Sunday, February 28, 2010

Budgeting for polls, not India's future (February 28, 2010)

Swapan Dasgupta
As befitting a society that loves rituals, there is an eerie predictability about the entire Budget exercise starting with the lobbying and speculation that precede it and the reactions which follow the Finance Minister’s speech. The ritualism has now even extended to the mandatory but anodyne quotations from the writings of great men — this year it was Mahatma Gandhi and Kautilya, earlier it was Thiruvalluvar and even earlier it was Urdu couplets.

This year’s ritualism followed the path of familiarity. Industry honchos writing in the pink papers were predictably supportive of Pranab Mukherjee — it doesn’t do to be critical of FMs — and focussed mainly on his bid to bring down the fiscal deficit. The FDI-wallahs were less inhibited and stressed the absence of allowances for foreign investment in retail and insurance. The clueless politicians in both the Treasury and Opposition benches proffered their familiar responses. To them, the Budget was either “people-friendly” (these days aam admi has become the catch phrase) and “growth oriented” or “anti-people” and “inflationary”. The Left, as is to be expected, may even prefix or suffix their response with some reference to “neo-liberal” policies. Earlier they used to call it “World Bank-dictated”.

The only new addition to the Budget ritualism this year was the Opposition’s walkout. To me this was unfortunate because there was nothing unprecedented about a rise in petrol and diesel prices — it has happened umpteen times in the past, including when the NDA was in power, and will no doubt continue to happen. The Budget has sanctity in a parliamentary democracy and it doesn’t do to stage a walkout. On this occasion there was certainly no extreme provocation and the imperatives of protest could have just as easily been met by angry denunciations in a post-Budget Press conference or rallies. Walkouts and rushing into the well of the House must not become features of a new ritualism.

Our Budgets have become exercises in balancing the aspirations of those who live for the present and those who look to the future. Pranabbabu is an experienced politician who is acutely aware when and how much to concede to the present and how much to invest in the future. But, like the Prime Minister, he is not a free agent. His Budget pronouncements are circumscribed by other political factors: The pulls and pressures of a coalition, the expectations of backbench MPs in the Congress and the jholawallah instincts of the UPA chairperson. All of these amount to the same set of demands: More freebies, more public sector and Government schemes, no taxes for agriculturists and punitive taxes on the better-off and on the entire private sector. Anything else is said to be “anti-people”.

Pranabbabu had to confront another challenge this year. He had to begin undoing the cumulative effects of his previous pre-election Budget and the UPA-1 Government’s five-year profligacy. These paid handsome returns for the Congress in last year’s general election but they have cost the country dearly. Those who protest against the Government-induced rise in petrol prices — and there is no question that this hike will add to the inflationary spiral — must start asking some fundamental questions. Is the Rs 40,000 crore set aside for NREGA worth the expense? Can the money be more productively utilised to create tangible assets for people in the poor districts of India? Was the waiver of Rs 71,000 crore of farm loans a good precedent to set? Why hasn’t the Finance Minister stopped his Cabinet colleague from West Bengal from turning the railways into a parallel administration for India?

Let me pose another fundamental issue. The Finance Minister has rightly maintained that India needs to double its food production in the next decade if it isn’t to confront the shortages of the 1960s and 1970s. This is a pressing challenge for India. However, he has set aside a paltry
Rs 400 crore for the preparations for a second Green Revolution that will be centred on the rice bowl of eastern and central India. He has certainly identified the problem, but is the allocation in the Budget commensurate with the magnitude of the challenge?

There is a crisis of governance and a crisis of politics. Almost everyone of any consequence now admits what has been apparent for the past three decades: India lacks the delivery systems to ensure the optimum utilisation of every rupee of the taxpayers’ money. Yet, despite this awareness, it is impossible to convince the political class that Government expenditure has to be controlled and efficiently used.

Apart from Narendra Modi in Gujarat who sincerely believes that he is the people’s custodian of the State treasury and must, therefore, make efficient utilisation of State resources, there are few in the political class who care for the future. They are rooted to the present and have, at best, an election-to-election perspective. What is particularly unfortunate is that this perspective has now seeped into the popular consciousness making it virtually impossible to reconcile good politics with sensible economics.

In 1991, it was a major balance-of-payments crisis that prompted PV Narasimha Rao to turn his back on socialism — a full 13 years after China abandoned its version of voodoo economics. The fear that Indian debt will be regarded as junk in the international market prompted the FM to begin rolling back the rising tide of deficit — and there’s no guarantee that midway through the fiscal year a political crisis won’t propel a reversal of fiscal prudence. To what depths must India sink before politicians are compelled to realise that the nation’s collective future means more the immediate gratification of the short-sighted? That is an answer only the voters can provide.

Sunday Pioneer, February 28, 2010

Blackmail in the name of human rights for all (February 28, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

A controversy centred on the human rights body Amnesty International is raging in Britain and it could be instructive for India. Earlier this month, Gita Sahgal, the head of the organization’s ‘gender unit’, publicly protested against its close association with Moazzam Beg, a British Islamist and former inmate of Guantanamo Bay.

Beg, who had earlier migrated from Birmingham to Kabul because he was inspired by the Taliban, returned to Britain after his release from US custody in 2005. Exploiting the fierce anti-Bush mood in Europe after the invasion of Iraq, an unrepentant Beg founded Cageprisoners to campaign for the release of the remaining Guantanamo prisoners and other detained jihadis. Among those whose cause Beg has taken up are Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said to be the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Abu Hamza, the hook-handed mullah facing extradition from Britain to the US, and Abu Qatada, once described as Osama bin Laden’s “European ambassador”.

Gita is a professional activist, having been involved with numerous ‘causes’ over the years. She felt that for Amnesty “to be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.” Her employer didn’t agree, and promptly suspended her. Gita has received considerable media and public support but Amnesty hasn’t dissociated itself from Beg.

To me, this incident involves more than the misjudgment of one reputable human rights body. It is a classic case study of the derailment of the human rights industry — yes, it is an industry — and its takeover by politically-driven activists.

I recall the days when Amnesty was a noble organization campaigning for those who had been jailed for merely holding and expressing contrarian views. It campaigned untiringly for the release of Nelson Mandela, spoke out for the harassed ‘dissidents’ in the Soviet bloc, publicized the ‘prisoners of conscience’ in lesser-known places and even brought hope to those languishing in Indian jails during the Emergency. Its programme of sending Christmas cards to prisoners in South Africa was particularly touching.

