From Eidi to ED

Changing Political Discourse – From ‘Eidi’ to ED

After observing the Eid-ul-Fitr last week, India’s nearly 200 million Muslims have presumably joined the din of elections. Straddling the two events, this is a modest, snapshot attempt to see what has seemingly changed and what has not.

Muslims are part of the 960 million-plus electorate. Issues peculiar to their community – sectarian violence, hijab, beef and much else – may remain high on the minds, but provide no clue about the impact they may have on the elections’ outcome. One can at best try to capture the mood discernible on Eid with the help of media reports, some confirmed and sourced, others being mere thoughts on social media and depending on records, draw some comparisons.

Not for the first time though, some newspapers found it both convenient, even advisable in the heat of the ongoing election campaign, to project not the politicos but film stars, on their front pages. Shah Rukh Khan was on the front pages greeting his admirers from the balcony of his Mumbai home: “EID Mubarak, Everyone.” This may have helped spread the message that Eid was “for everyone.”

This ‘everyone’ bit also seemed to go well with social media platforms to whom the traditional/mainstream media have ceded space. No-holds-barred reflecting there – serious, provocative, light or humorous – widens the discourse.

More non-Muslims than usual appeared to post Eid greetings to “my Muslim Friends”, conveying an unspoken empathy. The generally divisive hate campaign against this community or that, which has been on the increase, abated, even if briefly. The elections injected it back, though, by the time this is written.

This was the first Eid when ‘Eidi’, the gift the Muslim elders give to younger friends and family members, got mixed with ‘ED’, the government’s Enforcement Directorate that is prosecuting many an opposition leader – selectively, the critics at home and abroad say, to disrupt their election campaigns. As the issue is debated in the highest court of the land, the Eidi-ED memes filled the social media.

A popular Bollywood actor thought of repeating an old caricature of a Hindu from Haryana greeting a Muslim acquaintance:“Bhai Tanney Eid Ki Ram Ram”. Irrespective of the occasion, unlike in the cities where people wish each other by the hour of the day, greeting someone with “Ram Ram” is common in the countryside, especially in northern India.

These were soothing touches amidst the poll-time rhetoric. “Ghar mein ghus kar martey hain (killing after entering homes) is surely meant for the terrorists and their mentors, which they rightly deserve. But when political opponents are accused of having a “Mughal mindset” and are lambasted for “eating meat during the Shravan month”, the connotation and the ambit of the remarks and their targets, get widened, at least in the public perception.

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Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, the venue of anti-CAA protests by Muslims, and the political heat they generated some years ago, was this year the hub for food stalls during Ramzan. It rivalled the Jama Masjid area in the walled city. Food lovers of all faiths thronged both venues.

Muslims praying on open grounds is an old, often contentious issue. Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor VK Saxena expressed ‘gratitude’ that there was no namaaz on the road for the first time. He was happy that this helped the authorities to “ensure that any eventuality of a flare-up by miscreants or vested interests was averted.”

The times are changing. The politics of hosting Iftars which was once an important part of the Ramzan, went missing. Like the Shaheen Bagh protests, Iftar was disrupted by Covid-19. Now, with Hindutva in focus, political parties shied away from hosting Iftar parties.

In political terms, an Iftar party is aimed at spreading a message of communal harmony. Clerics, diplomats and political leaders rising above party affiliations would come together and break bread. Meant to facilitate the Muslims, they were attended by all. It created a sense of mutual trust.

Interestingly, diplomatic missions in New Delhi – the United States, Britain, Israel and Saudi Arabia among the many – continued with Iftars, while political parties, whether or not they marginalise the Muslim vote, were too busy electioneering.

The Samajwadi Party was known to host the biggest and best-attended Iftar party. Its founder Mulayam Singh Yadav would personally attend to guests. In earlier days his trusted aide Amar Singh supervised the catering. When Yadav was the Defence Minister, food came from Akash, the Indian Air Force mess. The menu on the table was lavish.

This year, Akhilesh Yadav, the present chief, party sources privately conceded, was wary of hosting an Iftar party lest his rivals brand him “anti-Hindu”. However, Akhilesh attended Iftaar parties hosted by others.

The Congress regularly hosted Iftaar parties earlier. In recent years though, the party has abandoned the tradition. Insiders claim it is short of funds, while critics blame it on its silently pursuing “soft Hindutva”. Its leaders vehemently deny this. But undoubtedly, the political parameters are set by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Iftar parties were started in Uttar Pradesh in the early seventies by the then Chief Minister Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna. Thereafter, they became an annual tradition. In the changed times, Bahuguna’s children are in the BJP.

The only time that the BJP hosted an Iftar party, old records say, was when Rajnath Singh was the Uttar Pradesh chief minister. He is now the Defence Minister. Other BJP leaders have avoided playing host on such occasions. The party as such views it as part of the Muslims’ ‘appeasement’.

What about the top dignitaries? Indira and Rajiv Gandhi hosted Iftar parties. So did Deve Gowda and I K Gujral. Leaders Ram Vilas Paswan, Rajesh Pilot, Jaipal Reddy and others played hosts.

One recalls the guests donning keffiyehs, turbans and ‘topi’ – like kashti, Turkish, Afghani – at Iftar parties Atal Bihari Vajpayee hosted at the plush Hyderabad House. Leaders of different faiths, diplomats and politicians of all hues attended. Vajpayee’s liberal face came through with his donning of green headgear.

The occasion was essentially for Muslims, but by the time they finished with the prayer to be able to break their fast, the food would be devoured and replenishments would be needed.

As President, APJ Abdul Kalam, a Muslim, if not hosting an official Iftar, would donate funds to some charitable cause or disaster fund.

The change began in 2014. PM Modi skipped Iftars hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee. And then, the practice ended. Electoral compulsions have set in as the ruling BJP calls it “appeasement politics” and condemn anyone who engaged in it. Its target this year was an ally, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

Call it cynicism if you will. But the growing feeling of ‘otherness’ has led sections of the Muslims to think that the political Iftars of the past made the community too complacent to see through the ‘tokenism’.

The end of Iftar politics, applauded by those who support the present dispensation, is silently mourned by secularists who see it as an attack on India’s pluralistic ethos – the “Idea of India”.

Nazia Erum, the author of Mothering A Muslim writes: “Keeping it simple – the Iftar is meant to be a moment of spirituality. Ramzan and Iftar will come and go – but their achievement lies in helping you and your fellow human beings to introspect on how we are being led astray from loving and belonging together, by forces of politics and by the games of power.

To Erum, “The truth is, nothing would probably please God more than closing this gap of hatred and mistrust between fellow humans.”

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Cinematic Reel – From Celluloid to Digital

A Cinematic Ride – From Celluloid to Digital

How to promote ‘good’ cinema in a country that is the largest producer of films – over 2,000, annually – where viewing them remains the opium, next only to religion, of the masses?

