Political Paralysis

POLITICAL PARALYSIS

India has yet to develop normal conservative, liberal and socialist parties. The Nice-Housing-Effect and a little game-theory may explain the current stagnation

By SUBROTO ROY

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, June 24 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net

THE theatrics surrounding the choice of presidential candidates refer to the highest and most dignified office of the land. Otherwise, India’s public would have been justified to think we were watching an absurd farce. Even so, lessons may be learnt about the nature of our polity, especially our purported Government and its purported Opposition.

Consider first how the name of the Congress’s candidate apparently arose. “Why don’t you think of Pratibha Patil?” was the rhetorical suggestion apparently made by Manmohan Singh to Sonia Gandhi at a joint meeting of the UPA and Left where no other person could be agreed upon. What could have been the emotional state of the Prime Minister of India in addressing such a question to its specific addressee? It had to be the same unconscious perplexity and mental contradiction he has experienced throughout the UPA Government, saying to himself: “I am the Prime Minister but I am not the Prime Minister, I am the Head of India’s Government but I am not the Head of India’s Government”.

Instead of leading the country as he was chosen to do in the belief he possessed some superior wisdom and capability for the job, Dr Singh has constantly deferred to and followed the person who chose him to lead. The Head of Government in our system recommends an appropriate Head of State. If Dr Singh truly felt himself India’s leader, not merely someone permitted for some time to enjoy the office and perquisites of India’s Prime Minister and being nominally referred to as such, he could have said: “I think we should consider Pratibha Patil, what say all of you?”

Such words would have displayed too much assertiveness in the presence of Sonia Gandhi, too much leadership from someone flatteringly described as mild and gentle but unflatteringly described as obsequious in the face of power. It is the same excess of deference displayed when he allows himself to be bullied or insulted by the DMK or receive the open contempt of his own Cabinet ministers. Dr Singh has just returned from the so-called “G-8 summit” where he was an invitee. In a group photo standing above and behind the American President, Dr Singh was seen gently touching George Bush on the shoulder as if Bush was a rich younger brother who needed a lift in spirits. Afterwards Dr Singh reportedly said the summit was useless ~ from his long bureaucratic experience he should have known that long beforehand, and declined to waste India’s time there. But then Europe is nice this time of year when Delhi is so hot. China is next on his itinerary, and he will surely not want to miss the Great Wall despite China’s continuing insults.

What the Pratibha episode reveals about Sonia Gandhi is her continuing bewilderment and confusion about the parameters of her life since her husband’s assassination sixteen years ago. There is a very simple candid explanation why, after her years in mourning, she entered politics following the Sitaram Kesri period: she and her children could not financially sustain a lifestyle to which they had become accustomed at 10 Janpath except as part of India’s politics via the Congress Party. Running the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation was not enough, and Rahul Gandhi’s income in a normal private sector career would have been unexceptional. Hence the lure of power has remained strong and cannot be walked away from even if walking away would be the right thing to do for sake of the political health of the Congress Party ~ which would finally have to grow up, find some political principles, and develop some normal processes of internal competition.

When Pratibha Patil’s name was mentioned for the first time in this manner, the rational course of action for the UPA Chair would have been to say, wait, if we are now thinking about a woman definitely, may we please have two or three such names to consider for a few days? But it was Dr Singh mentioning the name, and his supposed wisdom is what Sonia Gandhi believes, in her bewilderment, she should defer to, so she agreed at once in a parallel state of mental confusion as his: “I am India’s Leader but I am not India’s Leader”. Hence Pratibha Patil becomes the nominee. A little “game-theory” may help to explain the outcome (see table).