Perhaps these campaigns were implicitly political. But an unequivocal stand in favour of democracy and free speech was worth taking, even if it meant being at loggerheads with those who deluded themselves that there could be no injustice in socialist countries.

Those were innocent days but it was clearly understood that ‘bourgeois’ human rights were relevant for those who didn’t have blood on their hands. The generosity of human rights didn’t extend to guerrillas in the umpteen liberation movements and to those in, say Germany’s Baader Meinhof gang, who were smitten by violent delinquency. There were many in the 1960s and 1970s who marched the streets chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” but it was unusual for these Che Guevara-worshipping romantics to think that the war against loathsome Yankee imperialism was a human rights campaign.

A journey that began with expressing solidarity with Mandela and has stretched to embracing a partnership role with the Taliban has seen many strange diversions. For a start, the highly political ‘peace movements’ which mushroomed globally as extensions of Soviet foreign policy have become the template for a new approach to human rights. Its most significant feature is selective indignation. Just as its early practitioners denied the Gulag, today’s human rights-wallahs gloss over the brutalities of Maoists in India, Hamas in Palestine and LTTE in Sri Lanka or, for the matter, the Taliban. The focus is instead on state repression in counter-insurgency and war. The idea is not to press for common humanity to prevail but to use human rights as a political support system.

Second, the human rights business has evolved from being voluntary concerns to becoming well-funded agencies of governance. This shift has meant their generous expansion to cover nearly all aspects of public life. Groups such as Amnesty no longer focus exclusively on prisoners of conscience and victims of unjust laws. Their activities now involve campaigns against mining in Orissa, land acquisition in Bengal and dams in Gujarat. Human rights are fast turning into levers of blackmail against governments and companies. What are essentially political battles have been given a benign masquerade — one guaranteed to melt the impressionable hearts of those Lenin sneeringly called “useful idiots.”

For fanatics like Beg who don’t give a toss for liberal values, supping with the compassionate is a cynical ploy. Ironically, his motives may be the same as those who helped confer respectability on him. Gita was rightly offended. But she must have known all along that a disaster was waiting to happen.

Sunday Times of India, February 28, 2010

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Saffron turnaround (February 27, 2010)

Gadkari has begun the process of wiping out Rajnath Singh's legacy

By Swapan Dasgupta

A WEEK BEFORE the BJP National Council met in Indore on February 17, a close associate of party chief Nitin Gadkari asked me what had been the impact of the new president on the party. “Zero, but definitely not negative,” was my terse response.

A week after the Indore session, my assessment has changed; it is now markedly positive. In a very short time, the portly and affable man from Nagpur has won the trust and lifted the spirits of a demoralised party. It is too soon to say whether a transformation of the mood will lead to the BJP resuming its role as the principal opposition party and the natural alternative to the Congress. But since the first step of political assertion lies in instilling confidence in the ranks of the committed, Gadkari can be said to have reversed the sinking feeling that set in the BJP after the Lok Sabha defeat in May 2009.

To be fair, Gadkari did not wave any magic wand. Through an elaborate process of interaction with the party faithful in the two months that preceded the Indore session, he drove home two messages.

The first was relatively non-contentious. He sought to tell the party that he would try to be unrelentingly fair and rise above factions. For the BJP this simple assertion of wholesome politics was not only important; it was paramount. Party mentor LK Advani suggested in his concluding address in Indore that the impression of internal disarray was a factor in the BJP’s defeat in 2009. What Advani didn’t explicitly state was that the internal strains owed to the divisive approach of former party president Rajnath Singh and a section of the RSS that backed him. Gadkari’s promise to shun the culture of cronyism which resulted in the undeserving getting organisational posts and party tickets wasn’t entirely gratuitous. It stemmed from the acknowledgment of the distortions that had beset the party in the past three years.

The second theme that resonated through the Indore session was prone to divergent interpretations. To some, the commitment to introduce many more “third” and “fourth” generation leaders to political responsibilities was a breath of fresh air in a party that has a tendency to be weighed down by the hierarchical norms of the Hindu family structure. In hindsight the BJP has recognised that the octogenarian status of its prime ministerial candidate and an overall fuddy-duddy image did prompt a large chunk of younger voters to discover virtues in the Congress.

To yet others what was heartening was Gadkari’s emphasis on performance and delivery and, by implication, his disavowal of abstruse ideological posturing. There is a certain no-nonsense purposefulness about Gadkari — perhaps stemming from his self-image as a proud, self-made businessman — which marks him out from the traditional politician whose achievements and world view are defined by politics alone. He didn’t speak in abstraction about modernity or the need to face up to the realities of the 21st century. But in focussing on bread-and-butter issues and shying away from overt ‘identity’ issues, he did suggest that the BJP was keen to learn from its most important political mistake: the failure to recognise that strident Hindu nationalism too had a ‘sell by’ date. In positing a performance-linked criterion for leadership, he also crafted a vision that was markedly different from the patriarchal ‘parivar’ structure that has dominated the BJP.

Gadkari may owe his selection as BJP president to the RSS leadership, but his political priorities seem curiously out of sync with those of his patrons.

Indeed, one of the unintended consequences of the Indore meet was the slightly schizoid message that came across. The RSS-dominated Madhya Pradesh unit went out of its way to create a contrived atmosphere of simplicity that prompted many to recall Sarojini Naidu’s immortal aside on the cost of keeping the Mahatma in poverty. To accommodate RSS concerns, Gadkari also proclaimed the virtues of a ‘gaon chalo’ approach that may seem at odds with the BJP’s own urban and semi-urban base.

These were, however, instances of cosmetic accommodation to the RSS. The crucial test for Gadkari will be the selection of office-bearers and the nomination of the new National Executive. There is a section of the RSS that wants the BJP to be the mirror image of the so-called ‘parent body.’ They want the real nerve centre of the BJP to be the full-time organising secretaries appointed by the RSS. Yet, the bulk of the problems that Gadkari has inherited from his predecessor are the creation of these very organising secretaries. If the rest of the party is going to be assessed for performance, it follows that the organising secretaries cannot be governed by separate rules.


