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India: Congress reduced as a minor party, BJP growing nervous

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It appears, the neutral Tamil voters without party affiliations and who had earlier voted for any party just freely: either AIADMK, or DMK or Congress or BJP or some other parties in order not to waste their franchise, now seem to think favoring the newly formed PWF, making it to emerge a strong coalition to take on the ruling AIADMK and leaving the DMK-Congress stay far away.

These neutral voters would welcome the emergence of People’s Welfare Front (PWF) as a genuine party to work for the welfare of Tamils and the state and as such consider the Vaiko-Vijayakanth led coalition as giving to public a natural hope of popular identity and real progress.

The arrival of the DMDK led by the matinee idol in Tamil films Vijayakanth to align with PWF led by Vaiko has not only considerably strengthened the coalition, but also annoyed DMK and BJP – both were eager to get Vijayakanth to their side to be used for elections and thrown out after the poll, sooner or later. BJP as a genuine people’s party with similar ideology, is worst affected by Vijaykanth’s decision to join the Vaiko’s PWF

Not only the Hindutva BJP but even the Congress party, abandoned by the ruling AIADMK, is placed much better than BJP in Tamil Nadu is now reduced to be a minor player in the ongoing poll scenario.

Worse, having been kept away by two major Dravidian parties AIADMK and DMK, the BJP which declared it would form government in the South Indian state for the first time is nowhere in the picture.

In fact, the BJP is the now worst affected, rather “betrayed” party as not only Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi but even Vijayakanth could not trust its hidden agenda as part of Hindutva ideology. Politicians in Tamil Nadu, who had earlier promoted the Hindutva party for their own marginal benefits, now, after knowing that BJP has used them to increase its vote banks and seats in the state, is fully aware of poisonous BJP agenda and have distanced themselves from the BJP. In fact BJP has no real partners to get votes while those that have nowhere to go for alliance have decided to transfer their meager votes to BJP which makes no difference to the emerging poll equations in the state.

Earlier BJP had no presence in Tamil state and no seats in the TN assembly as Tamils did not like the party but later BJP floated a proxy Hindu Front in Southern part of the state in Kanyakumari district and won an MLA seat from Padmanabhapuram constituency – a traditional Congress (Kamaraj faction) and communist fort but BJPs’ propaganda machinery succeeded in poisoning the Hindu minds, winning the seat. BJP applies the RSS formula to catch the Hindu attention by insulting Muslims straight from the public platform. The policy of Islamophobia and terrorization of Muslims simultaneously worked well as a usual powerful strategy for the Hindutva party as it began getting party cadres to work for an overtly Hindu party and increase Hindu vote bank. Later, BJP’s alliance with AIADMK and DMK alternatively at state level helped it increase its vote share as well as seats in assembly; it even sent MPs to parliament. Today the Modi government has a minister representing Kanyakumari district who had won the seat by its alliance with DMK. BJP would fear that it would lose its place in the state soon.

The two main Dravidian (DMK and AIADMK), national (Congress and BJP) and Left (CPI and CPM) parties have watched helplessly as a string of Tamil nationalist and caste-based parties ate into their vote-shares but sought to make amends by co-opting them through electoral alliances. Though the Narendra Modi wave of 2014 saw the BJP-led NDA create a powerful third alternative, the coming together of the BJP, Vijayakanth’s DMK, S Ramadoss-led PMK and Vaiko’s MDMK has also unraveled.

Earlier, Congress, ruling the Centre, used DMK and AIADMK alternatively for electoral gains. BJP also used the same strategy to but increased its presence in the state. The Congress’s decline that began in 1996, after the split and the formation of the Tamil Manila Congress by Mooppanar, eroded Congress base in the state and it has continued unabated in the ensuing two decades. Though the BJP made some gains in the 1999 and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it can be safely said that national parties, including the Left, which was the main Opposition party in the 1950s before the ascent of the DMK, have lost the plot in Tamil Nadu. However, the party has retained some seats in the assembly.

Though the Congress was ousted from power in Tamil Nadu in 1967, it has, for the larger part of subsequent decades, been a significant political presence in the state. The Congress contested alone in 2014 and secured just 4.3 per cent of the vote share and drew a blank. After it gave up ambitions of retaking Tamil Nadu on its own steam, the Congress reconciled to playing second fiddle to the two main Dravidian parties through an arrangement where it cornered a lion’s share of the Lok Sabha seats. Both the DMK and AIADMK were keen to woo the Congress, mindful of its stature at the Centre and its power to dismiss democratically elected state governments under the much-misused Article 356 of the Constitution.

