Monday, September 29, 2014
Friday, September 26, 2014
Saudi Nightmare: What If ISIS Plans For Eid In Mecca
In President Barack Obama’s initial list of the coalition against the Islamist State (ISIS) are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain and Jordan. Others are being cajoled, tempted, lured but are not quite there.
India too was sounded. Mercifully, the Prime Minister is embarked on a mission of economic diplomacy. He will tip toe out of this one.
The frenetic hurry with which air attacks were launched on IS positions in Iraq and Syria, would seem to suggest extraordinary anxiety.
To everyone’s surprise, Syria approved the strike. Clearly, a deal had been cut under the table. Would the Saudis have been privy to this understanding?
The danger in their hugely revised estimate is not coming from Iran. In fact Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal met Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the margins of the UN General Assembly.
After the Zarif-Faisal meeting, President Hasan Rouhani congratulated King Abdullah in a message on the kingdom’s 84th national day.
The speed with which the IS had taken Mosul and threatened Baghdad, alarmed the world. By contrast the Shia Houthi’s swift takeover of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen from Abd Mansur Hadi has evoked little response.
In a brilliant maneuver, they did not stage a coup but arrived at a power sharing arrangement with the regime. They now have the potential of becoming a Hezbullah-like force in Yemen.
Surprising that Riyadh has not pointed fingers at Iran. In the past, this has been the continuous refrain from Saudi Arabia: that Iran dabbles in Yemen. Not a word this time.
In 1980 when the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan set a hatchery for Jehadists in Afghanistan to help eject the Soviets from that country, the hard line interior minister of Saudi Arabia, the late Prince Nayef set up training camps for true-blue all Arab Mujahideen in Yemen also to fight Soviet influence in Aden. It is these who mutated into Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula. These forces were in the care of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a half brother of the earlier dictator, Abdullah Saleh.
When the Houthis entered Sanaa without resistance, it was Ahmar, a one-time Saudi favourite, who fled and found refuge in Qatar.
In normal times, Saudis would have been at Iran’s throat. Instead they have been kissing Javad Zarif on both his cheeks at the UN.
Something strange is happening. Saudis are swallowing their pride, making up with enemies, towards what end? Are they preparing themselves for an existential battle against the ISIS?
Let me explain why this could be an existential battle. In November, 1979, Juhayman bin Uteybi, a retired corporal in the Saudi National Guard, was identified as the chief leader of the siege of Mecca which shook the foundations of the Saudi regime. Earlier that year the Ayatullahs had come to power in Teheran. The siege and its aftermath were brutally suppressed and attention instead was directed towards Shia mischief from Iran.
The Iranian revolution, removal of triple distilled Sunni Taleban from Afghanistan, rise of Shia power in Iraq after Saddam Hussain’s fall, Hezbullah victory in 2006, failure to have Bashar al Assad’s Alawi visage knocked down, Iran’s conversations with the West on the nuclear issue, and now Shia Houthis in the news, occupying Sanaa. Shia encirclement of Saudi Arabia is complete. This should be the existential crisis for Saudi Arabia. But Riyadh is drumming up its GCC cousins as a coalition of the willing against ISIS.
In 2010 Recep Tayyip Erdogan was chummy with Bashar al Assad. He sought accommodation with Assad for the Akhwan ul Muslimeen or Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian power structure. In other words, there were a sizable number of Brothers in Syria. In Turkey, ofcourse, Erdogan and all his cohorts were Brothers behind the screen of Ataturk’s secular constitution.
Qatar too, a patron of the Brothers, had its irons in the Syrian fire. The Amir leapfrogged into Gaza to promise them the moon. Again, the Brothers axis. All of this was most disconcerting for the Saudis.
In the standoff between President Mohamed Morsi, a Brother to boot, and Gen. Abdel Fattah el Sisi, the US initially hesitated. The Saudis turned up with $8 billion to keep Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood out of power.
