Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has come out with a fig-leaf defence after his clubhouse chats, wherein he had spoken about the Congress considering revoking Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir if it came to power at the Centre, became public. It is not an innocuous statement. Whatever he said is a part of the Congress’ design to influence elections in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress may try everything in its arsenal to attract Muslim voters.
Let us first know what exactly Digvijaya Singh said so that misinterpretation is ruled out. While answering a query from a Pakistani journalist in clubhouse audio chat, he said: “…therefore, the decision of revoking Article 370 and reducing the statehood of J&K is an extremely, I would say, sad decision and the Congress party will certainly have a relook on this issue.” His defence after the statement got leaked was: “Those who are uneducated perhaps do not understand the difference between shall and consider.”
But there was never any confusion in his statement based on the nuance of ‘shall’ and ‘consider’. He had stressed that “the Congress party will certainly have a relook”. The senior Congress leader has bowled a googly that any person in the country would term anti-national.
Not only he has allowed anti-India vested groups to keep the issue alive, but he has also gone against the combined wisdom of Parliament that endorsed the decision. Indian democracy thrives because you raise your concerns in Parliament but once the decision has been taken, you bow before the combined wisdom of the House. Whatever was done on 5 August 2019 was done constitutionally.
Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury had committed a similar faux pas during a debate on the issue in Lok Sabha in August 2019 when he spoke of the UN resolution on Kashmir and questioned the Kashmir issue being described as India’s matter. While it did not deter the Indian Government, such reckless statements did give fodder to those seeking to internalize the issue.
Those who say that Digvijaya Singh is loud mouth must understand that it was not an off-the-cuff remark or personal opinion of a senior Congress leader. This is a part of the design to fan trouble in the valley and give credence to those who seek to internationalize the issue. Such statements coming from the opposition would be used by those opposing abrogation even if the Government’s decision has a finality attached to this.
Not that there is any chance of the BJP under Narendra Modi losing power in 2024, but even if one theoretically concedes the possibility, no political party can dare to change the decision. This is a different India and not the one immediately after post-Independence that allowed separate status for Jammu and Kashmir. That time there was euphoria after Independence and people thought the decision taken by their flamboyant beloved first Prime Minister was temporary and would get resolved soon. This was the promise made but it never happened and Pakistan occupied that part of Kashmir that rightfully belongs to India.
Adopting the policy of giving a thousand cuts to India, Pakistan launched full-scale wars but got defeated summarily. When it realized that it would not be able to defeat India in any conventional war, Pakistan adopted the policy of proxy war by sending terrorists from across the borders and organizing ethnic cleansing in Jammu and Kashmir. Indians have paid a heavy price for that decision of Nehru and we have lost the lives of many brave soldiers and civilians in Pakistan’s proxy war. From day one the BJP or its earlier incarnation, Jan Sangh had opposed special status to the State. The decision to abrogate Article 370 corrected the historical blunder and called the bluff of those who used to argue that the provision had become a permanent arrangement.
Ever since the abrogation of Article 370, more militants have been liquidated compared to the pre-2019 period and there had been a drastic reduction in the terror incidents. The militant outfits are not able to get enough youths to carry their flags. According to Northern Area Commander of Indian Army, Lieutenant General Yogesh Kumar Joshi: “Last year, there were 192 misguided youths who got recruited, this year there have only been 39 so far.” Youths are now getting engaged in constructive activities that would give them jobs and increase their professional competence.
“Lot of opportunities have been provided to the youth. Many educational organizations have been opened such as Super-30 for Medical and Super-50 for Engineering, to keep the youth engaged and away from the gun culture that they were exposed to all these years,” he told a major national TV channel.
Why did Digvijaya Singh issue such a statement that does not match with the national consensus? He was pandering to the Pakistani establishment and those sections there that might still believe that they can foment trouble in Kashmir. Also, some Congress leaders, in particular, go overboard when they interact with Pakistani media. Otherwise, any sane person would have said this is the decision of Parliament and we would rate the decision based on whether it has helped the State to gain on development parameters.
But such statements need Statesmanship and not narrow-minded political brinkmanship that is sure to produce disaster. But you cannot expect such political maturity from the Congress which has put its own survival before the interest of the country. On Kashmir, the entire country needs to be one since it has a bad political legacy that has acted as fodder to international media.
A party that is headed by a person of foreign origin and has leaders of questionable integrity and affiliations needs to wear nationalism up its sleeves. But whether it is the issue of two surgical strikes on Pakistan, purchase of Rafale fighter aircrafts, dealings with China, or relations with Pakistan, the Congress has gone against the nation’s mood. This explains why it is criticized as being ‘anti-national’. Senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar admitted on a Pakistani Television Channel in 2018 that the Congress could not prove charges on Rafale but it had managed to dent the image of the Government.
