India and the war within

In any nation’s history, there are periods when external challenges and domestic compulsions converge to test the ruling elite. The years 1964-66, for instance, saw the demise of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, a war with Pakistan, food insecurity and divided leadership, and eventually the 1969 Congress split. In 1973-75, the first global oil crisis singed the Indian economy, dissipating Indira Gandhi’s goodwill following India’s unmatched 1971 victory over Pakistan. The ensuing resentment and Jayaprakash Narayan-led agitation resulted in the declaration of Emergency. Finally, the years 1987-89 began with the President-Prime Minister stand-off climaxing, the Bofors tsunami swamping the government, unwise military intervention in Sri Lanka and a slide to the economic crisis of 1991.
Is India entering another such phase? That the government’s expenditure was imprudent has been long obvious. While investors abroad believed that Indian economic success was sustainable, the inflow of funds bridged the foreign exchange gap. However, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s anachronistic revenue raising methodology, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s inability to moderate Sonia Gandhi’s neo-garibi hatao distributive politics, and the failure to align the UPA allies behind further reform is paling the India story.
The strategic and political challenges abroad are also looming. The immediate ones being Pakistan-Afghanistan to the west and China to the north and east. Beyond them is the churning in the Islamic world as the forces of radical Islam, symbolised by Al Qaeda, and the wave of democratic change, in the form of Arab Spring, wash over each other. Caught in the middle is Iran, the citadel of Shia Islam, magnifying the schism between them and Sunni Islam as it battles over its nuclear programme, raising the spectre of hostilities.
Six Islamic countries are critical to this multi-layered contestation. Turkey and Indonesia, where democracy and Islam coexist and radical narratives appear marginalised, are success stories and possible models for others. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are dissimilar twins, the former custodian of the holy mosques but also the dispenser of Wahabi Islam that feeds radicalisation; the latter the sole Islamic possessor of nuclear weapons and the laboratory where the Saudi religious virus is bred and replicated. In neither is the ruling elite willing to confront the clergy. Pakistan needs to overcome this fatal dependence on Saudi funds, oil and Wahabi Islam.
Then there is Iran and Egypt. Iran is the voice and leader of the Shias, now dominating a crescent from Pakistan, through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, almost as did the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC). Egypt, the Arab League headquarters, and the font of Arab literature, cinema, television etc, with a population of 83 million, one-third under 14, will decide the success or failure of the Arab Spring. The first round of presidential election was on May 23-24. Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, with 25.3 per cent vote, and Ahmad Shafiq, a Prime Minister under the former regime of President Hosni Mubarak, with 24.9 per cent vote, were the two in front according to unofficial results. There will be a run-off on June 16-17 to decide the winner. The turn-out was a rather low 50 per cent. Hamdeen Sabahi, a Leftist inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser, ran a close third with 21 per cent vote. Abolfotoh, a moderate former Muslim Brotherhood member, came fourth. It remains to be seen what fresh alliances are worked out amongst those dropping out and the two front-runners to enable Egypt to democratically determine its ruler. Considering that the current head of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian, his organisation will be hoping to exploit the masses if the exercise gets derailed through military intervention or simply public discord. Contrariwise, success would undermine Al Qaeda’s message that political change is only possible through violence. At any rate, Indian diplomacy would have to contend with new forces and fresh faces, as the Arab world watches if a new model of governance emerges in a country that has historically been a trend setter for the Arabs.
Almost on a parallel calendar, Iran met the P5+1 (Germany) at Baghdad to see if the stand-off over the nuclear issue can be settled by dialogue and the sanctions rolled back. The talks resume in Moscow on June 18-19. The crux of the matter is how to balance the Iranian insistence that they have a right as signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to uranium enrichment and indigenous fuel production, with the US and its allies wanting uranium already enriched to 20 per cent to be transferred and a facility at Fordow, embedded in the mountainside, be shut down. Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi is expected in Delhi this week, to invite Manmohan Singh for the Non-Aligned Summit. Stuck between the US and Iran, India defensively seeks an early resolution, its diplomacy devoid of imaginative thinking.
Indian preoccupation with Pakistan persists, to the point of embarrassment, as a team led by the home secretary returned empty-handed, Pakistan reneging on visa liberalisation. The outcome was predictable seeing the fate of President Asif Ali Zardari in Chicago when his military minders held back the transit agreement, demanding $5,000 per truck carrying Nato supplies to Afghanistan from the Americans who have tendered over $20 billion of aid since 2001. US President Barack Obama refused him a formal meeting. The absurdity of Indian petroleum minister Jaipal Reddy being away to sign a TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India) gas pipeline agreement when the petrol price hike in India caused a furore is self-evident. The Pakistani Army seems to be linking trade and visa liberalisation to Sir Creek and particularly to Siachen glacier. Linkages have returned, defying what the nation has been told, only about the so-called “doables” being processed.
Primacy must go to restoring Indian economy’s health and domestic cohesion. The churnings on India’s borders and beyond are at this stage important but not critical. Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s climb in the BJP’s pantheon, polarisation over the presidential election and unsettled UPA allies will sharpen the Opposition’s narrative. People, like Disraeli in 1872 in Britain, will demand a government that delivers “... a land of liberty, of prosperity, of power, and of glory.” Dr Singh, the reformer, appears fatigued and his Cabinet dispirited. Can younger leadership in the Congress step up? The time for Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi to prove himself is now. By 2014 it may well be too late for his party, or indeed the nation.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

Comments

Sir, Pl. read the article for

Sir, Pl. read the article for coherence before you publish it in your prestigious paper.
Just one example;
Primacy must go to restoring Indian economy’s health and domestic cohesion. The churnings on India’s borders and beyond are at this stage important but not critical. Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s climb in the BJP’s pantheon, polarisation over the presidential election and unsettled UPA allies will sharpen the Opposition’s narrative. People, like Disraeli in 1872 in Britain, will demand a government that delivers
There are better, far better writers in India. Pl stop printing gibberish of this one

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