Prem Shankar Jha

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Nepalese counterpart Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli meeting in Delhi last February. Credit: PTI

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Nepalese counterpart Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli meeting in Delhi last February. Credit: PTI

New Delhi has shown commendable restraint in dismissing an alleged news ‘scoop’ by Pakistan Today, that Pakistan’s Joint Investigation Team has concluded that the Pathankot terrorist attack was “ another False Flag” operation carried out by Indian security agencies to bring Pakistan into disrepute, and reiterating that its multi-level interaction with Islamabad to root out terrorism will continue .

But this only serves to highlight the confusion in other areas of India’s foreign policy today, for it is in stark contrast to the Modi government’s hectoring policy towards India’s other important neighbour, Nepal.

India’s 1850 km border with Nepal is not its longest but its most sensitive and indefensible one. All but a tiny fragment of the country lies south of the great Himalayan wall which has been India’s natural frontier in the north since pre-history. Thus, were any hostile power to gain ascendancy over the country, the entire Indo-Gangetic plain would be rendered defenceless.

In 1947 this possibility was remote. Nepal and India had fought much of their respective struggles for independence together. The Koirala brothers, who founded the Nepali Congress, found sanctuary from the wrath of the Ranas in North Bihar and took their cue unabashedly from Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. Two years after gaining Independence, therefore, India expelled the Ranas and restored King Tribhuvana to power. Since then, for better or for worse, it has been mentoring Nepal’s transition into  modern statehood.

It sheltered the leaders of the democracy movement in the eighties and nineties and helped them to force King Birendra to accept of a constitutional monarch.

Difficult to frame a Constitution

It again sheltered the democrats when King Gyanendra declared an emergency in 2005, persuaded him to restore democracy in 2006, and persuaded the Maoists to end their decade long guerrilla war and return to parliamentary democracy. Since then Nepal has been trying to frame a constitution that empowers its ethnically diverse people in an equitable way. This has proved a decade long nightmare because its 29 million people belong to no fewer than 66 ethnic groups.

By the end of 2014, protracted negotiations in two Constituent Assemblies had produced a consensus in principle. Nepal would be a federal state divided into eight regions representing eight broad ethnic groupings, and while 165 members of parliament would be elected through the simple majority voting system, 110 would be elected through proportional representation. All that was left was to demarcate the eight regions, and decide whether to adopt the constitution by a majority vote or a consensus.

India had made no secret of the importance it attached to consensus. Prime minister Modi, who had signalled the importance India attached to it’s Himalayan neighbours by making his first and second bilateral visits to Bhutan and Nepal, urged the Constituent Assembly to strive for consensus during his second visit to Nepal, in November 2014.

But the differences proved intractable. In the summer of 2015 the Constituent Assembly ran out of patience and decided to adopt the new constitution by a majority vote, leaving the demarcation of the regions to be decided later. This set off an immediate, violent, protest from two major groups in the Terai, the Madhesis and the Tharus, who feared that this was a stratagem for restoring the domination of the hill peoples over the Terai.

When, despite this,  the Constituent Assembly adopted the new constitution on September 20, India had to choose between not intervening and allowing Nepal to learn from its own mistakes, or make it rethink its options by expressing its displeasure in a more concrete way. Narendra Modi chose the latter option.

Within hours Indian Oil Corporation’s tankers stopped carrying transport fuels to Nepal. From around 300 trucks and tankers a day the number dropped to between 10 and 15. In Nepal diesel, gasoline and kerosene stocks dwindled, prices shot up and a black market was instantly born. On September 23 the Nepali government imposed draconian fuel rationing, accused Delhi of imposing a blockade and, a short while later, took its complaint to the UN.

New Delhi blames Madhesi unrest

New Delhi’s spokesmen put the blame for the blockade upon the Madhesi unrest which, they claimed, had made truck drivers fear for their lives. But this was not convincing because the Madhesi agitation had begun 40 days before the fuel blockade began. What is more, the drivers of trucks carrying fruit and vegetables did not seem to share this insecurity.

Modi has been accused of imposing the blockade out of personal pique. But this trivialises a very difficult decision. Delhi understood that to enjoy legitimacy a democratic constitution had to be accepted by everybody, and not by only a majority. Ramming it down the throats of the Madhesis and Tharus without even an agreed demarcation of their regions would only exacerbate the conflict and make India’s position more difficult because of its shared ethnicity with the Terai.

New Delhi may have wanted Nepal to rethink its options, but unlike 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi’s year-long oil blockade ended absolute monarchy in Nepal, this time the cure is likely to prove worse than the disease, because the Nepali government has turned for help to China. And China now has both the capacity and the motivation, coming from its slowing economy, to help Nepal end India’s stranglehold upon it.

This became abundantly clear in the last week of March when Nepal’s prime minister, K.P.Sharma Oli paid a week-long visit to Beijing at the invitation of Chinese premier Li Keqiang. During the visit China signed a trade and transit agreement with Nepal that will enable it to trade with third countries through Tianjin, the port closest to Beijing,  pledged $216 million to build an airport at Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, and to build a bridge at Hilsa in the extreme west of the country to connect it by road to Tibet.

These projects will provide considerable psychological relief to Nepal but will reduce India’s coercive power to only a limited extent. What will come close to destroying it, however , is the proposed 562 km rail link between Lhasa and Kathmandu, for Lhasa is already linked by high speed trains to the rest of China.

China’s giant infrastructure companies, which face rapidly shrinking order books, have been eyeing this gargantuan project, which requires drilling a tunnel under Mount Everest, and other giant projects, like a nine dam, 40,000 MW, power project on the Big Bend of the Yarlung-Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) , for some time. Indeed Beijing’s entire One Road One Belt policy is driven very largely by the need to keep its companies, and their vast labour force, employed.

Modi’s decision to blockade, or let the Madhesis blockade Nepal (for Kathmandu the difference is immaterial) has removed whatever inhibitions Nepal had felt till then about the rail link project.

Chinese signals to Nepal

Equally important were the political signals that Oli sent out during his visit. He described China as Nepal’s “All Weather Friend”, a pointed invocation of China’s description of Pakistan ( whom China has now raised to ‘Iron Brothers Forever’), and a reminder that India is a friend only when it suits it to be one.

He also signed a free trade agreement with China and committed Nepal to participating actively in China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. These are largely symbolic gestures when more than two-thirds of its trade is with India, but they signal the end of Nepal’s acceptance of Indian bilateralism.

The Madhesis suspended their agitation at the end of February and oil began to flow to Nepal once more. But neither capital seems to have realised that the blockade, and Kathmandu’s reaction, have brought India-Nepal relations to a fork in the road. Last week, after returning to Kathmandu, Oli said that India had lifted the blockade because it had proved futile. This was not only because it had drawn a barrage of international criticism but because Nepal had not succumbed to it.

His remarks show that Oli has still not grasped what Delhi, with India’s vast experience of ethnic federalism, has understood all along — that no country can impose a Constitution upon a dissenting minority and remain a democracy for very long. The Madhesis have warned the government that they will resume their agitation in May. If Oli does not resume talks to arrive at an agreed demarcation of the eight regions before then, and relies on force again, the divide between the hills and plains of Nepal will widen further and imperil the unity of the country.

Had they been left to themselves Nepali politicians would have come to this conclusion sooner or later. But the support promised by China has given them false confidence, and lessened their awareness of danger. Modi’s faux pas has therefore pushed Nepal towards a relationship with China that could land it in the same predicament that Israel faces today. Unconditional American military , economic , technological and political support during and after the Cold War made it unnecessary for Israel to negotiate peace with its neighbours and the Palestinians when they had a chance to do so. Today the opportunity has passed: Israel faces rising terrorism, and does not know what to do.

Given the organising power of the social media, and the easy availability of arms in the black market, Kathmandu could find itself facing a similar situation in the Terai in not years but in months.

Does India want Nepal to go down this bitter road? The answer must be ‘no’. But to make it reverse tack Delhi must first stop treating Nepal as a de-facto protectorate, and help it to complete its transition to full nation-statehood. The first requirement for this is to respect Nepal’s sovereignty, scrupulously respect all treaty obligations and avoid intervening in its internal affairs.

This requires allowing its government to make, and to learn from, its own mistakes. In the immediate future, if Oli forces the Madhesis to resume their stir in May, India must still ensure that IOC’s oil tankers reach the distribution points within the country. This will involve forming convoys, cooperating with the Nepali army, and persuading the Madhesis that there are other, less destructive, ways of attaining their political goals. Delhi should remember that giving public support to the Madhesis movement can do to them exactly what Chinese support is threatening to do to Kathmandu.

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RBI governor Raghuram Rajan needs to halve India’s lending rates and allow companies to get out of debt in order to revive growth and undo five years of flawed policymaking

File photo of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley with RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan. Credit: IANS

File photo of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley with RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan. Credit: IANS

India’s tottering economy has reached a fork in the road.

On April 5, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) will announce its policy for the next quarter. What it decides will determine whether the economy will recover or die.

For five years, since mid-2011, industry has been begging the government for a cut in interest rates, but the Reserve Bank of India has been adamant about keeping them up. As a result, the corporate giants have migrated to more benign pastures abroad, taking close to a hundred billion dollars with them. Indian industry has therefore languished, growing at rates below 3% a year – the lowest the country has ever known.

This dark epoch may at last be coming to an end.

It is now a foregone conclusion that the RBI will bring interest rates down. Earlier this week, finance minister Arun Jaitley told the media that what he wants is what everyone wants—a cut in rates. “I have done everything that [the RBI] wanted me to do. I have held the deficit at 3.9%. And I have brought down the deposit rates on provident funds and small savings. This will make it possible for the commercial banks to bring down their lending rates, without losing deposits to small savings accounts.”

RBI governor Raghuram Rajan has also indirectly signalled a rate cut by admitting that official estimates of GDP growth are almost certainly too high.