In private, Gadkari has often told colleagues that while he consults the RSS leadership, he isn’t afraid to say no where necessary. Rajnath Singh pampered the RSS by not only being unduly obliging but also trying to second guess his appointing authority. This resulted in serious political complications, not the least of which was the BJP’s failure to attract new talent after 2004. In trying to undo the damage, Gadkari may willy-nilly have to challenge and even reverse many of the key decisions of his predecessor. A small beginning has been made in Rajasthan and the coming months will see the slow return of Vasundhara Raje to the centre stage of state politics. There are similar outstanding issues in Uttar Pradesh. In coping with these different challenges, Gadkari will be judged on his ability to be fair and allow political imperatives prevail over other considerations.

RESTORING ORGANISATIONAL vigour is, however, only a fraction of the tasks before Gadkari. Far more important is the challenge of re-establishing the BJP’s political appeal to voters. That hoary identity politics has run its course is by now accepted by most in the BJP — a reason why the party was careful to distance itself from the Shiv Sena’s recent shenanigans. It is also recognised that quirky non-issues such as the promotion of vegetarianism (advocated by Rajnath Singh at Indore) are unlikely to endear the BJP to a country that is hungry for rapid growth. The instincts of the BJP are to posit uncompromising national security, independent foreign policy, the promotion of entrepreneurship and sensible economics against the waywardness of the Manmohan Singh government in these spheres. That is what the parliamentary wing of the BJP hopes to do in the coming months.

This approach, which is based on the presumption that there is a groundswell of anti-incumbency waiting to be tapped, may yield some immediate dividends, especially if the BJP puts on a united face. However, the growing appeal of Rahul Gandhi is a far greater challenge to the BJP and it cannot be met by simple anti-incumbency. This is because the Congress’ heir-apparent has been careful to keep his campaign detached from the UPAGovernment. Since Rahul’s appeal is centred on the nebulous but emotive planks of ‘youth power’, democracy and the uplift of Dalits, the BJP has to counter it through the projection of an alternative Big Idea.

At Indore, Gadkari made a plea for the BJP to shed its image as a middle-class/ upper-caste party and reach out to rural India and underprivileged Dalits. The unstated assumption was that the party would benefit by harnessing the discontent of all those left out by the relentless march of the market economy. This is an approach that also appeals to the RSS’S disdain for cosmopolitanism.

The theme of ‘growth with a human face’, often credited to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, has its takers. But it also has to blend harmoniously with the natural impulses of a party that owed its initial rise to its ability to articulate the yearnings of Middle India.

In the past decade, Middle India has changed dramatically. The disconnect between urban cosmopolitanism and Bharat is no longer as profound. The BJP doesn’t appear to have recognised this. This is why any drift to rural populism could offset potential gains from the return to organisational sobriety.

The BJP’s course-correction process has just about begun in Indore. There is still a long road ahead.

Tehelka, Vol 7 (9), March 6, 2010

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Reinvigorating the BJP (February 25, 2010)


India's new opposition leader Nitin Gadkari has a chance to make a fresh start.


Barely 10 months ago, India's elites agonized over the possibility that the general election would produce an unstable and fractious coalition government that would jeopardize the country's economic growth. Today, with a stable government in place and the Congress Party having clearly established its political primacy, Lutyens' Delhi resonates with whispered concern over the absence of a purposeful opposition.

The concern is based on a string of misgivings. The Manmohan Singh government is perceived to have grown utterly complacent. With inflation having crossed 8% and the price of food having registered a sharper increase, there is a feeling that the government is letting matters slide because it doesn't fear political opposition and social unrest. There are fears that political considerations are preventing a robust response to the Maoist threat. Finally, in the aftermath of the Copenhagen summit and the resumption of dialogue with Pakistan, there are concerns that the prime minister is obliging the Obama administration excessively.

Since it lost power in 2004, the Bharatiya Janata Party, India's principal opposition party, has lost its earlier appeal among the middle classes and the youth. This erosion of support was a consequence of a tired leadership, internal feuding, the pursuit of a policy of blind obstruction to all government initiatives and a failure to check sectarian hotheads identified with its Hindu nationalist ideology. From being a party of conservative Middle India, the BJP ceded its centrist space to the Congress Party. In recent months, it has been paralysed by a failure to counter the appeal of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress heir-apparent.

The national convention of the BJP, held last week in the contrived simplicity of a tented township in Indore, saw the appointment of a new president. The affable 52-year-old Nitin Gadkari, a self-made businessman from Nagpur, endeared himself to the 4,000 delegates with his disarming frankness. He readily admitted the party's lapses—the disagreeable leadership spats and the debilitating effects of cronyism—and promised an internal regime based on fairness and performance. With the party's earlier prime ministerial candidate, the 82-year-old L.K. Advani, elevated to a ceremonial role, Mr. Gadkari promised to induct representatives from the "third and fourth generations" and women into positions of responsibility. Finally, but without saying so too explicitly, Mr. Gadkari sent out a clear signal that the BJP would shun sectarian shrillness to recover its lost centrist space. He offended Hindu hardliners by opposing the regional xenophobic agenda of their Shiv Sena party allies and suggested an out-of-court, political settlement of a 60-year-old case over a site in Ayodhya that Hindus believe is especially sacred but which was also the site of a 16th century mosque.

Bolstering the morale of the faithful is the first step in a program of political revival. To that extent Mr. Gadkari has made a good start and has earned himself considerable goodwill. The more difficult journey involves winning the trust of voters, particularly that generation which never experienced the heady Hindu mobilization of the early 1990s. For the moment, the BJP's focus is on establishing itself as a vigorous but responsible parliamentary opposition. Arun Jaitley, its leader in the Upper House, has already made an impact with his penetrating scrutiny of the government. Sushma Swaraj, its new leader in the Lower House, is expected to complement him with her spirited oratory.

However, galvanizing voters is only a fraction of the task before the BJP. Far more daunting is coping with the challenge of Rahul Gandhi. The young Congress general secretary has based his appeal on nebulous invocations of "youth power" and "modernity"—themes unrelated to the Singh government's performance. Mr. Gandhi's famous name is a big advantage, too. If the BJP has to counter Mr. Gandhi, it has to come up with its own big ideas.

Unfortunately for the BJP, this is the area where confusion persists. It has been subjected to very contradictory political pulls, best personified by the divergent approaches of its two most successful provincial governments. On the one hand is the Shivraj Singh Chauhan-led Madhya Pradesh government that prides itself on its compassionate development and sensitivity to cultural norms. On the other hand is the Narendra Modi-led government in Gujarat which has made rapid economic growth and modernization its signature tune. Although Mr. Modi remains controversial for his alleged complicity in the infamous sectarian killings in 2002, his government is marked for its efficiency and single-minded pursuit of economic growth rather than the advocacy of Hindu nationalism.