The Saudi’s puritanical school of Wahabism belongs to the Hanbali school of Jurisprudence. So do the Brothers. The founder of Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna, was the son of a Hanbali Imam.
In the crisscross of fundamentalist traffic in Syria injected from the outside, there is a strong contingent of Brothers, those whose ancestors laid siege to Mecca in 1979. Their mission was to keep the faith pure. Saudi rulers, in their perception, have since deviated from Wahabi piety. Other than the Muslim Brotherhood, there are kindred spirits from other Sunni schools under the ISIS umbrella. Frustrated Baathists are too in this grouping as Born-Again Sunnis.
Suddenly, the regime in Riyadh found itself under pressure to revert to its “pure” Wahabism. The Economist reports that many more beheadings have been done in recent weeks by way of capital punishment presumably to keep pace with ISIS’s televised beheading spree, a Christian group too came under the police gaze for simply practicing their faith. That ISIS in tolerance again.
Eid-ul Zuha is on October 6. Attribute it to their black humour, but Arab diplomats not in the Saudi camp, have been floating a story: Abu Bakr al Baghdadi may like to celebrate Eid in Mecca. I had written three weeks ago that a Caliphate cannot be a Caliphate without Mecca.
Ofcourse the US is powerful enough to prevent an outcome that will shake its two principal allies in the region – Saudi Arabia and Israel. But the People versus Potentates balance will have to reset.
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Friday, September 19, 2014
Why BJP Lost? No Anti Gandhi Anger to Harvest
Recent by-election reverses for the BJP are early intimations of mortality for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duet. As a senior BJP leader whispered: “They must come down to earth.” In other words, a degree of realism may now be introduced into the proceedings.
The May Parliamentary elections were peculiar in some ways. The outcome was expected and yet the scale of the BJP victory was something of a shock.
What magic potion was administered to all senior leaders of the BJP (except Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh) at the Goa conclave of the party in June 2013, remains a mystery to this day. They first threw a fit at Modi’s candidature but were soon miraculously tamed.
Began one of the world’s most comprehensive 24X7 media campaigns to market a Prime Minister. The campaign was sustained at a frenetic pitch for a full year. With his unbelievable reserves of energy, Modi kept pace.
Did this advertizing Blitz alone overwhelm the electorate? There were other reasons.
The campaign for Modi gathered force in geometrical progression because of the electorate’s profound disgust with the incumbent Congress, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and, above all, the Gandhi family.
Natwar Singh has in his memoirs corrected a story circulated by the coterie around Sonia Gandhi that she refused the Prime Ministership after the 2004 elections because of an “inner voice”. According to Natwar it was Rahul Gandhi who stopped his mother from accepting the job.
After the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, it was understandable that both, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi should stop their mother from taking any risks.
What was annoying, however, was the pretense the family maintained about Rahul Gandhi as the future Prime Minister. He was simply not interested.
If the Gandhi siblings were anxious not to expose their mother to any peril, would Sonia Gandhi allow her son to take such a risk? Neither Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul ever clarified that the Congress Vice President would ever be a Prime Ministerial candidate. And yet they would not encourage an alternative leadership to evolve. Exasperated Congressmen privately seethed with rage.
In 1985, a year after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the reformist leader of the Soviet Union. After Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Moscow and Gorbachev’s return visit to New Delhi, T.N. Kaul, Ambassador to Moscow, floated an idea that both Rahul and Priyanka, teenagers then, would be safer in Moscow while the Punjab insurgency lasted.
The point is that the entire Gandhi family had very understandable concerns about personal security after Indira Gandhi’s murder. This turned to paranoia after Rajiv’s murder in 1991.
It would have made perfect sense for the family to concern themselves with Congress party affairs, and promote an alternative leadership for electoral politics.
Instead, the family pretended to be interested in the top job for Rahul without any inner conviction that Rahul was upto it both, for want of ability and, ofcourse, for personal security concerns.
