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Can Trump play peacemaker?

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By Abdul Sattar

The announcement by ‘whimsical’ US President Donald Trump on December 19 regarding the withdrawal of troops from Syria created consternation among hawkish circles in Washington. However, the unpredictable president further infuriated warmongers soon after by announcing his decision to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan as well.

Now, these elements are scrambling for ways to convince Trump to reconsider his intentions to pull out from Syria and Afghanistan. Troops are likely to return from Syria in the next few months while a reduction in American forces stationed in Afghanistan is expected after some deliberations and consultations.

 

The decision to withdraw from Syria has been interpreted in different ways. The Syrian Kurds have viewed it as a form of betrayal by Washington, accusing the sole superpower of leaving the Syrian Democratic Front at the mercy of Turkey, which is likely to wipe them out from the tiny autonomous territory that they have carved out for themselves during the conflict with the help of America.

This is not the first time that the Kurds have been left to face the brunt of any US adventure. After the First Gulf War, which is also known as the Operation Desert Storm, Washington initially lured the Kurds and the Shia communities into rebelling against Saddam Hussein and later left them to be brutally repressed by the Arab dictator.

Trump’s detractors believe that the fickle US president has made this decision to divert the media’s attention from the domestic problems that have been haunting the president since he assumed office. But there are other analysts who think the businessman-turned-politician carries out a cost-benefit analysis of everything to decide matters on the basis of profitability. They assert that Trump doesn’t see any point in pumping money into this military adventure at a time when the country needs investments worth billions of dollars to improve its crumbling infrastructure, which has been ignored for decades by successive US administrations.

Whatever the reasons may be, the decision should be welcomed. It has created a ripple of excitement among pacifists across the world. The situation in Syria and the rise of the Isis had alarmed all peace-loving elements. Many of them blamed the US and other Western states for the reign of terror that had been unleashed by those who thrived under the nose of Western powers in the region.

Moscow and Damascus also criticised Washington for what they called the collaboration of Western powers with Al-Qaeda and other jihadi elements, which also partly led to the rise of such groups in the Horn of Africa where Al-Shabab and Boko Haram committed unimaginable atrocities.

It is fallacious to believe that the US forces are essential to the stability of any country or region. When the US decided to withdraw its troops from Vietnam decades ago, the same hue and cry was raised by warmongers and hawkish elements. They asserted that it would plunge the war-torn country into chaos. However, the two Vietnams soon emerged as a single united country that is a beacon of stability and prosperity, making stunning strides in trade and commerce.

It is hoped that Syria will also steer itself out of this crisis if Western powers don’t pull any strings after putting an end to their physical presence. They would also need to rein in Ankara if they want peace and stability in the region.

But this won’t happen overnight. A country that has incurred losses worth more than $200 billion dollars owing to the destruction of infrastructure in a war imposed by the West will need time to rehabilitate over 11 million displaced people and account for those who lost more than 500,000 loved ones in a senseless conflict. Damascus no longer requires bombs or missiles. It needs investment from Western countries.

Washington’s intentions to pull out from Afghanistan also bode well for the region. But before it completely withdraws from the 18-year war, it must help all stakeholders in the war-torn country come up with a power-sharing formula. The Taliban must realise that they cannot capture the country the way they did in the 1990s. Their ruthless rule with retrogressive laws won’t be accepted by the international community, including Russia and China. The anti-Taliban elements – mainly non-Pashtun – need to understand that their dominance of the state by prolonging war won’t benefit the country. They must account for the rightful share of the Pashtuns in various state organs.

Many believe that the pull-out of US troops from Syria and Afghanistan could go a long way in avoiding future conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia. Hawkish elements wanted to use the American presence in Syria to open another warfront with Iran.

With the possible departure of the US troops from the Arab state, the chances of that conflict look thin. Similarly, the presence of American troops in Afghanistan had created fears in the region that the US wants to spy on Pakistan, China, Russia and other states of the region. The withdrawal of American soldiers would allay such fears, reducing the trust deficit between Washington and other regional powers.

Anti-war activists believe that the pullout from Syria and Afghanistan is important, but that the US should also dismantle its more than 700 military bases in over 150 states of the world. In addition, they also believe that Washington should also shelve its plans to produce chaos in countries like Venezuela and Iran that threaten to create more war zones. These activists have asserted that the huge amount of money spent on these military bases should be diverted to the American people, many of whom are still struggling to gain access to medical treatment at reasonable rates.