The question on everyone’s mind is how much the lending rates will be brought down. The markets have assumed a cut of 50 basis points, i.e, half a percent, in key policy interest rates. If commercial banks pass this, and earlier cuts, down fully, the lending rates could come down by more than one percent. In expectation of this, the Sensex has already re-crossed the 25,000 mark, and will doubtless rise further.

But will a 1%, or even 1.5%, cut in lending rates suffice to re-ignite economic growth?

The blunt answer is “No.” Indian enterprises are so deeply mired in debt that all this will do is prolong their death throes.

Where we are now

To understand why this is the case let us take a quick look at where the country stands:

A year ago there were Rs. 880,000 crores worth of “stalled” investment projects – which is just a polite way of describing projects that the investors had abandoned because they felt that carrying on was throwing good money away. Only a handful of these projects have been revived in the past year, and others have joined their number.

Not surprisingly, therefore, by the end of 2015, public sector and private banks had piled up a total of Rs. 400,000 crores of bad debt.

A lot more debt was on its way to “going bad,” for 415 out of 2300 large companies, heavily invested in infrastructure, were not making enough profit to pay the interest on their debt.

Today nine out of India’s dozen steel plants are insolvent and outstanding. Companies like Jaypee and Gammon India have piled up debts in excess of Rs. 33,000 and Rs. 15,000 crores respectively that they are unable to repay.

One by one, companies that had become brand ambassadors for India in the fiercely competitive global market have begun to fail.

Kingfisher Airlines, which had set a new standard of comfort and service in economy class flying, was the first to go, and it has gone all the way to the bankruptcy court. It was followed by Suzlon, which saved itself only by selling out to a foreign competitor and, in effect, ceasing to be Indian.

Jet Airways has done the same and become a subsidiary of Etihad airlines. Today, United Breweries (rechristened United Spirits), which had made its Kingfisher brand of beer synonymous with international cricket, is going the same way.

Unitech, one of India’s largest construction companies, has gone broke and its owners have spent time in jail before being bailed out. Behind Unitech is a queue of other construction companies inching towards a similar fate.

So far, like a caring undertaker, the Modi government has done everything it can to make these companies’ passage to the other world less painful. Loans have been ‘re-structured’ – a euphemism for having repayment conditions eased on a case-by-case basis – and laws have been changed to make the dissolution of bankrupt companies easier and quicker.

But since the Modi government has done nothing to change the basic conditions in the market that have driven these companies into crisis, the re-structured loans are also speedily souring.

The first step to economic revival

Can this economy be revived?

There is nothing magical or secret about what needs to be done.

The first step is to halve India’s brutally high lending rates from the present 11 to 15%, and allow all companies with a positive operating surplus, i.e, a higher current revenue than operating cost, to refinance their loans at the new rates of interest. For a very large number of companies, this will suffice to make them solvent once more.

To those who have uncritically accepted the quarter percent rate cuts that Governor Raghuram Rajan has been willing to concede so far, this cure may sound too radical.

But it isn’t. In 1999, the interest rate I was receiving on my five year bank deposits was 13.5%. By 2003, Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha and RBI Governor Bimal Jalan had brought it down to 6.5%. But the economy did not suffer because the economy was growing at an 8.2% (genuine) rate of growth. And I did not suffer because I had shifted my money into equity shares and multiplied my capital by 220 percent.

So where is the downside in this solution?

Today’s financial pundits never tire of reminding us that this makes for the revival of “inflationary expectations.” The surge in demand that will follow a sharp lowering of interest rates will, they fear, cause the economy to “overheat” and push up not only prices but also India’s balance of payments deficit. “Real” interest rates, they maintain, must therefore always be “positive,” i.e, above the rate of inflation. With the cost of living still rising at 5% and the REPO – the rate the RBI charges commercial banks that borrow from it – at 6.75% there is only limited room for a further cut.

This reasoning is, to put it bluntly, pure gobbledegook. To investors it is not the REPO but the borrowing rate that matters. Today, the prime lending rate of the commercial banks is 3% higher than the REPO rate, and the average borrowing rate is 4 to 4.5% higher. So, there is plenty of room for a sharp cut.

Waiting for something to grow. Credit: Shome Basu

Waiting for something to grow. Credit: Shome Basu

Misplaced theories

In any case, why must the real interest rate be positive?

China has financed its explosive growth for thirty years by paying negative real rates of interest on bank deposits. The downside of this – a huge excess of capacity in infrastructure and heavy industry – is only surfacing now, but has any Chinese person said, or written, that he or she wishes the growth had not taken place?

By the same token, for more than three decades, South Korea systematically used a variety of financial instruments, including negative real rates of interest, to foster the growth of private and state owned enterprises that it felt had the capacity to take on the European, American and Japanese multi-nationals that dominated the world market.

The truth is that “inflation targeting” and “positive real rates” are products of the neo-liberal dogma spawned by Milton Friedman and the Chicago school. These ideas have gained their popularity because they have served to legitimise the dominance of finance capital over industry in the de-industrialising western world. But they are, in the end, only dogma. And in India, they have been misapplied and have caused us to lose a crucial decade of economic growth – a decade that we may never recover.

Kaushik Basu, who was Rajan’s predecessor as Chief Economic Adviser in the ministry of finance, has summed up the worthlessness of dogma in his latest book An Economist in the Real World, as follows:

“One thing that experts know and non-experts do not, is that experts know less than non-experts think they do. Take for instance monetary and fiscal policies. Decades of careful research have given us important insights into these. But on many large questions we have little more than rules of thumb: if there is stagnation lower interest rates and inject liquidity; if there is inflation raise policy rates and the cash reserve ratios of the banks….

The reason these …work, at least tolerably…is evolution. Over time the wrong moves get penalised and their users either learn by watching others, or disappear themselves. In brief we get our monetary and fiscal policies right …in the same way as birds get their nest building right.”

Basu’s simile sums up everything that has gone wrong in policymaking during the past five years.

Rajan and his predecessor, Subba Rao, abandoned the wholesale price index and switched to using the cost of living index as a measure of excess demand, and imposed a high interest rate regime on the economy. However, what the cost of living index was measuring was not an excess of demand, but shortages of supply caused by the growing failure of the state to provide essential services like health, housing and education, and state government-administered increases in the price of foodstuffs, agricultural raw materials, transport fuels and power.

Today, every index of inflation – wholesale prices, the GDP deflator and the core rate of inflation – is zero or negative. So, either the RBI governor must learn from his mistakes and bring the interest rate down to half the present level over the next six to nine months, or he must “disappear.”

The second step towards revival

Sharply lowering the interest rate is only the first step towards revival.

The second step is for the government to help companies that are deeply mired in debt to be saved, in this way: convert a sufficient part of their debt into equity and then itself buy enough of the shares to instil confidence in the market that it does not intend to let the company in question fail. Here Jaitley could follow Basu’s second dictum – learn by watching others.

The shining example of success is President Obama’s rescue of General Motors (GM).

In 2009, when GM and Chrysler were about to declare bankruptcy, the US treasury spent $49.5 billion to purchase 500 million shares of GM, $1.5 billion to bail out some key ancillaries, and $3 billion in subsidies to make Americans replace old cars with new fuel efficient ones.

Not only was GM saved but three years later, the treasury was able to sell the 500 million shares to the public for $39 billion. What is more, it saved 1.2 million jobs and also earned $39.4 billion in taxes.

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The RSS is sparing no effort to create a sense of siege among Muslims; it is stirring this cauldron of despair at the nation’s peril

Sword-bearing RSS volunteers march past portraits of KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar. Credit: Shome Basu

Sword-bearing RSS volunteers march past portraits of KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar. Credit: Shome Basu

Even as Prime minister Modi lauds the plurality of India and the profound peacefulness of Sufi Islam, the RSS and its cohorts have been sparing no effort to drive a deep wedge between the Hindus and Muslims in our country.

A single day’s newspaper tells us that the student Umar Khalid found, while being questioned in jail, that his interrogators had already decided his guilt before they talked to him, because he was a Muslim whose father had been an activist of the now banned SIMI. Anirban Bhattacharya was repeatedly cajoled by his interrogators to get all charges against him dropped by pinning all the blame for the February 9 sloganeering on Khalid.

Waris Pathan, a Muslim MLA, In Maharashtra is suspended from the state assembly for refusing to chant Bharat Mata ki Jai. On the same day four Kashmiri students are arrested in Rajasthan because someone reported to the police that they were eating beef in their hostel.

In Jharkhand, two Muslim cattle traders are murdered by a gang of criminals, and the public and the media immediately conclude that the killers belong to a cow protection group.

In Delhi the BJP MP from Agra, Ramshanker Katheria, (who is a member of Mr Modi’s council of ministers, no less ) publicly warns the UP state government that Agra will see a ‘different kind of Holi’ if cases lodged against one BJP and two local VHP ‘leaders’ for making hate speeches against Muslims, comparing them to ‘rakshasas’ who need to be cornered and destroyed’, are not withdrawn before the festival.

All this news appearing on a single day evinces no shock because, from Ghar Wapsi, to ‘Love Jihad‘, to throwing beef into a temple, to killing Mohammad Akhlaq, to changing the name of Aurangzeb Road in Delhi, such inflammatory statements and actions have become routine in the past 21 months.

Intimidating dissenters

What is relatively new is the brazen attempt to intimidate anyone – like Kanhaiya Kumar or Teesta Setalvad – who has the courage to take up cudgels in defence of the freedom of speech, thought, justice and legal process; the administration of punishment to them through harassment, torture and beatings while in judicial custody, the cancellation of licenses and denial of access to funds.

Beneath all of this runs one leitmotif : The Muslims are not ‘us’. In anthropological terms, they are the alien ‘other’ and don’t belong in a resurgent Hindu India. The Muslim conquest of India was an aberration, and its impact on Hindu culture must be erased.