The paralysis and/or sclerosis of the Congress’s thinking processes is matched by the BJP and Communists. If Sonia Gandhi could bring herself to walk away from Indian politics, a genuine leadership contest in the Congress would have to occur for the first time in decades. Similarly, if Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani could bring themselves to honestly walk away from BJP politics, there would have to be a genuine leadership contest and some new principles emerging in their party. There is an excellent and very simple political reason for Vajpayee and Advani to go, which is not that they are too old (which they are) but that they led their party to electoral defeat. Had they walked away in May 2004, there might have been by now some viable conservative political philosophy in India and some recognisable new alternative leadership for 2009. Instead there is none and the BJP has not only failed very badly at being a responsible Opposition, it will go into the 2009 General Election looking exceptionally decrepit and incompetent.

Indeed, Vajpayee and Advani may not have walked away for the same reason as Sonia Gandhi, namely, the “10 Janpath Effect” or what may be generalised to the “Nice-New Delhi-Government-Housing-Effect”. Besides, like our ageing cricketers, cinema stars, playback singers and tons of ageing bureaucrats and corporate executives, where would they go, what would they do, how would they live, what do they know how to do if they were not doing what they have been doing for so long? Golf and grandchildren is the usual American formula.

In case of the Communists, it is not electoral but ideological defeat, indeed ideological annihilation, that their leaders have led them into. When was the last time we heard our Communist leaders extolling Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Zhou or even Fidel Castro? Not for a long time. The bankruptcy of official communism is obvious even to them, at least in their candid moments in front of the mirror every morning. Even for the CPI and CPI(M) to merge into a genuine modern socialist party is too creative and productive an outcome to be handled since top and middle management retrenchments would be inevitable. Also, the Cannot-Leave-Nice-Housing-Effect applies here too, and so the most we find by way of communist transformation is a perverse alliance with organised big business in trying to cheat very poor and unorganised peasants of their land in an economy where runaway paper money printing threatens a hyperinflation.

Nobody in power wants to address the rotten state of our public finances, since all of them have contributed to causing the stench. Our Finance Minister finds time to attend posh parties and publish books while presiding over an RBI-supported capital flight of India’s super-rich: “ultrahigh networth individuals are looking forward to buy overseas equities and real estate” Business Standard (25 April 2007) blithely said. The Finance Minister should have been instead burning the midnight candle getting public budgets and government accounting cleaned and healthy nationwide.

We in India have had more than enough time and democratic experience to have developed by now a set of normal conservative, liberal democrat, social democrat and socialist parties. That we have nothing of the kind speaks to the rot in the political culture we are witnessing in our capital and other major cities. Politically, we may be in for an especially ugly, unpleasant and incoherent few years starting with the presidential election currently underway.

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American Turmoil: A Vice-Presidential Coup — And Now a Grassroots CounterRevolution?

American Turmoil: A Vice-Presidential Coup – And Now a Grassroots CounterRevolution?

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page, Special Article June 18 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net

by

Subroto Roy

The Cold War was lost by Soviet and East European communism, and the laurelled victor was the USA along with its loyal allies. Russia and East Europe then transformed themselves. Once there had been Dubcek in the Prague Spring and Sakharov in his apartment. Then there was Lech Walesa the electrician, who, on 14 August 1980, climbed over a fence and led an 18-day strike from which arose the first independent trade union ~ Walesa said “the very basic things: he stood on the shipyard gate and called things by their real names”. Then came Gorbachov and Yeltsin. The despised Berlin Wall was smashed into small saleable bits in November 1989 and people just walked across. That was the end of communism. An unknown student stood down the tanks in Tiananmen Square — though a dozen years earlier the death-watch of Chinese communism had begun with Wei Jingsheng’s “Democracy Wall”. Communist apparatchiks everywhere (except New Delhi and Kolkata) started to unlearn communism; communist societies and economies began to be placed on a road to health and taken off the road to misery.


Winner’s curse

What happened to the victors? Germany quietly unified. Italy‘s politics stabilised a little. France achieved its wish of being undominated in Europe. Britain, already forlorn from loss of empire, was left trying to arbitrage between Europe and America (though there too there was new competition from the Irish Republic).

Some political learning, reconciliation and growth took place in Europe but there was none in America ~ the biggest victor of all, the one country but for whose efforts all of Europe might have become and remained communist. Instead, the USA chose to gorge itself on self-accolades, bloated, then started to choke on its own hubris.

