Friday, April 24, 2015

Yemen Reminded Us Again: Indian Media Aloof From World Affairs

Yemen Reminded Us Again: Indian Media Aloof From World Affairs
                                                                                            Saeed Naqvi

Werner Adam, the late foreign Editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine, used to tell me a story about his meeting in Moscow with India’s Ambassador, T.N. Kaul.

Kaul had barely started his conversation with Adam when his secretary tip toed in and handed Kaul a slip of paper. “Dobrynin on the line”, Kaul whispered to Adam. He then proceeded to have a conversation with Anatoly Dobrynin, Moscow’s ambassador to Washington since 1962 and now Gorbachev’s principal adviser on Foreign Affairs, with almost undiplomatic informality.

Adam was surprised that there were no Indian correspondents in a capital where the embassy had extraordinary access to the highest echelons in the Kremlin.

There were countless newspots where Indian journalists could have had extraordinary access but newspaper proprietors had no interest.

An idea was floated that a public service multimedia be established. The independence of this outfit would be insured by, say, a nine member Board of Trustees to be chaired by someone of impeccable credentials. The Board would insulate the editorial from both, the government as well as the market.

Prime Ministers like Rajiv Gandhi, Inder Gujral, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh moved some distance on this project but were not encouraged by their respective bureaucracies. Manmohan Singh actually set up a committee in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to consider the proposal. How could a government department conceive setting up an independent media?

By the same token, how can a Prime Minister be involved in such an enterprise? There is only one explanation: because India Inc is not high minded enough quite yet to singly or collectively sink a billion dollars in what will, without any shadow of a doubt, be a great national institution.

In the year he has been Prime Minister, Narendra Modi must have acquainted himself with importance of the media in the conduct of foreign affairs.

In a sense, the World Information Order has continued to be divided between countries which control the sources of information, the old metropolitan centres of control and countries which are passive recipients of images and imperial punditry. It could not be helped when these nations were coming out of colonialism. But for lively democracies like India to acquiesce in information systems that obtained at the time of independence is deplorable and demeaning.

The irony is that even as we remain pulverized for reasons unknown, China, Iran and Russia, among others, have mounted international affairs programmes, with reporters spread across the world.

One would have thought stories emanating from these societies would have no traction in a world accustomed to “western style democracies”. But this clearly is no longer the case. Either Iran’s Press TV, China’s CCTV and Russian TV are being directly watched in countries they are not being blocked in or all the material they telecast is available on websites, multiplying rapidly.

When global TV was launched during Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, virtually as a follow up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West had marched way ahead, armed with new satellite technology. But within two decades, it had frittered away its credibility. There was a simple reason for declining reliability. When wars break out, the first casualty always is the truth. Propaganda takes over. Since the US has been more or less in a continuous state of war, big or small, since the Soviet collapse, the media has had to be in something of a propaganda mode. Hence the declining credibility.

In 2011, the help of Al Jazeera TV was enlisted for the attack on Libya because Arab audiences were no longer believing CNN and BBC.

And now, the Western media has thrown up its hands in despair over “Russia winning the publicity war in Ukraine”. First, Western journalists embarked on a relentless one sided coverage. Later, they began to blame Ukrainian journalists, “who are choosing patriotism over professional standards”. This quote, from Olexander Martynenko, Director of Ukraine’s leading news agency, appears in The Economist. The magazine proceeds to ask the pithy question: “how much Ukraine’s journalists are aiding its cause by forgoing impartiality is debatable”.

News is that all the citadels of Liberty in the US and the European Union are contemplating projects to meet the Russian propaganda challenge.

Recently, the Indian Navy performed a remarkable rescue of 4640 Indians and 960 foreigners from Yemen. It is a shame no Indian channel made any effort to cover the story. Much after the event, a sheepish looking reporter paced the deck of a ship docked in Bombay as an apologia for not having been where the action was. Ofcourse, it would be dangerous to be in Yemen in the midst of air strikes. But how did that CNN reporter reach Aden?