Mr. Gadkari's presidential speech in Indore was replete with noble messages: connecting with Village India, reaching out to the last man in the last row and undertaking voluntary work. But it was also lifted by a remarkably clear statement of principle: "The government's duty is confined mainly to strategic planning, legislation of sound laws and their effective enforcement. The actual business of performing economic activities should be left to non-governmental enterprises."

The seeds of an alternative approach to governance exist in the BJP. It is now up to its leadership to nurture them.

Mr. Dasgupta, a Delhi-based political commentator, is a former managing editor of India Today.

Asian Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2010

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Talking to Pak is blind man's bluff (February 21, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of the great unresolved issues in the media can be reduced to a simple question: Do journalists write for each other and, by implication, their informants, or do they write for the enlightenment of readers?

The question arises in the context of a special coded language that appears to have evolved in foreign policy and strategic affairs circles. Those familiar with the reports of those frequenting two adjoining buildings in South Block may have noted the remarkable frequency with which some expressions recur. When it comes to dealing with our most difficult neighbour, every policy initiative is either deftly ‘calibrated’ or carefully ‘nuanced’.

So it was last Thursday when a senior official, endearingly described as “sources” by the Times of India and “official sources” by the Hindu, deemed it appropriate to brief the media on the forthcoming talks between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan. The February 25 meeting, declared the “official sources” to the Hindu, “is not aimed at resolving the outstanding issues. We are fully conscious of the complexities involved in the process and are, therefore, adopting a nuanced approach to the dialogue”.

Just in case you thought that the Hindu report was too fuzzy, here is what the Times of India had to say. The talks, it said, “could be the beginning of something bigger but that would depend on what Pakistan does during the talks and in the weeks ahead”. Consequently, “the Indian side will be going in with minimal expectations”.

But hang on. A long paragraph later, the Times of India makes an astonishing admission: “For India, which is working out a more nuanced policy on Pakistan, dialogue is only one part of the overall strategy, said sources.”

Unless the hapless reader actually believes that “sources” mean more than one person and that different newspapers have different “sources”, what is he/she to make of India’s great “nuanced” approach? First, that there are modest expectations from the February 25 talks. Second, that despite the anticipation of impending disappointment, the meeting could well be the beginning of a wonderful friendship — recall the last scene of Casablanca when Rick and Louis finally find camaraderie. Finally, that dialogue is only a fraction of the overall “nuanced” policy. With patience will arrive the next instalment of gift-wrapped nuances.

A reader determined to get the exact dope on ‘inside thinking’ in South Block may well arrive at some awkward but inescapable conclusions. The first is that the “nuanced” policy that is about to unfold on February 25 may equally be described as blind man’s bluff (or ‘buff’ if you so prefer), with India playing the blindfolded ‘It’. With some luck India could surprise a complacent opponent or it could be spending a great deal of time groping around a room aimlessly.

The second conclusion is that neighbourhood diplomacy isn’t exactly rocket science. Behind the nice sounding platitudes and theoretical postulates, the fine print of ‘international relations’ and ‘conflict resolution’ are often indistinguishable from ordinary political manoeuvring. True, there are some considered decisions and odd flashes of tactical brilliance on both sides. But more often than not diplomacy is propelled by the same ad-hocism that marks normal politics. What shapes policy isn’t some grand design but what Harold Macmillan aptly described as “Events, events, events.”

The final conclusion, which also stems from the demystification of mandarin-speak, is that foreign policy is shielded by an astonishing degree of non-transparency. In hindsight, it now seems apparent that the decision to ‘de-couple’ dialogue from acts of terrorism was taken by PM Manmohan Singh in his meeting with the Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2009. But it has taken India seven months to even own up to this apparent show of foolishness/magnanimity.
Ideally, the ubiquitous “sources” would have loved telling the country that the Prime Minister faith in the essential goodness of the Pakistani establishment hasn’t been misplaced. But since sadhbhavna is a bit difficult to sell after the Pune blast, not least because the trail has a disconcerting habit of leading back to ‘non-state players’ in Pakistan, a different tack has been adopted.

This time the plot has centred on Afghanistan and the nefarious designs of Pakistani Army Chief Kayani. If we don’t talk, the “sources” tell us, Pakistan will manufacture tensions to divert its forces away from the border with Afghanistan. This redeployment will enable the Taliban, retreating from the latest NATO-led push, to return to their sanctuaries in the badlands of Pakistan and live to fight another day. Since the Western forces are working to a tight deadline which will expire in two years, it is in India’s interest to prevent Pakistan from getting worked up over India. In a nutshell, India must engage Pakistan for the sake of the larger good in Afghanistan.

There is an alternative way of expressing this formulation: India must smoke a peace pipe with Pakistan because it helps the West in Afghanistan. Pakistan must be kept distracted and made to feel happy by India till the ‘good’ Taliban can be persuaded to return to the Afghan mainstream.

It is not that the Afghan dimension is contrived. But it doesn’t explain why Manmohan was willing to sup with the devil seven months ago and why he tried to placate Parliament with spurious assurances of Pakistani sincerity. It doesn’t explain why Pakistan is jubilant at having made India blink first. It doesn’t explain Manmohan’s inability to make the West acknowledge India’s concerns over Afghanistan.

For some time, it has been the unstated assumption of the UPA Government that foreign policy is beyond popular comprehension and best left that way. The punishing demands of democratic accountability can at best be encountered with ‘nuanced’ sophistry. It’s a clever Brahmanical ploy that confuses our own people but never succeeds in deterring the marauders.

Sunday Pioneer, February 21, 2010

Features of a dirty war (February 19, 2010)

After Pune, India can respond with either strategy or emotion

By Swapan Dasgupta

Treachery and duplicity are natural features of any dirty war, not least the one being waged on multiple fronts in Afghanistan. Earlier this week, The New York Times revealed a facet of the conflict that suggested an intriguing dimension to the ‘good Taliban’-‘bad Taliban’ dichotomy.