The result is that as the 2008 Presidential election campaign gets underway, and the Second Iraq War is at its peak, America’s polity at its highest level may be in turmoil of a sort not seen since the student revolts at the peak of the Vietnam War.

Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were an interregnum after the Vietnam and Watergate traumas. It was during the Reagan “restoration” that communism collapsed and Osama bin Laden was befriended. Carter’s military mission to rescue American hostages in Iran notoriously failed; Reagan restored American pride by sending in the US Army’s crack Rangers to defeat an almost non-existent enemy ~ in Grenada. It was the first successful American military action in a long time. But there was also failure in Beirut where Reagan withdrew after 241 US soldiers were killed by a suicide-bomber.

George Bush Sr glided into the Presidency in Reagan’s wake. He felt sure of being re-elected when Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait gave him a war with which to seal his chances. For his part, Saddam had primly and properly called in the US Ambassador to Iraq, the top career diplomat April Glaspie, and told her he had accounts to settle with Kuwait over the Iran-Iraq war. Glaspie, under instructions of the Bush-Baker State Department, famously told him the USA had no opinion on inter-Arab conflicts. Saddam took this to be a green signal, or at least not a red signal, from America and went ahead with his attack on Kuwait.

The American President worked himself into an angry indignation ~ and soon there were large numbers of American troops in Saudi Arabia, soon Iraq was forced to retreat with thousands slaughtered in a turkey-shoot from the air, soon there would be severe sanctions and bombings by the USA and UK. Bush was sure he would be re-elected in 1992, and indeed he led all the polls ~ except an oddball surprise Ross Perot pulled away his votes, and caused the third man running, a young governor of a minor State, to push through to victory instead. Bill Clinton was as surprised as anyone that he was President of the USA in 1992. Dissimulation and mendacity reached new heights during his time yet he came to be re-elected in 1996.

Osama bin Laden started to rant against his former ally. Remove your troops from our holy land, he said. Clinton and Madelaine (“It’s worth it”) Albright continued to bomb Saddam instead ~ who after all had launched a few backward Scuds at Israel during the First Iraq War of 1991. Somehow or other, Osama and/or someone else then designed the destruction of Manhattan’s tallest buildings on September 11 2001; it remains unclear what projectile hit the Pentagon or exactly what happened over a field in Pennsylvania the same morning. The mass murder of thousands remains unsolved.

America, under Bush’s elder son, attacked Osama’s hosts in Afghanistan (but not so as to upset their common Pakistani friends too much), then turned their really motivated firepower against their old foe, Saddam Hussein. Iraq by the summer of 2003 was destroyed as a nation-state, and today in 2007 under American occupation has been almost wholly destroyed as a culture and a society. The new US Embassy in Baghdad is as large as the Vatican. Fourteen permanent American military bases have been built. The US Government has spoken of moving troops from Saudi Arabia to Iraq, and of being in Iraq for ever on the Korean pattern.

United States history and political culture had never seen a Vice President as being anything more than an invisible silent shadow of the President of the land. That has changed drastically. Indeed in recent months there has been much serious Washington talk of the incumbent Vice President having unlawfully usurped political power from the President himself. Cheney’s people throughout the Bush Administration have been in almost open battle against the official foreign and diplomatic policy of Condoleeza Rice and the professional military represented by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Before the attack on Iraq they had overturned the CIA’s official intelligence assessments. There is a general perception that Cheney’s people have been far shrewder and more experienced of the Washington Beltway than Bush’s.

Attack on Iran?

Now the central issue has been whether to attack Iran, and if so how and when. Cheney’s people and their think-tank friends are determined America must do so, perhaps with a new Netanyahu Government in Israel early in 2008 or sooner. The President was apparently warned by his generals in December 2006 that such an attack would gravely endanger the supply lines of US troops who would face a Shia insurrection in Iraq; that may have been the sole reason no attack occurred, and also one reason for the present infantry “surge”. Three aircraft carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf indicate a potential strike, and that level of force has been coming and going from there for months.