Wars are going on, not just in Yemen, but all over West Asia. Ukraine is a classic example where Indian coverage could have struck a balance between two hotly debated versions.

How long will our political class be content with BBC, CNN and Fox News providing us news from Afghanistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal? Soon elections in Hong Kong will be in focus. Will the fact that there will be a heavy China angle to the story stir the Indian media?

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Refusing To Fight In Yemen, Pakistan Rediscovers Its Centre Of Gravity

Refusing To Fight In Yemen, Pakistan Rediscovers Its Centre Of Gravity
                                                                                                    Saeed Naqvi
General Zia ul Haq must have turned in his grave. Pakistan’s refusal to participate in the war in Yemen in response to a Saudi request is an event of far reaching consequences. This is the first real signal that Arabization of the South Asian country, Zia’s project, never really took roots.

This is why a request from King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, that Pakistan send ground troops and attack aircraft in support for the Kingdom’s war with its southern neighbour, was unanimously rejected by Pakistan’s National Assembly.

Clearly, Pakistan’s participation in the war on the side of Saudi Arabia against Houthis, a Shiite group, would have sharpened Sunni-Shia tensions. After all, 20 percent of Pakistan’s population is Shia.

That the Saudis and their GCC cohorts have been shouting from every minaret that they face an existential danger with Iran’s growing influence makes it that much more problematic for any country to side with King Salman in this expedition. Why should a country which has a sensitive border with Iran pick a quarrel with it? That too at a time when the P5+1 have just unlocked the nuclear door through which Iran will walk out to join the international community as a regional power.

This precisely is what the House of Saud are in convulsions about. The rise of Iran is disturbing for Israel too as is clear from fits Benjamin Netanyahu has been throwing.

There are multiple reasons why Pakistan’s help was sought. An air campaign against Houthis was simply not working without ground support. Pakistani soldiers in support would have given heart to a demoralized Saudi coalition.

What would have mattered most to the Saudis was for Islamabad to line up with them, not for purposes of war alone but for the new balance of power Americans are trying to create in the region.

In the balance which lasted so far, Riyadh, Jerusalem, Cairo, Ankara were all power centres holding onto the US apron strings. These strings may not be around for long for Gulf Arabs and Israel to clutch. The sole super power is inclined to shed its day to day west Asian responsibilities to be able to attend to its bigger challenge in the Pacific. For the first time regional powers dependent on US support are having to contemplate life without it.

The US is not cutting loose quite as yet but is certainly packing up its bags. While it prepares itself for tasks ahead, it is helping clients like Saudi Arabia to mop their brow and be steady on their feet to be able to cope with an invigorated Iran about to enter the ring.

The US held back its air power in Tikrit until Iran led militia had abandoned the encirclement of the ISIS. It was sending a message to its regional clients. Yes, a nuclear deal was about to be signed with Iran. But balance of power would not be allowed to swing in Iran’s favour.

By helping Saudis with intelligence and mid air refueling, the US is reassuring Riyadh and other allies that it was helping thwart Houthi interests. Since the Houthis were Shias, Iranian influence was automatically checked.

This facile appraisal of a complex social and religious reality which the media is blaring out is dangerous for the Saudis who may already be finding themselves in a fix.

The impression being created is this: once the Shia Houthis are pummeled adequately, the 25 million Yemenis will fly kisses to the aircraft pounding their country.

When the Caliphate ended in Turkey in 1924, a system of Imams still operated in Yemen until 1962. When Nasser’s Arab socialism swept Aden, the Imam scooted, making peace with the Saudis, even giving them control of towns of Najran and Jizan on the Red Sea.

The earliest clashes the Saudis had with the Houthis in Saada province, abutting the border near Jizan, was on Eid e Ghadir. The Shias believed on this day the Prophet declared Ali his successor.

