Thursday, November 17, 2005

A bomb too many (November 18, 2005)

The attitide of the Indian Left to the Iran question is suspect

By Swapan Dasgupta

The diaries of former Soviet official I.A. Benediktov, deposited in the archives of the Cold War International Project of the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, offer some interesting insights into the mentality of Indian Communists. Benediktov, who served as Moscow’s Ambassador to India in the early-1960s, documented his meeting with E.M.S. Namboodiripad in October 1962 after Pravda temporarily reversed its scepticism of Beijing’s stand in the Sino-Indian border dispute because it feared the Cuban missile crisis would trigger a global conflict between the Soviet Union and the US.

“We ask that you transmit this to the C(entral) C(ommittee) CPSU," Namboodiripad told the Soviet Ambassador, "that the publication of this article and the advice of the CPSU contained in this letter of the CC CPSU, truly will help our party get out of the extremely difficult position it is now in. Before this there were moments when we felt ourselves to be simply helpless, but now the party will be able to remedy this situation. We are grateful to the CC CPSU for this help; you cantransmit this personally from me and from Comrade B(hupesh) Gupta."
Namboodiripad then went on to argue that “The most typical mistake of many Communists ... is that they cannot clearly distinguish (between) patriotism and bourgeois nationalism.” In other words, this great Marxist theoretician, who is lauded by the CPI(M) and who serves as the inspiration to its present leadership, was categorical that in the event of a clash between Indian nationalism and the foreign policy objectives of a so-called socialist state, Indian Communists must necessarily bat for the latter.

S.A. Dange was, perhaps, a notable exception who more or less bamboozled the CPI in 1962 into taking, what Mohit Sen in his autobiography, A Traveller and the Road, described as “a stand in support of the nation.” Yet, as Sen noted, neither Dange “nor anybody else went beyond categorising the Chinese attack as a mistake and an aberration. The deeper implications … for Communist ideology, theory and practice were never raised… Not the CPI alone but the whole Communist movement would have to pay a heavy price for evading troublesome questions.”

The chickens, it would seem, are now coming home to roost. In 1998, the two Communist parties went apoplectic when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government transformed India into a nuclear power. Their response was largely guided by Beijing’s sharp opposition to India entering the exclusive five-member nuclear club, although for the sake of respectability they used the language of the American and Scandinavian non-proliferation zealots. Whereas the Indian Communists had earlier welcomed the “worker’s bomb” of the Soviet Union and China, their unrelenting opposition to “bourgeois nationalism” prevented them extending such a courtesy to India. Communist “patriotism”, with a Hindu tinge, naturally involved abjuring Indian nationalism in favour of a make-believe socialist internationalism.

Today, the Indian Communists have resumed their battle against the old nationalist enemy. This time, however, they have chosen a more intriguing issue. Last week, the CPI and CPI(M) joined hands with the Samajwadi Party and the Muslim clergy to attack the Manmohan Singh Government’s alleged capitulation to the US on the Iran question. Declaring that foreign policy could not be conducted behind closed doors, the Left has demanded that the Government either make amends for siding with the US at the previous International Atomic Energy Authority meeting, or face the consequences of a full-scale revolt by some 100 MPs who were hitherto supporting the UPA Government. If India votes with the US at the next IAEA meeting on November 24, the CPI leader A.B. Bardhan has said menacingly, “they will have to repent it.”

The Left’s position is puzzling in two ways. First, the Communists have glossed over the apparent inconsistencies in opposing India’s own nuclear ambitions and endorsing Teheran’s clear bid to channel a part of its nuclear programme into the manufacture of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Islamic Republic already has an intermediate-range ballistic missile, anti-ship missiles to call the shots in the crucial Gulf of Hormuz and it is also developing an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that could have a range of 6,000 miles. According to the Washington Post, a US National Intelligence Estimate report earlier this year indicated that the weaponisation process could take another 10 years of surreptitious activity.

Second, Iran has absolutely no socialist pretensions; it is unabashedly Islamist in orientation. There may be theological differences between the Shia mullahs who constitute the last word in Iran’s national affairs and the Wahabi-inspired Islamist resurgence in the larger Muslim world but the contradictions are submerged in the wider battle against the “Great Satan” and its local ally, Israel. Iranian President M. Ahmadinejad’s threat to obliterate Israel from the map of the world wasn’t a casual indiscretion. It was in line with his Inaugural Address boast that “a new Islamic revolution has arisen and the Islamic revolution … will, if God wills, cut off the roots of injustice in the world. The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world.”

