Endgame in Syria, for now

The United States and its Western allies have temporarily shelved their plan to attack Syria. On Tuesday night, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his request to “postpone” a Congressional vote on authorising military force. His decision came after a day of intense diplomatic activity, triggered by Russia’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under international inspection and control.

Moscow’s initiative — engineered by its astute Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov — was eagerly accepted by the White House after it had become clear that U.S. legislators were going to turn down Mr. Obama’s request to bomb Syria. Mr. Lavrov’s masterstroke not only thwarted an imminent attack, but also allowed the Obama administration to wriggle out of the knot it had tied itself into. For its part, the Bashar al-Assad regime has shown approval of this proposal and has even promised to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires state parties to stop producing and gradually destroy their toxic munitions.

On the Russian checkmate in the Syrian chessboard, here

No better judge of this government

One late evening, on March 9, 1937, thousands of Americans turned their radios on to hear an unusual request from their President: help me “pack the Supreme Court” with judges who will rule in my favour. The United States had been ravaged by the Great Depression, and Franklin D. Roosevelt had a plan to save its economy. But the “New Deal,” as he called it, comprised a series of welfare legislation — designed to raise the minimum wage, enhance social security, and provide subsidies to American farmers — and President Roosevelt needed a pliant Court that would not strike it down. So he mooted the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill that would “retire” many of the sitting Supreme Court judges and replace them with appointees inclined to see the President’s actions in a kinder light. While Roosevelt’s intentions were noble, the public and the U.S. Congress saw right through his appeal — whatever the objective, the independence of the judiciary could not be compromised. Closer home, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has embarked on a similar, dangerous mission to clean up the mess it has left behind and protect its legacy at the cost of the Supreme Court’s credibility. Only this time, it may succeed.

On the Congress government’s attempt to “pack the Supreme Court” with pliant judges, here.

An air strike on Damascus and other strongholds of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, led by the U.S, U.K. and France, seems imminent. In the days and weeks to come, we will be duly informed by pundits that Syria is not Iraq - and hence not a shambolic intervention - what with its proven arsenal of weapon of mass destruction (WMDs). This military assault, we will be told, will be quick and decisive, and intended only to deter Mr. Assad and other war criminals from using chemical weapons. Above all, the familiar refrain of the United Nations’ “inability to act” on Syria will be sold as the primary motivation behind this illegal intervention.

For starters, the claim that a Western air strike will be short-lived – according to a Washington Post report, lasting for all of two days – is absurd. It is ludicrous to suggest a “drive-by” attack will somehow make the Syrian government think twice before using chemical weapons, if it has not already done so. On the contrary, Bashar al-Assad made it clear last year he will resort to them if Syria is attacked from outside. History too bears adversely on such claims. In 1998, the US and UK bombed Iraq without UN Security Council sanction, with the goal of taking out its WMD manufacturing facilities. Operation Desert Fox, which lasted for four days, not only went well beyond its mandate of targeting WMD-specific installations in Iraq, but also set back UN efforts at disarming the regime. In its aftermath, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously said, “I would be amazed if a three-day campaign made a decisive difference, or if we can even precisely define what we meant by WMDs that we were going after […].” The fog of war that persisted after this bombing allowed the Western military-industrial complex in 2003 to invade Iraq, on the pretext of destroying WMDs.

On the imminent, illegal intervention in Syria, here

Will the real Mujahideen please stand up?

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During the 1950s, the American network CBS hosted a prime-time game show called “To Tell the Truth.” The show’s panel had to correctly identify a reclusive celebrity from a group of three. They could question the group — rules of the game required the impostors to fabricate their response and the real character to tell nothing but the truth. The identity of the person was finally revealed when the game show host asked, rather dramatically, “Will the real ‘X’ please stand up?”

Ashish Khetan would have us believe the Indian Mujahideen has simply stood up in response to police interrogation.

In fact, the IM has been crying itself hoarse to be identified, he says. But the police always picked the wrong “contestants”, i.e. innocent Muslims, to blame for last decade’s terror attacks. Now that they have committed this grievous and embarrassing error, enforcement agencies have sought to brush the IM’s existence under the carpet, writes Mr. Khetan. He wants the Muslim community to “confront” the fact that the IM is for real, and possibly at large.

I’m not Muslim — thus not among Mr. Khetan’s target audience (“Why Muslims should confront the IM”, July 31) — but I have no problems confronting this “reality”. On the one hand, it shocks my liberal sensitivities that State Anti-Terrorism Squads, barking up the wrong tree, have relied on confessions extracted under coercion. On the other, I can rest assured there are some rotten apples out there intent on waging war against the Indian state — after all, bombs don’t go off by themselves. If the debate on Indian Mujahideen is between those who seem cocksure of its operations and those who question its very existence, Mr. Khetan’s version lets me choose the best of both worlds.