Not very different from the rest of the world, the dilemma of India’s film society movement is having to struggle to stay relevant in radically changed times.

The Indian audiences are spoilt for choice with films being made in a dozen mother tongues if not more. By flocking to the cinema theatres to see anything they get, they seek to redefine what ‘good’ cinema is. Since film viewing is voluntary but compulsive, the approach is what-is-good-is-what-I-like and rejects what is not liked. The masses, as anywhere else, have remained untouched by the quest for good cinema of a few.   

Besides being social, the change is also technological. A just-released book is aptly titled Celluloid to Digital. It seeks to explore the role of India’s film society movement in this century. It recommends change since the digital revolution has breached barriers. With OTT – over the top – platforms proliferating, film watching is no longer confined to cinema theatres. Nor is the cinema specific to a nation or a region. The book advocates a radical change in the outlook and the format to ensure that cinema appreciation remains alive and film societies do not become mere talking shops.

Penned by journalist and film enthusiast V K Cherian, the book, actually his third take on the subject, explores the movement of cine clubs/societies/associations/forums that began in Europe in the 1920s and spurred watching and discussion of niche cinema in India in the 1940s. It blossomed in the four decades after Independence.

Significantly, the movement coincided with what is called the Indian cinema’s “golden era” and with governments headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, all of whom patronised cinema as an art form and afforded it social respectability that it did not earlier have. The state influenced cinema’s growth by setting up the National Awards, the Film and Television Institute of India, the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) and the National Film Archives of India (NFAI). Two inquiry bodies explored the workings of the cinema industry.

The movement ushered in a “cultural renaissance”. Among the pioneers were Satyajit Ray, Chidadanand Dasgupta, Ritwik Ghatak in Kolkata, Vijaya Mulye (akka) and Arun Roy Chowdhury in Patna and many marquee names in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Trivandrum and other cities. It gave India some of its best films and filmmakers.

At Nehru’s instance, Marie Seton, “the chain-smoking, saree-clad British socialist” arrived in India. Cherian records that she was “truly the evangelist and the pioneer of India’s Film Society movement and contributed to the rise of the ‘new’ or ‘parallel’ cinema in the 1950s to the 1970s.

A worthy follow-up of the social change that India’s freedom movement ushered in, it gave among others Satyajit Ray and his Pather Panchali, Bimal Roy’s neo-realist cinema, Ritwik Ghatak who recorded the trauma of Bengal’s partition, Mrinal Sen’s comment on poverty and youth unrest and many in the South who interpreted social change.  The ‘parallel’ cinema brought in the likes of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. Actors included Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi who eventually switched to the commercial (desi) cinema. Shah later deprecated the “new wave” that abetted with time.

Significantly, the film society movement drew inspiration from the West even as India, unlike much of the world, resisted the Hollywood avalanche. Indian films – not ‘desi’ commercial potboilers but those who claimed a superior film language, marked their presence in many international film festivals.

In its heyday, the movement had a substantial following of film enthusiasts that grew to approximately 100,000 members by 1980. While it primarily attracted individuals who regarded themselves as devoted film enthusiasts, it gained momentum through discussions reminiscent of those that animated left-leaning cultural movements originating in late colonial India, especially the Indian People’s Theatre Movement (IPTA).

Four decades on, prominent filmmakers and film society members including Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Shyam Benegal, who have propagated the film society culture for decades, concede that it has remained confined to the urban educated and professionals who enjoy good cinema but have been unable to penetrate the larger society.

Perhaps, they did not try hard. Or, perhaps, too much was expected from an elitist movement that ran ‘parallel’ to the taste of the masses for whom cinema is little else but a source of entertainment. The other two purposes in a well-done film, imparting education and information, emphasised in the years after the Independence, have taken the back seat. This also explains the near-total emphasis on feature-length films as against a documentary.

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There has been some welcome streamlining by the government. But by and large, the state, while greedy about earning revenue from the cinema industry, is fast withdrawing from patronage and promotion that it earlier extended through funds and nurturing of institutions.

With or without state patronage and control, the cinema today impacts and is in turn impacted by an India that is fast urbanising and indeed, globalising. For one, rural India has more or less disappeared from the film narrative. The actors appear and act for a global audience. The niche Indian ethos is missing.

Today, the movement must live with many global cinema companies operating in the Indian market, financing and producing films. There is corporate financing, commercial viability, and better production values with the use of the latest in technology.

But two things any lover of good cinema will concede: India still produces more chaff than grain. And, it is difficult to make ‘great’ cinema like the opulent “Mughal-e-Azam” or ‘Devdas’, or a contemporary “Kaagaz Ke Phool” or ‘Guide’.

Part of the movement, Cherian says the only way for the film societies to survive is to become part of the media studies institutions at the university and college levels. They could capture the young by floating film clubs. As per the University Grants Commission (UGC), some 200 university-level institutions are already offering such facilities. Some of it is already happening in Kolkata and the South. This is practical since India is among the few major nations where media is growing and so are the media studies institutions. The Film Society movement is under dire stress even in Europe. India is better placed than France from where it imbibed the cinema and England from where the idea of the film society travelled in the 1920s.

Cherian wistfully writes: “India awaits a Pather Panchali,” taking a shot at another round of “cultural renaissance.” But he also wants the movement to confront the harsh reality: Does its ‘good’ cinema sell in this era of commercial blockbusters? “Bollywood’ and its southern allies-cum-competitors make billions at home, but also have a fast-growing global market. In a sense, the better of commercial cinema has raided the larder – the Western world from where ‘good’ cinema enthused and influenced many of India’s post-independence pioneers. It’s a small, complex world today.

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A Diplomat's View on India Bangladesh Ties

A Diplomat’s View on Delhi-Dhaka Destiny

The birth of Bangladesh in 1971 was thanks to a combination of forces and circumstances that cannot be repeated. Its people wanted to protect and nurture their language and culture in a country separating them by 1400 km. India wanted to get even with a hostile neighbour created by the 1947 Partition. And, it was born because of — and despite — the Cold War politics that neither the perpetrators nor the victims want to talk about today.

Well into the new century, a different phase of the Cold War has ensued with the region’s geopolitics changing with China’s enlarged entry. India and Pakistan remain perennially hostile. And Bangladesh, once derided as an “international basket case” by its mightiest opponent Henry Kissinger, is South Asia’s best economy, soon to join the middle-income group, with human development indicators that are among the best in the region.

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, a former Indian High Commissioner and one of the most erudite scholars on Bangladesh, records this ‘Transformation, Emergence and the Evolution of India-Bangladesh Ties’ in his book with this title. Assessing the entire gamut of issues, he concludes: “India and Bangladesh are destined to cooperate given that their destinies will remain intertwined in the future.”

He underlines that like any two neighbours, India and Bangladesh have problems and issues that remain to be resolved. Even as they get resolved, they get impacted by the region’s changing geopolitics that impacts both, inevitably posing new, knotty challenges.