The damage was real, but was done aeons ago by rulers and generals now long dead. What does the Sangh parivar hope to gain from making people who are not even their lineal descendants pay a price today? Does it think that the community will take this lying down forever? And if it does not, can India be purged of 190 million Muslims?

No matter what its motives are, if it persists it will push the country into civil war and force it to disintegrate, as the states in the south and east scramble to insulate themselves from the virus being exported ­­­from the north. Instead of a Hindu rashtra India will become the world’s largest failed state.

This may sound alarmist but beneath the surface calm, changes have been taking place in the structure of the Indian economy and society that have been weakening our collective faith in the possibility of a prosperous future. These are being felt most acutely by the youth, who have their entire lives ahead and do not see how they will traverse it. The need of the hour is to reverse these changes so that they can begin to hope again. The BJP/RSS is doing the exact opposite.

Muslims’ worsening plight

Partition made the first serious dent in India’s syncretic culture by planting resentment and suspicion in Hindus, and a wary defensiveness in Indian Muslims. With the pre-partition Muslim elite having largely opted for Pakistan, the community desperately needed educational and economic assistance to recover their place in Indian society. But a bitter legacy of Partition was the Congress’s adamant refusal to even consider the reservation of jobs and seats in schools and colleges for Muslims, as this was the tool the British had used to split the Indian social fabric.

V.P Singh was among the first to recognise the long-term damage this had done. He understood that a rural peasantry newly empowered by the Green Revolution was demanding reservation in government jobs and colleges not for the sake of a handful of poorly paid sinecures, but to create an urban base from which their children and grandchildren could acquire the education that was the only avenue to the modern world.

But he too shied away from making an overt commitment to the Muslims on this incendiary issue. As a result, in the 1990s the rate of urbanisation among the OBCs surged ahead, while that of the Muslims actually declined. As the Kundu commission noted, a process of ‘exclusionary urbanization’ set in.

The full impact of six decades of neglect was laid bare by the Sachar committee, which found in 2006 that not only was Muslim enrolment in secondary schools and colleges well below their share of the population, but their representation in salaried jobs was less than two-thirds of the national average.

The imbalance was even worse in the Central government where despite being 14.4% of the population Muslims filled only 4 percent of the senior police and paramilitary posts, only 3% of the IAS, 1.8% of the IFS and perhaps most importantly, only 6% of the posts in the constabulary. The situation was equally grim in the universities, banks and central Public sector undertakings.

The UPA government responded to the shock the report gave it by mooting an Equal Opportunities Commission and creating a Ministry of Minority (note, not Muslim) Affairs. But six years later, no perceptible dent has been made in the structural disadvantages of the Muslim community.

A study of actual disbursements till the end of March 2011, showed that of the allocation till then of Rs 3,780 crores for minority concentration districts, only Rs 846 crores actually reached the districts and only Rs 131 crores had reached the intended beneficiaries. Despite this, when the Ministry of Minority Affairs asked for Rs 58,000 crores in the 12thplan, it was allocated only Rs. 17,323 crores.

The Muslims fared no better in raising concessional bank loans, for these were monopolized by Sikhs and Christians who secured 47% of the funds when they made up 21% of the minorities. Muslims who made up 69% got only 44%.

It would have been surprising indeed if being at a perennial disadvantage had not created dissatisfaction, and a feeling of being discriminated against in Muslim youth who found their path into modern India severely constricted. Wahhabi Islam backed by an abundance of Saudi money and flashy new mosques offered a new sense of purpose and source of hope. Gradually, but relentlessly, it began to erode the Sufi base of traditional Islam in India.

But even this would not have not have dented communal harmony had Pakistan not intervened. Determined to take revenge for the splitting of the country in 1971, it began to actively encourage insurgency and dispatch of terrorists across the borders of Punjab and Kashmir.

As all governments that have faced armed uprisings have learned, state responses to terrorism tend invariably to be indiscriminate. In India, this has meant sudden descents upon Muslim neighbourhoods, sustained, unfriendly interrogations, and an automatic presumption of Muslim involvement even when, as in the Malegaon idgah bomb blast and the burning of the Samjhauta express, the victims are all Muslims. The casual ‘elimination’ of terrorists in staged ‘encounters’ sowed fear and anger, especially in young Muslims just when they had begun to realise that the economic resurgence of the country was passing them by. Quite suddenly, therefore, the ground beneath their feet began to quake.

The Gujarat riots gave a new twist to the  fear of young Muslims because for the first time in their lives they felt that the state had not protected, but actually targeted them. Ahmedabad, therefore, created India’s first home-grown Muslim Islamist terrorists.

Roots of Indian syncretism

Indian syncretism has survived despite this because it is based upon an easy acceptance of diversity.  In the mosaic that is India, Tamils, Bengalis, Mizos, Nagas, Manipuris, Odias, Punjabis, Parsis, Bohras, Memons, Christians – everyone feels different. We are comfortable with being different and demonstrate it by unselfconsciously wearing different headgear, different cuts of beard and moustache, different lengths of hair, even different lengths of pyjamas. We wear different clothes, build little temples, mosques, and shrines to Jesus or one of the Sikh gurus, wherever we wish. We spread prayer mats on a busy road at midday in order to pray, and some of us even walk down the street wearing no clothes at all.

This comfort with diversity makes India the envy of European nation states which were created through enforced cultural homogeneity. But this is what the RSS mistakes as weakness, and is bent upon erasing.

The Muslim community has responded to their Muslim baiting by consolidating its vote and building closer ties with the opposition. But it is defenceless against the economic impact that programmes like the ban on beef, and the liberalisation of the economy are having upon its future in a period of unending jobless growth.

There are 3,600 legal and 30,000 illegal slaughterhouses in India, that export 2.4 million tonnes of beef and buffalo meat valued at 4.8 billion dollars. The ban on cow slaughter is threatening the livelihood of anything up to half a million families, the majority of whom are Muslims. While the ban on beef exports has received a great deal of attention all over the world, its even more deadly impact on the leather industry has been all but ignored. Maharashtra’s ban on the slaughter of all cattle and its spread to several other states has starved the industry of hides. According to the industry, by June 2015, 98 tanneries had shut down in Kanpur alone and 150,000 workers had lost their jobs. Here too most were Muslims.

The ban has also affected farmers and cattle herders – Dalits, and OBCs – to whom aged cattle and male calves rendered surplus by the spread of tractors and automotive transport, have been an important hedge against sudden financial need or drought. Today, as large parts of the Deccan are reeling under one of the worst droughts they have ever experienced, the price of cattle has crashed and this source of succour has been cut off.

Perhaps the most serious and least noticed setback has come from the ‘scissors’ effect on the profitability of the  power loom industry from falling tariffs on imports after economic liberalization, and the simultaneous, relentless annual increases in the minimum sale price of cotton decreed by the state governments. While this is killing the power loom industry all over the country, in Maharashtra whose two centres, Bhiwandi and Malegaon, account for three quarters of the power loom industry, the vast majority of the workers are Muslims.

These are three exemplars of an even more terrifying crisis that Muslims in particular face. This is the assault upon the entire artisanal sector of industry – fine textiles, embroidery and handicrafts, by cheap imports from China. From Kashmiri carpets, Pashmina and Jamawar shawls, to Lucknowi Chikan, Hyderabadi Bidriware and  Kancheepuram and Banarasi saris, all are facing shrinking markets as mill-made alternatives, domestic and foreign, push their products out.

Muslims are the prime sufferers in every case because only 23% of them have salaried jobs against 34% of the Indian work force. Three-quarters are therefore self-employed, as against two-thirds of all Indian workers. What is worse, while many of the Hindu workers, both salaried and self employed, own small pieces of land in their villages, very few of the Muslims do. They have, therefore, nothing to fall back upon when their traditional skills become redundant.

So let us see what future a typical 18-year-old 12th pass Muslim boy faces. He finds it difficult to get into the army; he will almost certainly not get taken into the police. He is unlikely to qualify for a lower grade clerical post in the government, given that 52% of these are already reserved for OBCs and Dalits ; his schooling has not equipped him for any of the traditional skills his family excelled in, and in any case these skills being made redundant. So how long will he be able to hold out when a recruiter offers him 400 dollars a month to join a jihad somewhere in the world, even India, to ‘save Islam’? The RSS is stirring this cauldron of despair at the nation’s peril.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based author and commentator

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Government initiatives will help shrink the public support for armed militancy, and pressurise the militants to lay down their arms and return to normal life.

Srinagar: Youths throw stones and water bottles on police at the venue as violent clashes erupted during the first ever International Kashmir half-Marathon at Kashmir University Campus in Srinagar on Sunday. PTI Photo by S Irfan(PTI9_13_2015_000085A)

Srinagar: Youths throw stones and water bottles on police at the venue as violent clashes erupted during the first ever International Kashmir half-Marathon at Kashmir University Campus in Srinagar on Sunday. PTI Photo by S Irfan(PTI9_13_2015_000085A)

In the past three months Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made two overtures to Pakistan, leaving little room for doubt that he wants to reverse the deterioration in bilateral relations. First he “dropped by” Lahore to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his way back from Kabul, Afghanistan, in December. The second was his telephone call to Sharif wishing the Pakistan team good luck in the World Cup match at Calcutta.

Pakistan has responded by providing intelligence on the Pathankot terrorist attack and warning India of a possible terrorist attack on the Somnath temple in Gujarat, which the government was able to foil.  But how will the countries build upon these initiatives if the situation in Kashmir continues to worsen at the rate it is doing today?

Kashmir appears to be moving in a different direction at present. With the continued reluctance of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti to form a government and the BJP’s inability to do so, Jammu and Kashmir has been left without a representative government. Meanwhile, the slow burning anger that has been growing in south Kashmir is approaching a boiling point.

South Kashmir on the boil

In the past two months every killing of a militant in south Kashmir has been followed by shutdowns of business and funeral processions that have grown ever larger, followed by ugly confrontations with the police and paramilitary forces. The first two months of the year saw 20 days of shutdowns in the the Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag districts. Besides, the intervention of civilians to foil the armed forces in their fight against the militants has led to the injury and deaths of several civilians, and a further rise in public anger.