President Ahmadinejad may well be guilty of a polemical exaggeration that comes with inexperience. Time and a show of understanding, many well-meaning votaries of appeasement contend, will almost certainly blunt his revolutionary impetuosity. But, can hope be a basis for international indulgence? Ahmadinejad has, after all, warned that “A country that is ready for martyrdom can do anything.”

For India, the issue is neither academic nor just an extension of the emerging special relationship with the US. Iran’s nuclear programme has been shown to have an “unofficial” Pakistani link, courtesy the ubiquitous A.Q. Khan. China too has its finger in the Iranian nuclear pile. Therefore, while the US certainly has reason to be concerned about the implications for the safety and security of Israel and equations in West Asia, India has to confront an additional issue. In plain language, can India afford the presence of two contiguous Islamic nuclear powers on its western borders?

Coupled with an assertive China in the east, a nuclear Iran will become a security nightmare for India. Apart from being a major psychological boost to Islamist radicalism, Iran’s nuclear might will enhance India’s strategic vulnerability and increase its dependence on the US. In such a situation, a strategic alliance between India and the US, far from being a boost to India’s regional clout, will become a defensive necessity. The alternative would either be a seriously weakened India or an India forced into an unequal strategic relationship with China.

Since it is not the apparent intention of the Communists to nurture Indo-US friendship, its motives in making the Iranian question a prestige issue are plainly suspect. Socialist countries created in the Stalinist mould have never had inhibitions in using local Communist movements to further its foreign policy objectives. China is no exception.

It is not in Beijing’s economic or strategic interests to have a democratic India playing a major role in Asia, either in conjunction with Washington or independently. Its opposition to India’s entry into the P-5 nuclear club and its determination not to allow any other permanent Asian member into the Security Council are part of a larger design to both contain and encircle India. In this scheme, the Indian Communists have an important role to play in muddying the waters domestically. This makes it obligatory for India’s pre-eminent nationalist parties, the Congress and BJP, to work discreetly in tandem to secure the country’s future and prevent the blatant communalisation and subversion of foreign policy.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, November 18, 2005)

Thursday, November 03, 2005

On a common plane (November 4, 2005)

The Oil For Food shindig has raised issues of ethics

By Swapan Dasgupta

India’s beleaguered External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh and the equally harried British MP George Galloway are about as similar as chalk and cheese. Singh, a refined product of Mayo College, St Stephen’s and Cambridge, is a former diplomat who married into the Patiala royal family. Galloway, on the other hand, proudly boasts his working class Scottish origins and revels in a form of inverted snobbery. If Singh speaks in measured tones, is a bibliophile and oozes charm and courtesy, Galloway is brusque and is prone to flying off the handle. Those who watched Galloway’s dramatic re-entry to the House of Commons in the face of overwhelming odds last May will remember his memorable slugging match with TV presenter Jeremy Paxman. In the Beltway, they still talk about his pugnacious banter with the stuffed shirts at a Senate Committee hearing earlier this year, when he gave as good as he got. By contrast, Singh’s foray into the pre-Cold War world of non-alignment is a guaranteed cure for insomnia.

Yet, today, thanks to very strange circumstances, Singh and Galloway find themselves in the same boat. Both have been accused by the UN-sponsored independent committee headed by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker of benefiting financially from the regime of the ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Singh has been called a “compromised” politician and a lobbyist and the Opposition BJP has demanded his resignation. Galloway has been compared to Lord Haw Haw—the English renegade who became a publicist for Hitler—and described by a US Senator as “not an honourable man or a good man”. His conduct is being investigated by the British parliamentary commissioner for standards. Both have vehemently denied the accusations, both have threatened legal action and both are fighting for their political survival.

The alleged misdemeanours of Singh and Galloway centre on Saddam’s successful subterfuge of the UN-monitored Oil for Food programme in Iraq. Having decided that its oil wealth could be transformed into a powerful foreign policy weapon and an instrument of Baathist self-aggrandisement, the Saddam regime honed in on individuals who could gauge the lucrative potential of anti-imperialism. What Saddam did was nothing novel. He merely emulated the patronage disbursement methods of the erstwhile Soviet Union. More to the point, these complicated financial dealings would have remained undiscovered had President George W. Bush not forced a regime change in Iraq in 2003.