Not the least is the change in India’s position. Its concern in the last century was that neighbours did not sign security-related agreements with the West, especially the United States. It worked diplomatically for the Indian Ocean to become “a zone of peace”. The worry in the changed scenario is that they do not get too close to, and become dependent upon, China.

Indeed, the China factor looms large on the entire region just as it also confronts others across the globe. Chakravarty analyses at length how the India-Bangladesh“Shonali Adhyaha”, the golden phase in bilateral relations, can be impacted by it.

“If Bangladesh-China ties remain within the bandwidth of acceptability, then bilateral ties can be insulated from disruption. If it impinges on India’s security interests, then India will certainly use its leverage to counter it. There are enough indicators that both sides understand this sensitivity and so far, have navigated adroitly, avoiding crossing certain lines that could upset bilateral ties,” he writes.

The reality is that India finds itself encircled by China in the Indian Ocean region, with smaller neighbours playing the “China Card”. Developments in Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka are recent examples. All except India and Bhutan have accepted China’s multi-billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Eagerly welcoming money and infrastructure projects under BRI, they are now anxious about a “debt trap” and some have continued despite this risk.

Bangladesh is on BRI, but as Chakravarty points out, it fears that if it joins or cooperates with the Quad – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – it might invite Chinese ire and inevitably, get caught into big-power rivalry. Playing one side against the other is not easy and could get more difficult in future given the ferocity of China’s confrontation with the US and its allies.

In a succinct comment on Bangladesh-China ties, he says: “Bangladesh thinks China is less intrusive than India.” This is inevitable when India and Bangladesh share borders, cultural links, and socio-economic commonalities and are mutually dependent.

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Having spent considerable time in Bangladesh, Chakravarty notes that the young, professional and business classes clamour for closer ties with China. But “the same people make frequent visits to India.”

A domestic political angle often played up pitches India which helped in the freedom movement as a villain. Those with Islamist leanings look to the West, including Pakistan, and China because of the latter’s adversarial relations with India. It’s befriending enemy’s enemy. Indeed, half a century down, the fact that their separation from Pakistan was opposed by the US, China and the Muslim world is becoming a distant memory for the young and is glossed over.

In a unique neighbourhood, India faces problems typical of a large country surrounded by small ones. The ‘friendliest’ Bangladesh, too, finds India’s location on its three sides constricting and generates fears and expectations. India is anxious, particularly when the smaller ones want to play the  “China card.” Like the Maldives that has sent back Indian soldiers and sailors. Or Si Lanka and Nepal where each government is either “pro-India” or “pro-China,” cancelling or dishing out projects.

India’s expectations of Bangladesh, while helping liberally (but without the Chinese deep pockets and the BRI), Chakravarty writes, “are mostly security and migration-related. The principal concerns are border management, terrorism, smuggling and human trafficking, Islamist terrorism and China’s growing engagement in different sectors of Bangladesh that could give China a strategic advantage in the region.”

Chakravarty delves into India’s assistance in the freedom movement with the hope of nurturing a secular, syncretic Muslim society where minorities feel safe. With Bangladesh’s syncretic Islam taking blows from the Islamists, he foresees the struggle between Islamist and secular forces dominating Bangladesh’s domestic politics “that will occasionally turn violent.” Its political impact may not remain confined to India’s east and north-east. The book notes that Hasina has battled the Islamists but also made concessions to some sections that control the madrassas where the rural youth get trained, hoping that radicalisation would not begin early in their lives.

Inevitably in the future, India will have to engage with the conflicting political legacies led by the two ageing women leaders now in their late seventies. Their succession may or may not emerge from the rival families Ailing Zia’s son Tareq is wanted by law and remains in exile. Hasina has yet to indicate any preference for a successor, either from within or outside her family.

The oft-posed question is about India putting all its eggs in Sheikh Hasina’s basket. Chakravarty contrasts that by Sheikh Hasina’s with the record of the two-term premier, Begum Khaleda Zia, when Islamists were part of her government and militants killed with impunity. The distrust is inbred and inevitable, on both sides. That leaves India with no option, as of now. Chakravarty underscores the ‘risk’ but sees no clear picture. “In the long term, India’s strategy should be to develop ties with parties across the political spectrum,” he opines.

Hasina once asked Chakravarty, then India’s envoy: “What did you get from Zia?” He told her that India had no high expectations from her. A decade hence, the ground situation remains the same. Only time can tell how the internal dynamics will work, and how they will impact India-Bangladesh relations.

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Family Business Season 2 in Pakistan

Live Streaming In Pakistan – Family Business Season 2

Forget corruption charges and delivering poor governance – two families in Pakistan have worked their way back to power. They can thumb their noses at critics, at home and in the Western world who call “dynastic rule” undemocratic. For now, the two rival ‘dynasties’ have buried their differences to keep out their third rival Imran Khan, a “non-dynast”.

In a power-sharing deal, Shehbaz Sharif – notwithstanding his disastrous 18-month rule during 2022-23 – is poised to be the prime minister again. Maryam, his niece and elder brother Nawaz Sharif’s political heir is now Pakistan’s first woman chief minister, and that too, of Punjab, the most populous and powerful province. As Sharifs keep the two big jobs, above them all, Asif Ali Zardari is poised to be the country’s President, again, facilitated by the all-powerful army-led military and civil ‘establishment’.

The ‘establishment’ retains all the aces in domestic and external relations. It has ditched Khan, its ‘proxy’ of the 2018 vintage. Convicted in numerous cases, he is in jail even though his hundred-plus supporters were elected in a House of 264, making the entire exercise controversial.

That is because the ‘establishment’s’ calculations failed. Although tipped for a fourth term as the prime minister, Nawaz fell short of the numbers and had to make way for his younger brother. The deal with the Bhutto-Zardaris who came third in the electoral race, gets Punjab for the Sharifs but also keeps alive ambitions within their clan.

Khan has lost despite his proven mass popularity. In hindsight, his position became untenable when General Asim Munir and Justice Faez Isa whom he had targeted as the prime minister reached their respective top offices. Besides, he alleged an American ‘conspiracy’ for his ouster. Now, he and his supporters will struggle and protest in and out of the jail, courts and the legislature. In Pakistan, it is business as usual for now, until the cyclical process, driven by political wrangling, public disenchantment and monitored by the men in khaki, ends where it began.

Maryam at 50 marks a generational change. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari joining the Shehbaz government would have reinforced that. He had pleaded in the previous National Assembly that the old guard makes way for the young.  He did not succeed. How a complete debutante Maryam and Bilawal’s experience limited to foreign affairs — though not an unusual thing in South Asia — would have fared in tackling the country’s myriad problems is a different story.

There indeed was some talk of Bilawal as the prime minister, Pakistan’s youngest at 33. But the deal went the way his father Asif Ali — the real (civilian) king-maker this time around – possibly wanted, to secure the presidency and the power in Sindh for his clan.

