land mass, over 36 percent of the population, and nearly 42 percent of the economy, the BJP has shown that it is not hostage to minoritarian sentiments and can rule without their support if necessary.

Psephologists and pundits will attribute this to several reasons. Two, however, are prominent enough to be visible to even the casual observer. The first, a more optimistic take on history and humanity, is that this is a new India – the youth is interested in upward mobility and want infrastructure and opportunities more than in arbitrary government handouts based on identities modernity and urbanisation may have frayed. This postulation arises from a Marxian privileging of material over the intangible and belief in the infamous rational actor.

While there are, no doubt, many who belong to ‘New India,’ an equally persuasive argument posits that the opportunistic excesses – political, economic, as well as social – of the Left has turned people away from them towards the Right. The litany of complaints against the Left are well known – the usurpation of temples, a war against Hindu customs exclusively in the name of social progress, unequal status in education, double standards in the freedom of expression, whimsical amendments to the constitution, the whitewashing of history in academia. Resentment against these and many more grievances built up over the years and economic liberalisation coupled with the democratisation of the public sphere via social media gave vent to long-repressed sentiment.

A corollary to this view is that the Left’s “Nehruvian secularism” has eventually led to a small degree of Hindu consolidation. Narendra Modi’s ability to deliver development targets while at least stemming the tide against Hindu institutions has proven a potent electoral formula. The wages of the Left playing minoritarian identity politics for decades has come back in the form of majoritarian identity politics. The four victories and the manner in which they were achieved will only encourage the BJP to stick to their formula. In the short term, this is a welcome corrective to the national narrative.

In the longer term, however, the ramifications of Hindu consolidation might be more problematic than we imagine. Other parties may begin to try and emulate the BJP’s successful formula – already, we saw Rahul Gandhi undertake a temple-hopping trip and claim to wear the sacred thread to project a Hindu identity. Such overt, even if diluted, displays of Hinduism do not come naturally to the Indian Left which has historically been more comfortable sporting a taqiyah before elections.

The shifting of the Overton window on Hindu identity could potentially isolate large numbers of, without beating about the bush, Christians and Muslims. Admittedly, there is a substantial number that does perfectly well in integrating with the diverse national community but as Shiraz Maher, an analyst with the rare qualification of being a former member of the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir, warns in his Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea, the vast majority of Muslims may not be violent but many share the same idea of utopia as their violent co-religionists. The isolation of “international” minority communities makes them ripe for radicalisation attempts. Remarkably, the BJP’s governance has shown a far more inclusive posture than its electoral strategy. This maintains an extended hand towards India’s minorities and sees the country as a single entity – as any political party should. The inclusive approach, without favouritism, should retard a drift towards radicalisation.

For the well-being of the country as well as for their own narrower interests, minority communities must retain some influence in the national public sphere; without it, they have little to lose. One option is to hitch their wagons to the more acceptable aspects of the BJP’s platform such as development. With sincere effort in building the party and nation, it is a matter of time before they have more voice in the BJP. Thorny issues could be discussed calmly and seriously instead of making a public circus out of them. Minority communities may retain their unique identities but must learn to subordinate them to the national whole rather than stick out as rocky little islands.

A genuine and thorough inclusion of minorities into the public sphere, not just pro forma or for a token broken secularism, will change the nature of politics in India. Moreover, the effect is beneficial for all involved – the nation as a whole will be stronger and more stable while minorities’ participation in the national conversation  ensures that there will be no gradual encroachment on their distinctiveness. In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru inherited a state from the British; it is time Indians made a nation to go along with it.

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Mischief in Gaza

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It has been a bus couple of weeks in the world: the two Koreas are finally talking peace, the United States hopes to talk Pyongyang into at least curtailing if not abandoning its nuclear programme, US president Donald Trump has abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action his predecessor signed with Iran to bring its nuclear programme under greater international scrutiny, the US embassy in Israel shifted from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and elections were held in the Indian state of Karnataka that many see as make-or-break for the Congress party before the general elections next year. In the midst of this, Gaza has been on the boil as thousands of Palestinians have attempted to charge the border fence into Israel and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have, predictably, responded with strength.

The Gaza protests, dubbed the Great March of Return by Hamas, started on March 30 and are supposed to last until May 15, the day Palestinians commemorate as Nakba (catastrophe) Day. The purpose is manifold – to demand that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to their lands in Israel, to protest the moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to draw attention to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Palestinians participating in the protests have varied in number from around 5,000 to 15,000 except on the first day which saw a turnout of 30,000.

Approximately 110 Palestinians have died so far in the protests. On May 14 alone, the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of the State of Israel, 58 Palestinians were killed and approximately 2,700 injured at the border fence in what many are calling a massacre. While the world paints the protests as peaceful and accuses Israel of using disproportionate force, the IDF maintains that the Palestinian demonstrations have been anything but peaceful and are a cynical and bloody ploy by Hamas to gain international sympathy and headlines by paying in Palestinian corpses. Interestingly, the loud international outcry has been drowned out in the muted response from Arab capitals.