The security agencies in Delhi and Srinagar are, as usual, blaming Pakistan: unable to send terrorists across the Line of Control (LOC), they claim Pakistan is training local youth to carry out violent acts within Kashmir itself. This explanation is self-serving, to say the least, as it is entirely possible that Pakistan is not sending infiltrators into India simply because it no longer needs to. But such an explanation also evades the real questions: why are the youth in south Kashmir, a PDP stronghold for 15 years, taking to armed insurgency again? And why is popular support for insurgency growing in an area where there was virtually none before?

The answers lie in Delhi’s failure to understand the causes of the Kashmiri insurgency and thus its inability to end the conflict despite many opportunities. The failure has risen out of a belief embedded in the psyche of most Indians – as Muslims, Kashmiris find it hard to resist the blandishments of Pakistan. This was and continues to be very far from the truth.

Denial of political space

The insurgency in the 1990s was born not out of religious separatism, but a complete denial of room for democratic dissent in the valley after the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953.  From 1957 till 1972, every election in the valley was rigged to ensure a sweeping National Conference victory.

As Pakistan found out in 1965 when its infiltrators found no support in the valley, the National Conference’s victories were not altogether unpopular as the party’s main purpose was to ensure the domination of the valley over the politics of the entire state. But as a consequence, two successive generations of Kashmiri youth were denied the political space in which to express their growing frustration and anger with an increasingly corrupt and predatory state government that was being backed uncritically by Delhi.

In 1987, when the National Conference entered into an electoral alliance with the Congress, the Muslim United Front (MUF) emerged as a political voice for the youth. But when the MUF was denied a reasonable presence in the state assembly through vote manipulation, a large section of the youth became convinced that they would never be allowed to secure the right to dissent, let alone govern, through the Indian democratic system. This led them into the arms of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and thus, Pakistan.

Although initially sheltered and armed by Pakistan, the JKLF’s goal was Kashmiri independence and not a merger with Pakistan. Its leaders knew that neither Ladakh nor Jammu would go along with secession. Had religion been their main driving force, JKLF leaders could have espoused the Dixon Plan, proposed by the British in 1947, to hand over the Kashmir valley to Pakistan. But not once in the 39 years of its existence has the JKLF advocated this “solution”.

On the contrary the JKLF has consistently demanded azadi (freedom) for Kashmir as it had existed before 1947, in the full knowledge that this would increase its heterogeneity and drag it further away from a purely religious identity. Over the years the Hurriyat conference, with the sole exception of Ali Shah Geelani, has also come around to a similar position.

In hindsight it is clear that no matter what they professed in public, what the militants wanted in the 1990s was to be the architects of a peace settlement along the lines of the Framework Agreement signed by General Musharraf and Manmohan Singh in 2005.

It is not surprising then that between the Islamabad declaration of 2004 and the attempted Amarnath land scam in 2008, domestic militancy all but died out in Kashmir. The Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad repeatedly sent terrorists across the LOC, but lacking local support they were soon rounded up or killed. For this four-year period, Kashmiris lived in the expectation that a lasting peace was around the corner.

State crackdown

That hope has since died. The UPA’s ill-advised crackdown in the valley in August 2008, the deaths of more than a hundred stone pelters in 2010 and the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013 convinced Kashmiris that a harder, more merciless Indian State had emerged over the years.

Paradoxically, this new State was a product of the unexpectedly high turnout in the valley in the assembly elections in December 2008; it enabled the architects of the crackdown to trumpet that the Kashmiri militancy had ended, that the Hurriyat and other separatists had never enjoyed significant support, and that what the Kashmiris really wanted was jobs and a better future.

The corollary of this was that there was no more need for a political dialogue with the ‘separatists’. As a result, the dialogue between government and the Hurriyat, which had been an important part of the peace process till then, came to an end. On the ground in Kashmir this erased the distinction between crime and political violence. All subsequent militant attacks became criminal acts to be dealt with by the police with the help, where necessary, of the paramilitary forces.

Police methods invariably include the interrogation of all those whom they consider likely to have information that will lead to the arrest of the “criminals.” Treating the nationalist movement in the Kashmir valley as a law and order problem thus made the nearly 31,000 militants who remained on the police’s history sheets and the thousands of stone pelters who were added to their number after 2010, the prime targets for interrogation.

For them, and their families, life became an uncertain, nerve-wracking hell. Add to this the never-ending trickle of deaths of local Kashmiri youth in encounters and crossfires, and one begins to understand the mixture of anger, despair and desire for revenge out of which the new militancy in south Kashmir has been born and is gathering support.

Reviving hope

Unlike the militants of the 1990s, the current crop of militants in south Kashmir have no political agenda, because they have no hope. They know from the experience of their predecessors that Pakistan will help, perhaps even provide shelter, but will ultimately enslave them. And the pointless, brutal hanging of Guru has shown them that there is no mercy in the Indian State. Their only desire now is to hit the Indian State repeatedly and invite retaliation that will rekindle a general uprising again as it did in the 1990s.

So far their tactics have met with unqualified success. The disaffection in south Kashmir today is not far short of what it was in Srinagar and north Kashmir in the 1990s. If Delhi continues to deal with it through repressive police measures alone, the tension and anger that is building up will inevitably boil over into a more general uprising. The only way to reverse this spiral is to rekindle the militants’ desire for peace, their desire to live. But so great is the accumulation of anger and mistrust that weaning them, and the tens of thousands who are openly supporting them, away from violence will not be easy.

The starting point should be for Delhi to recognise and concede publicly that the struggle in Kashmir needs to be dealt with through negotiation and accommodation, not through repression. To do this the Modi government could take a page from Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s book and declare a unilateral cessation of anti-terrorist action by security forces, coupling this with the offer of a general amnesty to all those who forsake armed struggle, and restart a political dialogue with the Hurriyat and back-channel talks with Pakistan on Kashmir.

Such initiatives will gain credibility if it is accompanied by a promise to repeal the Public Safety Act that gives the Kashmir police its extraordinary powers, and limit the scope of AFSPA as peace is restored. These initiatives may not lead to an immediate cessation of violence in south Kashmir as Pakistan may continue to stir the pot to strengthen its hands in negotiations with India. But if the government persists with these initiatives, it will shrink the base of public support for armed militancy that is building up in south Kashmir, and pressurise the new militants to lay down their arms and return to normal life once again.

Prem Shankar Jha is the Managing Editor of Financial World and a senior journalist.

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Kanhaiya Kumar’s battle cry that the fate of India lies in the hands of its poor and oppressed may turn out to be more true than even he has bargained for.

Students within the JNU campus celebrating the granting of an interim bail and subsequent release of their union leader Kanhaiya Kumar, March 3, 2016. Credit: Shome Basu

Students within the JNU campus celebrating the granting of an interim bail and subsequent release of their union leader Kanhaiya Kumar, March 3, 2016. Credit: Shome Basu

What began on February 9 as a small protest meeting at JNU to mark the hanging of Afzal Guru has ballooned into a struggle that is without precedent in the country’s history. This is not the first  nationwide polarisation we have seen. Remember the debate over the Indo-US nuclear deal? Or Anna Hazare’s fasts unto death over the Lokpal Bill in 2011? But this polarisation is different. Those had occurred over what India should do, but this is over what India should be. The struggle that has begun now is over defining the soul of India.

For sixty nine years India has defined itself as a pluralist, secular, ethnically heterogeneous country  that has built its nationhood by accommodating diversity. This is now being challenged in earnest by the BJP or, to be more precise, the RSS, (the distinction between the two that was so sharp in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s years has all but disappeared). The RSS has begun to fear that far from staying in power  for ten years, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi had confidently predicted shortly after the 2014 elections, the BJP may well lose its majority in 2019. This has left it far too little time  to implement its long cherished agenda for uprooting India from its pluralist-secular moorings and turning it into a “Hindu Nation”.

Its fears might run even deeper for after its shock defeats in Delhi and Bihar, it cannot be unaware that it may meet the same fate in Punjab and UP next year as the consolidation of the opposition that took place in Bihar is likely to be repeated there too. Those defeats, were they to take place, would turn the Modi government into a lame duck administration for the next two years. This is a possibility that the Sangh Parivar does not seem willing to contemplate.

The many attacks

How high the stakes for it are is revealed by how far it is prepared to go. Conspiracy theories should be treated with great scepticism, but everything that has happened since February 9 has the stamp of premeditation. When the Union Home Ministry decided to arrest JNU Students’ Union (JNSU) leader Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition after four full days to search for seditious matter in his 23-minute address to JNUSU, it did so on the basis of a single Zee TV video clip  aired on February 10 that purported to show that students at the meeting had shouted ‘Pakistan zindabad’ slogans.  Last week a magistrate’s court ruled, on the basis of a forensic examination, that the tape was a fake and that the words Kumar was shown to have been spoken had been pasted on from another sound track.

This immediately raises the question about who doctored the tape? If someone was prepared to go so far, can we be sure that the pro-Pakistan slogans at the February 9 afternoon meeting had also not been planted? Can we even be sure any longer that the entire fracas at JNU was created not by Kashmiris from outside JNU, as presumed by Harshit Agarwal, an uninvolved third year student who posted a video of  the entire meeting on the web, but an ABVP ‘false flag’ operation from the outset?

Undaunted by this setback the RSS has hit back through its newly discovered star orator, Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani. On the day after Kumar gave his second speech in defence of democracy, the constitution, the rule of law, and the freedom of speech and thought, Irani counterattacked by turning the defence of her government over the death of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad  into a wholesale attack on anti-national and leftist elements, accusing Vemula’s fellow students of deliberately preventing the police from cutting down his body as he hung from the ceiling fan, and preventing doctors from seeing him for a full 12 hours, in order to ensure his martyrdom for their cause.