The main Democratic Presidential candidates, especially Mrs Clinton, have said nuclear weapons are “not off the table” in reference to striking Iran without provocation. Nine out of ten of the Republican Presidential candidates agree. The exception is Ron Paul who has recognised the United States was not intended by its founders to be launching aggressive nuclear war against non-nuclear countries in the 21st Century. The Reagan-era economist Paul Craig Roberts has said such war will leave America more reviled than Hitler’s Third Reich.

A grassroots democratic counter-revolution could be starting to overturn the elitist coup d’etat that may have occurred in Washington. “People power” beat organised State power in many times and places. Can it win here? Or could there be tanks in Dupont Circle forty years after the tanks in Wenceslas Square?

Unhealthy Delhi

Unhealthy Delhi

When will normal political philosophy replace personality cults?

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, June 11 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net


A decade after Solzhenitsyn’s classic 1962 memoir One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch, an ambitious young Delhi photographer published a hagiography called A life in the day of Indira Gandhi. Indira was shown gambolling with her little grandchildren, guiding her dutiful daughter-in-law, weeping for her father, greeting her loyal subjects from around India, reprimanding her ingratiating sycophants, imperiously silent during political meetings, smiling and scolding alternately at press conferences, and of course standing in victory at Shimla beside the defeated Bhutto. “Indira is India” the sycophantic slogan went, and the cult of her personality was one of showing her as omniscient and omnipotent in all earthly matters of Indian politics.

She had indeed fought that rarest of things in international law: the just war. Supported by the world’s strongest military, an evil enemy had made victims of his own people. Indira tried patiently on the international stage to avert war, but also chose her military generals well and took their professional judgement seriously as to when to fight if it was inevitable and how to win. Finally she was magnanimous (to a fault) towards the enemy ~ who was not some stranger to us but our own estranged brother and cousin.

It seemed to be her and independent India’s finest hour. A fevered nation was thus ready to forgive and forget her catastrophic misdeeds until that time, like bank-nationalization and the start of endless deficit-finance and unlimited money-printing, a possible cause of monetary collapse today four decades later under Manmohan Singh whose career as an economic bureaucrat began at that time.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao

Modern personality cults usually have had some basis in national heroism. In Indira’s case it was the 1971 war. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were seen or portrayed as war heroes too. Because there has been leadership in time of war or national crisis, nervous anxious masses extend their hopes and delusions to believe such a leader has answers to everything. The propaganda machinery available as part of modern state apparatus then takes over, and when it is met on behalf of the citizenry with no more than a compliant docile ingratiating mass media, the public image comes to be formed of a parental god-like figure who will protect and guide the community to its destiny.

Beneath this public image, the cunning play of self-interest by anonymous underlings in the allocation of public resources continues unabated, and so it is possible some truth attaches to the idea that an individual leader is not as responsible for evil misdeeds or depredations done by “the party” in his/her name.

In the Indian case, hero-worship and ancestor-worship are part of the culture of all our major religions. Hence we have parades of parliamentarians garlanding or throwing flowers and paying obeisance at this or that statue or oil-painting or photograph regularly ~ though as a people we have yet to produce rigorous intellectual biographies of any major figures of our own modern history, comparable to, say, Judith Brown’s work on Gandhi or Ayesha Jalal’s on Jinnah.

Indira continued to dominate our political culture until her assassination more than a decade later, but there was hardly a shred of political or economic good in what she left the country. Her elder son (leaving aside his blunders in Sri Lanka, J&K etc.) did have the sense to initiate fundamental change in his party’s economic thinking when he found a chance to do so in the months before his own assassination.

Rajiv was the son of Feroze Gandhi too and a happy family man; he seemed not to have psychological need for as much of the kind of personality cult his mother clearly loved to indulge in. It is not clear if his widow is today trying to follow his example or his mother’s ~ certainly, the party that goes by the name of Indian National Congress would like to relive for a second time the worst of the Indira personality cult around Sonia Gandhi. And Rahul Gandhi, instead of seeking to develop or display any talent as befits a young man, has shown disconcerting signs of longing for the days of his grandmother’s personality cult to return. He may have been more effective pursuing a normal career in the private sector.