The international version of the Gaza protests does not add up. For starters, the Palestinian protesters have been photographed in possession of Molotov cocktails and machetes, flying swastika flags – which can have only one meaning to a Jew – and been arrested trying to breach the border fence into Israel. This has been accompanied by the usual stone pelting and colourful calls to slaughter all Jews and wipe out all Zionists. In the early days of the demonstrations, Palestinians set fire to large mounds of tires in the hope that the smoke would damage Israeli agriculture; a sudden change in the direction of the wind foiled that plot. Undeterred, kites were used to carry tear gas and bombs into Israel to set crops on fire. These attempts have been slightly more successful but also largely failed thanks to an alert citizenry and the emergency services.

There is also the question of what the intentions of this unruly, violent mob were had they succeeded in crossing over into Israel. The locus of the protests was barely 500 metres away from the border fence but protesters attempted to approach the fence at several locations. Is it plausible that the mob, with inflamed passions, calmly turn around and head back to Gaza? The tactics of the crowds suggest otherwise. The IDF was, then, acting in a purely preventive manner.

The claim of peaceful gathering does not hold for yet another reason – nowhere in the world would security services allow such a large gathering of clearly incited people to accumulate so close to a high security zone. Areas such as borders, nuclear facilities, military bases, and the prime ministerial residence are not the same as roads and parks which are open to the common public. Any suspicious activity, let alone mass gatherings, near such restricted areas are viewed as a security threat and dealt with accordingly. Hamas’ call for Gazans to gather at the border must therefore be seen as at least provocative if not outright aggressive in its nature in the challenge it posed to Israeli security.

It is also telling that Kerem Shalom, the only crossing for goods from Israel to Gaza, was attacked. In three separate attacks, mobs torched the border crossing and damaged depots containing building material destined for Gaza and fuel infrastructure. This would only worsen the electricity shortage in Gaza and slow international aid coming into the Strip. Hamas has also refused to accept Israeli humanitarian aid for the Palestinians injured in the clashes, reiterating their noxious brand of politics: the Gaza circus would only get international attention if there are enough casualties to merit a place in Western newspaper columns.

Finally, there is the old argument that Israel uses disproportionate force against terrorists. This is not the first time that accusation has been made but it is as unjustified as it has been in the past. The nature of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is fundamentally asymmetric – Palestinian terror organisations by design operate around non-combatant zones like civilian population centres, schools, and hospitals; they ensure the presence of women, children, the handicapped, and old people to manipulate the sympathies of the international audience in case of an Israeli strike against their bases; they do not wear uniforms and their targets are civilian structures rather than military assets. It is virtually impossible to strictly follow the rules of engagement reserved for inter-state conflict in such a scenario. The best that can be hoped for is the minimisation of collateral damage, civilians who have been put at risk by the terrorists’ strategy than by Israeli counter-attacks.

Moreover, deterrence contains an element of psychological warfare, of fear, and relies on disproportionate damage. If Israel is proportionate in its counter-terrorism strategy, it loses its advantage of power in the asymmetric struggle while the terrorists retain theirs. Furthermore, as a democratic country – that happens to be under demographic pressure – Israel cannot the tolerate casualties as casually as Hamas. Expectations also contribute to this – Hamas’ sympathisers do not expect it to be able to inflict equal damage upon Israel while the Israeli mainstream opinion remains in favour of punitive action to demoralise and humiliate the enemy.

Responsibility for the loss of life in Gaza over the past six weeks lies entirely at the feet of Hamas. It cannot be reasonably expected that the IDF sit back and allow tens of thousands of demonstrators to approach the border and breach the security fence, attack farms, crossing points, infrastructure, and Israelis. Anyone saying otherwise is either naïve or performing for a select audience.

Politics of Spite

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As predicted, US president Donald Trump has led the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. The agreement, which was supposed to increase international (Western) oversight into Tehran’s nuclear programme and hopefully rein in its nuclear ambitions, was one of the few unambiguously positive legacies of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, but ran into opposition even during the delicate negotiations. Critics tried to add riders involving their pet projects – usually human rights or missile development – to the deal in an attempt to derail process. Consistent with his pre-election criticism for once, Trump had called the JCPOA a bad deal and promised to repudiate it if elected.

America’s European partners – Britain, France, Germany, and Russia – have parted ways with Washington and declared their intent to continue adherence to the JCPOA; China has so far been mute but already threatened with a trade war with the United States, it is highly likely that it, too, will follow the Europeans in holding on to the Iranian nuclear deal.

It is not yet clear what the fallout of the American departure from the JCPOA will be. Although the rhetoric of the exit has been focused on how the agreement did not go far enough in preventing Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, the fact that Trump administration officials have stated that sanctions will be “snapped back” indicates that they believe Iran to be in breach of its obligations under the JCPOA – although most technical experts disagree with this evaluation.