Her vitriolic speech went viral on the internet and Modi hailed it with the two-word tweet, ‘satyamev jayate’. Only a full 24 hours later did Indians learn that everything she said had been fabricated. Vemula’s family and friends said his body had been cut down from the fan as soon as it was discovered, and that the chief medical officer of the university had arrived within four minutes of receiving the students’ call, had examined him and pronounced him dead. What’s more, as the doctor said, when she examined him he had already been dead for several hours. The police had not been prevented from seeing his corpse, much less from trying to revive him.

But by then the Sangh Parivar’s attack on ‘anti-national, left-wing, Muslim-loving, pseudo-secularists’ was in full swing. While Kumar was in jail and his colleagues in hiding, the Sangh Parivar had posted another video that purported to show some  JNU students yelling pro-Pakistan slogans during a  clash between them and the ABVP. But students at the university had already recognised some of the slogan shouters as prominent members of the ABVP.

A few days later another clip went up reporting that thousands of empty liquor bottles and used condoms were recovered from JNU every day. And not perhaps by coincidence, Chandan Mitra, the Oxford-educated editor of the BJP’s mouthpiece, The Pioneer, sermonised that the time had come to close down JNU altogether.

The common thread that runs through these attacks is a casual disregard for the truth, and a willingness to use any lie, any rumour, any prejudice, any person and any means to serve the higher purpose of converting India into a Hindu State. Irani claimed that everything she had said in parliament was from the Hyderabad police report. But a comparison of what she said with what appeared in the report shows that she saw only what she wanted to see and filled in the blanks from her preconceptions.

Pervasive hyper-nationalism 

More than anything else it is the Sangh Parivar’s total lack of concern at being caught lying that reveals the depth of the danger that Indian democracy faces, for it shows that facts no longer matter. Only myths matter because, with executive power already in its hands, these are all the BJP/RSS  needs to persuade the army and the police, even large parts of the judiciary, to do its bidding.

To say this is not to imply that the army, the judiciary or the police, will not demur if asked to enforce another Emergency. But their minds are being systematically prepared. The danger that they could be asked to do so is therefore too real to ignore.

How deeply the appeals to hyper-nationalism have resonated within the power structure of the country is reflected in the judgement handed down by Delhi high court Judge Pratibha Rani while granting bail to Kumar. Prefacing her judgement with a patriotic song she made it clear that she was granting bail only because the defendant was unlikely to abscond or be able to obstruct the dispensation of justice. But he had associated himself with unpatriotic slogans and actions, and needed to be educated in nationalism. What is more, she opined that mild doses of anti-nationalism should be treated through education. More severe cases may need surgical excision, as becomes necessary with gangrene.

Nowhere did this learned judge elaborate what constituted anti-national behaviour. Nor did she explain what she meant by the chilling word ‘surgery’. What she did not bother to hide was her virtual direction to a lower court that it should find Kumar guilty of sedition ‘for his own good’.

Days later, while admitting a criminal defamation case against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, a district judge   made ex cathedra remarks that have all but pronounced him and five other Aam Aadmi Party leaders guilty without the benefit of a trial.

If this is the resonance that the BJP/RSS’s campaign can create in a judge of the Delhi high court, what is it creating in  the middle class? Internet provides us with a crude yardstick. Till last Wednesday noon Kumar’s post-bail speech had received 884,000 hits, while Irani’s speech in parliament had received 3.6 million hits. As for the Hyderabad chief medical officer’s testimony demolishing Irani, forget the TV anchors, even I have difficulty remembering her name.

Kumar’s battle cry that the fate of India lies in the hands of its poor and oppressed may turn out to be more true than even he has bargained for.

 Prem Shankar Jha is the Managing Editor of Financial World and a senior journalist.

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Jaitley’s effort included many significant policy plans but had little to offer on reviving economic growth. Unless interest rates are lowered sharply, there is no possibility of recovery.

Only a drastic cut in interest rates can get the economy moving again. Credit: Shome Basu

Only a drastic cut in interest rates can get the economy moving again. Credit: Shome Basu

The Budget presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Monday contains a number of new departures that merit unstinting praise. Chief of these are a national crop insurance scheme for farmers, a health insurance scheme to protect families from the impact of illnesses that incapacitate the breadwinner and a three-year programme to provide 50 million families in villages with cooking gas facilities.

But on the revival of economic growth, the central challenge facing the country today, the Budget has little to offer. Instead, Jaitley implicitly absolved the government of responsibility for it’s failure to revive growth, by laying the blame on the “serious crisis” in the global economy but said the Indian economy held its ground despite the global headwinds.

The bad debt problem

The self praise, however, is muted. Both the Budget and the Economic Survey have admitted that all is far from well in the economy. The 2014-15 Survey had estimated that 880,000 crore rupees of investment was locked up in stalled projects, concentrated mostly in the heavy industry, construction and infrastructure sectors, and this year’s Survey dealt at length on the mountain of bad debt that this has created in the banking system. On December 31, 2015 the non performing assets (NPAs) – debt on which banks are not able to recover their interest and amortisation – of 24 listed public sector banks, including the State Bank of India and its associates, stood at a whopping 3,93,035 crore rupees, or about 11% of their loans. Private banks had not done much better; although they accounted for less than 20% of outstanding loans, their NPAs added up to 45,000 crore rupees.

This mounting bad debt has reduced banks’ willingness and capacity to lend, slowed the growth of credit to less than half of what it was during its heyday a decade ago and locked the entire secondary economy in the jaws of stagnation. Not surprisingly, industrial growth has been stuck at just over 3% for the last five years. This is close to 2% lower than the growth it recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, during the worst period of the closed economy. Judging from the quarterly data collected by the labour ministry, the slowdown in the growth of employment has been equally sharp.

It is in suggesting a remedy for the crisis that North Block is strangely reticent. Both the Economic Survey and the Budget reflect the conviction that the remedy lies in drastically simplifying and speeding up the procedure for declaring firms bankrupt and liquidating their assets. The Survey has likened the Indian economy to the Chakravyuhain the Mahabharata – easy to get into but very hard to get out of. Enabling companies to exit easily will release what Joseph Schumpeter called “the gales of creative destruction,” for it will free land, buildings and other assets for sale, and bring the capital locked in them back into useful circulation. Citing academic studies, the Survey has claimed that this will improve the productivity of capital by 30-40% and trigger an economic revival.

Jaitley has taken his cue from the Economic Survey. In paras 90-94 of his Budget speech he unveiled a spate of measures that will make it easier to set up asset reconstruction companies, to speed up the working of debt recovery tribunals by digitising the collection of information and recapitalise  public sector banks in order to free up the flow of credit.

Persistence of widespread insolvency

It was these announcements that sent the Sensex up by 800 points, the biggest one-day increase in seven years. But as a panacea for economic stagnation they will not suffice, for implicit in them is the belief that investment is going bad mainly because of the greed of investors who borrow too much and therefore run up very high interest costs, and because of cronyism and unprofessionalism in the management of public sector banks.

These are not the only, or even the main, causes of the malaise in the economy. One key indicator is the large number of companies with restructured loans that have once again become insolvent. In 2014-15, 57,000 crore rupees of restructured loans had gone bad, double the amount from the previous year.

The persistence of widespread insolvency despite the restructuring of debt shows that its cause is not episodic but systemic. Every single one of the economy’s problems can be traced back to the very high interest rate regime that has existed, with one short interlude, since 2007. This has drastically reduced demand by discouraging purchases made on instalment plans, including the purchases of housing and office space, automobiles, electronic and digital equipment, and home and office furnishings. These make up almost half of industrial production. It has also caused a collapse of the share market in all but a few sectors and a virtual disappearance of initial public offerings of shares since 2007. Finally, it has forced promoters to rely almost exclusively on bank loans to finance investment just when the cost of borrowing has gone up. This has greatly increased the risk of investment and is responsible for the large scale abandonment of infrastructure and heavy industrial projects that were highlighted in the 2014-15 Economic Survey.

The interest rate quagmire

Jaitley has urged the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to lower interest rates on several occasions, and in July his chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramaniam, wrote an article in The Indian Express arguing that the cost of living index is no longer a satisfactory measure of inflation and urged the use of the GDP deflator instead. It is thus surprising that Jaitley did not say anything in his Budget speech about lowering interest rates, a point left out in the Economic Survey too.

This may be out of respect for the RBI’s autonomy in determining monetary policy. But central bank chief Raghuram Rajan has shown no inclination to lower the interest rate so far as he believes, with the cost of living index still averaging 5%, the RBI’s current policy rates – ranging 7.75-5.75% – are already low enough in real terms not to merit much further reduction. Additionally, he firmly believes that most of the problems of industry can be traced back to the mistakes of the promoters, who “do not have a divine right to stay in charge regardless of how badly they mismanage an enterprise, nor … have the right to use the banking system to recapitalize their failed ventures”.

But the RBI’s policy rates do not reflect the actual cost of borrowing. Today the average borrowing rate, including various bank charges, is over 11%. With inflation, measured by the GDP deflator, close to zero the real rate of interest for borrowers is prohibitive. Till it is brought down, and that too very sharply, there is no possibility of a revival of investment and an economic recovery.

The real test for the government will therefore come when the RBI announces its next policy review at the end of this month. If Rajan does not bring down interest rates substantially, Jaitley and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to choose between foregoing economic recovery or foregoing the services of Rajan. The choice, either way, will not be easy.

Prem Shankar Jha is the Managing Editor of Financial World and a senior journalist.

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The hyper-nationalism being fuelled by the government’s aggressive stand on the JNU issue is proof that the RSS senses waning support for the BJP across the country.