This confusion at the top created by the Gandhi family combined with the governance deficit of the Manmohan Singh apparatus, to give Modi an unbridled electoral advantage.
Communal polarization as a vote generator was identified fairly early, particularly in UP. In fact, after the Faizabad riots over a year ago, Yogi Adityanath had given notice:
“UP ab Gujarat banega
Faizabad shuruaat kare ga”
(UP will now be like Gujarat,
and Faizabad will the starting point)
Modi had thus far largely dwelt on a development theme but the mega riot in Muzaffarnagar provided the Hindutva foot soldiers with a communal torch to carry from constituency to constituency in UP and beyond.
These, then, were the ingredients which brought Modi to power – an unprecedented media campaign; universal disgust with the Gandhi family; promise of development on the Gujarat model; carefully choreographed communalism to polarize votes with Congress and Mulayam Singh cast as “Muslim appeasers”; a clever system of splitting Muslim votes.
Each one of these ingredients were missing in the recent by elections. For instance, there is no Muslim population to polarize against in, say, Uttarakhand. There was no corporate backed media blitz. The Congress, particularly the Gandhis, are now too diminished to work as a “hated” foil. People feel they have been short changed with promises of “achche din” which have receded. Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav combined in Bihar as did Mulayam Singh Yadav with Mayawati, the latter by not contesting. And “Love Jihad” simply did not look like a credible allegation against a battered and bruised community.
Above all, the voter recoiled on intemperate speech and rank bad manners on the part of Yogi Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj and their cohorts.
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Thursday, September 18, 2014
Friday, September 12, 2014
Obama’s Coalition: Willing To Wound And Yet Afraid To Strike
As soon as President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced his intention to lead a Coalition of the Willing to “degrade and destroy” the ISIS, his core coalition partners began to fidget and reach out for the exit door.
British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond said “UK will not be taking part in the air strikes in Syria”. He said the Syrian issue had been debated threadbare in the British Parliament. Policy enunciated in the House of Commons cannot be upturned.
A hand from across the Atlantic must have tweaked Prime Minister David Cameron’s ears, because his spokesman said Britain had not ruled out anything.
German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “We haven’t been asked nor will we do it (airstrikes). We have to be honest with ourselves: we don’t yet have a final blanket strategy which guarantees that we’ll be successful against ISIS and similar groups.” Similar misgivings in other European capitals suggest they would first like to size up the ISIS danger at home lest premature action provokes an unacceptable backlash.
Turkey has said “no” to any participation in the conflict and Jordan says it is worried about Gaza.
Syria has been succinct in its response. “Any foreign intervention in Syria would be an act of aggression against the country unless it is approved by Damascus.” But if asked, Syria would oblige.
Russia says: “Airstrikes against Islamist militants in Syria without a UN Security Council mandate will be an act of aggression.”
After the US National Security adviser, Susan Rice’ visit, Beijing has been cautious. It has endorsed coalitions against terrorism as a general principle.
The only outright endorsement of Obama’s speech has come from Saudi Arabia and Israel. And thereby hangs a tale.
Time was when Arab statesmen considered it politically incorrect to be seen alongside Israel. Saudis have pioneered a culture of open coalition with the Jewish state. But even the Saudis can sustain this policy only upto a point. They have serious domestic concerns.
There are several reasons for Obama’s over ambitious declaration of intent. A key reason has been Saudi anxiety. King Abdullah and his bevy of princes have been quaking in their long robes ever since Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared a Caliphate and conquered large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. By reliable accounts, he has 30,000 men with the most sophisticated weapons, armour, personal carriers, helicopters all left behind by externally financed, then abandoned, mercenary Jehadis. As a result of chaos at Tripoli airport there were fears that ISIS may have access to transport planes as well.