Mention this to the Saudis and they see red. But the rest of the population, many of whom trace their lineage to a branch of the fourth Imam and are called Zaidis are either positive or indifferent. I have seen them say their prayers in the famous mosque built by Ali in the old city of Sanaa. What does one make of it?

The Shia-Sunni label is highly misleading. The Shafi school of Islam which governs the population of Yemen is only technically Sunni. In its belief systems, it is more proximate to the partsans of Ali.

Shia-Sunni, therefore, is a false divide. The basic divide in the Muslim world is between those opposed to Ali and those who are not. In this framework, the Saudis and Yemenis are on opposite sides; Yemenis and Iranians are not.

The request by Saudi Arabia that Pakistan fight for them in Yemen was actually an invitation into blind, cavernous sectarianism.

By its historic vote, the National Assembly has located the nation’s centre of gravity in the sensible middle ground. With this vote the image of militancy, extremism, intolerance does not fade away but it certainly recedes into the margins. There is deep symbolism in another announcement made by Islamabad. From May 1, all mosques will call the Azaan (call to prayer) at the same time, irrespective of sects.

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Friday, April 10, 2015

Which Will Be Admired Most: Gujarat, Delhi or Tripura?

Which Will Be Admired Most: Gujarat, Delhi or Tripura?
                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

The embarrassing news that India ranks 101th in the Social Progress Index among 133 countries, lower than even Nepal, may well be the right occasion to narrow the focus on States which might be examined as milestones. This examination will have to be done by serious social scientists. An itinerant journalist can offer no more than a bird’s eye view.

In Human Index, Kerala remains the pioneer but its copy has been blotted in recent years on other counts including that of governance. States like Tamilnadu rule themselves out because they fall short on the corruption criteria. Gujarat is in because the media gives it brownie points. Even so, final judgement must await thorough studies.

Exactly the opposite are the circumstances of the Aam Aadmi Party. The media has turned upon it. But if attendance at the India International Centre for Ashutosh’s book release is any indication the negative images of the past month may fade as a bad memory. In which case it will be worth the while to see what Delhi’s Human Development Index will look like some years from now.

One State, which has been ploughing its furrow diligently with some quite extraordinary results on the Human Development scale is one which no one discusses – Tripura. Is the State with a population of 40 lakhs, not in focus because it is small? Only Sikkim and Goa are smaller. Or is the media squeamish about applauding a State which for 32 of the past 37 years has been under Left Front rule?

Some of its records are amazing. Its 96 percent literacy makes it the country’s most literate State. Literacy rate in Gujarat is 83 per cent.

Life expectancy of 71 years for men and 73 for women too is a record. In Gujarat, it is 64 and 66. Tripura’s Bengali population ruins the absence of gender bias among tribals. Even so, it is 961 as against 918 in Gujarat.

The great genius the leadership has demonstrated is in grasping an essential truth: like politics, good governance too is essentially the art of the possible. Instead of beating its breast and flailing its arm around, the regime picked up all the Central and State schemes, put its head down, called in the officials, party cadres, involved the three tier Panchayati Raj system and gave a sense of real participation to the elected Autonomous District Councils which cover two thirds of the State and all the Tribal areas of Tripura.

This is the key. The basic conflict in the State, one which exploded as the fiercest insurgency in the North East, was on the tribal-non tribal faultline.

Under the Maharajas, who figure in mythology, Tripura was overwhelmingly tribal. But after the creation of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), Hindu Bengalis from contiguous territories that were once managed by the Maharaja, migrated to Tripura. The tribals, (a total of 19 tribes) became a minority in the State. The 70:30 ratio in favour of the tribals was exactly inverted. Today 70 percent of the population is Bengali.

The Congress, born for power, fell back on the simple divide and rule strategy, pocketing the Bengali vote bank. If ever there was a shortfall, there was always a tribe to be played against the other.

A great tribal, communist leader, Dashrath Deb had seen the future. He launched Jana Shiksha Abhiyan or campaign for education among tribals in 1945 forcing the Maharaja to recognize 500 primary schools, which mushroomed and today saturate the State – a school every kilometer.