The Congress’s perpetual tendency towards personality cults has extended by imitation to other political parties in New Delhi and the States. Atal Behari Vajpayee at his peak as PM did not find it at all uncomfortable to be portrayed by his sycophants as a wise, heroic and loving father-figure of the nation ~ an image shattered when, immediately after perfunctorily commiserating the Godhra and post-Godhra horrors, he was pictured fashionably on a Singapore golf-cart sporting designer sunglasses.

India’s organised communists make a great show of collective decision-making since they most intimately followed the details of Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult. It has not stopped them routinely genuflecting to China’s communists. There also has been a communist tendency to deny individual merit and creativity at junior levels and instead appropriate all good things for the party bosses. New brilliant faces will never arise in the Left and we may be condemned to see the usual characters in perpetuity. If personality cults around Jyoti Basu or Buddhadeb Bhattacharya have failed to thrive it has not been through lack of trying on part of the publicly paid communist intelligentsia and their docile artists, but rather because of resistance from Bengal’s newspapers and a few clear-headed journalists and well known opposition politicians.

Tamil Nadu has seen grotesque rivalry between Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha as to whose personality cult can alternately outdo the other, supplanting all normal political economy or attempts at discovery of the public interest. In Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, J&K, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (but not Gujarat or Rajasthan lately), two-party democratic politics has succeeded in limiting tendencies for personality cults to develop. The North Eastern States have had inadequate coverage by modern media, which, fortuitously, along with tribal traditions, may have restrained personality cults from developing.

Facts explode cults

Facts are the most reliable means by which to explode personality cults. It is not a coincidence that facts are also the source by which to develop modern political philosophies, whether conservative, classical liberal/ libertarian, or socialist. Facts have to be discovered, ferreted out, analysed, studied and reflected upon by those civil institutions that are supposed to be doing so, namely university social science, economics and related departments, as well as responsible newspapers, radio and other mass media. Julian Benda once titled a book The Treason of the Intellectuals. India will begin to have a normal political philosophy when the treason of its modern intellectual classes begins to be corrected.

It is not a treason in which the state has been betrayed to an enemy. Rather it is one in which the very purposes of public conversation, such as the discovery of the public interest, have been betrayed in the interests of immediate private gain. This may help to explain why there is so little coherent public discussion in India today, and certainly almost nothing on television, or in the business papers or what passes for academia.

Home Team Advantage

Home Team Advantage

On US-Iran talks and Sunni-Shia subtleties: Tehran must transcend its revolution and endorse the principle that the House of Islam has many mansions

First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page, Special Article, June 3 2007


By SUBROTO ROY

On Monday 28 May in Baghdad,the American and Iranian Governments held their first official face-to-face talks in some 26 or 27 years. This sheer fact is a good thing. For more than two years there has been incessant sabre-rattling and gunboat diplomacy by the USA against Iran, as well as provocative words and deeds by Iran’s President against America’s Israeli ally (though it is apparently false his words included saying he wished Israel “wiped off the map”). Palmerston said there are no permanent allies among nations. The last unofficial transactions had to do with the notorious “Iran-contra” affair which blighted Ronald Reagan’s second term as President. Iran was sold American weapons from Israel (yes, the same Iran and same Israel) for use against Iraq (the same Saddam’s Iraq which had been Rumsfeld’s friend and which apparently received American intelligence and logistics help against yes, the same Iran); the moneys the Americans received were then used to pay for anti-Sandinista “contra” forces in Nicaragua (so they could, for example, buy American weapons too). Apart from that unofficial and embarrassing “Iran-contra” affair, the American and Iranian Governments had not had face-to-face discussion since diplomatic relations broke in 1980 during the “hostage crisis”.