It is common knowledge among West Asian observers that Paul Bremer, the first US Representative in Baghdad, was overzealous in disbanding Saddam Hussains Revolutionary Guards, secret police, armed forces and indeed, the Baath Party structure. This entire lot reared in a culture of secrecy under Saddam Hussain, proceeded to live below the radar waiting for the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to be sensitive to the Baathists. This lot were atheists when they were in harness but they began to turn to the mosque in their bad days. After all, even Saddam Hussain had “Allah” inscribed on the Iraqi flag only after Operation Desert Storm. And that operation was launched from Saudi Arabia in 1992. The Saudis were the cheerleaders then.
Since the occupation of Iraq in 2003, Islam as a tactic slowly transformed itself into Islam – the faith native to Iraqis since pre Baath days. At the fall of Saddam Hussain, who were the cheer leaders? The Saudis, ofcourse.
The vacuum created by Saddam’s fall, was filled in by the Shia majority in the South. Suddenly the world (and the Saudis) realized that Shias were a majority in Iraq by a long margin. Earlier, after, the Taleban were ousted from Kabul in 2001, there was the usual wringing of hands. A Salafi-Wahabi bulwark against Shia Iran had been removed.
The Saudis began to beat their breast. “The Shia axis; the Shia axis.” So, every extremist Sunni group was injected into Syria to topple the Super Alawi Bashar al Assad even though the overriding concern was to break the Teheran, Damascus, Hezbullah, Gaza chain. At one stage according to UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi, there were 64 different groups in operation inside Syria, each more unsavoury than the other. One ghastly fellow posted a video of him gouging out the opponent’s liver for a macabre feast.
Well, this lot has conflated with the Baathists in Iraq and some who may have defected from the Syrian establishment. This powerful machine on the move is giving Saudis nightmares. ISIS is a hotchpotch of Wahabis, Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood wedded to an Islamized Baathist structure. This Caliphate has become a rallying force for rampaging anti Americanism in the Muslim world. Worry of worries, inside European countries too. For the Saudis the omens are worse. A Caliphate is not a Caliphate without Mecca. Is the ISIS headed for Mecca?
The Syrian government would like to see the ISIS bombed, but the US cannot make a sudden U-turn and incorporate Syria into the otherwise wobbly coalition. Saudis will throw yet another fit.
Teheran, like Baghdad and Damascus, would like the Sunni energy of ISIS to be exhausted without being seen to be in the fight. It would not like to be seen externally as a sectarian force. Inside Iran, proximity to the US, beyond the nuclear deal, would alienate the powerful hardliners.
Teheran would not like to upset the status quo in Riyadh. “An alternative to the present regime may be more in the grip of the Wahabi clergy whose extremism is boundless.” So, King Abdullah and co. are fine. Behind the scenes, Iran has co-operated with the US and the Saudis in accepting Haider al Abadi as a successor to the sectarian Nouri al Maliki.
Meanwhile, Obama’s Congressmen face elections in November. A mega show has to be mounted to take the cameras off the unspeakable mess in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Gaza etcetera etcetera..
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Saturday, September 6, 2014
Friday, September 5, 2014
Can Zawahiri Add To Communal Cauldron Already Full?
How dangerous are Ayman al Zawahiri’s exhortations to Muslims on the sub continent?
There is an expression in Hindi, “Soney pey suhaga”, suhaga being the powder which makes gold shine. In a volatile social situation, where communal polarization is an electoral requirement until key state elections are out of the way, the Zawahiri slogan may have some short term advantages for the ruling party. It is perverse to say so but that is the way it is.
In the division of labour between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah, Modi will be the assertive statesman, from New Delhi to the ends of the world. That is the way he has managed to get himself projected.
The media has not spotted the paradox. The man who came to power riding the crest of the biggest media campaign in history has, after having come to power, distanced himself from the media. He is establishing the rhythm: the media will be available when he needs it.
In this he is following the dictum of the genius who marketed the Beatles, Brian Epstein, the first manager of the singing sensations. For better publicity, Epstein kept the press at a distance. So far this approach has served Modi well.