Ashish Khetan rightly called out IM-skeptics for their denial of the Mujahideen’s existence. I meet him half-way here.

(Image via pbs.org. I own no rights)

The shaky geopolitics of India’s food security

The last time I began an essay with the words “in this era of globalisation,” in high school, even my teacher winced at the cliché. In junking the phrase, however, we may have forgotten its import too. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) certainly seems to have, because it has pushed through a major food security initiative without so much as a murmur on how it will operate with respect to India’s international commitments.

Whatever the disagreement on the Food Security Ordinance (FSO), either on the political expediency which drove it, the size of the fiscal burden the government has to shoulder, or the criteria used to identify its beneficiaries, one aspect is beyond question: to fulfil the Ordinance’s mandate, governments would need to procure a lot more food grain than they do currently from Indian farmers and perhaps, through imports. If India intends to be self-sufficient in meeting food security requirements, our farmers must have an incentive to produce more, reflected in higher procurement prices and access to better farming inputs. At the same time, the Rangarajan Committee — constituted by the Prime Minister’s Office to “review” the National Advisory Council’s version of the law — has suggested India should procure only 30 per cent of the country’s total production from farmers. Anything more, the committee has warned, will result in a “distortion of food prices in the open market.” But unless our food production capacity somehow dramatically improves in the next few years, procuring 30 per cent from farmers alone will not meet the FSO’s requirements. In the interim, therefore, food imports are a reality.

During this period, the government needs to compensate farmers well, support the domestic agricultural sector and gain access to cheap food imports. If it fails in these objectives, the FSO will not only ratchet up India’s trade and fiscal deficit, but also fail to boost our own production capacity. This vicious cycle will eventually render the ordinance (by then a law, presumably) unsustainable.

On the geopolitics of the Food Security Bill, here.

A hatchet job, NEETly done

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The Supreme Court has struck down the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for medical colleges as unconstitutional, dispelling any doubt as to who calls the shots in India’s higher education sector — private educational institutions that fleece students for capitation fees; private coaching institutes that profit from “customised” State entrance exams lacking uniformity; private banks that provide education loans at exorbitant rates to poor students; and finally, State governments that shore up their vote banks in the guise of protecting minority educational institutions. The Court’s verdict also reminds us who may not have their way in higher education — students who cannot afford to travel to different parts of the country to write entrance exams; students who cannot afford to pay tuition stipulated under management quotas; students who cannot afford to meet the rates charged by coaching institutes; and students from backward socioeconomic classes who cannot compete financially with their peers in the “creamy layer.” The Medical Council of India (MCI), a regulatory body, tried to even the scales by introducing an entrance test to streamline admission procedures, offer seats to meritorious and needy students, and circumvent the nexus between State governments and wealthy, private educators. The Supreme Court, by outlawing NEET, has blown its plan out of the water.

On the Supreme Court’s disappointing verdict to quash the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test, here.

Image from blogs.lawyers.com. I own no rights.

A climate plan that changes nothing

The Hindu

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Last week, United States President Barack Obama laid out his administration’s first blueprint on the domestic and international initiatives it will pursue to tackle climate change. As with most speeches of the Obama presidency, this too was based on the catchy rhetoric of humanism, but driven by the narrative of instrumentalism. This style-over-substance approach to climate change, intended primarily for a U.S.-based audience — and by initial reaction, well-received across the board — would have been palatable had it not been for the troubling implications it holds for both multilateral climate change negotiations and the economic policies of developing countries, India in particular. Mr. Obama’s speech effectively allows developed countries to abandon their end of the equity bargain — i.e. to provide technology transfer and financial support to developing and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) — in return for their promise of sustainable growth. The discourse has now turned to market-oriented approaches to foreign investment and de-regulation that emerging economies must welcome to “green” their development, if they want to be seen as responsible stakeholders.

On why there’s nothing clean about Obama’s clean energy drive, and what it means for India, here.

Change the climate for India’s poor

The Hindu

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If the great Scott Fitzgerald were to have walked into the grand plenary hall of the Durban climate conference in 2011 to announce once again, “show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” all fingers would have pointed to the tiny Indian contingent in the room. There, Fitzgerald would have caught a glimpse of the feisty Jayanthi Natarajan, Union Minister for Environment and Forests, holding the fort against attempts by developed countries to impose binding emission cuts on the global South. The “greatest tragedy of all time,” Ms Natarajan would herself acknowledge, would be for negotiators to abandon the principles of equity and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). Two years later, this tragedy is imminent — only India’s heroism remains.

On India’s reactive climate diplomacy here.