According to the report, the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said to be second in the Afghan Taliban hierarchy after Mullah Omar, by authorities in Karachi did not necessarily suggest that Pakistan had suddenly become more responsive to the imperatives of the ongoing Operation Mushtarak. It would seem that Baradar had been in regular touch with American intelligence and, more important, was a crucial link in President Hamid Karzai’s parallel efforts to wean away a section of the insurgents. The implication was that Pakistan apprehended Baradar because it wanted to undermine Karzai’s initiative. Pakistan had its own ‘good Taliban’ who were different from Karzai or the United States of America’s ‘good Taliban’. Islamabad was naturally inclined to promote its own ‘good Taliban’ and, if the NYT report is to be believed, was anxious to convey the message that the future of Afghanistan could not be negotiated without its blessings.

In a further twist to an already complicated story, Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, flatly contradicted the NYT report and said that no Mullah Baradar was being held by the authorities.

The extent to which a straightforward military operation, such as the one that is under way in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, will be affected by the twists and turns of a parallel plot that should excite John le Carré, is worth following. India had a taste of these spy games during the Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka when it was believed that Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam supremo, V. Prabhakaran, had developed a cosy relationship with the Sri Lankan president, R. Premadasa, to make life hellish for the Indian army. There were suggestions at the time that the LTTE Jaffna commander, S. Krishnakumar or ‘Kittu’, was actually an Indian ‘mole’ and that his death in battle was engineered by Prabhakaran.

Pakistan’s role in sustaining the conflict in Afghanistan since the downfall of the Taliban regime in 2001 is a fascinating tale of intrigue. That Islamabad was grudgingly dragged into the ‘war on terror’ after 9/11 courtesy the none-too-subtle threats of the Bush administration is a matter of record. In a long and rambling speech on September 19, 2001, to justify why Pakistan was abandoning Mullah Omar’s regime in Kabul, Pervez Musharraf, then the president of Pakistan, fell back on the history of Islam to argue that expedience demanded a tactical retreat that would not compromise the larger strategic objectives of the State. The strategic objective, as Pakistan’s generals have never been squeamish about admitting, is the restoration of the country’s “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. In plain language, this meant that Pakistan aimed at ensuring that Afghanistan was firmly within its sphere of influence.

Although in his engagements with the West, the Pakistan army chief, General Kayani, has often put a benign gloss on “strategic depth”, suggesting it meant a normal regime that was friendly to Pakistan — unlike the monarchy, the pro-Soviet regimes till 1994 and the post-2001 dispensation — there is another dimension which is unstated. The Pakistan establishment (apart from a few ultra-Islamist generals and politicians) has very little patience for the more ideological aspects of Mullah Omar’s politics. The last thing it wants is another 9/11 against the West plotted from some cave in Afghanistan. However, Islamabad is happy to nurture its strategic assets in the Taliban and to unleash these against the old enemy: India. From 1994 to 2001, Afghanistan became a training ground and the launch pad of innumerable jihadi assaults on India, including the hijack of IC 814 from Kathmandu on December 24, 1999. There is no evidence to suggest that this goal has been abandoned.

It is to Pakistan’s credit that it never lost sight of its larger strategic goals in Afghanistan. Islamabad did its utmost to cling on to its strategic assets in Afghanistan, despite being confronted with a formidable US and British war machine. First, it ensured that a large proportion of the retreating Taliban forces managed to find refuge in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas and Baluchistan. It has even been suggested that the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, was engineered with an eye to provoking a hostile Indian response. India’s mobilization of its army along the Indo-Pakistan border gave Pakistan the opportunity to redeploy a large section of its army along its eastern borders. This move in turn allowed the retreating Taliban safe passage into Pakistan.

Whether Pakistan is actually capable of such diabolical planning is a matter of conjecture. However, the fact remains that Pakistan has carefully nurtured the remnants of the Taliban leadership, facilitated its regrouping through the Quetta Shura and allowed its territory to be used as an operational base for a very effective guerrilla war against the Karzai regime and the Western forces. Pakistan has once again leveraged its role as the entry point into Afghanistan to both contain Western pressure on it and encourage the Taliban. It is entirely possible that the Pakistan military establishment anticipated the West’s inability to sustain a prolonged conflict in Afghanistan. In that sense, President George W. Bush’s extension of the war on terror to Iraq came in very handy.

It is not that Pakistan has not suffered any collateral damage from its duplicity. There has been a predictable ideological blowback resulting in the emergence of a Pakistani Taliban, unrest in Baluchistan and growing terror attacks within the country. Yet, it is worth taking into account too that the internal turbulence within Pakistan has also led to the considerable weakening of democratic impulses and the restoration of the army’s prestige. General Kayani, for example, is nominally only the army chief but for all practical purposes he is deciding the foreign policy of Pakistan.

Today, Pakistan smells victory in Afghanistan. The military surge being orchestrated by General Stanley McChrystal is aimed at shaking the Taliban militarily, encouraging desertion from its ranks and forcing a section of its leadership into negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with Karzai. At the same time, the military offensive is also a last throw of the dice and a curtain-raiser for an escalating disengagement that stands to benefit Pakistan and Pakistan alone. For Pakistan, it is important to not panic, ride out the storm and preserve as much of its strategic assets as possible. The last thing Pakistan wants is the military decimation of the Taliban and the strengthening of Karzai.

It is perhaps in anticipation of Pakistan’s manoeuvres to salvage as much as possible from the McChrystal offensive that the US warned India of a new wave of jihadi attacks. The US, it would seem, has calculated that an engineered escalation of tension along its eastern borders will provide Pakistan the necessary diversion to undertake the same tactical redeployment it carried out in December 2001, at the height of the anti-Taliban offensive. A reduction of Pakistani troops along the Durand Line will once again permit the Taliban to retreat to their safe havens in Pakistan.

After the Pune blast, India is caught in a difficult predicament. It can either give Pakistan the opportunity to create a diversion in Afghanistan or it can pretend to engage Pakistan in talks and passively await further terror attacks. It is a choice between responding strategically or emotionally. We could, perhaps, take a cue from how Pakistan chooses its priorities.


The Telegraph, February 19, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

India must seek Army role in Afghanistan (February 14, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the early hours of Saturday, a force of 15,000 British, American, Afghan and French troops launched Operation Moshtarek aimed at cleansing the Taliban from the Helmand province in Afghanistan. According to a spirited report by the ‘embedded’ Daily Telegraph reporter, Brigadier James Cowan, the commander of the British 11th Light Brigade, spoke to his troops before they set off. “Where we go, we will stay. Where we stay, we will build,” he told his soldiers in a speech reminiscent of the stirring Hollywood war movies. “The next few days will not be without danger. Hold your fire if there is risk to the innocent, even if this puts you in greater danger. For those who will not shake our hand they will find it closed into a fist. They will be defeated. I wish you Godspeed and the best of luck.”