Given that the other members of the E3 + 3 – particularly Britain, France, and Germany – will not be following the US example, the interesting question is if Washington intends to sanction their businesses and banks under the recently passed Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) as India fears its defence dealings with Russia might. This would cause an enormous rupture in in the US and world economy as China is the United States’ single largest trading partner and Britain, France, and Germany are together the fourth largest ahead of Japan. Yet if Trump does use his presidential discretion to waive sanctions and exempt these four countries, it would be too blatant an act of political hypocrisy if the same treatment was not extended to others over Russia and North Korea as well as over Iran.

In February 2018, Patrick Pouyanné, the CEO of the French oil & gas giant Total, openly called for the implementation of the 1996 European Union Blocking Regulation, a law that prohibited European firms from cooperating with foreign demands that are in violation of international law or hurt European sovereign interests. Denis Chaibi, a senior diplomat in the European External Action Service, commented that the EU was looking at a variety of options and the blocking regulations would not be difficult to implement.

Ultimately, these are political instruments and businesses would be hurt either by European penalties for obeying US sanctions or the denial of access to American markets due to US sanctions. Obviously, firms would prefer having access to the far larger American markets than pin their hopes on soaring Euro-Iranian trade and the threat of blocking regulations is empty. States are supposed to exercise restrain and caution and a tit-for-tat exchange between the United States and its three primary European allies will hurt everyone. More to the point, the multinational supply chains of most large industrial houses today means that there would be few European firms that are not exposed to the United States and are free to do business with Iran.

Internationally, many countries would be pulled into the US wake for similar reasons; most countries are fairly integrated into the US economy and their national economies are not robust enough to withstand the loss of the American market. Additionally, others may have political reasons to reluctantly support Washington. India, for example, has been trying to purchase high-end American weapons systems and seeks Washington’s cooperation on several crucial issues such as defence technology and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. It is most likely that India will have to bear the damage done to its own ambitions in Chabahar and the International North-South Trade Corridor (INSTC). Delhi will have even more to lose if Tehran responds to Delhi’s distancing by handing the responsibility for the Shahid Beheshti port over to Beijing.

If India can persuade the United States for a partial waiver on trade as it had done last time, its importance to Tehran would rise again only to the extent that other countries stop or reduce links with the Islamic republic.

Saudi Arabia, considered to be one of the beneficiaries of the American abnegation of the JCPOA, will enjoy in the short-term the spike in oil prices that is bound to follow Trump’s decision. However, this entire episode will have reiterated to Iran that the only way to be truly safe from American interference, as an Indian general is supposed to have observed after the First Gulf War in 1991, is to acquire nuclear weapons. Tehran seems to have been acutely aware of this note – Iran’s ambitions, as revealed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent document dump, were to posses just five nuclear warheads than an entire arsenal.

Riyadh has only managed to stoke Tehran’s determination and not douse it. The JCPOA was designed to give the international community breathing space to consider how best to dampen Iran’s love of the Bomb – it was never meant to provide a permanent solution as there are none. As non-proliferation experience has illustrated, the determined country will acquire nuclear weapons regardless of the financial and political costs to it and the willingness to pay such a high price will attract unscrupulous suppliers. The classic example of this is Pakistan, whose nuclear journey would have taken far longer had it not been for the generous acts of commission by China and of omission by the United States.

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the American walkout is Israel. On the one hand, the reintroduction and expansion of sanctions hurts the Iranian economy and removes funds that might have otherwise gone to fund the Hezbollah and its adventures in Syria but on the other, the European and Iranian decision to continue observing the JCPOA keeps the checks on the Iranian nuclear programme in place for at least the next decade. If the archives reveal 30 years down the line that this was a game of good-cop-bad-cop, this would be a strategic masterstroke by Benjamin Netanyahu.

The one certainty at this moment is that Iran is not as isolated as it was prior to 2015. Even if Europe falls in line with America’s wishes, Russia and China are both unlikely to go along with the West this time. Both countries have been antagonised by Trump’s sanctions and threats of a trade war to be receptive to cooperation. This opens the door for greater Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East. Russia also gains by the rift that has been created between Europe and the United States over the Iranian nuclear programme.

In some ways, Trump has just given Iran’s hardline clerics a lease of life. There have been several signs that Iranians citizens are frustrated with their government and the poor economy. Some analysts were even hopeful of organic reforms that would gradually move the country from its extreme Islamic views. Trump’s abandonment of the JCPOA underscores everything hardliners warned against – that the United States is not a trustworthy partner and it ultimately seeks the total subjugation of Iran.

If Washington expects Tehran to come back to the negotiating table, it may have a long wait. Rather than re-engage with a party that has shown bad faith, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani may simply choose to wait out his American counterpart in the hopes that Trump’s successor would be more amenable to the Obamian status quo.

It is not clear what the Trump administration sought to achieve by leaving the JCPOA. If anything, it draws attention to the Iranian bogey in American minds and the ghosts of 1979 that such policies would have any support in the houses of legislature or with the citizens. Pace the political acrobatics that are about to ensue over the coming days, the ultimate prize is the withering of the Iranian nuclear weapons programme. It is not clear if anyone in the White House had kept that in mind while thinking about abruptly walking out of an international treaty.


This post appeared on FirstPost on May 10, 2018.