Aiyar had committed a Digvijaya Singh kind of hara-kiri during his visit to Pakistan in 2015. While participating during a panel discussion on a Pakistani News Channel Duniya TV he said that the only way to improve relations between India and Pakistan was to dethrone Modi and bring the Congress in power.
This is what he had said during the discussion: “First remove Modi, otherwise there would be no movement forward. And whenever talks progress…” the TV anchor interrupted him and asked: “Who are you referring to when you say remove Modi? Are you telling this to the ISI?”
Aiyar said: “I want to say that we will have to wait for four more years. These panelists are very optimistic that both India and Pakistan can improve bilateral relations under Modi, but I don’t feel so.”
When asked by the anchor what was the way out, Aiyar retorted: “Bring us in and remove him.” Duniya TV anchor commented: “Only you can remove him,” to which Aiyar replied, “you will have to wait till then.”
Aiyar who had said that Narendra Modi would never become the Prime Minister but could sell tea at the Congress headquarter was miffed and felt humiliated when he could not prevent the Modi juggernaut. So, he gave vent to his frustrations in Pakistan. But he had crossed the Lakshman Rekha of not speaking out of turn on foreign policy. Relations between countries are not dependent on which party is in power. The entire nation speaks as one. Aiyar had actually sought help in Pakistan to remove the Indian Prime Minister. No sane person would do so.
But insanity becomes a design if more people do a similar act. His party colleague and former foreign affairs minister Salman Khurshid praised Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at an event in Islamabad in 2015 and criticized the Modi Government for not responding to ‘Pakistan’s overtures for peace in South Asia the way it should have.’ This was shocking since he knew the niceties of international diplomacy and the stand of India. The Congress appeared to be determined to paint itself as a saviour and the Modi Government a villain in Indo-Pak relations.
Digvijaya Singh’s statement is clearly aimed at polarizing Muslims on the eve of elections in Uttar Pradesh. There are two main contenders of Muslim votes in the State— the Bashujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party. Congress has become a marginal force. Getting Muslim votes might bring votes from some others as well could be the calculations of the Congress.
The Congress assumption might be based on the understanding that most Indian Muslims would oppose the scrapping of Article 370 and most of them want better relations with Pakistan and they have not appreciated surgical strikes or snapping off ties between the two countries. If it is so, it is a serious issue and shows the way Congress looks towards Muslims— that they will oppose strong India or that their loyalties lie elsewhere. It is the same thinking that persuaded Mahatma Gandhi to support the Khilafat Movement in the 1920s in exchange for the support of Muslim leaders for the Non-Cooperation Movement against the British. This clearly stated that a Muslim’s extra-territorial loyalty must be appreciated and respected.
The Congress of today is desperate for political revival and compromising national interest is a small price to be paid for this. The biggest test lies in Uttar Pradesh, and the party may like to use its much-hyped leader Priyanka Vadra— who would project herself as a Brahmin face despite confusion about her true religious calling. She wears Cross and the Hindu symbols with aplomb, depending on the political necessity. There is nothing wrong if one can be a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu at the same time. Nobody should have objections. But when one wishes to use identity politics on road to political recovery such questions are bound to arise.
Can Congress disown Digvijaya Singh and take a bold stand on Article 370? A clear answer is no, since this would confuse Rahul Gandhi’s target voters. And the prime focus is not the 2024 Lok Sabha elections but the 2022 elections in Uttar Pradesh. In November 2020, Congress had become a part of the GUPKAR alliance in Jammu and Kashmir that demanded the restoration of Article 370. It did not criticize Dr. Farooq Abdullah for saying that he would take China’s support for restoration.
The Congress’ approach emanates from the traditional understanding that Caste Hindus will vote for their castes. The Congress calculates that it has spread enough lies to malign the BJP and its leaders. But Rahul Gandhi would do well to remember that the issue of nationalism has over-shadowed caste differences in many elections. The optics created by the Congress and other opposition parties might create confusion among voters in the short run, but when they go out to vote they would find it extremely tough to vote the BJP out and bring in forces that are inimical to strong India. The BJP does not have extra-territorial loyalty. People may criticize the BJP or even abuse it if angry but they won’t sink the boat in favour of untrustworthy parties or their leaders. For them, the BJP is a part of the family.
The writer is the convener of the Media Relations Department of the BJP and represents the party as a spokesperson on TV debates. He has authored the book ‘Narendra Modi: The Game Changer’. The views expressed are personal.
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PM MODI’S PENCHANT FOR SELF-ADVERTISING IS UNPARALLELED
All politicians like to promote themselves; it’s part of the branding and some would say a necessity of public life, for what is the use of doing good if the public that votes for you doesn’t get to know about it. I recall an old adage about advertising: Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark! So, take it as foreplay that will be consummated on voting day.