As an Indian, I extend my prayers and wish Brig Cowan and his men the same luck that I would for an Indian contingent mounting an operation against the enemy. The reason is simple: The future peace of India depends on the success of the last-ditch operation mounted by Gen McChrystal to tilt the balance of power in Afghanistan. If the US and NATO forces succeed in dislodging the Taliban from their entrenched bases and disrupting their parallel administration, it will strengthen the hands of those who are resisting the defeatist exit strategy formalised at the London conference on Afghanistan last month.

There was a time when the US and Britain, the two main contributors to the military operations, were hesitant to admit the loss of political will in Afghanistan. These days, any high-ranking official or even those on the periphery of the power structure in Washington and London will readily admit that the goal in Afghanistan is the orderly management of disengagement. The reason is only partly financial. Far more compelling is the push from a large section of those who voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and those who are willing to support Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s re-election bid this summer. They are unequivocal in their belief that Afghanistan is “not our war”.

The angst-ridden liberals who are so terribly indignant over last year’s flawed election in Afghanistan, have no problems nurturing the belief that the Taliban are merely ultra-conservative Afghan nationalists who should be left alone to get on with their archaic way of life without interference. Of course, there is a feeble recognition that there are the ‘bad’ Taliban, the ones who extended hospitality to Osama bin Laden and plotted the international jihad to establish another Caliphate. But that problem is sought to be covered up by falling back on Pakistani guarantees.

If the future of Afghanistan unravels in the way the London conference envisaged, there are likely to be profound consequences for the sub-continent. First, Pakistan, the country which provided sanctuary and a lifeline to Mullah Omar and his henchmen after 2001, is going to be gifted Afghanistan on a platter by a disoriented West. Pakistan has claimed that it alone has the commitment and expertise to manage things in such a way that the Al Qaeda doesn’t return to Afghanistan — even if Mullah Omar does. The West is inclined to believe Islamabad and outsource what seems an ‘unwinnable’ war.

Second, the recovery of Pakistan’s ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan will lead to an immediate escalation of tensions in Jammu & Kashmir. The Pakistani military is aware that jihadi energies will need to find a focus once Western soldiers are out of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai’s Government toppled and the Afghan Constitution replaced by sharia’h rule. The jihadis will have two clear options: To either aim for a capture of power in Islamabad or resume the battle to ‘liberate’ Kashmir. It may safely be assumed that the Pakistani military will do its utmost to ensure that the latter option prevails.

Finally, regardless of Pakistan’s projection of itself as a modern Islamic nation, a Taliban victory in Afghanistan will tilt the balance of power in the Muslim world in favour of the Islamists. The sheer exhilaration of holy warriors having defeated two superpowers in just three decades will result in an immediate radicalisation of Muslims which won’t remain confined to Afghanistan, or even Pakistan. This time it is certain to create tremors all over West, South and South-East Asia, not least India. The West hopes that from threatening the heartlands of the West, jihad will become a purely Asian problem which, at best, touches North Africa. This optimism is based on Pakistani assurances, hardly something a prudent banker will accept.

Over the past months, many Indians have warned the West of the consequences of withdrawing from Afghanistan and outsourcing that unfortunate country to Pakistan’s crisis managers. It is not that India’s warnings are dismissed out of hand but they invariably elicit a common response: But what are you doing about it? The belief that preachy Indians are piggy-backing on the lives of Western soldiers and are unwilling to get their hands dirty is widespread. It may explain why India was marginal to the proceedings of the London conference.

It is not that India has been an armchair pundit in Afghanistan. India’s role in the reconstruction process is impressive and should have got better global recognition. Yet, the absence of even a symbolic military presence in Afghanistan — a soft entry point could have involved assisting the Afghan police — has proved costly.

Following the IPKF debacle in Sri Lanka in the late-1980s, there has been an unstated national consensus against military involvement overseas (except in lucrative UN peace-keeping operations). It may be worthwhile having a second look at this aloofness in the context of Afghanistan.

Sunday Pioneer, February 14, 2010

Why Sena needs to pass a loyalty test (February 14, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Assuming Islamabad has an equivalent of the committee of the great and good that decides on India’s Republic Day honours, it may find it worthwhile considering something innovative: honouring the Shiv Sena with a Pakistani award. There are few organizations that in recent weeks have done more to foster a spirit of generosity towards Pakistan as has the Sena and its leadership.

The Sena’s services to Pakistan are difficult to surpass. First, it has put Mumbai on par with Peshawar in the global safety index for cricket matches. If it is hazardous for a visiting cricketer to either field near the boundary line or venture into town in Peshawar, the Shiv Sena has made it known that it will not countenance any Australian or Pakistani player in the Mumbai leg of the IPL. Unwittingly or otherwise, the Sena has helped establish political equivalence between India and Pakistan. It has neatly punctured India’s claim to be a cut above the rest in the subcontinent.

Secondly, the Sena has established the validity of what Pakistan’s politicians and generals have steadfastly maintained after 26/11: that perverted thinking in the Islamic Republic doesn’t emanate from state-sponsorship but from troublesome, yet independent, ‘non-state’ players. Pakistanis can now assert with greater confidence that just as they have their wild lot in Muridke, India has its crazies in Mumbai. True, the devotees of Bal Thackeray rely exclusively on sticks, stones and muscle power, whereas the holy warriors have considerable expertise in armed warfare. But these, many in Islamabad would undoubtedly argue, are niggling matters of detail. What counts is that fanaticism and lunacy aren’t exclusive Pakistani prerogatives.

Finally, by picking on Bollywood’s most exalted star, the Sena has advanced the Pakistanization of India. Shah Rukh Khan isn’t, and has never pretended to be, a political pundit tutored in the nuances of the Great Game along the Radcliffe Line. He is not Aamir Khan who loves a ‘cause’ each day for breakfast. What Shah Rukh has to say about good neighbourliness may be potentially interesting, even incisive. But to suggest that his starry-eyed comment “It (Pakistan) is a great neighbour…We are great neighbours, they are good neighbours. Let us love each other” constitutes an act of devilish treachery for which he must seek forgiveness is incredible. If film stars start being assessed for patriotism—like what Senator Joe McCarthy did in Hollywood to combat communism in the 1950s — India will be perilously close to emulating those in the Pakistan cricket establishment who felt that the religiosity should be a factor in team selection.