He had earned the sobriquet “Mr Ten Percent” by allegedly taking the cut in business transactions, when his wife Benazir was the prime minister twice, adding to her woes and a collapse in governance. Her 2007 assassination and the sympathy it generated led him to the president’s house. Although he had the Constitution amended to limit the president’s powers, during 2008-13, the country was run from his office.

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Not for nothing he is called the “wheeler-dealer”, ‘Machiavelli II’ and more. Pakistan’s most astute politician is also a great survivor. As feudal in politics do, he was involved in family feuds, including the killing of Benazir’s brother Murtaza. He has a lengthy record and the length of time spent behind bars, without ever being convicted.

They say that “the only thing certain in life is death and taxes”; in Pakistan, it might as well be “death, taxes, and Mr Zardari’s political relevance”….. Yet, he is also the first democratically elected president to serve out a five-year tenure, and likely to become the only person to have held that office twice,” Zain Siddiqi writes in Dawn (February 23, 2024).

Besides being in and out of jail and being in exile, Zardari has some things in common with Maryam Nawaz: controversies over educational qualifications. Zardari’s claims cover degrees in England and France, while Maryam, who had to change schools when young, could not complete her studies in medicine when her admission was challenged, but has supposedly done her M.A., and Ph.D. Another is both remained out of the government but active politically. Indeed, Maryam joined only a decade back to counter Imran Khan’s growing charisma among the youth.

Maryam is the fourth Sharif family member to become Punjab’s chief minister. The province accounts for 53 per cent of Pakistan’s 241 million population and 60 per cent of its $350 billion GDP. Her problems are more daunting than those her father and uncle tackled, with arguable results.

At the top of her problems is her being a woman politician in a deeply conservative Pakistan. Only around a dozen women were elected to the National Assembly in last month’s elections. Most women enter parliament in seats reserved for women and religious minorities.

For Maryam, a mother of three and a grandmother, it could be familial, like Benazir who had a husband (Zardari) to deal with, at home, in public and in her government. Maryam too has a husband Mohammed Safdar Awan, a former army captain and a lawmaker.   

A fiery orator like Benazir, Maryam will have to guard against all that Bhutto faced — from the hardliners among the clergy who cite scriptures to disapprove of a woman holding public office. Patriarchy at all levels dominates Pakistani society. The most daunting could be the militants who took Benazir’s life. Indeed, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), with affiliates of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), has dug deep roots in Punjab.

Coming from a business family, Maryam has done well to keep her focus on economic issues that not just Punjab but the whole of Pakistan need to tackle. Women activists are enthused by the symbolic boost for women and that she has touched on women and the young, on education and health in her inaugural speech.

But all these need money and the initial pronouncements carry little by way of reforms – less ostentatious spending and more taxation – that the foreign donors, especially the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been demanding.  

Reports link Maryam to her maternal great-grandfather, Gama (Ghulam Mohammed) Pehelwan, undivided India’s champion wrestler and “Rustam-e-Hind” who migrated to Pakistan. He was never defeated.  Gama remains a known name in India. She could work on this legacy and her father Nawaz’s readiness to do business with India.

It will be interesting to watch if Maryam, on a possible India visit sometime in future, will create as much public frenzy, and goodwill for Pakistan, as Benazir did in 1972 at the Simla Summit and while meeting Rajiv Gandhi, her Indian counterpart in the 1980s.

The writer can be contacted at

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Making Sense of Pakistan Current Chaos

Making Sense of Pakistan’s Current Chaos

In Pakistan’s chequered history, a hundred Independents being elected to the National Assembly as happened last week, is not unprecedented. In 1970, in its first and the only free and fair election, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won 160. The consequences are well known.

Nor, for that matter, is a confrontation between the army chief and the prime minister of the day. Z A Bhutto paid for his worst folly when General Zia ul Haq deposed and jailed him and had him hanged through a controversial court verdict.

One may not wish for dire consequences for the Pakistani people living in more complex times today. But relations between the jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the current chief, General Asim Munir, whom he had targeted when in power, could hark back to the Bhutto-Zia era or that of Nawaz Sharif’s third prime ministership and General Pervez Musharraf.

In 1970-71, Pakistan’s military-civil ‘establishment’ then led by the army chief, General Yahya Khan, had calculated that Mujib would not score beyond 60 seats in the then East Pakistan. Perhaps, the Munir-led set-up also never imagined that the jailed cricketer-politician would score “a century without the bat”, the election symbol his party was denied.

All stakeholders underestimated Khan’s support, particularly among the middle class. The results show that the general voter, surviving the Corona-19 pandemic and floods, battered by rising prices of essential commodities and miserable living for long years, is disillusioned by the two dynasties who have ruled by turns – the Sharifs of the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) of the Bhutto-Zardaris. Of the two, Nawaz was perceived as the army’s favourite.

Whether Independents who do not constitute a party or a coalition of parties can, or will, be invited to form the new government is doubtful. As it did in 2018 with Imran as the mascot, the ‘establishment’ may facilitate the Sharif and Bhutto-Zardari families to forge a coalition with others. Even if formed within the constitutional norms, such a coalition would lack credibility, if not legitimacy, and ensure continuing political turmoil.

Chances are that Imran may reach a compromise with the military, his mentors-turned-foes. Besides his safety, freedom and political future, too much is at stake for him. Independents loyal to him can form coalition governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Denied power, they could be poached and purchased. Some have already joined Nawaz.

The military must either strike a compromise with Khan or prop up the rivals, for now at least and tackle protests by Khan’s supporters. Such a government would be unstable and perhaps short-lived, leaving the military to do more manipulations.

The election’s outcome is thus both clear and complicated: It is a vote against “electoral engineering”. But the complication is that the army-led elite will still call all the shots. Inherent to this surprise development is that Munir could face dissension from among the top military brass.

Being rebuffed by the general populace and failing in its effort to influence the results using the state institutions, the army is unlikely to stay inactive. Its role in the coming days and weeks is more difficult to predict than even the politicians jockeying for power.

The situation opens possibilities of a significant role for the country’s President Arif Alvi. He is a die-hard Khan loyalist – something he has not concealed while holding the highest constitutional office. He can be expected to play a key role in the coming days. It needs to be mentioned that his term ended last November but he continues in office because the college that elects the president – the National and the provincial assemblies – has been dissolved.

The people voted for Khan, despite his four years of bad governance. Khan had “cancelled out” all others. He defied and even maligned the army once he was pushed out of power through a vote of no-confidence in the National Assembly. The military is particularly angry with Khan as his supporters had attacked military installations to protest their leader’s arrest last August.

As of now, Khan is convicted and jailed for the next 24 years. Any about-turn by the establishment would, however, require the country’s judiciary to re-look at Khan’s multiple convictions –just as it did with the Sharifs only a few weeks back — and work to free him. That process could take weeks to gain fruition. Now, Khan and his close associates are being bailed out. The judiciary is known to comply with changing political trends.