However, too much of even a good thing has its perils, especially when the delivery does not match the advertisement. The BJP knows this all too well for this is what happened during its “India Shining” campaign of 2004. While life in the metros glittered, the same was not true of the villages that felt cheated and left out; and people went and voted for the Congress which claimed that “Congress ka haath, Aam Aadmi ke Saath”. Today again we are seeing a certain narrative unfold around the promised “Acche Din”. That the promise has fallen short is not for me to claim, our economic statistics and unemployment figures tell their own tale. But, statistics and figures fall flat when faced with the PM’s overpowering rhetoric— his government had not only managed a comeback in 2019 but also dared to dream about 2024.
Yet, of late, I am seeing a certain disquiet with the PM’s penchant for hoardings and staking ownership for every (positive) move the country makes. Take his picture on the vaccination posters for example. By now, thanks to the power of social media we have all heard about the Indian at Frankfurt airport who was quizzed because his vaccination certificate had the PM’s picture instead of his. The number of hoardings thanking the PM for free vaccinations that have sprung all over the countryside is hard to miss. Unfortunately, most of them can be found at our petrol pumps at a time when the petrol cost is skyrocketing for this has been the backdrop of many selfies by hapless automobile, scooter, and bike owners who say a sarcastic “Dhanyavaad Modi” for the rising costs.
Recently the Sports Ministry came up with a website where one could cheer for our Olympic contingent. It was called cheer4india.narendramodi.in and quite naturally it is the PM’s face and message that dominates. However, it was only after our hockey teams (both women and even the men) performed well at the Olympics that a lesser-known fact was unearthed. It was not the PM so much as another political figure to whom the credit goes for supporting Indian hockey. It is Naveen Patnaik who has taken it upon himself to make Odisha the sponsor for Indian hockey for five years since 2018. He has also hosted the World Cup Men’s Hockey tournament in 2014 and has built a host of stadia and other infrastructure. The world’s largest hockey stadium is coming up in Rourkela in time to host the World Cup Hockey tournament in 2023. If there is any name on the Indian jersey it is that of Odisha, not the CM, and certainly not his picture. Sometimes the delivery speaks for itself.
Hence, while all politicians excel in self-advertisement— we have the Congress to thank for showing the way— it would be a wise move to tap into the public sentiment as well. And not try and change the public mood to suit a certain narrative. So far the latter strategy has worked, but of late it has also begun to backfire, just a bit.
2022 UP elections: Saga of India’s political destiny
Nationally, it is the electoral outcome in Uttar Pradesh that will be crucial. In 2014, had UP not elected 71 BJP MPs, it would have been a ‘hung Parliament’ and PM Modi’s political trajectory may have been quite different. If the party cedes ground in 2022, it will lose steam for 2024.
While India’s next tryst with political destiny is two and a half years away, the BJP does not seem to be leaving much to chance, so far as their electoral strategy, backed by almost limitless resources, is concerned.
The ministerial revamp was meant to signal a fresh start and insulate the government from Covid criticism, the endless suffering because of an appalling lack of medical infrastructure, floating bodies in the Ganges, and denial of dignity, even in death. However, it has been projected as a radical step towards toning up governance and addressing the hardships of Dalits and the poorest sections of the people.
It wasn’t such a momentous exercise, after all, the media hype notwithstanding. The spotlight was taken away from the tragic demise in prison of Father Stan Swamy and the passing of an all-time icon, Dilip Kumar (Mohammed Yusuf Khan), both in Mumbai.
In the government, none of the Big Four were affected. To many a neutral analyst, the performance of the Finance, External Affairs, Home and Defence ministries appeared wanting. The portfolios of the best-rated member of the cabinet, Nitin Gadkari, did not attract upward movement. He is more a blue-eyed boy of the RSS than anyone else’s.
To the best of one’s information, a 45-year old John Barla (elected to the Lok Sabha from Alipurduars) is the only Christian in the Council of Ministers; he was once a tea garden worker and belongs to Jalpaiguri, West Bengal.
A Kerala Christian – K.J. Alphons – took early retirement from the IAS and was a Union Minister of State (2017-19) in Modi’s first term. The estimated Christian population of the country is 2.8 crore.
The lone Muslim in the government holds charge of the Ministry of Minority Affairs.
As a consequence of the reshuffle, the average age of the Union Council of Ministers stands at 58 years, compared to 61 years of the previous Council formed after the 2019 Lok Sabha mandate. Fourteen ministers, including six cabinet ministers, are below 50.
If the Cabinet changes fail to deliver in substantial measure, another round of the same could be attempted, say around 2023. The new Health Minister (born 1972), a Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat, can be axed, should things not go well with the pandemic.
One of the stars amongst the young inductees— Ashwini Vaishnaw— hails from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, and was originally an Odisha IAS who was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the BJP, with the backing of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Armed with an MTech from IIT, Kanpur, and an MBA from Wharton, he is expected to demonstrate multi-dimensional skills, sorely needed, in the Modi administration. He is not an ex-bureaucrat on the pattern of other ministers with origins in the IFS or the IAS who come from the ranks of those superannuated from lucrative government assignments.
