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Divisiveness and polls: Takeaways in US, India

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By K C Singh

America’s mid-term elections arouse global interest as the US President’s capacity to mould domestic policy and conduct diplomacy and war abroad can be constrained if the Opposition obtains control of even one House of Congress. Being in the United States, as I am currently, allows the viewing of intensive television coverage. The results arrive in phases as the polls in the western states lag due to America’s multiple time zones. The significance this time was even greater as President Donald Trump, having rewritten the rules of domestic politics, was on test. The Economist wrote before the November 6 election that Mr Trump was “wilfully divisive” and, what is more, wallowed in it. As a result, politics as “compromise”, on which rests democratic functioning, gets vitiated and becomes impossible.

The same ailment afflicts Indian politics under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as his BJP prepares for the electoral contest in crucial Hindi-belt states. Mr Trump’s campaigning exploited the fears of his core white constituency by hyping-up a “caravan” of unarmed Hispanics moving from Central America to the US border, almost as if the US was under invasion. Troops were promptly deployed. Mr Trump also refused to accept that his divisive rhetoric may have caused attempted bombings of perceived anti-Trump media and Democratic leaders as indeed the carnage at a synagogue. The BJP analogously first exacerbated gender and communal divisions by opposing the Supreme Court’s lifting of the ban on women of menstruation age praying at Kerala’s Sabarimala temple. After that, it confronted the Supreme Court over the Chief Justice postponing the hearing of the Ram Janmabhoomi case to January. His predecessor had ordered day-to-day hearings. The Opposition had then felt the court was bowing to the political necessity of the ruling party. The BJP spokespersons are no longer sticking to their traditional line that the BJP would abide by the Supreme Court ruling. The new, more provocative, line is that the Ram Mandir would be built “there only”, implying that it would be irrespective of the court judgment.

The issue, therefore, is whether in the United States, the oldest and most powerful democracy globally, or in India, the most populous democracy, elections can be won by divisive rabble-rousing, unlinked to governance and economic performance. The US election shows suburban voter fatigue with divisive baiting of the “other” by President Trump. They would rather instead hear about economic issues affecting their daily lives. Mr Trump is, however, seeing the glass half full as Republicans have in fact increased their control over the Senate, besides winning key gubernatorial fights in crucial states like Florida and Texas. But the House of Representatives, now firmly in Democratic hands, controls fresh legislation, besides having the power to launch impeachment proceedings against public officials. The Economist has argued that President Trump requires serious congressional oversight, which his own party has been remiss to undertake. This could include scrutiny of the Trump family’s conflicts of interest, Mr Trump’s taxation sleights of hand, his relations with Russia and the Saudi and Gulf ruling families, etc. In India too, the Narendra Modi government’s opaque decision-making is finally being questioned by the Central Information Commission and the Supreme Court. Regrettably, the Indian parliamentary committees lack the teeth and the will to be effective watchdogs.

Iran, China and the GCC members would be analysing how the electoral outcome impacts their strategic options. In the case of Iran, comprehensive US sanctions were unleashed on November 4. A weakened Mr Trump may embolden Europe to defy US pressure and continue to trade with Iran to retain both marketshare and influence in Tehran, which otherwise would pass on to China and Russia. It would also buy weakened Iranian President Hassan Rouhani some leeway. China has been at the receiving end of Mr Trump’s trade tariffs that are starting to slow down the Chinese economy and disrupt some supply chains involving hi-tech components. President Xi Jinping will meet Mr Trump later this month on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting. Mr Trump, behaving as if he has faced no setback, may cut China slack and accept a less than optimally advantageous deal. Mr Trump is, in fact, already framing even his setback as mere propaganda by his opponents.

Mr Trump’s electoral magic relies not just on trawling traditional hostility of conservative voters towards African-Americans, Muslims, Jews and immigrants but his ability to tap into the more nebulous feeling of marginalisation and threat to American lifestyles. Similarly, in India, the BJP under Narendra Modi attempts to harness the majority community’s feeling that earlier governments had “appeased” the minorities, illegal immigrants, etc, at their cost. Right-wing politicians worldwide rally support by targeting the “other”. The same toxic anti-immigrant Islamophobia has undermined even leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, after 13 years in power.