For George Galloway, if the Senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee inquiry and the Volcker Report are to be believed, the Iraqi gift of oil sale rights meant entering into an understanding with Fawaz Zureikat, a Jordanian businessman friend. It was Zureikat who sold these rights to Switzerland-based oil traders, received the money, collected the illegal surcharges and funnelled the proceeds into the accounts of a charity run by Galloway and his estranged Palestinian wife Amineh Abu Zayyad. The linkages between money paid by Swiss oil traders into Zureikat’s account and their disbursement into bank accounts in Jordan held by Zayyad have been established by both committees. Galloway’s former wife benefited to the tune of $700,000, a not inconsiderable sum.

Although Singh’s alleged dealings with the Iraqi regime have not been scrutinised in as much detail, the Volcker Report has divulged enough to put a question mark on his political future. Singh and the Congress Party were allegedly granted similar oil sale rights. The allotments were passed on to a Swiss company Masefield AG for handling. The Volcker Report, however, has provided no details of payments made to either Singh or his nominees, but there is a presumption that payments were made which yielded the beneficiaries a profit which, many believe, were as high as 30 per cent of the contract value.

There are, however, another set of transactions which are more damaging. The Iraqis, it would seem, also gave oil rights directly to Masefield. The Volcker Report says it that Singh was to be the “non-contractual beneficiary” of these deals. In concrete terms this meant that the illegal surcharge amounting to $749,197 would be handled by Singh or his nominee. Consequently, $748,540 was paid to Hamdan Export and its owner Andleeb Sehgal, a close family friend of Singh, in Jordan at various times in 2001, presumably by Masefield. The money was then further diverted into the accounts of Iraqi officials, as kickbacks.

The Volcker Report refers to “layers of individuals and companies between the allocation and end-use of Iraq’s crude oil (which) resulted in transactions where the UN could not determine from the face of the contract who actually was benefiting from or controlled the purchase of oil.” In the transactions with which Singh is linked, there are two routes. The first involved the contracted beneficiary selling his rights to an oil trader and making a profit from the commission. The second involved the oil trader securing the allotment directly but channelling the surcharge into the accounts of the specified “non-contractual beneficiary”. This money was then routed back into Iraq. At this point, the “non-contractual beneficiary” became the handling agent of Iraqi kickbacks.

The Volcker Committee says that its claims are backed by the records of the Iraqi State Oil Ministry Organisation (SOMO), bank records in Jordan and other records found in Baghdad. If true, it would suggest that both Singh and Galloway have some explaining to do. Certainly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s stated belief that the facts are “insufficient” to warrant “any adverse conclusion” against Singh seems a trifle hasty. It does not behove a Prime Minister to dismiss an international inquiry so peremptorily.

What is interesting is that in protesting their innocence both Singh and Galloway are speaking the same language. Galloway has suggested that the documents implicating him are “fabricated” and Singh told The Hindu that the Volcker Report was based on “forgeries.” Testifying under oath to the US Senate committee on May 17, Galloway stated that “I am not now, nor have I ever been, an oil trader, and neither has anyone on my behalf.” He added that the businessman Zureikat “never gave me a penny from an oil deal, from a cake deal, from a bread deal, or from any deal.” On his part, Singh hit back with a series of questions: “Is there any evidence that I or my son ever had contact with this company (Masefield AG) or any other company involved in this? Is there any evidence that I had ever heard of this company?”

Finally, Galloway has consistently seen the attacks on him as part of an orchestrated political campaign. He has stuck to his position with great theatrical aplomb, prompting Senator Coleman to observe that “It’s a constant pattern of deny, deny, deny… It’s something he does all the time—shifting the focus to something that is not in front of you.” Being India’s External Affairs Minister, Singh should have been more inhibited. But he too has charged Volcker of targeting those who opposed US intervention in Iraq. “I opposed sanctions, I opposed the war and I opposed sending Indian troops to Iraq.”

Both Singh and Galloway are blessed with political certitudes. Of course, they are not alone. Throughout India and Britain there are countless well-meaning individuals who believed President Bush’s Iraq war was a misadventure. Fortunately, few of them find their names listed as “non-contractual beneficiaries” of illegal deals cut by a tyrannical regime. The issue is not politics but ethics. It is this issue that has to be addressed by both the anti-imperialist patrician and the radical plebeian.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, November 4, 2005)