Significantly, Vaishnaw set up two automotive components manufacturing units in Gujarat. He later joined the BJP and amply fulfils, alongside several others, the critical criterion of undiluted and unquestioning loyalty to the PM.
This, coupled with the ‘political messaging’ (in terms of regional, caste, and sub-caste configurations, a new social calculus) for the 2024 polls – via the intervening State elections – comes close to summing up the story of the cabinet reshuffle which marked a final exit of the Vajpayee team that had a high level of Brahmin and upper castes representation.
It is the electoral outcome in Uttar Pradesh that will be crucial. In 2014, had U.P. not elected 71 BJP MPs, it would have been a ‘hung Parliament’ and Modi’s political trajectory may have been quite different. If the party cedes ground in 2022, it will lose steam for 2024. With seven new entrants from the state, the number of ministers from the UP has gone up to 15, that is, one-fifth of the total strength.
The fate of the Rae Bareli and Amethi parliamentary constituencies (in the Avadh region), erstwhile bastions of the Gandhi-Nehru family, should be particularly interesting to observe in 2024.
More vital will be the contest in Varanasi which has long been a BJP stronghold; the seat was last won by the Congress in 2004 when Rajesh Kumar Mishra secured victory.
The holy city (also called Banaras) is cosmopolitan and has a population of Bengalis. The zamindars of Bengal had been constructing ‘kothis’ and occupying lands along the Ganges; a bigger influx of Bengalis began in 1948 after the Partition. Varanasi resembled a ‘mini-Bengal’ where the Pujo celebrations had a pronounced Calcutta touch. The Bengali style Durga Puja was started by a landlord, Babu Anandmay Mitra.
The narrow lanes of Bengali Tola are crowded with buildings whose architecture is reminiscent of twentieth-century Bengal. Most of the properties are now owned by north Indians but the engraved names of the original occupants remain on the houses. The first Bengalis settled in 1757 (the year of the Battle of Plassey) and Rani Bhabani built temples around which the Tola was formed. The Bengali population was mainly of the Brahmin caste that worked as priests or taught in Sanskrit schools.
As of now, developments — encouraging or otherwise — in the struggle with Covid-19 and an evolving situation in Afghanistan constitute issues over which the government of the day can exercise but limited control, not to mention the tensions with China and Pakistan. In the domestic sphere, not much appears to be improving in respect of an unprecedented unemployment crisis, food inflation, and spiraling fuel prices.
Global factors are at play. As the reality of the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan takes hold, the future may largely depend on the Kabul-Taliban dynamics and Pakistan’s role. The Taliban have advanced to the cities and could enforce a return to the brutal theocracy they imposed during their previous stint in power.
The portents may yet turn ominous for India, despite the reassuring words of the External Affairs Minister.
A respite from public health concerns could afford a chance to commence a journey on the path of economic recovery. The ongoing farmer protests have definite political overtones and are aimed at consolidating the opposition against the BJP in the poll-bound states of Punjab, U.P., and Uttarakhand in 2022.
The Grand Old Party (GOP), as the Congress is often termed, can aspire to play a pivotal part in the emergence of an Opposition Front led by politicians of stature. In this context, even as the names of Mamata Banerjee (66) and Sharad Pawar (80) come to mind, it is pertinent to mention that the Congress’ interim president enjoys credibility that can bring parties and individuals together, with assistance coming in from the likes of M.K. Stalin (68) and Arvind Kejriwal (53).
For this to happen, the GOP will need to appreciably augment its existing Lok Sabha numbers and come close enough, if not reach, a three-digit figure. It may also have to give up on ideas of leading an opposition alliance.
As for the BJP, they might conceivably face a ‘single largest party’ scenario, despite the appeal of a Hindutva agenda (Ayodhya and, possibly, Mathura and Kashi) and the hard work of the RSS cadres. What may spell real trouble would be a fall to around 160 seats, the level attained by Vajpayee’s BJP in 1996. The Party was able to form a short-lived government (13 days) at that time. In such a contingency, howsoever unlikely, even unimaginable, the Amit Shah-Nadda duo will have to do better than the late Sushma Swaraj and Pramod Mahajan. The silence of the lower middle classes can be deceptive.
This writer suggested, in an article appearing in The Week in June 2019, that Congress should consider getting Mamata on board to challenge the BJP. Earlier, in his book India: Shedding the Past, Embracing the Future, 1906-2017 it was stated that ‘…… Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee share a cordial personal equation. Politics makes strange bedfellows; what may be virtually impossible to envision at present can emerge as a practical possibility…..’.