It was from this wide base that the tribals gravitated towards communism while the Bengalis were turning towards the Congress. While the Congress was content with sectarian divine, a leader like Nripen Chakraborty accurately gauged the difficult social reality: without tribal support all Bengali agenda would be circumscribed. Likewise, tribals would not advance without Bengali help. The call went out: tribal-non tribal unity was the absolute imperative.

The idea flared up, across the State for two reasons. Tribals, who had taken to communism in the 40s and 50s, grasped the idea instantly. In driblets, Bengalis too came into the fold. So, while the Left slowly expanded its platform of unity, the Congress persisted with its Bengali focus, not without electoral gains. True, the Left Front has 50 seats in a House of 60, but the 36 percent of the opposition vote share must be largely credited to the Congress.

What keeps the electorate, indeed the population persistently in the Left’s thrall is the universally accepted incorruptibility of the leadership. Congress MLA Gopal Roy shook his head in agreement “personal incorruptibility cannot be denied”.

The first Left Front Chief Minister Nripen Chakraborty (1978 to 88) entered and left the official residence with same two tin trunks – full of clothes, books, and a shaving kit. Grocery purchases for the CM’s household were made on a ration card. Modern capitalism would probably consider him a pariah because he never had a bank account.

His disciple, Manik Sarkar, Chief Minister for 17 years without a break, is equally austere. He is known to have walked to the office on occasion. His wife, a school teacher, goes to work on a rickshaw.

Incredibly, the CM finds time to review all major Central and State schemes. He had completed an implementation review of the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme when I met him in his spartan office, decorated with a Tagore photograph.

“We have already distributed 85 days worth of work out of the 100 for the year mandated under MNREGA” beams the CM. “Maharashtra is the next best and it has not yet completed 50 days.”

In efficient implementation of schemes, the State has no parallels. Clinics, schools, anganwadi, infant and mother care, electricity distribution and, above all, building roads, connecting the remotest areas. All of this has created an atmosphere for general tranquility. Director General of Police K. Nagaraj leaves you quite stunned. “There is very little crime in the State – negligible.” This is a miracle in a State where people were afraid to leave their homes three years ago because of the insurgency. “Perfect co-ordination between the police and the politician is the only explanation.”

Heaven knows what feedback Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has on his Swatch Bharat or clean India mission, but if he were to send his officers to some of the more remote parts of Tripura, they would rub their eyes with wonder at what has been achieved in such a short period.

The road from Agartala winds around Longtarai hill range to Ambassa, about 80 kms away. A measure of the administration’s reach is Kumardhan Para, at a forbidding height.

A few years ago, folks at the village walked 18 kms to reach grocery stores in Ambassa. Today the Kumardhan peak has been conquered; a motorable road has been laid right upto the village centre. Little wonder Milind Ramteke, IAS, Collector of Ambassa (Dhallai) and his Block Development Officer, Amitabh Chakma, are local heroes, village after village.

Implementation of the Prime Minister’s toilet scheme has not escaped supervision of the Chief Minister’s office. Kumardhan village was provided with pucca toilets along with small, underground water tanks. The peer pressure of the entire village on each other, visible cleanliness, has made the scheme a success in a short period.

The problems of Tripura, in a sense, begin now. The King of Bhutan floated the idea of Gross National Happiness. That, roughly, has been Tripura’s trajectory. But it is now on an efficient welfare plateau. What next? It has an inimitable school network. But very little by way of college and technical education. There are no openings for the educated youth. The State, surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh looks admiringly at Shaikh Haseena. Indo-Bangla friendship will give it access to Chittagong port, 70 kms away.

The regime is not paranoid, but it is aware that the Church networks affect both college and post college job scene. A middle class so created is inherently anti “Left”, says a CPM leader. Moreover, further penetration of the Church would provide an opening to Hindutva forces to enter the scene with a sectarian agenda.

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