Monday, December 24, 2007

Dawn of Intelligence

In a dramatic admission of earlier negligence (although not in so many words), the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a report published by the co-ordination of the 16 intelligence agencies in the United States pronounced that Iran was not proceeding with a nuclear weaponisation programme since 2003. This admission came at a time, when the U.S. Administration was doing all that was necessary to ratchet up confrontation against yet another nation in the USA's perceived “axis of evil”, Iran. Only two years ago, the NIE had concluded differently, insinuating that Iran was a budding nuclear weapon threat, an estimate that ultimately led to the referral of Iran to the UN Security Council by the IAEA board of governors.
The main loser in the aftermath of this report is definitely the neo-conservative group in the United States establishment which has been hell bent upon going on the military path against Iran a la Iraq. The antipathy for the Islamic Republic in Iran in the US is not a secret and the current George Bush establishment has tried every trick in the book to go in for a military confrontation against the country. Making up the case for military intervention has been a series of revelations, insinuations coming about from different “intelligence sources”, and the threats have been built up step by hostile step from unilateral economic sanctions to naming the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist outfit. President Bush had even mentioned about the threat of World War III in the offing from a “nuclear armed” Iran. Such was the sabre rattling, as the hardline Iranian President's response to such hostility was defiance and a fall back to the tested means of combating international pressure, stronger nationalism, and emphasising Iran's sovereignty.

The Indian response to the unfolding drama involving the United States and Iran since 2003 has been a part of what this author considers a paradigm change in the nation's previously considered independent foreign policy. Ever since the earlier intelligence estimates in the United States had warned of a nuclear armed Iran and the US administration went upon taking the international community on board in an attempt to sideline, censure the Iranian regime and even threatening to impose unilateral military action, the Indian response has been contradictory to the affirmed non-aligned policy. India, in contrast to their public postures on supporting Iran's right to persist with a civilian nuclear programme, under the aegis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT of which Iran was a signatory) and IAEA safeguards, voted against Iran in the IAEA in 2005 in a case that took the Iran nuclear issue to the security council. This act by India, was according to some experts due to coercion by the United States, who wanted Indian co-option as part of a quid pro quo for the nuclear deal agreement which was built in 2005.

This in turn caused bitterness between Iran and India, even as the nations formally affirmed to keep the still continuing talks on the natural gas pipeline through Pakistan going. On the ground, at every behest of the Bush regime to pressurize the Iranians through sanctions and threats, there have been consequences in the Indian relationship with Iran. Recently the State Bank of India stopped issuing Letters of Credit to Iranian companies. There has been a visible impasse in the pipeline talks eventhough conceptually the project is a slam dunk for addressing energy concerns in the country. Although the Indian side claims that there is no pressure on the culmination of the project, the slowdown in the talks point toward a political negligence to address the bottlenecks (mostly in pricing) quickly and move ahead with the implementation of the pipeline project. In the meantime, China and Russia have upped their relationship with Iran, as they sense the necessity for stronger ties to buttress the energy partnership with a fossil fuel rich Iran.

Obviously, the paradigm shift in Indian foreign policy to cohere with a bandwagoning process and closer relationship with the global hegemon, is not paying any dividends for India in the west Asian region. Defenders of this shift had argued that there were shared areas of concern for India and the US about a nuclear armed Iran and hence the coherence in policy. Now that the NIE has said it with “high confidence” that the nuclear weaponisation programme in Iran had been wrapped up in 2003, it brings into question, India's vote against Iran in the IAEA for short term expediency, without any correct assessment of both the international situation as well as Iran's considerations. It must also be pointed out that the “better late than never” dawning of sense in the intelligence agencies in the US was despite the IAEA's repeated mention about the correct nature of Iran's nuclear programme. That it was virtually the very same intelligence community in the US that had decided to build a phony case for a brazen, illegal war and occupation of Iraq, points out to the fact that this community has grown tired of the hawkish neocon establishment in the country.

For the ordinary political watcher, who is not privy to the Kafkaesque dealings of the murky world of spooks, spies, and the security agencies of various countries, it will be difficult to comment upon the technical details and veracity of findings of amorphous intelligence bodies, which have a closed-door way of functioning in a complicated bureaucracy such as the United States'. It would be therefore difficult to say anything for sure about nuclear weaponisation projects in countries such as Iran too, as such projects inevitably involve covert transfers, illicit deals and thick veils of secrecy. Some in India point out that the Indian vote against Iran was driven by the fact that illicit sales of nuclear fuel and components existed between Iran and the A.Q.Khan network, even as it is necessary to mention that Iran voluntarily declared its nuclear enrichment activities to the IAEA in October 2003. But indeed, it is imperative to mention that careful calibration of foreign policy is a must, and this policy making must not be bothered only about short term expediency or hinge only on one point agendas, as the Indo-US nuclear deal seems to be for the current ruling regime (the UPA) in India. By making it a point to bank upon a divisive and hugely unpopular George Bush regime as being the cornerstone for the “new enlightened national interest driven foreign policy”, India has burnt its hands in west Asia vis-a-vis Iran.