Critics are of the view that the Trump administration should also set up a commission to probe the spending of $3 trillion that Washington pumped into Iraq and Afghanistan’s wars alone. It also needs to conduct inquiries on other war-related expenses in various parts of the world where, it is believed, huge financial anomalies have been committed. These inquiries and possible convictions might go some way in tiding over the massive corruption that is believed to be the part of military and defence-related expenditures.

It seems that the Trump administration is keen to end America’s role as the world’s policeman. If Trump wants to translate this dream into reality, he needs to muster public support for this purpose. The people will only support such a move if it sees the material benefits of the government’s actions. Ending this role would mean reducing the country’s defence budget that is $681.1 billion for financial year 2019.

So, a drastic reduction in this mammoth budget and its diversion to health, housing, education and road infrastructure could boost Trump’s popularity and enable him to fight the multi-pronged strategy of American deep state and its acolytes in the corporate media. The Trump administration’s decision or intention to pull out from Syria and Afghanistan could turn out to be the first step in weakening the military-industrial complex that has held American democracy hostage for decades. It could easily be done if Washington doesn’t open any new warfronts, reduces the defence budget and stops exporting democracy through B-52s.

Hawkish elements in Washington are seeking a new confrontation with China and Russia. Can the US president foil their attempts, which are aimed at pushing America towards another cold war that would only benefit Trump’s rivals in the deep state and lead to the squandering of precious public money?


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Opinion

Time to rebuild India’s secularism

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Harsh Mander

There is much that lies badly broken in India today. The economy desperately needs to be repaired, as do rural distress, the job crisis and the free-falling rupee. The country’s institutions demand urgently to be rebuilt — the media, police, judiciary, universities, the planning process, the Election Commission of India. But above all, if there is one thing that stands most dangerously damaged, it is our constitutional pledge of a secular democracy. What are the prospects of rebuilding this?

Listen carefully to the speeches in the shrill summer election campaign which has just come to a halt. From their podiums, Opposition leaders spoke of everything else — the agony of farmers, unemployed youth, suspect defence deals, crony capitalism and indeed crony institutions. But rarely did they speak of lynching, of violence against Muslims, Christians and Dalits, of the fear which has become normalised in their daily lives, of our wrecked social contract of equality and harmony. And never did they speak of secularism.

 

The imagination of secularism in the Indian Republic was rooted in its singularly pluralist civilisational ethos, in the lives and work of Ashoka and Akbar, in the teachings of Buddha, Kabir and Nanak. It was illuminated by our struggle for freedom, in the humanist and egalitarian convictions of Gandhi and Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and Nehru. It was the central iridescent idea: that this newly-freed country would belong equally to all its people. People of no religion, no language, no caste, no ethnicity, no gender, no class would be entitled to lay claim to the country more than any other.

Secularism is the soul of India’s Constitution. Today the letter of this Constitution still remains unaltered, but its soul is mangled and choked. Not just the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); even Opposition parties seem to have accepted that India is no longer the secular country born of the legacy of India’s freedom struggle, but a majoritarian Hindu country. In this new India, people of minority religions, castes and gender are second-class. Their safety and well-being are dependent now on the consent and will of the majority upper-caste, patriarchal Hindu, and the dictates of this Hindu are interpreted and violently mediated by the ideology of Hindutva.

It is a grave mistake to frame the 2019 general election as a battle of Narendra Modi against the rest. This is how Prime Minister Modi, referring to himself repeatedly in the third person, has framed this bitter electoral contest. This is how the Opposition has fought the electoral battle, of Mr. Modi versus the rest. This is how the majority of Indian voters view this combat.

However, the electoral battle waged around the country is truly a different one. On one side stands the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and on the other is the secular idea of the Indian Constitution. Mr. Modi is a formidable, pugnacious, tireless and immensely popular mascot of the Hindu supremacist ideology of the RSS; and his image is powerfully buttressed by a pliant corporate media and dizzying levels of spending on a public relations blitz to manufacture consent. But the central danger to secular India is not the personality of Mr. Modi. It is the penetration of the RSS into every institution of the country, into every political party, the media, the university, the judiciary, the civil services, and most dangerously into mainstream everyday social life of every ordinary Indian.