The Congress is now truly a shadow of its former self. The DMK, even while renewing ties with the Congress, was keen on enticing Vijayakanth and offering him a significant share of the seats. However, Vaiko, a former firebrand leader of the DMK who was expelled to make way for Karunanidhi’s son MK Stalin, making him ‘rise’ politically to replace his father in due course, has kept the idea of the third alternative alive through the People’s Welfare Front, which includes the Dalit party, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Kachi (VCK), the Left parties, and now the Vijayakanth’s DMDK also.

Between 1977 and 1999, both the DMK and the AIADMK aggressively pursued alliances with the Congress. This resulted in a situation where the Congress won 14 out of 15 seats it contested in 1977; 20 out of 22 in 1980; 25 out of 26 in 1984; 27 out of 28 in 1989 and all 28 seats it contested in 1991.

The Congress under Rahul Gandhi launched a talent search across Tamil Nadu to rope in youngsters but the plan fell flat in the absence of a concrete political agenda for the future. The BJP in Tamil Nadu has also offered little beyond the tired slogans of Hindu consolidation. An AIADMK win in 2016 will not signify the consolidation of political space, but the fragmentation of its bipolar politics.

The charismatic leaders like MG Ramachandran, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi on the one hand and competitive populism on the other have shaped the agenda of the AIADMK and the DMK. The newer Dravidian parties have also imitated this strategy of leader-centric parties and populism. More damagingly, they were quick to enter into alliances with the DMK and AIADMK, and are no more seen as credible alternatives.

BJP leader Arun Jaitley’s remark that the Congress has been reduced to playing a tail-ending role to regional parties rings true in the context of Tamil Nadu. Its southern ally, the DMK, is hesitant to part with the 63 seats that were offered to the Congress in 2011. The Congress had come a cropper in that election winning only five seats forcing the DMK to rethink the utility of this alliance in the Lok Sabha elections.

While the Third Front is unlikely to win too many seats, it will snatch away many anti-incumbency votes from the DMK, but a couple of analysts say that might help the AIADMK improve the chances of retaining power.

In order to win the poll against the powerful AIADMK, rhetoric alone may not be sufficient, the PWF has to work more with a proper strategy, get votes of those who think they are unnecessarily supporting the corrupt parties in the state and they must consider a credible alternative to change their fate. People should now know why they should use the poll to change their destiny under threat from the DMK and AIADMK and also Congress and BJP. Vaiko should not miss the bus.

People of Delhi removed both the Congress and BJP, powerful national parties that were ruling Delhi state alternatively, with just one stroke last year and replaced them with a new common people’s party – Aam Aadmi party (AAP). While Congress party which rueld a few term consecutively couldn’t win even one seat in current assembly while BJP somehow managed just 3 seats in the 70 seated Delhi assembly. AAP got a historic mandate from Delhiites for its selfless service to the state.

People of Tamil Nadu can also do the same by choosing the People’s Welfare Party. Yes, why not?

Meanwhile, Dr Ramdoss’s PMK party needs to ponder over its decision to go it alone in the poll. If its key goal in the election is to change the corrupt DMK/AIADMK alternative governments, his party would be able to secure the majority need for a government formation. But by entering into poll alliance with a likeminded PWF, it can achieve it. That would give considerable hopes for other states with corruption index very high to opt for genuine pro-people government. Still there is time PMK for rethoughts!

The poll process in Tamil State has just begun with each party and coalition beginning to screen the candidate for each constituency and choosing the “right” persons for the contest. AIADMK, DMK and PWF seem to have completed much of the selection process, while BJP, still in a state of confusion, stands confused even at this stage.

Whether or not Tamil Nadu would succeed in choosing a truly new party or people’s coalition to rule the state would work for the people – and not for the parties, leaders and families – remains to be seen.

Tamil Nadu requires a fundamental change.

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South Asia

Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions

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Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.

That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.

These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.

The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.

