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The Hindu Notes for 16th October 2018

Searching for an elusive peace

India must remain engaged with the multiple processes underway on Afghan reconciliation

  • Russia hosted a regional conference on Afghanistan last week to nudge the reconciliation process between the Taliban and the Afghan authorities. The Taliban were represented by the political council chief, Sher Mohammad Stanikzai. Representatives from Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, the U.S. and India swere also present at the meeting, making it the first time that all stakeholders were present in the same room.
  • Back in the game

  • Considerable political manoeuvring preceded the meeting. It was earlier planned for September, but failed to materialise. The Taliban were opposed to attending since the Afghan government insisted on co-chairing the meeting. The diplomatic solution was to have Afghanistan represented by the High Peace Council (HPC), set up and supported by the government with the specific aim of furthering peace talks, though formally not part of government. India sent two seasoned former diplomats, with the Ministry of External Affairs describing its participation as “non-official”. The U.S. was represented by its Moscow embassy officials. Aware of the differences, the Russians refrained from attempting a final statement or even a group photograph. Nevertheless, with this meeting, Russia has sent a clear signal that it is back in the game in Afghanistan.
  • The idea of reconciliation with the Taliban has been around for over a decade. As the Taliban insurgency grew 2005 onwards, the British, deployed in Helmand, soon found merit in doing side deals with local Taliban commanders by turning a blind eye to opium production in the area. With the help of the Germans and the Norwegians, they began to persuade the U.S. to work for a political outcome.
  • After being elected in 2008, President Barack Obama ordered a full-scale review of the U.S.’s Afghanistan policy. After extracting an assurance from the generals that the insurgency would be defeated in 18 months, Mr. Obama announced a shift to counter-insurgency mode with a surge of over 40,000 troops, but added that phased drawdown of troops would begin in end-2011. Operation Enduring Freedom formally ended in December 2014, handing over primary responsibility for combat operations to the Afghan security forces even as the insurgency gained ground.
  • The U.S. soon realised that it had run out of options. Insurgency could not be contained as long as sanctuaries existed in Pakistan and the carrot and stick policy with Pakistan had cost the U.S. $33 billion but failed to change Pakistan’s policy. A total cut-off was not possible as long as U.S. troops in Afghanistan depended on supply lines through Pakistan. In 12 years, the U.S. had lost 2,300 soldiers and spent $105 billion in rebuilding Afghanistan, more than $103 billion (in inflation-adjusted terms) spent under the Marshall Plan on rebuilding West Europe after World War II. War weariness demanded an exit and a political solution was unavoidable.
  • Taliban’s growing visibility

  • After prolonged negotiations, a Taliban office opened in Doha in June 2013 to promote talks and a peace process. However, when the office started flying the Taliban flag, calling itself the political bureau of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, it angered both the U.S. and Afghan governments. The office was closed down though the Qatar authorities continue to host Taliban leaders.
  • Coming to power in 2014 after a bitterly contested election, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani moved to improve relations with Pakistan, even calling on then Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, at the GHQ, to push for reconciliation. Preliminary talks were held in Murree but derailed in July 2015 when Mr. Ghani asked for a supportive audio/video (instead of a written statement) by Taliban leader Mullah Omar and learnt that he had died over two years earlier.
  • An internal power struggle within the Taliban erupted with Mullah Akhtar Mansour emerging as the leader. Insurgency grew with the Taliban briefly taking over Kunduz and Ghormach districts and threatening Ghazni. Mr. Ghani felt betrayed and lashed out, accusing Pakistan of “waging war”.
  • A new initiative (Quadrilateral Coordination Group) involving the U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan was launched in January 2016. After a couple of meetings, there was a roadmap; Pakistan was to use its influence to get the Taliban to the negotiating table. Hopes were dashed when the Taliban demanded exit of foreign troops, release of detainees from Guantanamo, and removal of its leaders from international blacklists. Frustrated with Pakistan’s inability to get Mullah Mansour to fall in line, the U.S. eliminated him in a drone strike in May 2016 in Balochistan. Maulvi Haibatullah was appointed as his successor.
  • Meanwhile, there were signs that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan were converging under the banner of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan’s northern and eastern provinces. In December 2015, Russia publicly acknowledged that it had “communication channels with the Taliban for exchange of information” and “a shared interest with the Taliban to counter the threat posed by the IS”. Clearly, it was getting back into the game. Preliminary consultations were held in 2017, at which Afghan officials (and senior Indian diplomats) were present but the Taliban declined to share the table with the Afghan government.
  • Remaining engaged