The checks and balances in the US system have finally kicked in to restrain a President who has debased the media, bludgeoned his own party into submission, loaded the Supreme Court with a conservative majority and treated all political opponents as enemies to be vanquished, not engaged. India’s Westminster form of government unfortunately has weaker balancing institutions than those of the US. Separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary is not as ironclad as under the US presidential system. A strong Prime Minister with a sweeping majority in the Lok Sabha can reduce Parliament to insignificance, as has happened in the past four years. The media has largely prostrated itself before the executive. Lord Acton’s dictum about absolute power corrupting absolutely should be a warning for the small coterie around the Prime Minister which controls most decision-making.

Like in the US, the recent Karnataka byelections indicated public unease with the current state of affairs. The coming Assembly polls in several states will clarify further whether “Sabka saath, sabka vikas” has been more slogan than reality. The Ram Mandir and the Sardar Patel statue are no substitute for Ramrajya, or perfect governance.

Narendra Modi campaigned in 2014 promising a Gujarat-model Ramrajya for 21st century India. He now offers Ram temple and a statue of Iron Man Sardar Patel. In the US, an unrepentant Donald Trump rants at a CNN correspondent and warns that he will retaliate if investigated by the Democratic-controlled House. Not a great Diwali for India and the world!


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Opinion

Ilhan, Rashida and Rahul

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By Jawed Naqvi

THE young politician shows up at Mount Kailash in Tibet, and proclaims his youthful Hindu-ness in lighter sportswear than the freezing weather warrants. He then resumes his frenzied temple-hopping, balancing it with an occasional visit to a Muslim shrine. This is yet another election season in India.

Rahul Gandhi is again competing with the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party on its turf. He claims to be the better Hindu of the two. While the young Indian leader was performing the religious trapeze to woo India’s strangely insecure majority, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women to be elected to the US House of Representatives. One unapologetically proclaims justice for Palestine as a key pursuit, and the other, a hijab-clad Somalian-American, works her heart out to provide more accessible education to less-privileged children across ethnic barriers.

When everybody had declared America to be a right-wing haven, a spitting image of Modi’s India, the country pulled a rabbit out of its hat and gave President Trump a few useful thoughts to ruminate on. Similar examples abound from secular democracies elsewhere, not excluding the fact of a Muslim home secretary in the UK. If Trump stacked his politics with Islamophobia and racial innuendo, the American people, led by the white community, sent the maximum number of coloured women to their parliament in the November mid-term elections, including Omar and Tlaib. This is perhaps how tables are turned on errant adversaries in a democracy, by setting one’s own loftier agenda, and not by yielding to the follies of the opponent.

Gandhi’s display of his religion and caste mocks Indians who were looking for their own Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the pack. Even a Hindu variant of Kemal Ataturk — and such men and women do exist — could help rescue India from the reigning cult of religious charlatans. By allowing his party to hug symbols of a regressive appeal, Gandhi unwittingly smudged the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru and those who hitched their hopes to his liberal ideals. To be sure, the young leader still would make for a more presentable representative of what remains of a secular India.

Rahul Gandhi’s display of his religion and caste mocks Indians who were looking for their own Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the pack.

But India is not a baby pool of low-bar contests. Also, is Gandhi going to become an avid drinker of cow urine to garner votes, now that his party has promised to manufacture refined gau mutra as a commercial proposition? Is this what Indira Gandhi had in mind when she underscored secularism and socialism as the guiding principles of the constitution? Or would sipping the hallowed elixir embellish the scientific temper that Nehru had envisioned for the country? One was hoping Gandhi would take the cue from democracies elsewhere and weave a tapestry of pluralism and reason into the grand alliance he is cobbling together for general elections next year.

Having said that, India’s Muslims as none other are perennially counselled by their sympathisers to keep a low profile against the Hindutva onslaught and to let friendly folk do the battle on their behalf. The argument goes that Muslims give easy traction to Hindutva purposes, and any retaliation to a provocation, of which there’s no dearth today, would add grist to the reactionary mill. Had the assertion produced a worthy result, there would be reason to believe in the lore. The fear of Muslims being the red rag to the Hindutva bull should not be the ruse for their self-proclaimed supporters to feel hassled by their association with the community. A Muslim MP from Bihar and two legislators from Uttar Pradesh won important by-polls recently to defy the red-rag theory.

This is not a case for a mandatory quota for Muslims in the coming elections, far from it. The argument put simply is that the minority communities, particularly their women, often suffer in the proclaimed quest for ethnic rectitude. I would argue that Muslims generally form a perfect ballast and they improve the stability of any political party in India. In fact, their inclusion is useful not only to win elections but also to keep the promise of democracy alive with greater zeal. Saving the constitution is the stated objective of most political parties, but for India’s minorities, it is their lifeline, and they must secure it at all costs.