Prominent among the losers were top leaders of the two largest Islamist parties, Maulana Fazlur Rahman of Jamiat Ulema Islami (JUI) and Sirajul Haq of the Jamaat-e-Islami. It is unclear if they lost out to the more militant group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which put up more candidates than the mainstream parties. The Islamists are generally pro-establishment and carry more influence socially than electoral clout.

At the international level, Khan’s victory spells defiance of the United States. Anti-American sentiment is easy to stoke in Pakistan. But this was the first election in which the US became a ‘factor’ in that Khan was convicted for leaking a cypher, an official communication from Pakistan’s then-ambassador in Washington to the Khan-led government. It contained a purported conversation between the envoy and Donald Lu, a senior American State Department official warning Khan of “dire consequences”. Khan publicly accused the US – which the Biden administration denied – of ousting him from office because of his ‘independent’ and “pro-China” policies.

How the Biden administration, preparing for the presidential election, will respond remains to be seen. It is still clueless about its policy in the Af-Pak region — Afghanistan from where the US evacuated in 2021 is inherent to the Pakistan policy. The US needs it to deal with the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Islamabad, besides its historic deep-seated military and strategic ties with the US, also needs Washington’s nod for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan that it desperately needs to be on the road to economic recovery.

The election results should also worry Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” China. It is concerned about the lack of adequate push for the multi-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the ‘flagship’ of its Belt and Road Initiative across the globe that it seeks to extend to Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s political instability also concerns its other benefactors – Saudi Arabia and the UAE, besides Turkey — who have bailed it out during the economic crisis. This instability in a leading Islamic nation confirms the widespread, but debatable, notion that Islam and democracy do not always go together.

Pakistan needs better ‘coordination’ between Allah, the Army and America to rise out of its multifaceted crisis.

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Electoral Engineering Season In Pakistan

Electoral Engineering Season In Pakistan

References to “Allah, the Army and America” sustaining Pakistan are oft-repeated, worn-out cliché. But the three remain omnipresent, with China emerging as the additional factor. Irrespective of their outcome, the February 8 elections may reinforce them.

Claiming to represent the divine, besides the Islamist parties that stay close to the military-civil ‘establishment’, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a militant group recognised by the Election Commission, has fielded more candidates than the three mainstream parties: Pakistan Muslim League of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the Bhutto-Zardari family-run Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

This, plus the way Imran is sought to be kept in jail electorally side-lined, and the role reversal of Nawaz, clearly indicate that the army is engaged in engineering the elections.

If these two are active, America cannot be far behind. Indeed, this is Pakistan’s first “foreign policy” election indirectly involving the US. Washington, of course, denies any role.

Imran Khan made the diplomatic blunder of waving at his political rally a ‘cypher’, an official communication received from his ambassador in Washington. Khan interpreted it as America’s ‘conspiracy’ and ‘threat’ to remove him from power for his ‘independent’, “pro-China” policies. Nine days before the election, he was convicted of violating official secrets. After being acquitted twice, a third trial was held in jail to ensure his conviction.

Another conviction came the very next day for misusing Toshakhana, the government depository of gifts received from foreign dignitaries. Among many things, Khan retained, and sold in Dubai, an expensive wristwatch received from the Saudi Crown Prince Salman. But there is no such trial against others, including former President Asif Zardari, who bought a limousine received as a gift at a throwaway price.

Aided by the judiciary, the current army-backed caretaker government is openly working against Khan and is perceived as promoting Nawaz while keeping Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on stand-by. However, the future, if they play their cards well, belongs to Maryam Nawaz, in her late 40s and Bilawal, who is less than half the age of three-time premier Nawaz, 74, whom analysts consider the frontrunner in next month’s election, and Imran, 71.

The popular word, ‘ladla’, makes it easy to understand Pakistan’s political scene. It means the favourite of the military-civil ‘establishment’. He has changed from time to time. He remains in favour till he turns ‘rogue’, when he starts asserting himself. He is then removed by any means. Ladla’s choice and the dynamics of governance, even in Pakistan’s nominal democracy make this clash inevitable.

This is not to question the political acumen of Nawaz, Khan or anyone else. But everyone must fall in line to gain, and stay in, power. That is Pakistan’s unchanging reality.

Before Imran, Nawaz Sharif was the favourite thrice, till each time he asserted his political position. He was pushed out, first through street protests and then with the help of the top judiciary that convicted him on graft charges. The flawed verdicts against him have now been overturned, even as Imran’s convictions grow. There are prospects of a fourth shot at power for Nawaz.

ALSO READ: Pakistan – Hurtling From One Crisis To Another

In his third stint beginning in 2013, Nawaz grew assertive and eased out Army Chief Raheel Sharif. It was Imran’s turn to be promoted from a renowned cricketer to a political leader. With ‘electoral engineering’ conducted in 2018, he cobbled up a coalition with the help of turncoats, many of them from Nawaz’s party. For the next three years, Khan maintained that the army and he were “on the same page” till the army perceived that he was interfering in its internal affairs and playing favourites.

Back in 2018, Imran was portrayed as a ‘change’ candidate, promising to end dynastic politics, ensure accountability of corrupt politicians, reform the judiciary and create jobs for young people as part of a revamped economy.

But under his rule, the economy collapsed, the cost of living soared, many of his political opponents were jailed, media freedoms were curbed and human rights violations and attacks against journalists increased.

Today, Imran’s party, broken into many factions, is contesting without the cricket bat as the election symbol. Yet, there is a groundswell of support for him, especially from the vocal middle classes. Khan remains in the reckoning. Last month, working obviously with an eye on the future, his supporters in America enlisted two lobbyists for “strategic consulting”, to garner support from pro-democracy forces and alleviate domestic pressure.

Some analysts say Khan’s imprisonment and persecution could cause a “sympathy vote”, leading to a ‘hung’ National Assembly. Several candidates still loyal to Khan are contesting as Independents. Of 17,816 candidates, 11,785 are Independents.

That would bring into play another term popular in Pakistan’s political lexicon: Lota, a turncoat who, like a vessel without a base, rolls in unpredictable directions. Not a new phenomenon though, Lota is poised to play a crucial role in this election. The ‘electable’ among them – people with resources and ground-level support, are sought-after. Nawaz had the initial start in wooing Independents. Now Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the PPP co-chairperson, says he would prefer to form “a government with the help of Independents” instead of any coalition with Nawaz or Imran.

But the army remains the prime mover. Dawn newspaper (January 24, 2024) quoted Army Chief, Gen Asim Munir saying that “incompetent people should not be elected, and lawmakers should be held accountable after the elections.” Also, a “five-year constitutional term does not give a license to a political government to misgovern for five years.”

What some analysts call the ‘Gen Asim Munir doctrine’ is no different from what the military felt and said about the political class under former military dictators – Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf.