In 2006, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board Nasim Ashraf had to inform Captain Inzaman-ul-Huq that “that there should be no pressure on players who don’t pray regularly or any compulsion on them to do it under pressure… I have told him there should be no perception among players that if they don’t pray they will not be in the team…” In 2010, the owners of the Shiv Sena have set a new loyalty test that carries one message: you cannot do business in Mumbai if your hostility to Pakistan isn’t sufficiently robust.

By this logic, Thackeray should have broken off its political relationship with the BJP whose leader wrote a glowing testimonial to Mohammed Ali Jinnah after visiting the mausoleum in Karachi in 2005. Compared to Advani’s ballad, Shah Rukh was guilty of composing a poor ditty. But then, as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto used to say, consistency is the virtue of small minds.

The Sena’s role in making Pakistan seem respectable is seminal and immeasurable. It certainly surpasses the goody-goody utterances of the hero of My Name is Khan. But whereas Shah Rukh can at best be faulted for naïve sentimentalism—which in his business of selling dreams is hardly a crime—the Sena’s offence is graver. By virtue of his menacing antics, it has willy-nilly joined many millions of the star’s fans to a cause that was never foremost in their minds.

There are many Indians who are wary of New Delhi’s U-turn on Pakistan, and more so because memories of the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai are still fresh. They can’t empathize with Shah Rukh’s lovey-dovey approach, just as couldn’t identify with those who lit candles on the Wagah border. Yet, even those who advocate a mix of belligerence and benign neglect towards Pakistan have been appalled at the targeting of a star simply because he is innocent of foreign policy and his title is Khan. They have watched in horror the Sena make nationalism disreputable by turning it into thuggery.

If there is to be a loyalty test, it is the Sena that must first establish it is batting for India. As of now, it doesn’t seem all that clear cut.


Sunday Times of India, February 14, 2010

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Arrogant Congress ignores inflation (February 7, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Had competitive politics been running on full steam, it is likely that Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar would have been subjected to unending taunts about his promise to reduce sugar prices in 10 days. Those 10 days have come and gone and not only is the price of sugar at an exorbitant level but there is every likelihood that petrol, diesel and LPG prices may sky-rocket and add to the inflationary spiral.

Tragically, the country is witnessing a curious phase of non-politics whereby the UPA Government is getting away with its colossal mismanagement and the Opposition is either paralysed or in search of Mickey Mouse issues. The war of words between the Shiv Sena and Rahul Gandhi is a classic case of tamasha (with Bollywood stars also chipping in) substituting for serious politics. Also absurd are the periodic bouts of indignation over Shashi Tharoor’s twitter messages.

Equally pitiful is the Prime Minister’s contrived sense of urgency. He has asked his Ministers to subject their performance to evaluation by ‘experts’ and he has convened a meeting of Chief Ministers to discuss inflation. Given past experience it may be safe to conclude that non-performing Ministers will continue unscathed, never mind the gratuitous concern of the Congress Working Committee. The Chief Ministers conference was just another talking shop. If inflation is brought under control, it will not be due to the pro-active intervention of the Government but because of market correction.

The extent to which complacency and arrogance have overwhelmed the Government is quite remarkable. There are many Congress leaders who boast that the party is guaranteed to be in power till 2019, come what may. To them, it doesn’t matter if Manmohan Singh is acquiring the image of a non-performing PM. According to glib prophecies that are being mouthed in Lutyens’ Delhi, a faltering Singh will relinquish power at least a year before the next general election. The successor — and there is no debate about his identity — will unleash a wave of euphoria and promise a new age of optimism. The election will be fought to give him the necessary mandate to herald ‘youth power’ and usher new faces into the Government. The electorate will readily oblige and the Congress will be sitting pretty till 2019.

Regardless of whether or not these calculations work out, the Government is conducting itself in a manner that presupposes that voters will inevitably respond to the dynastic call and re-elect India’s ‘natural leaders’. In the interregnum, all difficulties can be brushed aside and awkward questions tackled with a sleight of hand.

The favourite ploy is to pretend that there is a difference between the party and the Government. This is an old Communist trick and it is laughable to see the Congress falling back on it — and fairly successfully. Thus Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi expresses concern over the hardships to the common people on account of food inflation. There is a flurry of activity, tangential attacks are mounted on Pawar and some administered prices are temporarily modified until the fuss dies down.

This was the methodology employed by Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh who travelled to Azamgarh to commiserate with the families of those held under serious terrorist charges. Confronted with criticism, the party tried to distance itself from Digvijay. On his part, Digvijay cleverly cited the prior approval of the owners of the party. The presumption was that such duplicity would keep both sides — the anti-terror lobby and the ‘victimised’ Muslim community — happy.

Recall the controversy over Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh’s statements both before and after the Copenhagen Climate Change conference, and you will detect a pattern.

It was also comic to see the Congress use this trick to duck insolent queries about the logic of a Padma award to a dodgy NRI restaurateur. The expedient suggestion that this signals the beginning of the end for someone high up in the Prime Minister’s Office may well be true. But the question as to why the award was given in the first place was neatly ducked.

When there are no elections in the offing, there is a readiness to think that governance is all about the tittle-tattle of the Delhi durbar. Therefore, the Sharm el-Sheikh joint declaration with Pakistan was questioned by the Congress and the Government sought to lay the entire blame on a bad ghost writer. In Parliament, the Government came up with an interpretation of the declaration that was at odds with the one offered by the co-signatory. Today, the truth is finally out. The man accused of poor drafting skills — the one thing he is certainly not guilty of — has been elevated to the post of National Security Adviser, and soon after assuming responsibility he has guided India back to the spirit of Sharm el-Sheikh.
It is unduly harsh to say that Pakistan has got away with the Mumbai massacre, but it would be fair to say that Islamabad now knows that a Hindu has an infinite capacity to endure pain and still smile at those who inflicted it. In the value system of our neighbouring country, this resilience doesn't necessarily prompt grudging respect. It reinforces the caricature of the cowardly Hindu.

There is, of course, another conclusion that Pakistan can legitimately draw. It is now becoming increasingly evident that governance and statecraft are handled in a very cavalier fashion by the UPA Government. Scholars may attribute this to the age-old lack of strategic sense of Hindus but in today’s India there is a more elementary explanation: The lack of any really worthwhile all-India Opposition. If India wants to do better, it will have to re-invent an alternative to the UPA. Till then, we are destined to blunder from one unaccountable position to another.