The more onerous task has been left to Amit Shah, the party president. His job is to keep pushing the frontiers of communalism, to create circles of Hindu consolidation around the Muslim individuals, neighbourhoods, villages, markets, fairs. This is not communalism for its own sake but more as an electoral asset, from state to state, constituency to constituency.
At this phase of the Hindu Rashtra project, the al Qaeda’s exhortations will help Hindu consolidation that much more. In fact Amit Shah may well survey the scene and proclaim with satisfaction: with such enemies, who needs friends?
With the sort of defence being offered by the great secular, youth trio of Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav and Omar Abdullah, Amit Shah will score one field goal after another.
Shrewdly anticipating more defeats coming his way in the state elections, Rahul has charged off to the security of Amethi, making cow eyes at TV cameras. Of all the images he could pick to chastise the Prime Minister, he has settled for one where Modi looked exceptionally good: competing with a Japanese drum beater. Modi played the drums with great dexterity, like a Gujarati practiced in dandia rasa. But Rahul thought he shouldn’t be doing this while food prices were high.
Just that morning newspapers were full of stories about former Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Sathasivan being made governor of Kerala without any cooling off period, but Rahul was focused on the Japanese drums. Yogi Adityanath has not only declared it a Hindu nation, but has unilaterally changed street names in places like Gorakhpur. He announced these changes on TV. Does the Congress Vice President have nothing to say?
Modi in his very first speech in Parliament had the honesty to blame India’s many debilities on the fact that it had been under “foreign rule for 1,200 years”. I disagree with him but I respect him for having said something Congressmen believe in but do not have the courage to say. They will try to please Muslims privately but keep publicly mum on that issue. Does Rahul even understand the nuances of the issue at hand? Front pages of newspapers have been carrying photographs of men being given bucket baths in city squares as part of the ritual preparatory to their return to the Hindu fold from Christianity. Love Jehad is the flavour of the season. Any thoughts, Rahul?
Akhilesh Yadav in Lucknow and Omar Abdullah, who rules Kashmir from his bungalow in New Delhi, are a shade worse than Rahul. They have thrown in the towel for the next round. The word to their partymen is: we are not coming back in the next round. So help yourselves.
With such an open field, does Amit Shah need more polarizing material from Zawahiri? In the established custom of the Indian media, Zawahiri will be sourced to Pakistan and some high decibel discussions will be mounted in which masochistic, retired, Pakistani Generals will make guest appearances to be shouted at. Is it a fix like World Heavyweight Wrestling?
Given this state of play, chances are that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s mangoes will be reciprocated with some Gujarati dhokalas only after the elections in Jammu and Kashmir are over in January. Until then, communalism is an electoral necessity and an opening with Pakistan is incompatible with this requirement. Unless, ofcourse, Modi lives upto his reputation of being capable of surprises.
By this time the nation may well have lived through its most intense phases of communal tension. Amit Shah’s electoral needs will have been exhausted only by February. There may be some relief then or there may not be depending how the Hindu Rashtra project can be navigated alongside “sub ka saath, sub ka vikas”.
Desperate Muslim youth may at that stage be in search for a rallying force, but I find it difficult to believe that Zawahiri kind of Islam, extracted from Saudi Wahabism, will have a burgeoning clientele in India. The danger will arise when more muscular forces like the ISIS, with their mastery over the new media technology begin reaching out to pockets of agitated Muslims on social networks. That would be dangerous because the turmoil in West Asia is a regular part of the Arab and Western media diet. They have some understanding of issues from their different perspectives.
On foreign affairs Indian audiences have no sources of information other than what is doled out to them by outsiders. We have so far survived being frogs in the well. But this time a huge tsunami may be drifting in our direction. For nation not to have its feet on ground will be dangerous. Television channels must mount informed discussions, along with the staple of shouting matches.
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