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Panjshir – the last stronghold of democracy in Afghanistan

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The Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan has briefly stalled only in the face of strong resistance mounted by the people of the country’s recalcitrant mountainous province of Panjshir. Whoever controls the region’s passes controls the routes leading to China and Tajikistan, but to seize this mountain valley and, most importantly, to keep it permanently under control has always been a problem for all invaders. Eager to let the international community see for the first time in 40 years a united Afghanistan as a sign of their final victory, the radical Islamists were prepared to make any sacrifices, including filling the approaches to the Panjshir Valley up with dead bodies. Moreover, the Taliban’s longtime ally Pakistan, which, regardless of its status of an ally of the United States, has provided them with direct military support. In fact, Islamabad admitted its less than successful role when it proposed signing a truce to find and take out the bodies of its special Ops forces who had died during the attack on the valley. However, drones flown by Pakistani operators, professional commandos (possibly once trained by the Americans), air support and other pleasant gifts from the allies eventually bore fruit letting the Taliban be photographed in front of the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Massoud Sr., the famous “Lion of Panjshir,” who controlled the valley from 1996 to 2001. The Islamists also took control of the province’s central city of Bazarak.

Having deprived the province much of its Internet access, the radicals, who control most of the Afghan territory, found it easier to wage an information war. Their claims of victories were now more difficult to contest, even though information about their retreat did reach the outside world. Reflective of the heavy losses suffered for the first time by the Taliban and their allies – the Haqqani Network and other remnants of al-Qaeda, as well as by the regular Pakistani army is the brief truce arranged by Islamabad. Looks like the mountain passes leading to Panjshir were literally filled up with corpses…

As for Massoud Jr., the young lion of Panjshir, and his supporters, they retreated to the mountains. In fact, they had nowhere to fall back to. The problem of Afghanistan is its ethnic diversity. Thus, the country is home to 23 percent of ethnic Tajiks, most of whom live in the Panjshir Valley. However, the Taliban rely mainly on the Pashtuns, who account for over 50 percent of the country’s population. As for the new masters of Afghanistan, they are ready to carry out ethnic cleansings and even commit outright genocide in order to bring the valley into submission. To make this happen they are going to resettle there their fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Local men aged between 12 and 50 are already being taken away and, according to the National Resistance Front, no one has seen them again. However, due to the information blockade, the Taliban will not hesitate to refute such facts. One thing is clear: Massoud’s Tajik fighters and the government troops that joined them are fighting for their lives, and there will be no honorable surrender!

The main question now is whether the young lion of Panjshir will receive the same support as his father once did, or will find himself without ammunition and food. After all, the Taliban leaders have reached certain agreements with the United States. Suffice it to mention the numerous remarks made, among others, by President Biden himself about the Taliban now being different from what they were 20 years ago.

But no, the Taliban`s remain the same – they have only hired new PR people. Meanwhile, hating to admit their defeat, Brussels and Washington will have to engage in a dialogue with those who are responsible for the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and for the numerous terrorist attacks in Europe. The Taliban are pretending to make minor cosmetic concessions. Minor indeed, since they are still depriving women of the opportunity to work and study, destroying higher and secondary education and brutally clamping down on people who simply do not want to live according to religious norms.

The United States is actually helping the “new-look” Taliban. Their potential opponents, including the famous Marshal Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, left the country under various guarantees, and Washington is trying to keep them from any further participation in the conflict. Democratic politicians naively believe that by creating an Islamic state and ending the protracted civil war in Afghanistan the Taliban will ensure stability in the region and will not move any further. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do not think so and are strengthening their borders and preparing to protect their Afghan compatriots, because they know full well that the Taliban`s are not a national political party; they are a radical Islamist ideology.

It knows no borders and spreads like a cancerous tumor, destroying all pockets of Western culture. It can only be stopped by force. However, the two decades of US military presence in Afghanistan showed that Washington, which quickly took control of the country in 2001, simply had no strategy to keep it. The Afghans were given nothing that would appear to them more attractive than the ideas of radical Islam. As a result, the few Afghans who embrace European values are fleeing the country, and those who, like Massoud Jr., decided to fight for their freedom, now risk being left to face their enemy all by themselves.

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Misjudgements in India’s Afghan policy

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India’s Afghan policy has always been obsessed with the desire to deny Pakistan the “strategic depth” that Pakistan, according to India’s perception, yearns. If India had a pragmatic policy, it would not have found itself whimpering and whining like a rueful baby over spilt milk.

India supported the invasion of Afghanistan by both the former Soviet Union and the USA, both losers. President Trump mocked Modi for having built a library for the Afghan people. Trump expected India to contribute foot soldiers, and by corollary, body packs to the Afghan crisis. India played all the tricks up its sleeves to convince the USA to make India a party to the US-Taliban talks. But the USA ditched not only Modi but also Ashraf Ghani to sign the Doha peace deal with the Taliban.