Hindutva Undivided Family: Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the funeral of VHP leader Ashok Singhal. Credit: PTI

Hindutva Undivided Family: Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the funeral of VHP leader Ashok Singhal. Credit: PTI

‘Something extraordinary is going on in this country’. So said two respected supreme court judges on the Kanhaiya Kumar bail issue. Supreme court judges are not given to expostulation. So when these judges brushed aside legal objections and decided to hear a simple bail petition in the highest court of the land, their decision to intervene expresses their mounting disquiet even more loudly than their words.

The ‘something extraordinary’ that has so distressed them is the re-emergence of a totalitarian threat just when most Indians have assumed that their democracy is finally secure.

These are some of the recent events that have made this threat apparent:

A small fringe group of students met  to protest against  “the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat” and  express  solidarity with “the struggle of Kashmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination”. The meeting  was cancelled by the vice chancellor at the last moment, but the students insisted upon their freedom of speech and went ahead with it nonetheless. Some inflammatory anti-India remarks were made by a small group of Kashmiris. A fracas ensued, at the conclusion of which the president of the main JNU students’ union Kanhaiya Kumar gave a fiery speech defending  freedom of speech and thought  but  explicitly condemning  “any act of violence, terrorism, any terrorist act, or any anti-national activity.”

Despite this, the Delhi police came to the campus four days later and arrested Kanhaiya on charges  of sedition and criminal conspiracy. It did so because Union home minister Rajnath  Singh received a phone call from  BJP MP Maheish Girri, and tweeted to the world that “anyone who shouts anti-India slogans & challenges nation’s sovereignty & integrity while living in India,  will not be tolerated or spared”.

Abuse of the law

Singh did this without bothering to find out what the demonstrators said and whether it qualified as sedition.  Had he been more circumspect  he would have found  that even the most extreme slogans raised on February 9 did not  qualify as sedition.   In five separate past judgments  the Supreme Court had drawn a sharp distinction between the advocacy (of) and incitement (to) violence, and defined sedition as an “incitement to imminent lawless action”. Based on this definition  it had rejected as sedition the slogans raised by some Sikhs on the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated — “Khalistan zindabad, the time has come for us to expel  Hindus from Punjab and seize the reigns of power” — because it was an expression of desire  and did not suggest when or how it should be carried out.

But  Singh did not have the  patience to educate himself on  the finer points of the law, and instead issued the order to arrest Kanhaiya and other demonstrators, leaving it to  the police to  find sufficient grounds for doing so. In doing so  he  broke the boundary that  separates legal process from witch hunt and mob rule.  What followed shows how far we have fallen.

While Kanhaiya was in police custody three lawyers – Vikram Chauhan, Yashpal and Om Sharma – beat him mercilessly for three hours. The police watched the beating without raising a hand to stop it. In secretly filmed interviews with  reporters from India Today, the trio boasted  that they had planned the  beating  administered to journalists, students and professors who attended Kanhaiya Kumar’s bail hearing  inside the Patiala house court on February 15.

Via Facebook, Chauhan had issued nine appeals to ‘boys’ from all over Delhi to come to Patiala house and teach the traitors a lesson. The three  had  initially toyed with a plan to throw a bomb, but settled for administering a sound beating. The beating was watched by the police and CRPF on duty, several of whom  expressed their regret at not being able  to join in because they were wearing their uniforms.

Yashpal boasted  that he was looking forward to being arrested and would not ask for bail because he wanted to be in the same jail as Kanhaiya so that he could beat him up some more. Journalists present at the court and  lawyers who watched the many clips that went viral that same night identified several of the  lawyers who beat Kanhaiya as members of the BJP’s legal cell, the  Adhivakta Sangh.

That evening, on Rajdeep Sardesai’s prime time news channel, Sharma aggressively justified his actions  on the grounds that everything he had done was in service of ‘Bharat Mata’, and asserted five times that he would kill anyone who dared to speak against ‘Mother India’.

Silence on the part of the Modi government

What is most disturbing is the Modi government’s lack of reaction to the fracas at the courthouse. Police commissioner B.S. Bassi described it as a minor scuffle caused by students and professors who refused to vacate seats in the courthouse reserved for lawyers. When Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who had been in another courtroom emerged, the journalists who were being pummelled on the ground in front of him appealed to him for help, but he ignored them and walked away.

The judge could not spare 23.05 minutes to watch the video of Kanhaiya’s speech to decide whether or not to  grant him bail, instead  remanding him to Tihar jail for another 15 days. But the same court, if not judge, gave bail to Sharma, Yashpal and Chauhan

As for Prime Minister  Modi, he has  responded to the rise of mob rule on February 15 in much the same way as Hitler responded to Kristallnacht – the Nazi storm troopers’ attack on German Jews in  1938 — by completely ignoring it and everything that led up to it.

More than anything else, it is  this  calculated silence that makes it necessary  to face the possibility that the  Delhi incident is not an accidental confrontation that went  out of control but a first testing of the waters of Hindu chauvinism to see if it can be  harnessed to realising the RSS’s long-cherished dream of creating  a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. For,  with the BJP at last in unfettered power, and two devoted pracharaks at the helm of  party and government, it cannot but believe that its time has finally come.

The RSS’s hyper-nationalism

The RSS stoutly claims that it is nothing but a social organisation that leaves politics to the BJP. Over the 68 years that have passed since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi – culminating in the benign tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister from 1998 to 2004 –  we have lulled ourselves into believing this.

But the RSS  has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. By an extraordinary feat of intellectual gymnastics, it remains convinced that snatching independence from the British was not a triumph for Hindu India. Not even the partition, which removed two-thirds of the Muslims and gave the Hindus an 83% majority was sufficient to create a Hindu Rashtra.  For the RSS, the Hindu Rashtra must be  a country purged of all ‘impure’ elements.

With non- Hindus still making up almost a fifth of the country’s 1.3 billion population, this purging cannot be physical. So, it must be cultural. But as the European nation states have found to their immense cost, cultural homogenisation cannot be achieved without the sustained use of force.  The RSS is therefore not only a totalitarian organisation, but also one that cannot afford not to be one.

One has only to read Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to chief  ministers  in 1947 and 1948 to see how little the RSS has changed. On December 7, 1947 he wrote: “We have a  great deal of evidence to show the RSS is an organisation which is in the nature of a private army and which is definitely proceeding along the strictest Nazi lines, even following the techniques of organisation. It is not our desire to interfere with civil liberties. But training in arms of a large number of persons with the obvious intention of using them is not something that can be encouraged”.

Similarly, on January 5 1948 he wrote: “The RSS  has played an important part in recent developments and evidence has been collected to implicate it in certain very horrible happenings. It is openly stated by their leaders that the RSS is not a political body but there can be no doubt that policy and  programme are political, intensely communal, and based on violent activities. They have to be kept in check”. That was 25 days before Mahatma Gandhi was  assassinated.

On December 5 1948, looking back on that tragic year,  he wrote: “The RSS has been essentially a secret organisation with a public façade, having no membership, no registers, no accounts… they do not believe in peaceful methods or Satyagraha. What they say in public is entirely opposed to what they do in private.”

Reading these excerpts 68 years later,  one is overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu. For the  RSS is still a ‘social’ organisation that  operates through more than two dozen shadowy, unregistered organisations. Of these the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, the Dharma Jagaran Samanwaya Samiti, the Hindu Dharma Sena, the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, the Durga Vahini,   the Adhivakta (lawyers’) Sangh, and of course the ABVP, are the most aggressive.

It is we who constitute the rest of the nation who persuaded ourselves that Vajpayee and Advani were not an aberration and that the entire Sangh Parivar had changed. And we were not entirely wrong. For, responding to the inexorable pull of the simple majority voting system, which forces all political parties  to moderate their ideologies and woo  centrist opinion if they wish to capture power,  Vajpayee and Advani  had pulled  the BJP a long way away from the RSS, and made it entirely acceptable to other parties as a coalition partner.

This enabled them to give India one of its best governments since independence. But the RSS had only gone into hibernation and, as his ‘new year musings’ show, no one knew this better than Vajpayee himself.

Step-by-step descent

Had the NDA won the 2004 elections, both the economics and the politics of India would have taken a different turn. But the RSS was able to seize upon its defeat to discredit  not only Vajpayee, but also his message. With Modi as prime minister and Amit Shah as BJP president, the four-decade long attempt to distance the BJP from the RSS has been reversed. As of today, the chain of communal provocations and cultural onslaughts that began with ‘love jihad’,  ‘ghar wapasi’ and the casual dismissal of the Agenda for Alliance signed with Mufti Sayeed,  has shown that it is the RSS that is in the driver’s seat.

Throughout this step-by-step descent into mob rule Modi, Shah and Singh have maintained a studied silence. But  the administration and the police have already learned the lesson it is meant to convey. In Ahmedabad on the evening of February 27 2002,  TV channels showed clips of charred corpses being removed from the Sabarmati express at Godhra. The next day, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad called a bandh and Modi announced state sponsorship for it. This handcuffed the police and prevented them from rounding up ‘history sheeters’ in Ahmedabad and other cities, to prevent riots from breaking out the next day. The result was some 2,000 dead in terrible communal riots. Today, state sponsorship of violence is no longer needed. Modi and Shah are achieving the same goal through their silence.

The most puzzling feature of the RSS’s campaign is that it seems utterly unfazed by the inevitable  loss of  electoral support that will follow the resurgence of ideology within the BJP. In 50 assembly by-elections in 2014, held to fill seats whose incumbents had moved to the Lok Sabha, the BJP was able to hold on to only 19 of the 40 seats it had  held before. This was followed by its shattering defeats in the assembly elections in Delhi and Bihar.

To stand a chance of winning the 2019 general elections, the BJP must widen its appeal and actively court the support of coalition partners. Under Modi and the RSS, it is doing the opposite. Could this mean that the RSS is planning to ‘derail’ democracy once more? The possibility is no longer remote, because hyper-nationalism  has been the final card played by governments of other countries that have felt their  support waning. Delhi shows that the BJP is beginning to play it too.

Prem Shankar Jha is the Managing Editor of Financial World and a senior journalist.