  • Mr. Ghani launched the Kabul Process for Peace and Security Cooperation, and in February, made an unconditional dialogue offer to the Taliban. The Taliban rejected his overture, declaring that they were ready to engage in direct talks only with the Americans. Mr. Ghani persisted, resulting in a three-day ceasefire during Eid. The U.S. softened its stand on an “Afghan-led and Afghan owned peace process”, and in July, senior State Department official Alice Wells was in Doha for a meeting with the Taliban. In September, the State Department announced the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad (former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan) as Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. Mr. Khalilzad, a pushy go-getter, has since been making the rounds in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • Meanwhile, the situation continues to worsen. Today, the Afghan government controls barely half the country, with one-sixth under Taliban control and the rest contested. Most significant is the ongoing depletion in the Afghan security forces because of casualties, desertions and a growing reluctance to join. U.S. President Donald Trump’s South Asia policy announced last August aimed at breaking the military stalemate by expanding the U.S. and NATO presence, putting Pakistan on notice and strengthening Afghan capabilities has clearly failed, and this is why multiple processes are underway. Everyone agrees that the war has to end; the question for the U.S. is how to manage the optics of the exit while not conceding victory to the Taliban.
  • Since July 2011, when the former President and Chair of the HPC, Burhanuddin Rabbani, visited Delhi, India has supported an ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’ peace process. Last month, during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s India visit, both countries expressed their commitment to the Moscow Format. India doesn’t have the leverage to play spoiler but its presence is recognition that its economic cooperation programmes make it the most widely accepted development partner. Pragmatism dictates that India remain engaged with the multiple processes underway. Peace remains elusive but India’s engagement demonstrates commitment to the idea of a stable, independent and peaceful Afghanistan.
  • Sabarimala, and the quest for equality

    The debate on opening the shrine to all women is revealing deep casteism and misogyny

    Sabrimala quest for equality
  • Sabarimala, it appears, could be our new touchstone for understanding liberals, especially from Kerala. The intellectual emptiness in the arguments of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Menon Rao on the Sabarimala imbroglio require both investigation and introspection.
  • Mr. Tharoor contends dangerously that “abstract notions of constitutional principle also have to pass the test of societal acceptance”. Would he also recommend that the triple talaq pronouncement be rethought if conservative Muslims took to the streets in large numbers? And it scares me to think of what his position will be on the Ayodhya case if it does not satisfy his prescription.
  • The court’s mandate