In the RSS worldview, Muslims and Christians are not authentically Indian, their loyalty to the Indian nation is and will always remain suspect; therefore, they need to be tamed, to be continuously shown their subordinate status in the Indian polity and society. It is for this reason that virulent hate speech was so central to this election campaign, with Mr. Modi mocking his rival, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, for seeking election in a constituency in which he would have to depend in part on Muslim and Christian voters; and other BJP leaders and candidates raging against the threats of the ‘green virus’ and ‘termites’. It is for this reason that BJP president Amit Shah pledges to extend the National Register of Citizens to all parts of India, while ensuring citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists from other parts of the subcontinent; in this way brazenly turning on its head the core constitutional idea that a person’s religion is irrelevant to her rights to equal citizenship. And it is for this reason that lynching of Muslims and attacks on Christian places of worship, openly valorised by ruling party leaders, became the overarching symbols of the newly forged relationship of the majoritarian Hindu state with its now inferior religious minorities.

If Mr. Modi is returned with an emphatic majority when ballots are counted on May 23, as many exit polls predict, this will herald that India has fallen deep into a cold hard place of hate and fear. It will signal that a significant majority of Hindus endorse the Hindu supremacist ideology of the RSS. It will indicate the popular abandonment of the secular and humane vision of India’s Constitution, and its replacement by a violent and chauvinist majoritarian Hindu nationalism, which is suspicious and hateful in its relations with people who follow minority religious faiths. This outcome would also further imperil all left, liberal and democratic dissenting voices, in civil society, in the media, in universities, and in letters and the arts.

A second scenario, anticipated by a much smaller number of political commentators, is of reduced support for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), its tally falling short of the half-way mark. In such a situation, they anticipate the possibility that many regional parties could be persuaded to support an NDA government only if it is led by a less belligerent leader than Mr. Modi, possibly Nitin Gadkari or Rajnath Singh. Many are relieved by the possibility of such an outcome: anyone other than Mr. Modi would be welcome, they reason. But it would be a dangerous mistake to believe that such a choice would pull India out of the dark abyss into which it has slipped. Even with a more acceptable face, as with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the RSS would use political power to further penetrate all institutions, and enfeeble what survives of secular practice.

The least expected scenario, of the victory of the United Progressive Alliance or a federal front of regional parties, cannot be ruled out yet. After all, the BJP has lost no exit polls since 2004, but it lost many elections. However, even with such an outcome, the crusade against secular democracy waged with such vigour by the RSS will not be won. The appetite and moral courage to fight majoritarian politics head-on stands perilously weakened among Opposition political parties. Whatever the final outcome, this fight to salvage, defend and fortify secularism will have to be fought by the Indian people. India is today a wasteland of compassion. It will take generations to clean out the toxins of hate from Indian society. It is a battle that must be waged with courage, with perseverance and with love. History in the end is on our side.

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Opinion

The politician and the machine

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By  SY Quraishi

The general elections 2019 is moving towards closure, with six out of seven phases already over. All eyes are now on the counting.

It is not surprising that the issue of counting of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) has become hot once again.

 

The decision to introduce VVPATs as a measure to make electronic voting machines (EVMs) transparent was taken in 2010 when a meeting of all political parties arrived at a consensus that this was the ultimate answer.

Finding the suggestion reasonable, the Election Commission (EC) immediately accepted it and asked the two EVM manufacturers, BEL and ECIL, to design the VVPAT machines. An independent committee of experts consisting of five professors from different IITs was tasked to oversee the design and the manufacturing process.

A series of trials were held, followed by a full-day election simulation in July 2011 in five climatically diverse cities– namely Cherrapunji, Delhi, Jaisalmer, Leh, and Thiruvananthapuram.

Since many bugs were noticed, the trial was repeated after addressing them in July 2012 at exactly the same places. Only after making sure that they were technologically sound and climatically dependable, were the VVPATs initially deployed in 20,000 polling booths successfully. Subsequently, all constituencies were equipped with VVPATs.

In 2013, the Supreme Court also lauded the EC’s decision to use VVPATs and directed the government to release adequate funds for their procurement for the 2019 elections. The machines that kept coming in were randomly deployed. From 2017 onwards, all state elections have been conducted with EVMs attached with VVPATs.