A massive win in West Bengal has since put Mamata in the front row on the national stage. During the electioneering in the state, she approached Sonia Gandhi for help in places like Malda where the Congress has a presence, and said that she shares the Congress DNA. Bridges could still be built between Congress and the TMC.
Be that as it may, the election battles ahead are likely to be joined, sooner rather than later. A longer story could be cut short — one way or the other — if Mamata Banerjee becomes a candidate for the Lok Sabha from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh in 2024.
The writer was formerly in the IAS. The views expressed are personal.
The fate of the Rae Bareli and Amethi parliamentary constituencies (in the Avadh region), erstwhile bastions of the Gandhi-Nehru family, should be particularly interesting to observe in 2024. More vital will be the contest in Varanasi which has long been a BJP stronghold; the seat was last won by the Congress in 2004 when Rajesh Kumar Mishra secured victory.
THE FARMER-IMPASSE CONTINUES, EVEN AS DELHI SUFFERS
Almost nine months after farmers protesting the three farm laws passed by Parliament gathered on Delhi’s borders, they are still stationed there. Even though they are not hitting the headlines with the regularity as they were earlier in the year, does not mean that they are not blockading several roads, making the lives of local residents and commuters miserable. Talks between the government and the farmers broke down post the Republic Day violence perpetrated by some farmer groups, during which the Red Fort was vandalized and a religious flag was hoisted at this national monument. Even otherwise, the farmers had taken a maximalist position about the farm laws. That the laws were viewed by most experts and stakeholders to be reform oriented and worth giving a try, did not make any difference to the protesters. In fact, except for with the farmers of Punjab and a handful of farmers from Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, the agitation did not find any resonance in a country which still has nearly 50% of its workforce employed in the agricultural sector.
The government was ready to make several concessions, including putting the laws on hold for up to 18 months. But the farmers were adamant, thus raising questions about the political nature of the “movement”, where the intention was to ensure that Government of India came across as weak and unable to bring in any reforms. It was a clear case of the farmers being misled by vested interests, who used disinformation to make the farmers fearful of the amended laws. Considering the whole premise of the movement is to bring the government to its knees, and with individuals such as Rakesh Tikait actively campaigning in Assembly elections in his capacity as a “farmer leader”, the fig leaf of the movement being apolitical has been destroyed. And the minute any movement gains a political colour, the obvious question is about the political benefits that some seen and unseen forces are hoping to derive from it.
With Uttar Pradesh and Punjab Assembly elections coming up early next year, it is increasingly appearing that the so-called agitation will continue well into 2022, or at least until the elections are concluded. The idea is to keep the issue alive until the elections in the hope of influencing voters, apart from gaining political legitimacy for these “farmer leaders”. Hence, these unscrupulous leaders are taking advantage of the gullible farmers by painting dire pictures of loss of land and livelihood to corporates because of the farm laws. The counter-narrative is yet to take hold of public mind, at least in Punjab. So the lives of Delhi-NCR residents are expected to stay thrown out of gear for another six-seven months minimum, which should raise some serious questions about the government’s inaction on this.
Why is the mighty Indian state bent upon appearing a soft state, where groups of individuals can hold the national capital to ransom for months, break every possible law, and get away scot-free? The whole idea of having an internal security apparatus is to pre-empt such disruptions. Why are such agitations not being broken up inside the first few days of the protesters blocking roads? It was the same in the Shaheen Bagh protests, which started in 2019 December and was allowed to fester for three months. But for the restrictions imposed because of Covid, it would have continued perhaps for a much longer time. The farmers’ agitation did not even bother about Covid restrictions and continued through the deadly second wave, thus spreading the infection to the hinterland. And now the worry is that some other agitation will start around October-November-December, when the weather is conducive to organizing outdoor sit-ins and it will continue for weeks, if not months. Such disruptions in Delhi not only ensure national and international media spotlight, but are also a good way of showing the Central government as weak and vacillating. As for the farmers, it is hoped that they will realise that they are being misled by their leaders. Holding the national capital to ransom is no solution to their grievances.
Blinken’s India visit sent a strong message to China
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first-ever visit to India underlined the US commitment to stay engaged in the Indo-Pacific region. During the visit, Blinken held discussions with civil society representatives, including the delegate representing the Tibetan government-in-exile, and the move was a calculated step to send a message to China.
Amidst media reports of the capture of a large swath of territory in Afghanistan by the Taliban, it was speculated that Kabul would be at the top of the agenda of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to India. It is because the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the growing foothold of the Taliban have a direct bearing on India’s security.
Well, Afghanistan was on the agenda. But on his first visit as the Secretary of State, Blinken reviewed the entire India-US relationship with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, held discussions with Ajit Doval, and called on PM Modi. Besides covering bilateral relations including defence, security, trade, business, investment, energy, education, Science and technology, Blinken and Jaishankar, also exchanged views on Covid-19, Indo-Pacific, Quad, climate change, terrorism, cybercrime, snooping, etc. Their comments during the joint press conference suggested that their talks were frank and candid; there was convergence on several issues but their perceptions differed on some issues as well.