  • The Supreme Court does not, and should not, take into account mystical notions and practices as the foundation for its considered opinion. While it does consider the culture of people, every practice of culture or faith must pass the test of the Constitution of India. It is a cultural document in the sense that within its intentions, principles, pronouncements and guidelines lies the fibre of the people who make up this land. Hence its limitations are also our own social, cultural and political wrinkles. But the makers of the Constitution wished and hoped that the fundamental rights would represent an ideal of India. They were, and we are, yearning for an India where all forms of discrimination and segregation cease to be practiced. The Constitution is not a heartless, emotionless document; it is a passionate seeking for human uplift.
  • Therefore, the court should respond with care, compassion and empathy for the citizens of India, especially those who are at the receiving end of a discriminative practice, disregarding society’s majoritarian impulses. Simply put, if the wishes of Ayyappa lead to an unjust limitation of access for women between the ages of 10 and 50 who want his blessing, then his wishes have to be set aside. The cornerstone of the Hindu tradition is bhakti. And there is nothing more sacred than the unconditional love of the devotee. Ayyappa has to surrender to its power. Philosophically, this is in alignment with the Supreme Court judgment of September 28. It was remarkable, reminding us of the profound vision of the architects of our Constitution. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud put it succinctly when he said, “Religion cannot be cover to deny women the right to worship.”
  • Mr. Tharoor and the Congress, meanwhile, are playing a dangerous game in Kerala. Please do not cry foul when the BJP uses exactly the same arguments you are making to oppress certain sections of society. This duplicity will come back to haunt you.
  • Soon after Mr. Tharoor’s observations came a series of tweets from Ms. Rao. She argues that we should leave Ayyappa and his world of male-purification, self-control, abstinence alone. Shockingly, she makes the case that barring Dalits from temples was the result of upper-caste hegemony, but the Sabarimala practice is founded on the legend of Ayyappa and is, therefore, acceptable. But isn’t it that very same ‘purity’ that forbid Dalits from entering temples being perpetrated here in the name of Naishtika Brahmachari-ism? Even today, women are advised not to enter places of worship when they are menstruating. Esoteric arguments of positive/negative energies and purity are expounded in order to cultivate fear and restrict women — a result of discriminative legends, stories, tales, social rituals, manuscripts and treatises.
  • Ms. Rao went on to say, “the men bond together, beyond class and hierarchy and status during the pilgrimage, while the women are left free and unhindered in a blessed sisterhood.” People of all castes do throng to Sabarimala but that does not mean it dissolves caste. By that argument, every temple is then casteless because today people from every section of society offer prayers and undertake pilgrimages. But we all know that this is entirely untrue. Most temples in their traditions, ritual practices, control and organisation are inherently casteist. And “sisterhood” in this context is unmistakably patriarchal.
  • She makes the celibacy of Ayyappa central to her reasoning, forgetting that if she is going to grant Ayyappa that right, then the devotee has as much right to question his nature. Very soon, Hindu fundamentalists and conservatives from every religion will be expressing exactly these notions of tradition in varied contexts to justify the unjustifiable. Which is exactly why bigoted Islamic groups are lending support to the Sabarimala agitation.
  • Be that as it may, Mr. Tharoor and Ms. Rao have also brought into focus the inherently casteist and patriarchal nature of Kerala society. Social reformers Narayana Guru and Ayyankali fought this deeply entrenched caste discrimination and untouchability in Malayali society — the success of reservations and positive social indices suggest that they made a big dent in casteism. But it is obvious from the upper-caste noise being generated in Kerala today that much work remains to be done. Within every one of us hides casteism, and it reveals itself in such situations. Patriarchy and male hegemony are the foundations on which caste operates, and Kerala is no exception.
  • Mr. Tharoor’s misguided attempt to reconcile his prejudices on the Sabarimala issue — and that of his constituents, presumably — with his liberal interior undermines the Constitution. What he should be doing is grapple with his own implicit, unconscious acceptance of casteist and patriarchal religious practices. Ms. Rao, who has implied that Sabarimala is a mythologically sanctioned male domain for self-purification, should look at every domain that women have challenged and succeeded within. There was always some form of supernatural or socio-ritualistic restriction blocking all those avenues for women. It is just too convenient for caste-privileged liberal feminists to be selective in their idea of feminism.
  • Every sphere of activity, including the religious, needs to be questioned on feminist grounds, and practices that are restrictive must be reconsidered. Surely, the supreme being also hopes that we move forward as sensitive, questioning beings? Isn’t that the very essence of being Hindu?
  • 2019: Is a grand opposition against the BJP possible?