Arthur Millspaugh, an American invited by the Iranians to help their public finances, once wrote: “Persia cannot be left to herself, even if the Russians were to keep their hands off politically.… Persia has never yet proved its capacity for independent self-government.” The title of his 1925 book America’s Task in Persia reflected the old paternalist attitude that an imperialist power must necessarily know better than local people what happens to be in their interest in the way a parent knows better than a child. Even that otherwise great libertarian JS Mill himself once suggested that contact with a “superior people” allowed rapid advancement. India’s “Lenin Peace Prize” winner and Soviet sympathiser KPS Menon Sr (grandfather of our present top diplomat) said the same after the 1979 invasion and occupation by the USSR of Afghanistan. Nationalists of all colours and times ~ from Tom Paine, Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”) and George Washington to Bal Gangadhar Tilak (“Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it”), Ho Chi Minh and Ayatollah Khomeini ~ would disagree.

Indeed, in the Iranian case, the Khomeini Revolution was the antithesis of the imperialist doctrine. But Iranian revolutionaries then seized the American Embassy on 4 November 1979 and took 66 hostages. Thirteen women and black Americans were released two weeks later; one man was released due to ill-health in July 1980. In a failed attempt to rescue the remaining 52, eight American military personnel died on 25 April 1980. The 52 hostages, including two women and one black, were released on 20 January 1981 under the “Algiers Accord”, a day before Reagan became President. Even if the US Embassy in Tehran had been a den of spies, as the Iranians claimed, the Revolutionary Government could have ordered them all to leave and ended diplomatic relations.

Instead hostages were taken in deliberate violation of international law. The United States Government under duress on 19 January 1981 had to sign the “Algiers Accord”, the first point of which stated: “Non-Intervention in Iranian Affairs: The United States pledges that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs.” That was the “blowback” from the coup d’etat against Iran’s democratic government under Mossadeq in 1953 which the CIA had engineered. Modern US-Iran relations have been about two wrongs ~ indeed multiple wrongs ~ not making a right.

From Algiers until the Baghdad meeting there was no official interaction between the USA and Iran (besides the Iran-contra affair and American relief supplies during an Iranian earthquake). The present US-Iran talks had to do with the catastrophic mess in Iraq, and were held via the current Al-Maliki Government of Iraq which is beholden to both as patrons.

Saddam’s Iraq had been officially secular not an “Islamic Republic”. But its Baathist national-socialism (with yes, a few silly Nazi aspects) had been populated mostly by Saddam’s fellow Sunnis, and there was some vicious anti-Shia persecution.
Doctrinally, the Sunni-Shia conflict may have originated during Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. “In the words of al-Baghdadi, a Sunni is one who believes in the creation of the universe, the unity and pre-existence of its Maker, the apostolate of Muhammad, recognizes and observes the duties of the five prayers, fast of Ramazan, poor-rate and pilgrimage, and does not adulterate his faith with an abominable innovation which leads to heresy.” (Imtiaz Ahmad in Grewal ed. Religious Movements and Institutions in Medieval India, p.277). Shias claim that exegetical authorities, both Sunni and Shia, record the Prophet on 10 March 632 AD at the pool of Ghadir “while returning from his last pilgrimage to Mecca… delivered his farewell address” in which he declared Ali ibn Abi Talib his successor (S. Ali Nadeem Rezavi, ibid., p. 281). No logical contradiction between Sunnis and Shias seems obvious from this.

But there also have been racial and cultural aspects to the division. Arabs, though not Iraqi Arabs, are mostly Sunni while Iranians are mostly Shia. At the same time, Persian culture and history has had incorrigibly Zoroastrian roots just as Egypt was the land of the Pharoahs and Arabia of Meccan paganism. Mesopotamian culture has had Sumerian and Babylonian roots, and Indian Islam has grown among the cultures of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. Intra-Muslim conflict will be reduced only when it becomes generally recognised that the House of Islam has had many mansions.