India’s external affairs minister still calls the Taliban government “a dispensation”. Interestingly, the USA has reluctantly accepted that the Taliban government is a de facto government.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations’ Development Programme has portrayed a bleak situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is faced with multifarious challenges. These include prolonged drought and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, and rising poverty.

About 47 per cent of its people live below the dollar-a-day poverty line. If the poverty line is pushed to $2 a day, 90 per cent of Afghans would be poor. About 55 per cent of Afghans are illiterate.

Ninety seven percent of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line, As such, Afghanistan teeters on the brink of universal poverty. Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. The UNDP has proposed to access the most vulnerable nine million people by focusing on essential services, local livelihoods, basic income and small infrastructure.

Currently, the gross national product of Afghanistan is around $190 billion, just a little more than the $160 billion economy of Dhaka city. The country’s legal exports of goods and services every year account for $1 billion. It imports$6 billion worth of goods and services every year.

About 80 per cent of world production of opium comes from Afghanistan. Every year, Afghanistan produces nearly 10,000 tons of opium and the revenue generated from it amounts to $7 billion approximately. About 87 per cent of the income of opium producing farmers comes exclusively from this single product. The illicit opium export by Afghanistan is worth $2 billion every year. The role of opium is significant.

About 80 per cent of public expenditure in this country is funded by grants. Since 2002, the World Bank has provided Afghanistan with a total of $5.3 billion as development and emergency relief assistance. The IMF earmarked for Afghanistan $400 million in Special Drawing Rights (SDR) for combating the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

The United States has frozen about $10 billion worth of Afghan assets held at various banks in Afghanistan. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has withdrawn the $400 million worth of SDRs allocated earlier to Afghanistan for addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The World Bank has not said anything as of yet, but it may also put restrictions on its funding to Afghanistan.

India’s lip service to Afghanistan

India provided around $3 billion in aid to fallen U.S.-backed Afghan government.  It trained the Afghan army and police. But now it is not willing to pay or pledge a penny to the Taliban government. Look at the following Times of India report:

“India did not pledge any money to the Taliban ruled Afghanistan probably for the first time in 20 years. That it has not done so as Jaishanker declared … (At UN, India offers support to Afghanistan but does not pledge money. The Times of India September 14, 2021).The Hindu, September 11, 2021

India’s tirade against Afghanistan

Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantees that Afghanistan won’t become a haven for militants. “Afghanistan may be poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India’s ambassador in Kabul between 2010 to 2013.  He added that the Taliban victory could have an “inspirational effect” not only for Kashmir’s rebels but wherever religiously-driven groups operate in the broader region… Lt. Gen Deependra Singh Hooda, former military commander for northern India between 2014-2016, said militant groups based across the border in Pakistan would “certainly try and push men” into Kashmir, following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan  (With Taliban’s rise, India sees renewed threat in Kashmir, Star Tribune September 14, 2021). “Meanwhile, Rajnath Singh conveyed to Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton that the rise of the Taliban raises serious security concerns for India and the region. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed for an injection of cash into Afghanistan to avoid an economic meltdown that would spark a “catastrophic” situation for the Afghan people and be a “gift for terrorist groups.”). Afghan economic meltdown would be ‘gift for terrorists,’ says U.N. chief” (The Hindu, September 11, 2021)

 India’s former envoy to Kabul, Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhyay is skeptical of the conciliatory statements by the taliban government. He advises: “We should welcome recent statements by Stanekzai and Anas Haqqani that suggest some independence from the ISI. But we should also ask some hard questions and judge them by their actions and words, and not let down our guard, both with regard to our multiple security concerns such as whether they can protect us from the Ias and ISI, sever ties with other terror groups, especially those supported by the ISI against India, deny Pakistan strategic depth, and preserve and build on our historic P2P and trade ties; and a genuinely inclusive govt in Afghanistan that accommodates the majority of Afghans who want the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2004 Afghan Constitution or at least acceptable to the Afghan people.” (Taliban move to form govt, Naya Afghanistan brings new challenge for India, September 2, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India wants a “central role’ to be given to the UN in Afghanistan. India’s mumbo jumbo implies that Afghanistan should be made a UN protectorate. Indian media is never tired of calling the Afghan government a bunch of terrorists. They have even launched video games about it.

India needs to rethink how it can mend fences with Afghanistan that it regards a hothouse of terrorists.

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