While there is no indication that the military seeks to take over, it is apparent that it does not want to give a free hand to civilians either. The distrust of the politicians remains palpable.

The bottom line is that the elections do not guarantee political stability, economic recovery and narrowing of political and social polarization rampant in Pakistan for the last few years.

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Pervez Musharraf A Dead Man Hanging

Pervez Musharraf – A Dead Man Hanging

So, the Pervez Musharraf era has ended in Pakistan with the Supreme Court upholding his death sentence, 11 months after he died in faraway Dubai. Or has it?

The unanimous verdict of a three-judge bench presided over by Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Qazi Faez Isa, convicts, even if posthumously, a military dictator. Charged with ‘treason’, he has been sentenced for his undemocratic actions and abrogation of the constitution.

In a country where no accountability has bound any military dictator, despite years of struggle against dictatorship, and where politicians and political parties have been hounded for going after military dictators. Politicians have been imprisoned and even hanged on frivolous charges. It is not surprising that there is unconcealed satisfaction with the all-powerful military, even if symbolically, being brought under the law of the land.

This is not the first time that the judiciary has delivered a harsh hand against the army domination. In 2019, the judge on the bench that delivered its verdict against Musharraf ordered that Musharraf’s body be “dragged to Islamabad Chowk” and “hang it for three days if he is found dead.”

But the military establishment stood by Musharraf whom it hailed as one who had served the army for four decades, as its Chief and held most top positions, besides that of the country’s president. Soon, the Lahore High Court annulled that verdict.

Given the record, it is tempting to see the military’s hand, all over again, behind the latest verdict. Is the army keen to exorcise the ghost of the last military dictator? Does it want to end a damning legacy and ensure that it does not linger over its current end and future role in Pakistan’s polity? Taking this thought further, if it is the end of direct rule by the military, does its current leadership feel confident that it can play through the proxies and avoid the opprobrium from democracies around the world? And if this is so, is the change of proxy from Imran Khan-out-Nawaz Sharif-in? It seems so.

As things stand now, the army has more or less surmounted the challenge it faced to its predominance, as well as dissensions within the ranks of its senior brass during the Imran Khan years. Caretaker governments of the unelected are ruling the country at the federal and the provincial levels and are at the military’s beck and call. The Khan rebellion – whatever the electoral prospects of Khan and his party – has been swept under the political and judicial carpet. Doubts persist over the national elections, although they are scheduled for next month. This is why, perhaps, Dawn newspaper writes the Musharraf verdict has come “at an inflexion point.”

“The decision can serve as an inflection point where Pakistan’s constitutional history and future are concerned, offering lessons for those willing to learn about the perils of veering from the democratic course, and respecting the country’s basic law.”

ALSO READ: Pervez Musharraf – A Warhorse Or A Peacenik

That also explains why the Supreme Court chose to go through the entire gamut and sentence a dead man to death when it could have declared the process ‘infructuous’ and closed the case.

Questions can still be asked: The sentence was for “high treason” under Article 6 of the Constitution and for destroying it by imposing an Emergency. Have these threats to the Constitution ended or even been curbed by the apex court? Pakistan did not have a Constitution till 1973 and the document has been suspended more than once. The anxiety to preserve the statute book even if it means attacking the actions of the once-powerful military man, is touching, to put it cynically.

Or, what about Musharraf’s “original sin” – removal of an elected government and imposition of Martial Law, most certainly not unprecedented? And Musharraf had only emulated Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia ul Haq. The Judiciary has to live down its record in the past of endorsing the “theory of necessity” to endorse the Martial Law.

And finally, while invalidating Musharraf’s many exertions, who will deal with the more lasting – and many times more damaging ones – of Zia ul Haq? What Pakistan has been going through for the last three decades and more – and making others suffer – is the direct legacy of the Zia regime.

The nurturing and export of terror groups, the excessive dependence on the Islamic clergy – more hardline the better – the blasphemy law, the thousands of ‘missing’ young men and women and much more, are all lasting Zia contributions to Pakistan’s polity. But while acting each time there is a gross abuse of law and faith-driven mayhem, Pakistan’s ‘militablishment’ has played safe, even footsie, with these forces.

Come to think of it, whether or not he was a religious extremist, Zia made faith-based politics the cornerstone of his dealings with his people and the world and earned applause. Musharraf, despite his many actions that hurt his country, was not, to say the least, a religious extremist. For one, he had pushed reforms to ameliorate the conditions of women, the very section that Zia had suppressed with the combination of religion, law and culture.

Of course, to apply correctives on any of these fronts would invite disapproval from the West, the country’s principal benefactors. Zia gleefully and Musharraf helplessly, would not have joined the ‘jihad’ in neighbouring Afghanistan but for collusion (with Zia) and coercion (on Musharraf) from the West. Conditions in and around Pakistan are only more complex and more volatile than they ever were to expect a larger overhaul – assuming that anyone wants it.

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Gujarat Uncorks The Bubbly

Gujarat Uncorks The Bubbly, A Wee Bit

Gujarat, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace, is held as an example of all things Gandhian, good or otherwise. The dilution of Prohibition law to create a ‘wet’ oasis in the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT), although not the first departure, has set the tongues wagging.

Of course, neither support nor criticism are loud since the decision supposedly came “from the top.” Also, the set of rules, temporary and with riders, are “business friendly”. That makes for a measure of pragmatism. Business is not a sin, after all.

Is Gujarat, which took to Prohibition even in its earlier avatar as part of the Bombay State in 1949 and has since stuck to it doggedly, experiencing anything new? The availability of liquor has always been an open secret.

Media reports say liquor sales were up by 20 per cent in 2023. Liquor permits on health grounds went up by 58 per cent since 2021, when 40-plus people applied on grounds of insomnia, and anxiety. Seventy-seven Gujarat hotels have permit-liquor stalls, with 18 more applying. The fact, however, is that like non-vegetarianism, non-consumption is deeply ingrained in Gujarat’s upper caste/business class ethos.

Gandhi was supposed to have said that if appointed a ‘dictator’ even for a day, one thing he would do is to impose Prohibition. There is no point blaming Gandhi and his many supporters who, when in power, worked for its success. The fact, again, is that there are as many, and as strong, arguments for and against alcohol.

Article 47 of the Indian Constitution talks about raising the level of nutrition and the standard of living in the country. The objective is to improve public health and the State shall endeavour to bring about the prohibition of intoxicating drinks and drugs which are injurious to health.

Six decades back, in a longish article culled out from the New York Times archives dated February 16, 1964, Thomas S. Brady had rightly predicted: “As anywhere else, law enforcement depends not only on consent but on approval of the governed. Murder and stealing are threats to everybody, and they can be held to a minimum. But tippling, despite Gandhi, is another matter and seems to be here to stay, inside or outside the law.”

Unsurprisingly, the arguments for and against have not changed much. But the values have. If the support is on health grounds, social security and pressures from women’s groups who are potential voters and have proved effective, the opposition ranges from freedom to exercise personal choice.