India should for a first step, try to mend its relationship with Iran, which has been affected by the events since 2003. The bottlenecks in business relationships in the trading and banking sectors,that have ensued because of the American insistence, must be done away with, immediately. Whatever hurdle that seems to persist in the final culmination of the gas pipeline, has to be addressed with solid political endeavour. And hopefully, India can be resilient enough to demand that the United States give up the path of confrontation, pre-emption and naked hegemony, a legacy of the Bush administration and focus on strengthening the international institutions which are already dime-a-dozen present to prevent nuclear weapon profileration, conclude world peace and transact the business of maintaining world harmony.

The saving grace of the NIE's report is the fact that the war hawks have their wings clipped and hopefully the US administration (even the forthcoming one in 2008) realises that the best way to solve international problems is to use international instruments and institutions. And also the fact that diplomacy still remains a viable, tried, tested method of addressing disputes. Perhaps, the forthcoming US administration will also show the willpower and imagination to engage regimes that are not close to the US, in a way that builds future cooperation through the use of moral norms of mutual respect. Which means that the US can cooperate with Iran and use the stature of the nation in stabilising the environs in west Asia, particularly in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. One hopes that there is further dawning of intelligence among the various decision making structures of different nations' leadership.

Article written for "The Post"

Friday, December 14, 2007

A non violent protest and lessons

December 10th is widely marked across the world as Human Rights Day. On the precise day in Mumbai, a symbolic protest was organised by an umbrella organisation led by the youth federation of the biggest leftist party in India, the CPI(M). The protest involved a boycott of the local municipal train network at some of the most busiest junctions in the western sector of the Mumbai Metropolitan train service. The boycott of the train service was near total with commuters preferring either to stay home on the working day or to use alternative means of transport to go to work. The simple use of a non-violent protest to register the disaffection with the problematic rail service was enough to bring media and authority attention on the strenuous conditions that governed rail-travel in India's most populated, dense and vibrant city, Mumbai. The protestors demanded increased frequency of service to reduce the load in the trains during peak hours in select stations where passenger density was the highest. Officials in charge of the railway functioning responded by promising to act upon assurances made earlier, much more quickly. In effect the registered protest was successful in raising the consciousness of the authorities about the pressing problems of the commuters.

When I arrived in Mumbai to start my journalistic career, I was terribly appalled at the crowded and almost dehumanized travel conditions that one had to experience while getting onto the trains to go to work. Apparently, the trains are the most convenient and the fastest way to travel, because of severe congestion in road transport, owing to near dilapidated traffic conditions as well as the profusion of private transport in the form of cars. The train service strives on manfully connecting arterially nearly every major location within the city and nearly 3/4th of the population uses this facility for commuting. However, the increase in population and no corresponding commensurate increase in facility has meant that trains are extremely crowded featuring heavy densities of commuters packed in stuffy compartments. In the western sector, particularly, the stuffing is so immense that many passengers fall off the train while travel, and there has been a rise in such casualties. Elaborate promise were made to ensure that there would be effective increases in rail services in the form of newer train rakes and lines, but the implementation has been at best ineffective, owing to delays in project fructification and lack of political will to address immediate relief to the harassed commuters. In the meantime, the commuters themselves have become sufficiently dehumanized to accept these conditions as they have adjusted to this packed stuffing experience as a normal routine. I personally would admit to that. Jostling and pushing for space and a tendency to elbow my way through is now a daily routine and I am surprised when I recall much shocked I was initially when I first used the service merely five months ago.

Not that I am not used to crowded trains. A stint in the suburbs of Tokyo for two years was responsible for experiencing similar crowded conditions in train travel. However, the relative comfort of the air conditioned trains and the seeming order displayed by the commuters made travel feel less strenuous, and quite fulfilling, in stark contrast to the experience of similar train travel in Mumbai. Suburban trains play as much an important role as in Mumbai in the extended city complex from Tokyo to Yokohama and the train network is the lifeline for transport for the dense populace within these industrial sectors. The hallmark of transportation in Tokyo is the substantively well maintained train network which include a slew of overground and underground trains and the fact that private transport in the form of cars and motor vehicles is more or less only secondary. In contrast in Mumbai, even though train transport remains the preferred option among the working classes, the proliferation of individual owned private transport has clogged the arteries of the roads in the city.