Put bluntly, will the parties they support stand with them when their constitutional guarantees are threatened? Let’s take the Ayodhya dispute currently being studied by the apex court. Would the Congress and its allies have the moral courage to stand by a court verdict should it favour the Muslim case? Would they stand up to the Hindutva challenge then, or should the Muslims start praying for an adverse verdict against their own petition?

Happily, this is not the dilemma for the two women who have made it to the Congress in the United States. Few are as outspoken as they are about Trump’s follies among their other urgent concerns. True, for that and more, they are abused and threatened on the net. They are trolled daily. But they have the unqualified support of the people and the party behind them to see to it that their worldview is not stifled. One thing worse than the stifling of the minorities in a democracy is to make them parrot the majoritarian point of view. Look at what happened in Pakistan. A Hindu man was elected for the first time from a general constituency to the National Assembly. That should be celebrated. But what was his battle cry? He wooed support by prescribing the death penalty for blasphemers. Likewise, in India. The Muslim author of a most adulatory book on Nehru joined the BJP. And now he seems sanguine at the daily abuses heaped on his erstwhile hero by the party’s tallest leaders. That’s not a route for Rahul Gandhi or Indian Muslims to pursue.

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Why are the ‘yellow vests’ protesting in France?

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By Rokhaya Diallo

For the past three weeks, France has been experiencing one of the most significant social mobilisations in its recent history, which laid bare the country’s social ills, anti-elite sentiment, growing inequalities and thirst for social justice.

It all started on November 17 when tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest against rising fuel prices.

The protesters, dubbed “Les gilets jaunes” (the yellow vests) after the high-visibility jackets they adopted as a symbol of their complaint, blocked roundabouts, burned effigies and clashed with the police. They were angry about the almost 20 percent increase in the price of diesel since the start of the year, as well as the planned fuel tax hike President Emmanuel Macron had recently announced.

While Macron said the tax was necessary to “protect the environment” and “combat climate change”, protesters claimed the decision was yet another sign that the “arrogant” and “privileged” president is out of touch with regular folk struggling to make ends meet.

The intensity of the protests quickly forced the government to make a U-turn and first suspend and later permanently shelve its plans for fuel tax increases. However, the protest movement was not only about fuel prices. It encompassed wider anger and frustration against the political establishment in general and President Macron in particular. As a result, the government’s decision to abandon fuel tax hikes failed to calm tensions.

The “yellow vests” want further concessions from the government. Their demands include a redistribution of wealth as well as the increase of salaries, pensions, social security payments and the minimum wage. Some say they will not settle for anything less than the president’s resignation.

So how did day-to-day frustrations about fuel prices and “green taxes” transform into a nation-wide protest movement attracting hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks?

It all comes down to Macron’s apparent failure to connect with the people, understand their concerns and steer France away from destructive neoliberal policies.

40-year-old Macron was elected last year on pledges to change the face of French politics, create more jobs and improve lives.

On the eve of the 2017 presidential election, French voters were tired of career politicians. They wanted a different kind of leader, someone who can understand their long-rooted social and economic concerns and deliver real, practical solutions.

For the past four decades, French people have been worried about the erosion of social protections in their country. Since Francois Mitterrand’s socialist government controversially decided to impose austerity policies in 1983, successive governments have taken slow but consistent steps to dismantle the French welfare state.

All this gradually accentuated the economic concerns of the French middle and working classes and led them to be more and more suspicious of all mainstream politicians on the right and the left. They came to believe that the political elite protects the interests of the wealthy and does not care about the wellbeing of ordinary citizens.

Successfully diagnosing the public’s frustration with the political class, Macron worked hard to differentiate himself from the establishment in Paris and act as the representative of a “new world order” throughout his election campaign.

He had the youth, the energy, the positive message. He was the leader of a brand-new political party, aligned neither with the right nor the left. He appeared to be carrying no political baggage. Many viewed him as a possible saviour and did not hesitate to give him their vote.

Moreover, he was running against National Front leader Marine Le Pen. This also made him look like a “progressive saviour”. A significant portion of the French electorate was ready to vote for any moderate candidate who could stop the far right from taking power. So, they voted for Macron, even though many of them did not support his agenda completely or have faith in his ability to respond to their concerns.