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Last month the RBI  governor Raghuram Rajan  defended his decision not to cut interest rates by saying “ It is not the RBI’s business to deliver booster shots to the stock market so that stock markets can soar for a short while, only to collapse when reality hits….What is important for us is sustained low inflation…the RBI will have no hesitation in delivering once we are assured of the low inflation”.  At the time when he said this wholesale price inflation was minus 4.1 percent; primary product inflation was minus 3.7 percent, fuel and power was minus  12.8 percent and manufactures minus  1.5 percent.   So what inflation measure was Rajan talking about?  The answer is the cost of living index.

But  chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian pointed out in an article in the Indian Express as long ago as  June 12, that  this is the only index he should avoid  using, because its stickiness, and the widening gap between it and all other measures of inflation,  makes it suspect.   Subramanian had written  that pegging policy interest rates  to the cost of living made sense in “normal times”, but not in ‘unusual times’. ‘From the context it was clear that by normal times he meant those that had  existed till 2007, when the CPI., although much more volatile than the WPI, had traced the same long term path.

Times became ‘unusual’ after  2007.  Except for a few months  at the bottom of the global recession in 2010-11, the gap between CPI and WPI has widened steadily from 3 percent in 2010 to an  unprecedented 8 percent in August.  What is more this has happened inspite of the RBI using every monetary instrument to squeeze demand  and force prices down. The only conclusion one can draw  is that whatever is keeping the CPI inflation up, it is not an excess of demand.

If not demand then what is it measuring? There is only one remaining candidate: shortages of supply. The association of inflation with excess demand is so hard-wired into our thinking that it is often hard to remember that inflation can also be caused by  shortages in  supply. The idea of politically inspired, artificially engineered, shortages that last for long periods, is alien to economists’ thinking because it comes from the dangerous realm of political economy.  But once we open ourselves to this possibility it does not take long to see that it is, indeed, the reason why the behaviour of the CPI has changed so radically.

Foodgrain and cash crop prices ( hich account for more than 40 percent of the CPI) have become progressively less sensitive to  demand because   state governments  are setting minimum support prices for  more and more commodities. Today there are procurement , or minimum support, prices for more than 20 groups of food and cash crops, and the central and state governments have been raising these by  five  to seven  percent every year for more than a decade.

The rise in price of urban housing, which  accounts for 9.77 percent of the index,  is  almost entirely accounted for by the  growing shortage of urban land.  Tariffs on  transport, fuel and lighting, which   account for  another  17.1 percent, rose sharply  because of a  revival  of international oil prices till mid-2014,  a 40 percent fall in the value of the rupee after 2011;  a simultaneous removal of subsidies on diesel, gasoline and LPG, and a growing reliance on coal, imported  at four times the domestic price, for power generation.  All these are cost push factors that get  translated into an increase in the cost of living  through  administered changes in price.

Health and education make up another  9.04 percent. The cost of the former has risen because of drug price decontrol – another administered price change  — and because of a growing reliance on private health  services. The rise in the latter reflects the final collapse of the public schooling system.

In sum , whatever the  cost of living index may signify  in  countries where more than half of the population lives on pensions,   in  India it is an index not of excess demand but of the  failures of past governments. To use these  as a yardstick of inflation and curb industry  is to destroy India’s future and administer the kiss of death to its poor.

The right policy is not to leave   interest rates solely to politicians but link them to a measure that has been purged of all pressures caused by administered prices and  shortages of supply. The only one in India  that fully does this is   CRISIL’s Core  rate of Inflation Index (the CCII) .

The CCII is derived from the RBI’s Non-Food Manufactures Index (NFME) but excludes oil and metals because their prices are heavily influenced by global price trends. But it also  includes manufactured foods and beverages, which the NFME excludes. This measure of inflation has stayed close to the wholesale prices index, but is far more stable. In September 2014 when the fall in oil prices had just begun to bring down all indices of inflation, the RBI’s NFME fell to 2.8 percent and the wholesale price index to 2.38 percent, CCII index will not have fallen as much as the WPI but is almost certainly also showing deflation. Today, India desperately needs investment in infrastructure, and therefore the lowest possible long term interest rates. With the CCII at a long term rate of at most two percent thus there is not an iota of economic logic for keeping bank lending rates at 12 percent.

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Israel has been joined by Saudi Arabia openly and Turkey covertly, in opposing the rehabilitation of Iran. Here is what is What I wrote about. A shorter verion appeared in  The Indian Express.  

“The euphoria that spread though the world after the Iran – EU nuclear  agreement is  proving short-lived. Republicans in the US Congress have made it clear that they will spare no effort to block it.  Hilary Clinton, the democratic Presidential hopeful, is keeping her options open. Whispers are escaping from European chancelleries that the sanctions on Iran will only be lifted in stages. Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani have responded by insisting that they must be lifted ‘at once’.

But the agreement’s most inveterate enemy is Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel. In the week that followed the Lausanne agreement he warned the American public in three successive speeches that it would threaten the survival of Israel and  increase the risk of  ‘a horrific war’. This is a brazen attempt to whip up fear and war hysteria on the basis of a spider’s web of  misinformation.

Netanyahu unveiled  the first at the UN General Assembly in 2012. It was a large cartoon of a bomb with a red line across it, just below the mouth. This was how close Iran was  to making a nuclear bomb, he said. It could get there in a year. Only much later did the world learn that  Mossad, his own intelligence service, had told him that Iran was very far from being able to build a bomb.

Mossad probably knew what a US Congress Research Service report revealed two months later:  that  although Iran already had enough 5 percent, or low-enriched,  Uranium in August 2012 to build  5 to 7 bombs,  it had not enriched enough of it to the intermediate level of   20 percent to meet the requirement for even one  bomb.  The CRS had concluded from this and other evidence that this was because  Iran had made no effort to revive its nuclear weapons programme after stopping it ‘abruptly’ in 2003.

Netanyahu’s second deception  is that he only wants to punish Iran with sanctions till it gives up trying to acquire not only nuclear weapons but any nuclear technology that could even remotely facilitate this in the future. But he knows that no government in Iran can agree to this. So what he is really trying to steer the world towards is the alternative– a military attack on Iran.

What is more, since he also knows  that  destroying  Iran’s nuclear facilities will not destroy its capacity to rebuild these in the future he does not want the strike to end till it has  destroyed Iran’s infrastructure ( as Israel destroyed Southern Lebanon’s in 2006) ,  its industry,  its research facilities and its science universities.

He knows that Israel cannot undertake  such a vast operation without the Americans.  But there is one stumbling block—Barak Obama, who has learned from his recent  experience that, to put it mildly,  America’s  interests do not always tally with those of its allies in the middle east. So Netanyahu is following a two-pronged strategy: first to get the US Congress to insert clauses in the Treaty draft  that Iran will be forced to reject, and second to take advantage of   the spike in paranoia that will follow to  push the west into an attack on Iran.

He has been joined in this endeavour by another steadfast friend of the US, Saudi Arabia. At the end of February Saudi Arabia  quietly signed an agreement with Israel that will allow its warplanes to overfly Saudi Arabia on their way to bombing Iran. This has halved the distance  they will need to fly. And less than four weeks later, on March 26,  it declared war on the Houthis in Yemen, whom it has been  relentlessly portraying as a tiny minority bent upon taking Yemen over through sheer terror, with the backing of  Iran.

This is a substantial oversimplification , and therefore distortion, of a complicated relationship. Iran may well be helping the Houthis, but not because they are Shias.  The Houthis,  who make up 30 percent of  Yemen’s population, are Zaidis, a very different branch of Shi’a-ism than the one practiced in Iran, Pakistan and India. They inhabit  a  region that stretches across Saada, the northernmost district of  Yemen, and  three adjoining principalities, Jizan, Najran, and Asir,  that Saudi Arabia annexed in 1934.  The internecine wars that Yemeni Houthis  have fought since the 1960s  have not been sectarian, or even  against  the  Saudis specifically, but in quest of independence and, more recently, a federal state. This is a goal that several other tribes share.

The timing of  Saudi Arabia’s attack, four weeks after its overflight agreement with Israel, and its incessant  portrayal of   the Houthis as proxies of Iran, hints at a deeper understanding between it and Israel. The Houthis’ attacked  Sana’a, the capital, last September. So why did Saudi Arabia wait till now before sending its bombers in?

Iran has kept  out of the conflict in Yemen so far, but the manifestly one-sided resolution passed by the UN Security Council,  the immediate resignation of the UN special envoy for Yemen Jamal Benomar, who had been struggling to bring about a non-sectarian resolution of the  conflict in Yemen and been boycotted by Saleh’s successor,   Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi for his pains, cannot have failed to raise misgivings in  Teheran. Iraqi President Haydar Abadi’s  sharp criticism of the Saudi attack in Washington on the same day reflects his awareness of how these developments are darkening the prospect  for  Iran’s rehabilitation, and therefore  Iraq’s future.

To stop this drift Obama  needs to tell his people precisely how far,  under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel’s interests have diverged from those of the US, and how single-mindedly Israel has used its special relationship with the US to push it  into   actions that have imperiled its own security in the middle east.

Instead of dwelling on how the treaty will make it close-to-impossible for Iran to clandestinely enrich uranium or produce plutonium, he needs to remind Americans of what Netanyahu has been carefully neglecting to mention: that a nuclear device is not a bomb, and that to convert it into one Iran will need not only to master the physics of bomb-making and reduce its weight to what a missile can carry but carry out  at least one test explosion to make sure the bomb works. That will make escaping detection pretty well impossible.

Lastly the White house needs to remind Americans that Iranians also know  the price they will pay if  they are caught trying to build a bomb after signing the agreement. Not only will this bring back all and more of the sanctions they are under,  but it will vindicate Netanyahu’s apocalyptic predictions and make a pre-emptive military strike virtually unavoidable.