Added to the above fact is that expanding roads and constructing new ones has become a even more difficult proposition because of the encroachment problems. Lack of very effective urban planning has meant that every effort toward a consolidated model of comfortable urban transportation is complicated by the automatic but unplanned increase in pressure on services because of population increase or shrinkage of spaces. Thus infrastructure is one of the major constraints in building an effective transportation facility in quick time. There are plans aplenty to introduce newer services ranging from underground “metros” or “tube rails” to overhanging “skybuses” to cater to the burgeoning population and the Mumbai Urban Transport Project is co-ordinating the implementation of these plans. Land-sea links are being constructed to emulate similar mega projects that have been attempted in other cities such as Shanghai. High profile underground rail projects are being envisioned in line with the implementation of similar projects in other metros such as Delhi and Kolkata in India. Some amount of scepticism however remains vis-a-vis the burgeoning cost of such projects and whether at all the returns will be generated quickly and is commensurate with the costs.

That lack of enough will in quick implementation as well as a co-ordinated strategy to address the reasons for the same is what plagues Mumbai, is understood by nearly all stakeholders in the city. The problems of congestion and high burden is a complicated one. Apart from the slow implementation initiatives, there are other complex factors of increased migration to the city from the hinterlands in the country. Migration due to lack of sufficient rural economic growth and lopsided development is just another story. Yet, even these problems could be much mitigated if the city planners are responsive enough to spread out the developing locations away from the main metropolis, another area which requires concerted effort by the government which unfortunately leaves this duty in the hands of profit minded entrepreneurs and private bodies.

The suggestions to improve the functioning of the city in the age of globalisation and liberalisation veer down to “corporate solutions” such as naming of CEOs for the city and leaving the job of managing the city to an elite group of technocrats serviced by private corporations. Such suggestions do not consider the import of the necessity of assuring that citizens' democratic bodies capable of self regulation and participatory decision making are more efficient in conjunction with dedicated government action. But these are long term solutions. Short term effective solutions should consider that elaborate mechanisms such as queuing before boarding in stations, presence of services to be activated for accident casualties, and proper boards and signals to prevent passengers from using rail lines to cross platforms be assured. This would help reduce the dehumanisation that plagues commuting today in the city.

The non-violent protest undertaken on December 10th tells us a few things. The people in Mumbai who have been using the train services and have experienced near tortuous conditions of travel have had it enough. They want the promises made to be delivered quickly. The form of protest and the near unanimous participation also points out to the fact that the people want to get on with their lives in peace and do not want a confrontational attitude with the establishment, but only want them to be responsive to their needs and be sympathetic to their travails. Affordable, safe and comfortable travel is a minimum guarantee that blue collar workers, toilers, employees in the vast service industry, etc in Mumbai need. That means a responsive establishment, concerned for the plight of it's fellow citizens who are the lifeline of the vibrant economy that Mumbai projects itself to be, is the need of the hour. Which in turn means that this establishment must re-orient its efforts to take steps to handle the problem itself and not leave it for speculators and large corporations to take them up. This also means that citizens who have shown restraint in their ways of protest and hence responsibility, should show the same concern for the fellow passenger while alighting the clogged trains. A concerted effort therefore requires all sections of the society to act socially in help overcoming the beleaguered problems in urban transport.

Article written for The Post

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Bolivarian revolution is still “ON”

A referendum conducted in Venezuela to endorse a set of constitutional changes promoted by the current president Hugo Chavez and the country's National Assembly answered with a “No”. The margin was very close; nearly 51% of the voting populace saying “No”, while 49% replied with “Si” (Yes). This vote has captured analyst imagination. The constitutional changes proposed contained 69 amendments which included abolition of term limits, control over the central bank, greater grassroots democracy and planning, provisions for powers during emergencies, more social security, and rights for marginalised sections.

For nearly 9 years, Hugo Chavez's popularity has ensured that he has won almost every endorsement and every poll since his first stab at democratic power. This loss, according to analysts and people sceptical of Chavez's “populist” rule, signifies a trend away from a radical course that Chavez had embarked on for Venezuela against what is called the “Washington Consensus”. The US media in particular has been quite jubilant, as they see this vote as an indicator of decline in Chavez's rousing popularity in the Latin American state. The joy is however misplaced, in this writer's opinion.