As a result, Macron was elected by a landslide. However, it didn’t take long for his supporters to realise that his “reformist”, “new world” image was nothing more than an illusion.

Macron’s failure to bring about change should not have surprised anyone. Even though he seemed “young and new”, he was part of the establishment.

He had served as the minister of the economy, industry and digital affairs from 2014 to 2016 under Francois Hollande – he was in charge of implementing the former president’s infamous Labour Law reform, which caused widespread protests across the country. Before that he was a Rothschild investment banker.

Once elected, Macron showed his true colours almost immediately. He decided to amend the wealth tax – known in France as “ISF” – by narrowing it to a tax on real estate assets, rather than covering all worldwide assets over the value of 1.3m euros. This led to him being swiftly labelled the “president of the rich”.

On top of making controversial policy decisions that favoured powerful corporations and rich individuals, Macron also repeatedly demonstrated his unfamiliarity with – and at times disdain for – ordinary people struggling to survive in the country’s increasingly harsh economic environment.

In 2016 while he was the minister of economy, for example, Macron was confronted by angry trade unionists and was recorded telling one young man: “You don’t scare me with your T-shirt. The best way of paying for a suit is to work.”

In a July 2017 speech Macron said train stations were wonderful places, for there you can cross paths with both “people who succeed” (people like him) and “people who are nothing” (presumably ordinary French citizens like the rest of us).

In October of the same year he was filmed accusing disgruntled workers of preferring to stir up “chaos” rather than find jobs. “Instead of kicking up bloody chaos, some of them would be better off going to see if they can get a job over there,” he said, alluding to an aluminium factory in Ussel, a region in which employers were struggling to hire new workers.

More recently, in September this year, Macron told an unemployed man he could easily find work if only “he crossed the street”. “Everywhere I go people say to me that they are looking for staff,” the president said.

This lack of empathy coupled with business-friendly policies helped shape the French public’s perception of Macron as an arrogant, privileged politician who is a friend of the rich and the powerful.

The fuel tax that he tried to impose on people that are already feeling their economic concerns are being ignored was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This is why the yellow vest movement is not only about fuel prices but about social justice. There is a profound discontent among ordinary people in France who see themselves as the losers in a world dominated by international elites who don’t seem to care or understand what they are going through. Macron is pursuing the exact same neoliberal agenda his predecessors pursued in the 1980’s. And just like the policies of his predecessors, his policies are hurting the poorest and helping the rich get even richer.

The protests are not rejecting climate change action

The yellow vest movement should not be seen as the public’s rejection of the green transition. The French state indeed has a responsibility to take action to combat climate change and protect the environment. But powerful companies that are primarily responsible for the pollution, and not regular citizens, should bear the brunt of this necessary revolution.

The yellow vest movement is, of course, not perfect. Some protesters were responsible for outrageous racial and homophobic attacks. Some also damaged national monuments and were violent towards police officers.

While we should not turn a blind eye to any of this, we should remember that the yellow vests movement is a reflection of the ongoing tensions in France. Almost 11 million people voted for the far right only a year ago in this country. There are some extremist elements in the French society and they were inevitably some among the protesters.

But we should not dismiss the entire movement as “extremist” because of this. The yellow vests are the French people who we never see on TV. Their despair can at times appear offensive because anger is neither polite nor sophisticated. It is disorganised, shocking and comes with emotion, which can translate into violence. The point is not to defend any of the violence that has tragically occurred, but to remember that the unrest France is currently facing came in response to other forms of violence, much more insidious and harmful: social exclusion and injustice.

Unemployment, discrimination and poverty are at the root of the daily humiliation French people feel which has now transformed into a general despondency. The French political elites will find it hard to pacify this public anger unless they commit to introducing radical changes to the way this country is governed.

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Opinion

The Khashoggi skeletons in America’s closet

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By Azeezah Kanji

Donald Trump’s commitment to “remain[ing] a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia,” despite the regime’s gruesome torture and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, is clearly symptomatic of the malignantly self-serving nature of US foreign policy, which has long propped up dictatorships and enabled atrocities around the world for the sake of profit and power.

However, many of Trump’s most vocal critics on the Saudi file show signs of an equally dangerous pathological condition: a profound historical amnesia that permits some of the most prominent proponents of the US’ own torturous and murderous policies to now parade as champions of human rights, without any apparent sense of irony.