ALSO READ: ‘Awareness, Not Harsh Laws, Can Impose Prohibition’

Bar owners and alcohol manufacturers, usually men, see their livelihood destroyed and, instead of empathising with women on this sensitive issue, they feel threatened. Vested interests remain well-entrenched. Why, Brady writes that supporters of prohibition included, remotely though, the bootleggers who thrive when an unpopular law is in existence.

An amazing feature of all this grassroots democracy is that there has been no mention of any public health initiatives to tackle alcohol misuse.

As for personal freedom, it is argued that most of the domestic violence crimes against women and children are committed behind closed doors. The new awareness of women’s and children’s rights and welfare in this century has made no dent when it comes to booze-driven violence. It is the neighbour’s problem, not mine, attitude.

At the root is the revenue. And the states that operate the law are always short of it. Brady recorded that Bombay and Maharashtra spent USD one million and lost revenue to the tune of USD30 million in 1964. What Bihar, Telangana and other states lose today is phenomenal. Some like the late Jayalalithaa, in a seeming act of redemption, spent the revenue from alcohol to distribute election-eve freebies.

Liquor mafias have thrived in state after state. From among them come legislators and ministers, obviously in cahoots with the political class. Perish the thought of the alcohol they distribute being of any consumable quality. Little wonder, hooch tragedies are a frequent affair. Investigations are ordered, but nothing comes out.

India is a land where contradictions are clashing, all the time. Hooch sells, prime quality liquor sells even better. Indians’ alcohol intake is small compared to the global one. But Indians are the world’s largest consumers of ‘brown’ liquor, mainly whiskey and rum. It is mind-boggling how brandy, a drink of the colder environments is consumed in Kerala, so close to the equator.

Indian alcohol producers are edging out with their premier products fabled brands like Glenlivet and Chivas Regal. Why, the other day, the Chief Justice of India’s court witnessed an Indian-versus-Foreign tussle, with the rival brands placed on the court’s argument desk.

If premier brands of ‘brown’ liquor are for all to see, can wine be far behind? There is no party in an urban centre without wine being served. Indians are developing a taste for wine, both locally that is produced, and exported, in abundance.

According to October 2023 statistics, there are now 10 million Indians who drink wine regularly, and the wine consumption rate increased in India by 29% in 2022 alone. Furthermore, according to an India Wine Insider (IWI) report, India’s wine market is now estimated to be valued at $238 million.

India celebrates Sonal C Holland, its first and only Master of Wine. But be sure, the tussle between health-morality-social uplift and revenue-personal freedom and business will continue forever.

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National Interest In Geopolitics

Guided By National Interest in Tricky Geopolitics

What happens when a friend hobnobbing with your adversary sees you as a ‘guarantor’ of its relationship with the latter?

While praising India’s prime minister recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned that Russia-China relations were “continuously developing in all directions, and the main guarantee of this is the policy of Prime Minister Modi”.

India has gone past last century’s ‘bhai-bhai’ relationship with both. It now appears to view Russia as a ‘cousin’, but China as its adversary. It is a good thought, but in the fast-changing geopolitical situation in India’s extended neighbourhood, it is uncertain how far the India-Russia relationship can impact India-China ties.

Of course, Putin’s current thought is about India’s approach to the conflict in Ukraine. And Modi cannot ignore that partly because of it, Moscow’s close ties with Beijing growing closer.

Putin praised Modi stating that he was ‘surprised’ at Modi’s “tough stance” in safeguarding India’s national interests. He also emphasised that PM Modi’s policy is “a guarantee of deep relations” between New Delhi and Moscow.

He spoke two days after External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar recalled that in the past Russia “had saved us many times.” He also referred to historical aspects of the engagement: “If you look at the Eurasian landmass, it makes sense that India and Russia would have strong relations because it is following the first principle of politics of your neighbour’s neighbour.”

Note the pattern taking place around December, year after year, since Putin first became Russia’s President at the end of 1999. He told then defence minister George Fernandes: “Please tell the Indian people, they have their best friend in me” – or words to that effect. Putin’s presence in Russia has been constant since. With some gaps though, India-Russia Summits have taken place in or around each December. Sure enough, Moscow has indicated a Modi-Putin meeting soon.

Jaishankar does not mince words and is often criticised for it by the Western quarters (reflected by some Indian ones) who point to the growing disquiet over strong India-Russia ties amidst the war in Ukraine. This is even though India has continued to purchase Russian armaments and oil at a concessional rate. Last year’s trenchant criticism of India’s role has more or less died down at the end of 2023.

ALSO READ: ‘2024 Will Be About Russia, China, Modi…’

Jaishankar has sought to refute the impression that India was ‘over-dependent’ on Russia and that their relationship was a ‘handicap’. “This relationship has saved us many times. If we are over-dependent or not, actually at the end of the day it depends on us.”

Endorsing Jaishankar on why India did not support the UN resolution castigating Russia for an “attack” on Ukraine, Prof K N Pandita, a former director of the Center of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University writes in The Eurasia Times (December 8, 2023): “voting for or against Russia in controversial global issues is not strictly based on euphoric friendship; it is undoubtedly based on ground realities and pragmatism, among the fundamentals of astute statesmanship.”

Times and the contexts, though, have changed. Nobody talks of an India-Russia-China alliance as was done in the 1990s. India and China have turned adversaries in recent years and the border tensions plus China-Pakistan relations have added to India consolidating its ties with the West, especially the United States, as never before. And yet it is keen to retain its options.

There is history that India is reminded of, even as it forges close ties with the US. Defence analyst and a former Indian military pilot, VK Thakur points out that on December 5, 1971, the-then US President Richard Nixon ordered the nuclear-powered and armed aircraft carrier of the US 7th fleet – USS Enterprise – to sail into the Bay of Bengal to intervene in the ongoing India-Pakistan conflict in support of Pakistan. The US hoped to stop the advance of the Indian Army on Dhaka. And if that did not prove possible, to extricate Pakistani forces trapped in East Pakistan – now Bangladesh.”

The principal architect of this ‘tilt’ was Henry Kissinger who passed away recently, leaving behind a polarized legacy without a word of remorse for the impact of his actions on the Bengali people or, for that matter, the people of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Chile – it is a long list. In the changed times, the new generation of people in these countries have left behind those experiences.

Be it Ukraine or Gaza, the unease of the Western world is unlikely to lessen on the likely Indian moves, now and in the future, on India-Russia-America relationships. Hence, it is important to understand an American viewpoint– albeit one of the many, even if it is by Rajan Menon, an Indian scholar.

Writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Menon states: “By refusing to join the Western sanctions regime, India has demonstrated that it intends to pursue an independent foreign policy guided by its interests. The Indian-U.S. security relationship is relatively new and untested. The US’s Cold War alliance with Pakistan and its rapprochement with China in the 1970s have left a legacy of mistrust among Indian policymakers. By contrast, though, it will lose the depth it had during the Cold War. The India-Russia relationship has endured for over two generations and has served them well, including in difficult times.