Saddam’s war against Khomeini’s Iran was not a religious war but one between two putative nation-states. In Iraqi junior schools during the war, a class of 40 pupils could be divided by academic merit such that the top 20 would play brave Iraqis in the school-play ~ the hapless bottom 20 had to play the wicked Persians, leaving them in tears as well as in simulated defeat.

What the current US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq has quite deliberately accomplished is the destruction of Iraq as a putative nation-state and the fanning of mostly suppressed Shia-Sunni differences instead. The idea of “regime-change” in Teheran in the old way of the CIA coup against Mossadeq also has not been far from Anglo-American thinking in the current confrontation with Iran. “Who lost Iran?” was an American political slogan in the 1980s, and there are day-dreamers in Washington think-tanks today who have fantasies of Iran being run by compliant “Iranian-American” émigrés from Los Angeles. But instead the destruction of Saddam’s regime inevitably has led to Iran’s strengthening, as all Iraqi Shia forces made dominant as a result are, at least from a doctrinal standpoint within Islam, united with Tehran to greater or lesser degree. A new Iraq-Iran war is hard to imagine as along as Shias dominate Baghdad’s Government. Iran for its part needs to demonstrate that it has transcended its revolution and that it unequivocally endorses the principle that the House of Islam has many mansions.

The British and Americans are great lovers of sports and inventors of many modern games played on fields around the world, from cricket and soccer to basketball. Their Governments seem to have forgotten in their foreign policy theorising that there is such a thing as “home-team advantage”. Imperialists ultimately can never defeat nationalists, because, at the end of the day, imperialists have to either go home or (as Conrad and Coppola knew) “go native”. In the new Iran-USA talks, both sides may have sensed Iran has the home-team advantage. The most the United States can do to Iran is bomb it and leave.


On the US Presidential Elections 2008

US election ’08:

America’s Presidential Campaign Seems Destined To Be Focussed On Iraq

By Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman,

Editorial Page, Special Article, June 1 2007

Like baseball and American football, it is not easy to comprehend modern American politics from the outside world. The very idea that most American voters are either “Democrat” or “Republican” throughout or over much of their lives is itself a little odd. In an ordinary social or job-environment, a single Republican in a group of Democrats will feel uncomfortable as will a single Democrat in a group of Republicans.

Typically, each is in favour of some and against other specific “issues”, or, more accurately, specific political slogans. A Republican may be typically in favour of “free enterprise”, “limited government”, “a strong military”, and “family values”. A Democrat may be typically in favour of a woman’s “right to choose” (whether or not to abort a foetus), “gun control”, “universal health care” and tolerance of diversity. Republicans typically charge Democrats with being tax-raisers, profligate spenders of public money, soft on defence and crime, promoters of homosexual rights and generally daffy-headed hippies. Democrats typically charge Republicans with being stooges of the rich, oppressors of middle and working classes, proto-fascists and jingoists, and lunatic religious fundamentalists.

The mood is vicious, and in small social gatherings (even between husband and wife) tempers flare and can only subside by reference to some other neutral subject such as sports or by making a joke. Comedy is a major forum of political discussion and means of tension-release.

Greasy pole of power

A typical politician may rise from being an elected local official to running for the State legislature and thence running to be State Governor or a US Senator from the State, and thence either make a bid for the White House perhaps or fade away as a senior statesman. George W Bush was Governor of Texas, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Ronald Reagan of California, Jimmy Carter of Georgia. George Bush Sr became Reagan’s Vice President after being a Texas legislator, head of the CIA and UN Ambassador. Gerald Ford went from House Speaker to Vice President and then President due to collapse of the Nixon Presidency. Richard Nixon himself was Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice President and before that an abrasive Senator from California. Eisenhower was not a politician but a retired soldier, the war-hero who led the Allies to victory, and became perhaps the most popular and competent of all modern US Presidents.

In a nutshell, American politics is about the reputations of individuals acquired along the way, which then their friends and allied interest groups seek to publicly enhance and their enemies seek to publicly destroy as they try to climb the greasy pole of political power. The media, especially television in the last fifty years, becomes pivotal, as each side tries to ferret out and expose publicly any dirty deeds of the other, or failing that, at least create a monstrous image based on a voting record in the public domain.