    Coalition politics is an imperative because of the threat today to the ideas of social justice

  • The making of a coalition is no more a matter of choice for the parties opposed to the right-wing authoritarian postures of the BJP but a command from the common people. The churning on the ground among almost all social groups is exerting pressure on the Opposition parties to jettison their minor differences and rally together to protect and safeguard institutions that are currently under attack.
  • Reasserting democracy

  • The 2019 election is going to reassert and reconstitute the idea of democracy with particular emphasis on inclusion, representation and participation. The tenets of the making of a coalition or alliances this time are quite similar to those in 1977, when supposedly divergent political outfits came together to pose a united challenge to the hegemonic politics then of the Indian National Congress. By and large, we are committed to the core ideas which constitute the idea of India: freedom, liberty, social and economic justice, and secularism. These shall be the focal points of our manifesto or common minimum programme.
  • We know that, in spite of a chequered history, coalitions in India have earned particularly bad publicity from the liberal quarters, especially the economic liberals who denigrate coalition governments as ‘weak governments’. As all popular ideas often are, this too is a fallacious idea. Coalitions, by virtue of embodying internal democracies within the executive, are more democratic because partner parties (especially small and regional parties) have their ears closer to the ground. They represent the true aspirations of national communities because they keep the larger and national political parties more accountable and are less likely to lapse into arrogance.
  • Our scepticism of coalitions is rooted in several difficulties of coalition politics. The first is related to the difficulty of cobbling together a coalition. Ideological distance between parties is sometimes difficult to bridge; at other times, the social distance between voter constituencies is an obstacle. The second is to do with keeping a coalition together. Agreeing upon a practical common minimum programme is a must for providing stability to a coalition. Ideological nuances must be set aside against an imminent threat or for a longer-term political project.
  • An imperative

  • The significant point is that all Opposition parties have also drawn their lessons from the points mentioned above. The past behaviour of coalition partners is often assumed to be the sole indicator of their commitments to any future coalition with them. This gives rise to the problem that parties in a coalition continue to labour under a trust deficit and never effectively prioritise investments in a coalition for fear of upsetting their core support base or in the hope of increasing their influence. Neither in real politics nor theoretically is it impossible that coalition partners who have had trouble in the past can manage to come together again. The RJD has shown this by actually doing it in the last Bihar Assembly elections with the Mahagathbandhan. We continue to believe in the inherent value of coalitions.
  • Coalition politics is an imperative now more than ever before because of the stress and threat to the very ideas of social justice. If today, the Opposition parties fail to come together, they would be pushing the marginalised communities in India, especially Dalits and minorities who did gain a little ground in society and polity, to lose their meagre but hard-earned benefits from the state.
  • Who will be the face of the alliance? The issue is not about a lack of leaders; it is of too many leaders

  • The answer to the question is not easy as the road to a grand alliance against the BJP is quite complicated. It is complicated on account of two factors. The first is the issue of leadership: who will lead the anti-BJP alliance? The second pertains to the nature of State-level electoral contests. The parties trying to form an anti-BJP alliance are also political opponents in their respective States.
  • The question of leadership

  • Let us examine the question of leadership. Who will be the face of this alliance is difficult to resolve as the issue is not about a lack of leaders, it is about too many leaders. It is well known that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will not accept the leadership of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Nor will BSP chief Mayawati and NCP president Sharad Pawar, who consider themselves bigger leaders than Mr. Gandhi. Even though Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu are not at loggerheads on the issue of leadership, it is difficult to imagine that they would be willing to accept the leadership of Mr. Gandhi or of anyone from a regional party. The only solace for these regional parties that are trying to form an anti-BJP alliance is that SP founder Mulayam Singh Yadav is no longer active in politics and RJD president Lalu Prasad is in jail. The issue could have become more complicated had the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav or the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav also staked their a claim to the top political position.
  • Even if these parties manage to resolve the issue of leadership, it neither solves all the issues nor paves the way for the formation of an anti-BJP alliance. There are compulsions of State-level electoral contests which come in the way of the formation of a national anti-BJP coalition. Examples are being cited of the BSP and the SP, but one should not forget that forming an alliance before a bypoll is much easier than forming one before a national election. To counter this argument, the Bihar example is being cited. If two arch rivals — the JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar and Mr. Prasad — could come together for the 2015 Bihar Assembly election, why can’t many political parties that are opposed to each other come together? The answer is simple: we all know what happened to the JD(U)-RJD alliance barely within a year and half of forming the Bihar government. We all know how the government is being run in Karnataka: the two coalition partners — the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) — are constantly at loggerheads.
  • Alliance talks