Obama-era CIA Director John Brennan, for instance, has insisted that “the US should never turn a blind eye to this sort of inhumanity [referring to the murder of Khashoggi] … because this is a nation that remains faithful to its values” – a curiously self-righteous stance for a man who not only repeatedly turned a blind eye to the inhumanity of past and present CIA practices such as extraordinary rendition, torture, and drone assassination, but actively defended and (in the case of drone use) expanded them.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decried the brutal murder of Khashoggi as “completely abhorrent to everything the United States holds dear and stands for in the world”. Yet he praised another perpetrator of abhorrent deeds, CIA “black site” torture prison manager Gina Haspel, as an “excellent choice” for Director of the CIA.

Republican senator and drone war enthusiast Lindsey Graham called Saudi’s extrajudicial killing of Khashoggi a “barbaric act which defied all civilized norms” – even while maintaining that casualties of US’ own international norm-defying extrajudicial killing programme “got what they deserved.”

The idea that the US is in a position to hold anyone to account for “barbaric acts” of extraterritorial violence defies reality. Far from serving as a model to be emulated, the American precedent exemplifies the dangers of lethal state power wielded without adequate restraint.

“If other states were to claim the broad-based authority that the United States does, to kill people anywhere, anytime, the result would be chaos,” UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston presciently warned in 2010.

Among the global targets of the US’s lethal drone programme – which have included first responders at missile strike sites, mourners at funerals, and families celebrating weddings – are, allegedly, at least two media workers.

In 2017, Al Jazeera’s former Islamabad bureau chief Ahmad Zaidan and American media activist Bilal Abdul Kareem filed a lawsuit against the US government, claiming they had been placed on the government’s “disposition matrix” – although the absolute secrecy surrounding who is on the extrajudicial kill list, and why, makes it impossible to know for sure. A US court shot down Zaidan’s case but allowed Abdul Kareem’s to proceed, rendering it the first legal challenge to the drone programme to make it past the preliminary stage.

While Trump may have been the first US president to openly and explicitly declare the media “the enemy of the people,” the treatment of journalists as a hostile force has been a consistent feature of the US’s so-called “war on terror”.

The Pentagon’s 2015 Law of War Manual stated that journalists may in some instances be considered “unprivileged belligerents” (enemy fighters without the protections and privileges accorded to lawful combatants), since “reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying” – an apparent licence to target journalists that was only revised because of a sustained outcry from media organisations.

The illegal US-led war of aggression on Iraq has been one of the deadliest wars for journalists in modern history. In its first year, it “inflict[ed] a proportionally higher number of casualties on journalists than on members of the coalition’s armed forces” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

At least 16 journalists and six media workers were killed directly by US fire, including several “at checkpoints or near US bases, in most cases without [the US military] accepting responsibility,” as the Guardian reported. “Often they promised to hold investigations but never released the findings.”

In addition to dealing out death to journalists with impunity, US powers also made a habit of arresting and jailing them for long periods of time without charge, including journalists working for Reuters, CBS News, and the Associated Press.

“By early January 2006, Camp Bucca, an American detention centre in southern Iraq, had become the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East,” observed Reporters Without Borders. Journalists were also imprisoned in the detention and torture camps at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Alhaj was held in Guantanamo for more than six years; tellingly, 125 of the 130 interrogations he was put through had nothing to do with the activities of any terror organisation but with the operations of Al Jazeera.

While US commentators have rightly called out the farcical nature of Saudi Arabia’s investigation into the death of Khashoggi, the pretence that the US government has provided anything resembling accountability for its own crimes against journalists and other civilians is equally laughable. None of the senior officials implicated in the Iraq torture scandal, for instance, have ever been prosecuted, and authorities ignored reports of abuse from human rights organisations for six months before they were publicly exposed – a fact cited by Saudi’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in an attempt to rationalise his own country’s delayed response to Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Perversely, punishment has primarily been reserved for those who have dared to call attention to the assault on journalists, rather than those responsible for the assault itself. Chelsea Manning was incarcerated for seven years in a military prison under conditions the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded violated international law, for leaking evidence of US military atrocities including video footage showing US soldiers slaughtering two Reuters journalists and several other Iraqi civilians. In 2005, CNN’s chief news executive Eason Jordan was forced to resign because he suggested on a panel discussion that coalition troops were targeting journalists in Iraq.

The popular conceit that American “values” are inherently antithetical to the torture and killing of journalists renders invisible the victims of US torture and killing policies. Propagating such myths in the name of advocating for justice for Jamal Khashoggi only serves to bury the Khashoggi-like skeletons in America’s closet further out of sight.

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