Hugo Chavez is seen as the prime mover for the “Bolivarian revolution”, a broad term that encapsulates a viable alternative path to “neoliberal development” in Venezuela. This “revolution” seeks inspiration from democratic ideals, a vision for an egalitarian society, a co-operative unity for Latin America and a rejection of profit/pelf generating capitalism. Obviously, such a vision therefore finds itself closer to a new socialism and the call for egalitarianism and social justice makes Venezuela invoke pride in the presence of alternative systems such as that in Cuba. Hence, the constant evocation to Fidel Castro's Cuba and the close economic and international ties with the socialist state.

This pitch to America's “prime enemy”, Fidel's Cuba, and the call for socialism, is a huge problem for Chavez's antagonists, mostly those from privileged sections opposed in toto to the pro-poor turn in Venezuela's political economy enunciated by Chavez. A broad section of such antagonists were the prime movers for the “No” vote in the referendum, helped as usual by the domineering agent provocateurs from the north in the USA. The US has a history of sabotage and notorious meddling in Latin American affairs. It's avowed endeavor to bring about regime changes and disrupting any move to bring about radical change in Latin American countries, through crass means of assassination of leaders, sabotage, engineered coups, covert support is legion. The Venezuelan security agencies published yet another account of such an operation planned by covert operatives of the US secret agencies to sabotage and create an atmosphere for the “No” vote, just before the referendum. This operation involved wide usage of the mass media, groups opposed to Chavez (who had earlier participated in the aborted 2002 presidential coup) and others.

Yet, it would be futile to suggest that the “No” vote was won through external meddling. There are deep structural reasons for the narrow loss. A very significant section of the populace who have incessantly voted for Chavez, this time, either did not vote or switched sides. The western critics' opposition to Chavez's proposed amendments were to the ones that proposed dismantling of limited number of presidential tenures. The critics cried that this was proof of Chavez wanting to “rule for life”. At best, this was a nonsensical critique. There was no call for such tenures to go on for ever without democratic approval, meaning, the president would still have to fight elections to get re-elected. It is a standard practise in democratic third world countries that ensures that leaders are subject to re-election. Just because in presidential systems such as in the US, there is a limit on the number of tenures, does not make it necessary that this must be the practice everywhere else. The insinuation that Hugo Chavez intended to stay in power “forever” is therefore a mischievous and obfuscatory critique.

The rejection of the constitutional changes was more to do with the problems that were affecting Venezuelan economy now. There has been a serious food shortage and inflation problem affecting the state now. A significant section of voters identified as “Chavistas” or Chavez supporters, particularly those who were poor and were in the informal economy were disillusioned because of these economic troubles. Conversely though, the constitutional changes were to be made in place precisely to mitigate these economic problems. The Venezuelan planners were not talking of a statist socialism (despite the evocation of Cuban success in social justice) but were asking for a “new socialism” that considered the importance of grassroots democracy, self-planning by local “communal councils”, more or less commensurate with a mixed economy that privileged empowerment of workers and poorer sections.

Chavez and his supporters, who gracefully accepted the verdict and vowed to fight on to bring these qualitative changes, however must realise the gravity of the results. The prime reasons for the “no” vote is got to do with the fact that despite high emphasis on empowerment and social justice, government mechanisms have not been sufficiently geared to bring amelioration of economic troubles. The antipathy showed by the sections of “big capital” and those who preferred the privileges for the rich in the agro-businesses and corporates indeed has affected macroeconomic processes, such as reduced distribution and decreased production as opposed to the relative increase in purchasing power of the general public in the recent past. The solution to address these problems would have been greater democratic mobilisation and more focussed regulation of the mixed market economy. The Venezuelan economy is fuelled by an over-dependence on the proceeds of crude sales, which has helped significant spending without particularly having to tax big capital and richer sections for the same. It however indeed is a very difficult job to proceed without a definite class favour, as has been the case with erstwhile socialist systems.

The “Bolivarian socialists” in Venezuela therefore are embarking upon a new path, which tries to balance the radical rhetoric with innovative action on the ground. This “new socialism” is widely seen as a “new praxis” in a changed world, an affirmation for a democratic socialism. Hugo Chavez should not get distracted by reducing this democratic process for change into a battle for merely emphasising personal charisma. Over the past few months, Chavez has tried to use his charisma to be the prime mover for the “Bolivarian revolution”. This personalised approach has meant that energies to put for a positive mobilisation is wasted on creating a maverick image. Witness, for e.g., the drama following the spat with the Spanish king and the Colombian hostage situation, in which Chavez wanted to act as a mediator. The image of a warrior against imperialism and of a messiah for redistribution can generate massive popularity, but without collective leadership and continued dynamic action, social change as a process will be slowed down only giving impetus to forces inimical to such progression.