As the 2008 Presidential Election approaches, both major parties will witness ruthless slug-fests as candidates for the party’s nomination battle one another to see who is the last man/ woman standing. That person then gets to choose a Vice Presidential candidate, and the two form the “ticket” which will fight the other party’s ticket. This inter-party contest for the White House (and hence some 4,000 executive jobs in Washington DC for four years) has been compared by astute American observers to a nationwide popularity contest. It is certainly not the most reliable method in the 21st Century by which to find the wisest government of the world’s strongest (and perhaps most aggressive) military power.

The Iraq war has come to wholly dominate America’s current political debate. The number of American soldiers dead in Iraq is now well over 3,400 and climbing quickly; the number seriously wounded by roadside bombs etc is in the tens of thousands.

Among the Democrats, the perpetually ambitious Mrs Hilary Clinton is hard-pressed to explain how she, as Senator from New York State and someone with experience of her husband’s Presidency, backed his Republican successor’s jingoism and chose to be blind to all the official mendacity. She is unable to explain herself. Her rivals include Senator Barack Obama ~ the son of a black Kenyan graduate student in Hawaii and a white woman from Kansas, which, in American terms, brands him as black. He is a Harvard-trained lawyer married to a Harvard-trained lawyer, and though there is glamour and excitement in his candidacy as a young freshman Senator who voted against the Iraq war, it is inevitable many whites will see him as being a black man while at least some blacks will see him as being not black enough in not having been seared by the history of black people in America. His enemies have been already delighted to suggest he is Muslim with a middle name “Hussein” and that Obama rhymes with Osama. Such prejudices may be too much to overcome. The Democrats also include John Edwards of South Carolina, who was John Kerry’s running-mate in 2004, and who presently gains from being neither female nor black. It is not impossible once these and others like Governor Bill Richardson and Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd have bruised one another sufficiently, a heavyweight old candidate joins the Democratic race like Al Gore (who likely had beaten Bush in 2000). But Gore is now facing a personal obesity problem.
The leading Republican contenders are trying to outdo each other on harshness towards alleged terrorists trying to attack America (something which can simply mask racial and religious prejudices and sadism). Arizona Senator John McCain’s claim to fame is that he many years ago was a POW who suffered under the North Vietnamese. He was once seen as a reasonable politician but his outright support for Bush’s aggressiveness abroad goes against the 70% of voters who today think Bush has been dead wrong. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made his name by apparent efficiency and compassion during the 9/11 attacks. He now seems to see his task as one of outdoing McCain’s jingoism. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has positioned himself to seem the most “standard” candidate around; but he is a member of the Christian sect known as the Mormons, prejudice against whom remains deep in the country and Romney may eventually face the same uphill task as Obama.

New shoots of life

Surprise factors have been upstart anti-War candidates. Mike Gravel, a principled former Senator from Alaska, forced his fellow-Democrats to face up to their hypocrisy over Iraq and war in general. But Gravel is the longest of long shots, and lacks the power of any of the Democratic special interest groups on his side. Republican Texas Congressman Ron Paul is the dark horse in the entire field at the moment. He is staunchly libertarian or “classical liberal” on principle, believes in a wholly non-interventionist American foreign policy, consistently voted against the Iraq war and has never voted in favour of raising taxes. He is the runaway favourite of the Internet where America’s real political discussion is increasingly taking place, and his grassroots support among both Republicans and Democrats opposed to the Iraq war is swelling fast. An obstetric surgeon by profession, Paul, at age 71, has been and remains married only once (an American rarity), and may well appeal to all sides of the political and economic spectra although his technical monetary economics is weak. What his emergence does show is how American democracy is yet able to spring healthy shoots of new life from within a decaying morass.

Correction : In my previous article “On Indian Nationhood”, it was said Independence came “forty years” after Montagu-Chelmsford when it was thirty years. The error is regretted. I had meant the Morley-Minto period of 1906-1908.