Finally, should a  military strike, whether deserved or undeserved,   destroy Iran’s economy,  it will add tens of thousands  of Shi’a Jihadis to the Sunni Jihadis already spawned in Libya, Somalia, Chechnya and  the other failed states and regions of the world.    The security that  Netanyahu claims it will bring, will turn out to be  a chimera.

  

 

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Nothing has stirred up so much controversy in the US as Obama’s U -turn on Iran . The following article explains some of the important causes behind it. There were also, doubtless, other considerations,but these are less well knwn.

GLOBAL POLITICS AT A TURNING POINT

The nuclear agreement announced in Lausanne on April 2, has made history but  the wolves have begun to gather. Israel’s Prime minister , Binyamin Netanyahu has called it a ‘historic mistake” that threatens the survival of Iran and could lead to a ‘horrific war’. He has been joined by Saudi Arabia and, less vocally,  by  other sunni sheikhdoms in the Gulf.

Their opposition stems from their   thwarted ambitions, for the most cursory examination shows that the agreement is too tightly constructed to leave any loophole for Iran to crawl through into nuclear weapons status.  So if Iran entered the negotiations with the intention of keeping open cracks in it that would permit it to produce  nuclear weapons in the future, it has already lost.

 

President Obama has been at pains to point out that the agreement is based on technology, not trust, but he would not even have started down the diplomatic road   had he not been at least half-way satisfied when he and Rouhani first met at the UN in September 2013 that Iran did not want to become a nuclear weapons power.

Iran’s Foreign Minister explained why in a widely attended talk in Delhi  in January last year. The big powers, he said, remain trapped in a zero sum paradigm, in which if one party to a dispute gained, the other had to have lost. But in the tautly interdependent world of today there are no more zero-sum outcomes, for the damage any conflict does inevitably far exceeds the benefits it was expected to bestow on the initiators.  The way to resolve disputes is to find common ground that leaves both sides net gainers.   This could be found in allowing Iran to develop nuclear technology but not nuclear weapons.

This argument resonated with Obama because  he was acutely aware of   how badly the succession of   preemptive military interventions since the end of the Cold War had  weakened the US and stripped it of   its moral authority.  “Why is it,” he asked reporters while   on a tour of Asia  in April 2014 “that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and our budget?”[i]

But what had completed his disillusionment  was the way in which some of the US’  closest allies had abused its trust and manipulated its policies to  serve their purposes without sparing a thought for how that  affected the US’ security. At the head of this list were  Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

 

Obama got his first shock  on November 28, 2012 when a Jabhat al Nusra  unit north of Aleppo brought down a Syrian army helicopter  with  a Russian SA-7, a   man-portable Surface-to-Air missile. A day that the west had been dreading had  finally arrived: heavy weapons that the US and EU had expressly proscribed because they could bring down civilian aircraft anywhere in the world, had somehow reached Al Qaeda’s hands.

The White House tried to pretend that that rebels had obtained a single missile  from   a captured Syrian air base but,   fed up with the  suppression and distortion of the intelligence they were providing, intelligence agencies   leaked it to the Washington Post that no fewer than 40  SAM missile batteries with launchers, along with hundreds of tonnes of other heavy weapons had been bought from the supposedly US- friendly government in Libya,   by Qatar and transported to the rebels via Turkey. Saudi Arabia had done the same through Jordan.

He received  his second shock at the next ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting in Marrakesh three weeks later   when not only  the   ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels that the US had grouped under a newly formed Syrian Military Council three months earlier, but  all  its Sunni Muslim allies, including Turkey, condemned a ban the US had put on the Jabhat Al Nusra,  while Britain and France remained silent.

But Obama received his  third, and worst, shock nine months later when, two days before the US was scheduled to bomb Syria the British informed him that soil samples collected from the site of the Ghouta gas attack on Augut 21 2013, and analyzed  at their  CBW research laboratories at Porton Down, had shown that the Sarin used in the attack could not possibly  have been prepared by the Syrian army. Had Obama gone through with the attack it would have made him ten times worse than George Bush in history’s eyes.

Only then did Obama fully realize the scale  of the conspiracy that had been hatched to pull the US into a direct attack  on Syria. The first  piece was put in place at the end of August when  the highly reputed German magazine Der Speigel, reported, “quoting several eyewitnesses”,   that Syria had tested  delivery systems for chemical warheads   at a chemical weapons research centre near Aleppo in August, in the presence of  Iranian experts.[ii]

The wealth of detail in a report from an area where no western newspaper has a  correspondent  suggested that the story, while not necessarily untrue, was  planted by an intelligence agency. But one person who took it very seriously was Israel’s Prime minister,  Netanyahu, who  sent  emissaries to Amman twice, in October and November, to request Jordan’s  permission to overfly its territory to bomb Syria’s chemical weapons facilities[iii].

This was followed by another  serious  allegation that the Syrian army had used Sarin   gas on March 19, 2013 at Khan al Assal, north of Aleppo, and in a suburb of Damascus against its opponents. Two more allegations of smaller attacks in April followed.

In May 2013, Turkish Prime minister Erdogan visited Obama, accompanied by his Intelligence chief, and pressed him almost rudely to live up to his “red line” commitment to punish Syria if it used chemical weapons. But by then US intelligence knew, and had conveyed to Obama,  that it was  Turkey’s secret service, MIT, that had been working with the Nusra front to set up facilities to  manufacture Sarin, and had obtained two kilograms of the deadly gas for it from eastern Europe, with funds provided by Qatar[iv]. Obama therefore remained unmoved.

Israel had also launched a vigorous campaign to persuade  US lawmakers that the vast majority of the Free Syrian Army were moderate Sunnis who had risen in desperation against Assad’s dictatorial Shia’a regime.  Jihadis made up  only a fraction, and  even the few who were there  had been drawn to Syria by  a desire to protect its people from Assad’s brutal excesses.

But who these ‘moderate’ FSA were came to light on May 13, 2013 when Senator John McCain paid a secret visit to Idlib on the Syrian-Turkish border to meet them.   Photos and videos posted  on the web, and resurrected after the rise of ISIS, showed that two  of the five leaders whom he  met  were  Mohammed Nour and Ammar al Dadhiki, aka Abu Ibrahim,    spokesman and a key member respectively of  ‘Northern Storm’ an offshoot of the Jabhat Al Nusra[v].  The third was none other than Abu Bakr al Baghdadi,  self-appointed Caliph of ISIS.

The visit had been organized by  a Washington-based organisation, the Syria Emergency Task Force that proudly claimed to have lobbied two thirds of the members of the US Congress in less than two years ( and published an article in the Wall Street Journal without informing it that the author was an employee of a lobbying organization) to  persuade them that the FSA were moderate Sunnis.

When journalists began to investigate its antecedents after  the McCain videos went viral on the internet, they found a deep connection between it and  AIPAC.  When Kerry announced the decision to bomb Syria, Israeli officials could no longer conceal their satisfaction. On August 27, alongside  Kerry’s denunciation of the Ghouta gas attack the right wing daily, Times Of Israel,  published three stories quoting Defence officials, titled  “Israeli Intelligence seen as central to US case against Syria[vi]; ‘IDF intercepted Syrian regime chatter on chemical attack’;[vii] and significantly, “ For Israel US response on Syria may be a harbinger for Iran” [viii].

The hard “information” that had tilted the balance was contained in the second  story: A retired Mossad agent who refused to be named, told another  German magazine, Focus, that  a squad specializing in wire-tapping within the IDF’s elite 8200 intelligence unit had intercepted a conversation between high-ranking regime officials discussing the use of chemical agents at the time of the attack.

 

Obama unveiled his decision to reverse the Bush doctrine in his graduation day speech at West point on May 28, 2014.  “Here’s my bottom line”, he said:  “America must always lead on the world stage. … But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”His  choice of venue  was not accidental, for it was here that George Bush had announced the US’ first strike security doctrine 12 years earlier.

The Nuclear deal with Iran is the first tangible outcome  of the volte face. If no new hitches arise during the drafting of the agreement,   the world will begin to retreat from the  spreading chaos into which it has descended in  the past two decades. But to secure its future Obama needs to demonstrate the benefits that will flow from it well before June 30, if not earlier.

The place where he can do this almost immediately is in the battle against ISIS, for  the agreement has opened the way for involving not only  Iran but Syria fully  in the war against it. But Netanyahu  knows this, and believes that success there  will hasten Iran’s  acceptance as the pre-eminent power in the region.

 

He has therefore thrown caution to the winds and put Israel’s entire relationship with its patron, the US, on the line in an all-out attempt to scuttle the agreement with Iran in the US Congress. In their 2006 book The Israel Lobby in American Foreign Policy, Mearsheimer and Walt have described in painstaking detail how Israel has manipulated  US policy in the middle east through AIPAC and other Zionist think tanks and foundations with an utter disregard for its interests and security. Those who have read the book know  how slender is the thread on which  the future of  the middle east and, tangentially, of  South Asia hangs.

[i] http://www.thenation.com/article/181476/why-hillary-clinton-wrong-about-obamas-foreign-policy

[ii] Reported in the Israeli daily Haaretz  On  September 17, 2012.   http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/report-syria-tested-chemical-weapons-delivery-systems-in-august-1.465402

[iii] Reported by Haaretz on December 3, 2012.

[iv] Hersh was told this by two sources, one of whom claimed he had been told by Tom Donilon then Obama’s National Security Adviser , after he left his job. The second was a Turkish official who corroborated the story to a US official. London Review of books 8-17 April. Pp 21-24.

[v] Abu Ibrahim was recognized in one of the photos of the meeting posted by Beirut’s main English and Arabic newspaper the Daily Star.

[vi] http://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-intelligence-seen-as-central-to-us-case-against-syria/

[vii] http://www.timesofisrael.com/idf-intercepted-syrian-regime-chatter-on-chemical-attack/

[viii] http://www.timesofisrael.com/for-israel-us-response-on-syria-may-be-harbinger-for-iran/

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