What was the counting procedure? Slips generated by one VVPAT in each assembly constituency were counted. Of the 1,500 machines counted so far, according to the EC, not a single mismatch was found.

In various elections, however, many VVPAT machines malfunctioned. The chief election commissioner (CEC) righty clarified that malfunctioning is different from rigging.

During the by-elections in Bihar and UP, and the Karnataka assembly elections last year, VVPAT glitches resulted in machine replacement rates of 4 to 20 per cent.

These were largely due to issues in the print unit, which is sensitive to weather. With hardware changes introduced in the machines, the glitches came down to 2 per cent for the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections.

While the debate is going on, I had offered an out-of-the-box solution: Let the top two runners up in every constituency choose any two VVPATs to be counted. As they have the highest stake in the results, they will choose the ones they are most suspicious about.

This is analogous to the Decision Review System in the game of cricket, in which two referrals are allowed for each team. Ever since its introduction, violent disputes about the controversial decisions taken by the umpire have all but disappeared.

This would do away with a large random sample being demanded at present, as only four machines will have to be counted per constituency. In case any mismatch is detected, all machines in the constituency must be counted.

In March, as many as 21 opposition parties moved the Supreme Court demanding that 50 per cent of the total slips be tallied. The SC asked the Commission to increase the sample size of the tally from one booth per assembly constituency to five assembly segments of each Lok Sabha constituency “for better voter confidence and credibility of electoral process”.

The court said that the move will ensure the “greatest degree of accuracy and satisfaction” in the electoral process.

On April 24, the same 21 parties approached the SC again with a review petition, citing concerns related to the first two phases of polling and the “unreliability” of the EVMs.

On May 7, it was turned down with the court saying that “we are not inclined to modify our order”.

I wonder how these parties expected the apex to review its decision, which was taken after great deliberation, when no new facts had emerged justifying the return to the court.

Surprisingly, the issue which should have been discussed and debated is still unattended: What happens if the VVPAT count doesn’t match the EVM count? Even one mismatch is enough to create doubts about the other machines as well.

The current provision is that if there is a mismatch, the VVPAT will prevail. This is fine if the mismatch corresponds to the figures of the mock poll, which have not been deleted.

In all other mismatch cases, perhaps all machines in the constituency should then be counted. The apex court has called for “better voter confidence and credibility of the electoral process.”

If it takes time, so be it. After all, that was the purpose behind the introduction of VVPATs. This can be tried out on a pilot basis. There may not be many such cases, if at all, as evident from the experience of 1,500 machines, which didn’t throw up any mismatches, but public confidence will be ensured.

The Commission may convene an all-party meeting, yet again, as concerns are serious and the stakes extremely high. My experience in dealing with political parties is that with open-minded dialogue, consensus does emerge. Clarity of procedures is required before the counting day approaches. Time is running out.

(Writer is former chief election commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder- the Making of the Great Indian Election.)

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Opinion

Main Hoon Na!

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By  Chitra Padmanabhan

Clacking away at the computer keyboard, I heard a tapping sound on the window. It was good old Birdie looking as if she was bursting to tell me something. “I have flown all the way from the abode of Shiva in the Himalayas,” she said, “to tell you about the drama that unfolded there yesterday.”

Curbing my curiosity – it was a long way off from the Garhwal Himalayas to Delhi – I placed a bowl of water and a plate of millets before her. Atithi devo bhava (the visitor is like god), after all.

 

After a few minutes during which she gave the refreshments her undivided attention, Birdie began chirping: “A few nights ago there was frenetic activity in the forest. It was not the harbinger of an earthquake to come, just the anticipation of an exciting event to liven things up. News had filtered in that there was going to be a full-fledged film shooting around the temple of Shiva. None other than the great actor of Bharatvarsha was scheduled to come and deliver the performance of a lifetime.”

“So, what happened?” I asked breathlessly.

Birdie warbled: “It was fascinating. Total pro that he is, actor saheb kept experimenting with different face angles to see which one the camera liked the most. People call Aamir Khan a method actor, but yeh to uska bhi baap nikla (he was miles ahead of Aamir). It was not just face angles that he focused on; he went down to the last detail, such as what should be the exact set of his shoulders as he walked towards the shrine. In fact, he told the unit to do some seriously complex calculations to arrive at the exact angle.”