Jaishankar’s initial remarks provided a context: “Our bilateral cooperation has vastly expanded in the last few years. Our interests are shared, our concerns are similar and our convergences are strong.” Probably, shared interests and similar concerns relate to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, and given India’s location and past experiences, the concerns are similar but not exactly the same.
And strong convergence is as well discernible with regards to Indo-Pacific, Quad, terrorism, cybercrime, growing menace of intelligence gathering, and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic
Jaishankar emphasized, “Peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific are as important for both of us as democratic stability in Afghanistan. Deepening the Quad as a qualitative platform is in our mutual interest and we must work together even more closely on key contemporary challenges like terrorism, climate change, pandemics, and resilient supply chains.”
Recollecting how India had helped the US 2020 and how the US provided “exceptional” help when India was battling the second wave of the pandemic, Blinken said, “We are determined to end this pandemic, and India and the US will work together to do it, including through the Quad vaccine partnership, which will bring safe and effective vaccines to others across the region. India and the US together will be leaders in bringing this pandemic to an end and setting up a stronger global health security system..”
The US has already extended Covid-19 related assistance of $200 million. Blinken announced additional assistance of $25 million. Total assistance from the US including from private sources and Indian Americans has crossed over $500 million.
Both Blinken and Jaishankar reiterated that the peace process in Afghanistan must ensure her sovereignty; it has to be Afghanistan led and Afghanistan owned government leading to the establishment of a democracy representing all ethnic groups, and the sovereign establishment will uphold human rights including the rights of women and will not allow the return of terrorist groups who carry out attacks inside Afghanistan and against its neighbors.
Blinken stressed that there was no military solution to the situation in Afghanistan, and both, the Government and the Taliban must come to table and strive to set up an inclusive and fully representative administration.
Blinken dampened the Taliban’s triumphal bravado by asserting that, “Afghanistan would be ‘pariah state’ if Taliban took control by force.” He also dismissed suggestions that with the exit of its soldiers, the US will wash its hands off Kabul. “Even as we withdraw our forces from Afghanistan,” he said, “We remain engaged in Afghanistan. We don’t only have a strong embassy there but we also have important programs that support the country economically through development and security assistance.”
Airstrikes by planes and unmanned drones from outside Afghanistan during the last week signal that the US intends to bolster the capabilities of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and allow the Ghani government not to be run over by the Taliban, at least for now.
Blinken applauded India’s role in Afghanistan, and said, “India and US share a strong interest in peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan. As a credible partner in the region, India has and will continue to make a vital contribution to Afghanistan’s stability and development.”
Unfortunately, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran don’t share this perception. Russia has held the meeting of the TROIKA (Russia, China, and Pakistan) and a large Taliban delegation was received in China. While the US exits from Afghanistan, Imran Khan has the gall to pronounce that the US “messed it up in Afghanistan”.
Blinken clarified that Quad wasn’t a military alliance and its objective “was to advance cooperation on regional challenges while reinforcing international rules and values that we believe together underpin peace, prosperity, stability in the region.”
Jaishankar’s said, “China needs to get over the idea that others are doing something to target them.” China does indeed believe that Indo-Pacific and QUAD are essentially anti-China fronts. Russia supports China’s assessment here too.
Like Biden, Blinken sees US relations with China as marked by competition, rivalry, and cooperation; Climate Change can’t be addressed without China’s close cooperation.
Nevertheless, India sees China differently, given the long-pending border dispute, bloody clashes in Galwan valley last year, the impasse on the LAC, and the adverse trade balance.
America acknowledges Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the table and its continuing relevance for containing them and for peace and stability in Afghanistan. But we have misgivings about Pakistan’s role in a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul and also apprehend a spike in terrorist attacks against India.
Blinken thanked Jaishankar on Twitter for “collaborative discussion on many areas of cooperation, including efforts to support peace and stability in Afghanistan. India is one of our most valued partners, and the US welcomes India’s emergence as a leading global player.”
Blinken’s dialogue with Ajit Doval is believed to have covered Afghanistan, Indo-Pacific, bilateral defense and security, and economic technology. He also exchanged views on contemporary and futuristic issues related to regional and global security.
As anticipated, Blinken held a round table meeting with the representatives of the civil societies. His stress on democratic values, freedoms including freedoms of religion and expression, rule of law, human rights, and the role of civil societies, were couched in a polite, non-accusatory tone; he mentioned that both the US and India, the largest democracies, weren’t perfect and that they were work in progress. Expectedly, Jaishankar countered Blinken by saying that those who expect certain standards from others must first achieve those standards themselves.