“India has no reason to forsake the multiple benefits it has received from a decades-long relationship with Russia, and it would be a mistake to expect that it will do so, no matter the growing tensions between Russia and the West,” Menon states.

However, he points out: “The balance in Russian-Indian relations is shifting decidedly toward New Delhi. Russia’s break with the West and ever-closer ties with China as a result of the war against Ukraine will make sustaining its partnership with India more challenging.

What do India-Russia ties mean to the Indo-US relationship? Menon writes: “Whether Washington’s relationship with New Delhi thrives or proves disappointing will depend on the extent to which it benefits both parties rather than on the degree to which the United States succeeds in pushing India away from Russia. The future of the Indian-Russian relationship will have its own logic, determined increasingly by India, and can be shaped at best only at the margins by the United States.”

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Tribute to India's Finest Soldier

A Long-Overdue Tribute To India’s Finest Soldier

As India prepares to celebrate its “Bangladesh War” of 1971 this month, what better way than to view the biopic of Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, one of its finest soldiers who became a legend in his lifetime?

But an otherwise well-made Sam Bahadur reminds you of changed times, and not merely the years gone by. It dramatises Jawaharlal Nehru as a doddering sick man who failed the nation against the Chinese in 1962. But Indira Gandhi, who led politically and diplomatically to win the 1971 war, also comes across as timid and in complete awe of her army chief.

Making a film about a contemporary person is always difficult. Emphases and interpretations can differ. Perhaps, Director Meghna Gulzar wanted to pitch her hero well above the rest. Perhaps, she ended up sending a political message she did not mean. But she cannot be faulted for choosing Vicky Kaushal to play Sam, a swashbuckling and brilliant soldier.

India’s political class prefers its war heroes on horseback, wielding swords and spears, not in modern-day uniform, with military dictators frequently grabbing political power. For the record, Sam, lionized while in office, was dropped as a hot potato. More was added to the controversies surrounding him by the time he died in 2008. The prime minister and the defence minister of the day kept away. It was a quiet death at his home in South India, away from New Delhi, the rightful place.

Yet, Sam remains India’s modern-day hero who crafted a military victory that was the first in a thousand years, in a war that changed the world map. It was also the quickest, lasting only two weeks, and yet the most decisive. A new nation was born. India secured the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war at a rare public ceremony. Sam chose to keep away, and instead, sent his Army Commander, Lt. Gen. J S Aurora, to accept the surrender.

The Indian Army quit Bangladesh precisely after three months, which was and remains a rarity if one examines the military annals of any country, at any time.

Sam treated the prisoners of war (POWs) decently, strictly following the Geneva Convention. Indian troops were asked to vacate their quarters for them and live in tents. The prisoners celebrated their festivals. On repatriation, each soldier was given a copy of the Quran and gifts.

It was a victory of the rightful, won by the righteous. Post-war, Time magazine noted that the military campaign of a ‘Hindu’ India was led by a Parsi. Its air force was led by a Brahmo, equivalent to a Hindu Protestant. The army’s Eastern Command that liberated Bangladesh had a Sikh chief, and the campaign was planned by his Jewish chief of staff.

“Are you ready for a war? I am not,” Sam told the prime minister and her cabinet on April 27, 1971. He guaranteed them “cent per cent defeat”. None was pleased. But he explained the reasons why India should not hurry – among other things, inadequate preparations, funds and armaments and the time needed for troop movements. It would be unwise to fight a war during the monsoon in riverine East Pakistan. Wait for the winter, he told them.

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He got eight months and total command of the operations. He promised “cent per cent victory” and delivered. Manekshaw later recounted this, saying there was a very thin line between becoming a field marshal and being dismissed.

As Independent India’s first field marshal, a largely ceremonial post, he had an extended tenure as the army chief. He was reluctant, knowing that he could not continue without blocking promotions among the top brass.

He was critical of political leadership in private conversations, and when stories were carried, often its victim. One of his memorable quips was: “I wonder whether those of our political masters who have been put in charge of the defence of the country can distinguish a mortar from a motor, a gun from a howitzer, a guerrilla from a gorilla – although a great many of them in the past have resembled the latter.”

His sense of humour conveyed the message but hurt him. A lady reporter asked: “Sir, if you were leading the Pakistan Army, who would have won the war?” Manekshaw’s soldier-like, but undiplomatic, reply was: “Pakistan would have won the war!” All hell broke loose. There were demands to strip him of the field marshal’s rank. Although made in jest, Sam stood by his reply.

Sam had no political ambitions. A visiting American diplomat asked Sam when he would “take over”. Sam retorted: “As soon as General Westmoreland takes over in your country.” Gulzar’s Sam tells the prime minister bluntly: “I have no political ambitions. You do your job, I do mine.”

Unlike others, he famously refused to address her as “madam”, saying the sobriquet was reserved for “certain ladies who are in charge of houses of ill repute”.

Born in 1914, Manekshaw belonged to the first batch to pass from the Indian Military Academy (IMA), India’s Sandhurst. During World War 2, Sam saw action in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1942. In the Battle of Sittang Bridge, he took nine bullets. Taking what seemed last gasps, he found the Military Cross pinned on his bloody chest by Major General Cowan, the deputy commander of the British forces.

In a brilliant biography, Major-General Vinay Singh (retired) records that Cowan probably thought that Sam’s chances of survival were slim. Since the MC cannot be given posthumously, he decided to award it on the spot.

The Australian surgeon initially declined to operate on Sam; he would rather spend time and effort on saving someone less injured. He inquired of Sam what happened. “A bloody mule kicked me.” The surgeon said: “By Jove, you have a sense of humour. I think you are worth saving.”

Sam’s medico father wrote to him at the hospital: “Son, if you smoke or drink now, you are finished.” According to Sam, he did exactly that and that was why he lived.

Post-Independence, Sam was involved in all major military operations. He planned the Kashmir Operations (1947-49) under direct orders from Nehru and Home Minister Sardar Patel.

The 1962 war with China saw him salvaging the debacle of the very superiors who had targeted him. Low morale and bad leadership, not bad fighting, had caused the defeat, he bluntly told Nehru. Soldier-like, he opposed the return of Pakistani territory he had captured as dictated by the Simla Agreement of 1972 and told Indira bluntly that Pakistan’s Z A Bhutto had “made a monkey out of us.”

A field marshal is always on duty,” he said and wore the uniform till his last day in public. Politics and personalities apart, a biopic on Sam Manekshaw was long overdue. Thank you Gulzar and team.

In geo-politically changed times, it is impossible today to repeat that feat of 1971; to have people of that calibre and the combination that worked under those circumstances. There will never be another Indira Gandhi; another Sam.

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