  • Even if parties like the SP and the BSP in U.P., the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra, and the Congress, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha in Jharkhand manage to form an alliance, questions remain. Can the Trinamool Congress and the Congress afford to form an alliance in West Bengal? Can the Biju Janata Dal form an alliance with the Congress in Odisha? An alliance of the Congress and the Left does not work in West Bengal. That experiment had failed in previous Assembly elections.
  • Will the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress be willing to consider an alliance in Delhi, Punjab and Haryana? Can the BSP consider having talks with the Congress for an alliance formation in States like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh or in Uttarakhand? It is well known that talks of an alliance between the Congress and the AAP for 2019 failed. Talks of an alliance between the Congress and the BSP for the recent round of Assembly elections also failed.
  • It also remains to be seen whether the Congress will manage to keep its alliance intact with the JD(S) in Karnataka.
  • The so-called Mahagathbandhan has neither an ideology of development nor a record for reliability

  • In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won with a full majority and established itself strongly in national politics. The proof of this is that when the BJP came to power in 2014, its governments existed in only five States. This has now extended to 19 States (where it is either in power or is a supporting party).
  • In Indian politics, the support of the people to any government or party strongly depends on how fond the people are of that party and the popularity of its record of governance. If we look at it from this perspective, it’s quite easy to say that the BJP has only gained more and more popularity among the people since it came to power in 2014.
  • A BJP wave

  • There was a time when the BJP was looked at as a party limited to a particular region. The times have changed; now, the BJP is active in every State, whether in the north, south, east or west.
  • It could be said about the 2014 Lok Sabha election that there was a wave in favour of prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, which helped the BJP to win. After the 2014 election, acceptance for the party has only grown and new alliances have come up. In the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, parties from all over the State came forward to support the BJP. The Janata Dal (United) is with us now. In northeastern States like Assam and Tripura, local parties have shown overwhelming support and joined us.
  • It’s not as if Opposition parties like the Congress have not tried to stop us. It’s another matter that most of their attempts have come a cropper. For instance, the Congress fought against the communists in Kerala and joined hands with them in West Bengal. Despite this, they had to face defeat. During the U.P. elections, when the Congress formed an alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP), the coalition crumbled.
  • Congress has no credibility

  • Now, again, there are talks of a ‘Mahagathbandhan’ for the 2019 general election but the question is, if this coalition ever comes into existence, what will be the Congress’s position in it? In U.P., the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party are not giving any importance to the Congress. In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress is ignoring the Congress. Even in Telangana, the Congress doesn’t have a credible partner. There are two reasons for this: one, the Congress has lost its base among the people of the country, and two, its leadership has lost credibility.
  • The lack of an internal democratic system in the party has led to an estrangement of people from the Congress. The lack of ideological commitment has led to a complete lack of clarity on what the party supports and doesn’t support. So, while the party seems to be standing with the anti-national gang of Jawaharlal Nehru University, in Karnataka, it is trying to divide the Hindus. In Gujarat, the party is dividing society on the basis of caste. It is also trying to imitate the BJP’s nationalist ideology as it doesn’t have one of its own. Finally, until the leadership of this alliance is decided, it should only be considered a myth.
  • Nothing more than a drill

  • This so-called Mahagathbandhan does not have an ideology of development. Nor does it have a record for reliability. This is nothing more than a drill based on a non-existent opportunity.