In March 2018, the Indian government had advised the Tibetan Bureau to shift the function commemorating 60 years of Dalai Lama’s exile to Dharamshala. Following Galwan Valley clashes, there seems a shift; we are signaling to China that we can play the Tibetan card. On 6th June, PM Modi telephoned Dalai Lama to wish him on his birth anniversary; China wasn’t amused.
And China wasn’t pleased that Blinken’s meeting with the civil society was also attended by the Director of the Tibetan Bureau in Delhi, Geshe Dorji Damdul. Blinken also separately met a Rep of the Dali Lama, Ngodup Dongchung, reflecting Biden’s support for the Tibetan cause.
The US has openly said that Dalai Lama’s successor should be selected by the Tibetan people.Blinken’s emphasis on the shared value of democracy provoked a sharp reaction from China. “One man and one vote and a multi-party system is not the sole form of democracy…it shouldn’t be used to smear other countries and stoke confrontation,” said the Chinese spokesman, Zhao Lijian.
Evidently, though physically absent, shadows of China loomed large on Blinken’s talks in Delhi.
The writer, a former Ambassador, writes on political and strategic affairs. The views expressed are personal.
BORDER DISPUTES BETWEEN STATES CANNOT BE LEFT UNRESOLVED
The dispute between Assam and Mizoram needs immediate attention and the Centre must step in to ensure that the mini-civil war does not escalate any further. It is indeed most unfortunate that the police forces of the two states were involved in an armed confrontation that left several people dead.
The Mizoram authorities have registered an FIR against the Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma and an early resolution to this sensitive issue does not seem to be in sight. The genesis of this confrontation may lie in the colonial past of our country but it does not mean that differences cannot be ironed out amongst disputing parties. The Centre has to play a pro-active role in bringing the two sides together even though the meetings between the DGPs and the Chief Secretaries of the two states, have not made any headway. It is shocking that two States of India are involved in this kind of violent altercation. One could have understood if these clashes pertained to Indian forces on one hand and the soldiers of other countries on the other on our international borders. This inter-state squabble is unacceptable from all counts and demonstrates that the intelligence agencies were unable to anticipate this build-up and take remedial measures much before this armed confrontation took place. There have been disputes in the past between Punjab and Haryana over Chandigarh and sharing of waters but despite being emotive issues, the matter did not end up in a physical fight. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have often quarreled over the quantum of their share over the waters of the Cauvery river and Maharashtra has had a different viewpoint regarding the areas that fall within Karnataka and touch its borders. Andhra and Telangana have a different perceptions regarding some territories but never have any of these states resorted to the use of arms. The elected governments of the two states—Assam and Mizoram—need to behave more responsibly instead of making a public spectacle of their inability to sort out things amongst themselves. Indeed, regional pride often thwarts any attempt to drive sense in the heads of disputing parties but violence has no place in our country. There have been instances where Chauvinistic feelings were aroused in the past over re-organisation of states. When Punjab was sought to be divided in the mid-1960s into lingual lines, the members of the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh listed their mother language as Hindi instead of Punjabi in multiple instances. The result was that when Haryana and Himachal were carved out of Punjab in 1966, several Punjabi-speaking areas found themselves to be parts of Himachal and Haryana instead of Punjab. This anomaly exists till today but all the three states progressed on their own steam and the misrepresentation of language at one stage, is a forgotten matter. The creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat from the Bombay State also led to bitterness and led to the birth of Shiv Sena in the early 1960s. Over time, a lot of things have come and gone. Similarly, Mizoram and Assam need to come to a solution acceptable to both sides as early as possible in the national interest.
India must revisit Tibet policy to stop Beijing bullying
Xi Jinping visited Central and Southern Tibet after a gap of ten years. His objective was to ‘implement the party’s strategy for governing Tibet in the new era and write a new chapter in long-term stability and high-quality development of the snow-covered plateau’.
The last few weeks have been eventful as far as Tibet is concerned.
From June 21 to 23, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) visited Central and Southern Tibet after a gap of ten years. When the Chinese president landed in Nyingchi City (previously called Prefecture), near the Indian border of Arunachal Pradesh, it immediately rang bells in the security establishment in India.
The China Daily reported about his stage-managed arrival: “He [Xi] was warmly welcomed by local people and officials of various ethnic groups.” Xi inspected the ecological preservation in the basin of the Yarlung Tsangpo River and its tributary, the Nyang River.
For India, this was an important part of the visit because first, the Chinese President was accompanied by Gen Zhang Youxia, Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission (chaired by Xi), and second, due to the proximity of ‘Bayi’ (which means ‘8-1 or August 1’, a term reserved to the People’s Liberation Army which was founded on August 1). Bayi is the Headquarter of the forces facing India in Arunachal Pradesh. Though no details have filtered, Xi was probably briefed about the situation on the border (a meeting with the PLA top brass of the Western Theater Command and the Tibet Military District was later organized in Lhasa).