Sunday Pioneer, February 7, 2010

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Sense of decline (February 5, 2010)

The centre of gravity of capitalism is shifting eastwards

By Swapan Dasgupta

For the past two decades, the conference in Davos has emerged as the annual stock-taking exercise of global capitalism. This year was no different. However, discerning observers detected a subtle but significant change in the mood of the gathering. A columnist for Financial Times described it as the end of the “old Davos consensus”. Underlying the change was the belief that the West had become ‘dysfunctional’, that free trade was no longer entirely beneficial to the powers that had championed it for a century and that the future belonged to Asia, particularly China. “The analytical difficulty,” he noted by way of a caveat, “however, lies in working out which of these trends will have staying power — and which will turn out simply to reflect the ephemeral mood of the moment.”

The caution is warranted. From the time the Comintern detected the “final crisis of capitalism” in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s, obituaries of capitalism have proliferated and competed with those who have, with astonishing certitude, prophesied the end of the world either from a nuclear holocaust or Climate Change. Yet, capitalism has demonstrated resilience and a remarkable ability to renew itself.

The compelling needs to rescue Western civilization — built on the bedrock of capitalism — from itself and the world economy from being subsumed by the robotic mercantilism of China are ideas whose time, unfortunately, have not come. The popular mood in both the United States of America and western Europe is distinctly downbeat — a condition that the combative Pope Benedict XVI has attributed to a moral decay arising from the excesses of secularization. The protectionist populism that President Barack Obama fell back on in his State of Union speech was a reflection of the retreat. More telling, however, were the proceedings of last week’s conference on Afghanistan in London.

A feature of the beleaguered capitalist consensus was the constant willingness to fly the flag, and uphold the ‘free world’. The notion of the ‘civilising mission’ and the ‘White Man’s burden’ may well be the subjects of unconcealed denigration in today’s post-colonial world but they also reflected a muddled desire to save the world from the forces of ‘darkness’ — whether they appeared in the form of the Mahdi in Sudan or the Führer in Germany. One of the enduring contributions of post-war statesmen such as Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Konrad Adenauer, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, to name but a few, was to stubbornly refuse to accept the permanence of the Iron Curtain. Without their uncompromising faith in the superiority and universality of the ‘free world’, the ‘evil empire’ wouldn’t have crumbled and China wouldn’t have re-defined its destiny by embracing a variant of the market economy.

Another beleaguered feature of the ‘old consensus’ was the spirit of service and sacrifice. The West dominated the world for three centuries not merely on the strength of its ability to innovate and improve but because economic muscle was unceasingly complemented by the sense of a larger mission. Generations of schoolchildren were brought up on stirring tales of the heroism of General Wolfe, Dr Livingstone, Gordon “Pasha” and Lord Kitchener in places far away from home. What Rudyard Kipling called the “White Man’s burden” was indubitably an anthem of racial superiority but it was also a celebration of the spirit of adventure, enterprise and emotional commitment to a decent and enlightened world. Over the decades, the Empire project of the Victorians has been modified and its rough edges blunted by contemporary sensitivities such as national sovereignty, human rights, racial equality and, above all, justice. But it’s important to grasp the simple truth that globalization didn’t begin with the Bretton Woods agreement; its roots go much, much deeper.

The sense of outrage against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts that triggered the US-led military intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11 was shaped by impulses that were moulded by history. Long before moral relativism sought to end the hierarchy of moral codes, there were simple notions of what constituted ‘right’ and what was clearly ‘wrong’. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan violated all the moral codes. The sheer magnitude of the 9/11 attacks, particularly the killing of civilians in New York, would have inevitably invited retaliation. But the military campaign assumed the character of a “good war” — an Obama phrase to distinguish it from the ‘bad war’ in Iraq —because the Taliban stood for a social order and a way of life that were completely at odds with even the most permissive values.

The rationale of the Afghan war wasn’t one of colonizing Afghanistan to facilitate the easy availability of watermelons, dried fruits and exquisitely hand-crafted carpets. Nor was the military expedition dictated by the need to ensure the passage of pipelines that would link the gas fields of Central Asia to the energy-hungry markets of India. The Taliban regime fell below the base line of acceptable human conduct. It was on par with Idi Amin’s Uganda and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Worse, the regime wasn’t content to remain a ghetto of darkness. It consciously sought to emerge as a springboard for a dogma-based expansion to the wider neighbourhood and even beyond; it was committed to the expansion of evil. Today, there is an attempt to distinguish between the orthodoxy and fundamentalism of the Taliban and the promotion of global terrorism by al Qaida. In actual fact, the distinction was purely notional.

That the war in Afghanistan hasn’t gone according to initial calculations is indisputable. After an initial period of retreat, the Taliban has successfully regrouped, capitalizing on the shortcomings of the Hamid Karzai regime and the ham-handedness of the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces. The recovery has been facilitated by a Pakistan anxious to recover its ‘strategic depth’ vis-à-vis India. The arduous war has also sapped Western morale and prompted the conclusion that the conflict is unwinnable. Confronted with its own sense of decline, the West has lost the will to undertake its ‘civilizing mission’. It now wants to get the hell out of the godforsaken land and hope for the best. The London conference marked the first Act of the disengagement drama and both the Taliban and its sponsors in Pakistan have realized it gleefully.

The London conference signals an important point in what Churchill may have called the “end of the beginning”. The centre of gravity of global capitalism has been shifting eastwards towards India, China and Southeast Asia. Yet, the drift hasn’t been accompanied by an orderly transfer of heritage. India is still resolving its own confusions to have any meaningful global vision; and China’s perspectives lack humanity and enlightenment. It’s this impasse that has created the conditions for the rise of Islamism as an alternative system that is implacably hostile to everything the human race has achieved so far.

In 1992, the Islamists notched up their first success when, with the backing of the US, they defeated a declining Soviet Union. Today, and with every passing day, Islamism senses the impending humiliation of a declining West in Afghanistan. The triumphalism of victories over two superpowers and two very different systems is certain to be heady. Hitler didn’t stop after gobbling up Austria and Czechoslovakia; for Islamism, a victory in Afghanistan is certain to make the whole world a very dangerous place. It’s this larger foreboding that escaped the attention of a retreating West in London last week.

The Telegraph, February 5, 2010