The future years will show how robust would the “Bolivarian revolution” be in handling the many contradictions that permeate a process for achieving egalitarianism using instruments of liberal democracy. Continued empowerment, increased co-operative formations ,collective leadership, dedicated grassroots mobilisation and action can still sustain the “Bolivarian revolution”. Chavistas who were disillusioned and switched sides can still be won over, through the force of logic and action on the ground. The defeat in the referendum must remind Hugo Chavez and his vast supporters,of the old cliché, the battle might be lost, but the war is still there to be won.

Article written for The Post, Lahore

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Down the Spiral in Sri Lanka

Editorial to be published in the EPW next week.

There is a a full fledged civil war in Sri Lanka, with no end in sight

The spate of air attacks by the Sri Lankan air force and the bombings in Colombo and its environs (clearly the work of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE) is one more sign of the spiral of violence that Sri Lanka has once again descended into.

S.P.Tamilchelvan, the leader of the political wing of the Tamil insurgent organisation, was killed in an air attack by the Sri Lankan air force in Killinocchi in northern Sri Lanka. This is seen as retaliation to the earlier LTTE suicide squad and air attack on the Anuradhapura airbase that resulted in a considerable loss of face for the government. Ever since the coming to power of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Mahinda Rajapaksa with the support of the left nationalist Janatha Vimukhta Peramuna (JVP) and the Buddhist monk party, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), both fiercely committed to an “unitary” solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, the government has taken a hawkish position against the insurgents. The military campaign against the LTTE has intensified every passing day with several attacks on targets in Tamil strongholds as well as gradual weakening of the LTTE's support structure in the diaspora because of the international crackdown against any form of terrorist activity.

The Sri Lankan government's thinking is that a major military victory over the LTTE and its near annihilation is both feasible and desirable. The political arrangement after the military victory would then involve a federal devolution of power to the linguistic minorities, so goes the thinking. On the other hand, the LTTE perceives the relentless campaign against it by the government as an opportunity to get international sympathy and legitimacy for their cause. This web of violence has been pointed out by scholars (Jayadeva Uyangoda, “Back to Square One”, October 27, EPW) as having thought out by both the antagonists to advance strategic goals suited to their ultimate objectives, the establishment of Eelam for the LTTE and maintaining the integrity of the Sri Lankan nation for the Sri Lankan government.

A thaw between the principal Sinhala political parties, the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP), which resulted in a MoU between the parties was short lived, owing to petty reasons of bickering that has characterised relations between these parties for quite some time now. An All Parties Representative Conference (APRC) set up to evolve consensus on the ethnic question also ran into teething troubles, because of the intransigence of the coalition partners of the SLFP government. All this has shown that the talk of a genuine devolution of power to the Tamil minorities basically remains unfulfilled and, in the context of the drawing of daggers by both the government and the LTTE, it seems a far fetched possibility. The LTTE has, on the other hand, arrogated itself the role of the sole representative of the Sri Lankan Tamils by decimating any viable alternative Tamil opposition as the killings of leaders from the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), and other Tamil organisations prove.

Experts suggest that the Sri Lankan government's more or less easy victory in the east over the LTTE was possible, because of a tactical retreat by the rebels into the Vanni jungles in north Sri Lanka and that the latter still retain a potent guerilla force. The killing of Tamilchelvan is significant, as he was the political representative and chief negotiator of the LTTE, who was involved in talks with the Sri Lankan government and other participants in the peace process that followed the ceasefire agreement in 2002. The return to high levels of hostilities, Tamilchelvan's killing and the existing political circumstances in Colombo, suggest that no immediate rapprochement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE seems possible and the plight of the Tamils in the north is bound to worsen as the attacks and retaliations are bound to continue. Meanwhile passions for support to the Eelam cause are again being whipped up in Tamil Nadu, where Tamilchelvan's death has been termed as martyrdom by pro-Eelam political parties such as the Vaiko-led Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and fringe groups. Even the Tamil Nadu chief minister M.Karunanidhi had written a poem in the memory of Tamilchelvan, an act which had drawn criticism from the opposition and the Congress party.

The narrowing of options in Sri Lanka means that sane voices that argue for peace and pitch for innovative solutions involving devolution of power to the minorities, who have long suffered their “second class status” in Sri Lanka, are drowned out in the thirst for military victories.