The visit has to be seen in the context of the CPC’s 100th anniversary and the 70 anniversary of the so-called Liberation of Tibet (read ‘invasion’). The People’s Daily resumed the objectives of the visit: “to implement the party’s strategy for governing Tibet in the new era and write a new chapter in long-term stability and high-quality development of the snow-covered plateau.” This refers to the 7th Work Forum held in August 2020 which defined the development policies for Tibet for the five next years, particularly the sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Chinese President’s tour was hardly over, that another development took place in Delhi: on July 28 morning, US Secretary of State Blinken ‘briefly’ met the Dalai Lama’s representative Ngodup Dongchung during the former’s maiden trip to the Indian Capital.
Later photos of a meeting with members of the Indian ‘civil society’, attended by Geshe Dorjee Damdul, Director of Tibet House, the Dalai Lama’s cultural centre in Delhi were released. Confusion was created between the two meetings, because Dongchung was called ‘a’ representative of the Dalai Lama, while he is the ‘The’ Representative in Delhi. The US embassy should have certainly given the full name of the Representative, to avoid such ambiguity.
A couple of days earlier Wendy Sherman, the US Deputy Secretary of State had met State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in China.
A State Department communiqué said: “The Deputy Secretary and State Councilor Wang had a frank and open discussion about a range of issues… [She] raised our concerns about human rights, including Beijing’s anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong; the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang; abuses in Tibet; and the curtailing of media access and freedom of the press.”
All this is fine and welcome, but one question remains: has India a Tibet Policy?
It is India that has long and tense border with Tibet from Demchok in Ladakh to Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh; is it not high time for Delhi to have its own ‘Tibet’ Policy and start immediately engaging Dharamsala?
At first, Indian officials should meet the newly elected Sikyiong Penpa Tsering; it has not helped India to keep the relations with Dharamsala at a low key (or non-existent). Both India and the Tibetans need to seriously discuss several issues, whether of common interests or problems facing the Tibetan refugees in India.
The election of a new Sikyong Penpa Tsering as the head of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) is an ideal time to sit together.
Contentious issues, if any, should also be brought to the table (for example, why, nearly three months after the result of the elections, half the recently elected members of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies have still not yet taken the oath? Is there a Chinese angle behind this?). This should be frankly discussed (and not necessarily made public).
Several areas of Indian interests need to be discussed.
First, the recruitment of Tibetans in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Militia; it has been reported in the Indian media that China wanted to match India by raising a Special Force composed of Tibetans. It is doubtful if this can succeed as Beijing’s trust in the Tibetans remains extremely low, even 70 years after the so-called Liberation of Tibet (read ‘invasion), but Delhi should ascertain Dharamsala’s views; and the CTA should eventually issue a statement stating its views.
Exchanges should also take place about some aspects of the Tibet-Indian border, whether in the Eastern Sector (Arunachal Pradesh), Central Sector (Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh) or the eastern part of the Western Sector (Demchok area); what is Dharamsala’s historical take on these issues?
This is particularly important at a time when it has been reported that the Chinese have erected tents on the Indian side of the Charding Nala near Demchok in Ladakh. The Tibetans are certainly aware of their traditional border with India and can hopefully openly state their position.
Another area of interest (not to say worry) for India, is the demographic change on the Indian frontiers. Since 2017, the mushrooming of ‘model’ villages in Tibet, at the proximity of the Indian border, is disturbing; hundreds of ‘xiaogang’ (‘moderately well-off’) villages have come up in the last four years with a mixed population of Tibetans and Hans.
Further, the authorities in Tibet have started to entice the local Tibetan population to side with the Communist Party. A new formula can be found in every speech of the local satraps, the inhabitants of China’s borders (with India) should be “the protectors of the sacred homeland and the builders of happy homes.” Officially, this development is linked with ‘poverty alleviation’ and the ‘defence of the borders’.
There are other areas of common interests, for example how to communicate with the Tibetans inside Tibet? Once the Ladakh episode is over, Delhi should facilitate cultural contacts between Tibetans in India with those in Tibet and why not invite the latter for religious or cultural happenings in India.
Environmental issues are also of concern for India, particularly the mega hydropower plants to be developed by China on the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra; what are Dharamsala’s views on this?
From India’s side, assurance should be given that Delhi will stand by the Dalai Lama’s choice for his succession.
Finally, a mechanism should be set-up for regular exchanges between Delhi and Dharamsala; centuries of close kinship between the Roof of the World and the Indic civilization cannot be erased just for political expediencies , or due to Beijing’s bullying tactics.
The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist, and China expert. Views expressed are writer’s personal.
A mechanism should be put in place for regular exchanges between Delhi and Dharamsala; centuries of close kinship between the Roof of the World and the Indic civilisation cannot be erased just for political expediencies , or due to Beijing’s bullying tactics.
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