But why, I wanted to know.

In an awed tone Birdie recited word for word what actor saheb said: “I should be seen to be somewhat humble as I approach the god but not so humble as to appear like the indistinguishable mass of pleading supplicants. I am the best, after all, and I have my image to consider. I need to look like a realised soul who has been on a spiritual journey for decades to be the saintly actor that I am, capable of making the masses and classes forget their troubles with just a sideway glance.”

According to what Birdie told me, the entire unit, from the director to the humble gofer, speechlessly nodded. They had been witness to his temper – he had entered his vanity van for a makeover and had come out holding the make-up artiste by the scruff of his neck, saying, “Do I pay you to show the shadows under my eyes?” On top of that it seems he had given explicit instructions that he should be shown as taller than the mountains in every frame.

I was impatient to know about the scene that the actor was going to shoot but I bided my time as Birdie nibbled on some biscuit crumbs.

Fortified, she continued: “Do you remember the film Main Hoon Na in which Shah Rukh Khan starts hearing violins every time his eyes alight on Sushmita Sen? Well, they were preparing for a similar scene here. The actor was wearing the ochre/saffron costume of an ascetic for the shot. The director went through the details with his team one last time: ‘As saheb starts walking towards the shrine, the entire area will come alive with a song sung to the lord, Rang de tu mohe gerua (drench me in ochre/saffron), the colour symbolising asceticism and devotion of the highest kind.’” Apparently, the actor told the unit to do what it had to do to ensure that his head and the shikhar of the temple were at the same level.

There was a long pause, as if Birdie was playing the scene in her mind, and not liking it too much. I, on the other hand, was agog to know more.

Finally Birdie spoke in a small voice: There was a terrible mix-up and the wrong song was played. It was not the sonorous ‘Rang de tu mohe gerua’ that reverberated through the Himalayas but the following lines:

Raja ho ya rank

Yahan to sab hain chowkidar

Kuch to aa kar chale gaye

Kuch jaane ko tayyar

Khabardar, Khabardar!

(King or pauper,

Everyone’s just a caretaker in this world, keeping time

Some have come and gone

And some are on the verge of going

Be mindful!)

As the philosophical song played in those pristine environs, all hell broke loose. The spiritual expression that the actor had mustered with great effort came apart at the seams. In its place emerged the ugly face of hubris that he, a king among men, should be told, albeit mistakenly, that his reign was coming to an end. The line between the actor and the role had completely blurred. Maybe his reaction had something to do with the fact that there were new actors on the block.

Meanwhile the unit members took shelter behind any rock they could find and waited for saheb to cool down. After making doubly sure that they had the right soundtrack the director prepared to shoot the scene again. This time it was indeed the mellifluous Rang de tu mohe gerua that brought the place alive.

I asked Birdie about the expression on the actor’s face.

She was thoughtful: “People say a good actor is aware of the camera but knows that it is his conviction about the role and his craft that sees him through. He is oblivious of the camera at that time. That day I realised that the camera is ruthless; it is quick to smoke out any false note.”

I broke the flow of her reverie: “Are you saying the great actor lacked the skill?”

Birdie hummed and hawed: “Listen, I don’t want this story coming back to bite me. Let me just say that for all his ‘I am the lion of the jungle’ demeanour, actor saheb was so conscious of who he was and of the camera that he ended up playing an actor trying to be humble in the most arrogant manner. Moreover, the state-of-the-art cameras are so cruel that let alone trace the slightest ripple of tension in the muscles, they can even capture the anxiety flowing in the actor’s blood.

I asked: “Is that what the camera showed that day?”

Birdie nodded: “The camera showed an actor so loath to free himself of his grandiose image, so stressed out at the thought that he would be judged by the audience that he lost his nerve. So he abandoned the fiction genre and decided to shoot a documentary. He had the camera follow him, the great actor, or abhineta, on a personal journey the likes of which were undertaken by the ancient rishis of Bharatvarsha. “

I consoled Birdie, saying that there would be other film shootings, other actors.

She said: “All that is fine, but it seemed to me that the ‘documentary’ made by actor saheb was far more fictitious than any fiction film could have been. Give me Shah Rukh Khan any day!”

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