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Archive for August, 2017

India: Changing Identities

When India got its independence from Britain 70 years ago this week, it was founded as a secular democracy – secular because it acknowledged the status and rights of Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and other religious minorities as equal to those of the Hindu majority. Mahatma Gandhi, the great hero of the independence movement, was a devout Hindu, but he was murdered by a Hindu fanatic for defending Muslim rights after Partition.

It was one of the most fortunate assassinations in history, because Hindu radicals had been using Pakistan’s declaration that it was a “Muslim state” to demand that India be declared a “Hindu state”. After Gandhi’s murder, Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, was able to round up tens of thousands of Hindu extremists and exploit popular reverence for Gandhi to nail down India’s identity as a secular state.

India is still a democracy, but a portrait of one of the men who conspired to assassinate Gandhi now hangs in India’s parliament. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, leads the BJP (Indian People’s Party), which was created as the political wing of the RSS (National Volunteer Organsation), a Hindu supremacist paramilitary organisation. And secular is now spelled “sickular” by the Hindutva trolls on Twitter.

Hindutva is Hindu exceptionalism of the kind that gives rise to the trope that “to be Hindu is to constantly take offence.” It sees India as a “wounded civilisation” because it has spent most of the past thousand years under the rule of various foreign invaders (hardly a unique experience), and proposes to remedy that with a highly simplified, almost kitch version of politicised Hinduism.

It’s just another brand of populism, in other words, but its chief Indian proponent, Narendra Modi, must deal with far deeper divisions in society than his American counterpart, Donald Trump. He is a much more disciplined man, however, and he does not waste his time in tweeting insults and picking fights with random people.

Modi is relentlessly focussed on economic growth, and in particular on raising the living standards of the lower-middle-class Indians who are his strongest supporters. But to get and keep the parliamentary majority that would let him carry out his programme he must appeal to a broader audience.

For more than half a century India got along with the secular principle that religion is a private matter, but Modi supported a national ban on cow slaughter (many states already banned it) when he took office. More recently he banned the slaughter of buffalo as well. So it’s hardly surprising that “cow protection” vigilantes have been attacking people suspected of trading in beef; half a dozen have been beaten to death in the past couple of years.

Modi supports the ban because high-caste Hindus (the group from which the BJP draws most of its support) believe that cows are sacred and must not be eaten. However, lower-caste Hindus, the so-called Dalits (untouchables), do eat beef, and they make up about a quarter of India’s voting population. This poses a serious political problem for the BJP.

Muslims, who dominate the beef and leather trades, make up another 14 percent of the voters, but Modi doesn’t worry about losing their votes because they were never going to vote for the BJP anyway. He cares very much about the Dalit vote, because they are the key to making the BJP the natural party of government.

Modi won a landslide majority in 2014 in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament), but he did it on only 31 percent of the popular vote. The first-past-the-post system regularly delivers such lopsided results. But the Rajya Sabha (upper house or senate) is elected by the state legislatures, where Dalits are often quite prominent politically. The BJP will never get a majority in the senate without Dalit support.

So Modi walks a tightrope on the issue of sacred cows, promoting their protection to appeal to his upper-caste voters, while weakly condemning the murder of butchers and leather workers by “cow protection” vigilantes (who are backed by the RSS, the BJP’s parent organisation).

Indeed, Modi’s whole take on Hinduism is quite ambivalent. Two years ago, for example, talking about health care in India, he got off track and started talking about the elephant-headed god Ganesha: “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”

It is certainly not Hindu orthodoxy to suggest that Ganesha was a chimera created by ancient plastic surgeons. On the other hand, the idea that India led the world in plastic surgery a few thousand years ago will appeal to the more naive Indian nationalists. It’s a bizarre mixture of ideas, but not untypical in populist politics.

The bottom line, alas, is that the “sickular libtards” are in retreat, the religious minorities are being marginalised, and the people who define India as a “Hindu country” are in charge. It’s too early to say that this is an irreversible change, but it’s a radical departure from the country’s founding values. It’s still a democracy, but it’s starting to look a lot more like Pakistan.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Indeed…politics”)

Trump: the Reagan Gambit?

Last Sunday I wrote a piece on the political crisis in Venezuela. Then on Wednesday I wrote an article on Donald Trump’s hyperbolic language about North Korea. But it never occurred to me that the next article would be about Trump, North Korea AND Venezuela. I forgot about the Reagan Gambit.

In October, 1983, US President Ronald Reagan had a little problem. A massive truck-bomb had killed 241 American Marines in their barracks at Beirut airport. That was more than a quarter of the total American force deployed as “peacekeepers” to Lebanon – a deployment that had already become controversial in the United States. So Reagan had some explaining to do.

In another part of the world entirely, the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada, pop. 90,000, had another military coup – a coup within the coup. A radical pro-Cuban politician called Maurice Bishop,who had overthrown the elected government, was executed by his fellow revolutionaries over some minor differences of opinion. A pity, perhaps, but of no more importance to the rest of the world than Grenada itself.

The Cold War was running quite hot in this period, so although the island had no strategic value the American right was getting upset about Russians and Cubans building an airport on Grenada. In the normal course of events this would probably not have led to an American invasion, but Reagan badly needed a political distraction.

On 25 October, precisely two days after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the US military began a full-scale invasion of Grenada on Reagan’s orders. It was one of history’s most one-sided battles – only 19 Americans killed, although the US handed out 5,000 medals for merit and valour – but it did the trick.

A friend said to me at the time that Reagan had gone home and kicked the cat, which was true enough, but conquering Grenada didn’t just make him feel better. There’s only room for one lead story at a time, and Grenada pushed Beirut aside in the US media. When Reagan quietly pulled the remaining Marines out of Lebanon four months later, few people even remembered to ask what those other Marines had died for.

And now Donald Trump, stumbling deeper each day into an confrontation with North Korea over nuclear-armed ICBMs he swore that Pyongyang would never get, may be looking for a way out. So on Sunday, he said: “We have many options for Venezuela – and by the way, I am not going to rule out a military option.”

He said it although nobody had asked him if he was planning to invade Venezuela. (It hadn’t occurred to anybody that he might.) And he said it from his golf course in New Jersey. (Reagan made his Grenada decision on a golf course too). And it certainly did take North Korea out of the news for at least one or two cycles.

He then offered a classic Trumpian non-justification for threatening to use military force in Venezuela: “This is our neighbor. You know, we are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”

So be on your best behaviour, all you other governments in Latin America and Canada, or he might come for you too. But is he actually planning to invade Venezuela, a fairly well-armed country of 30 million people?

Trump has already given President Nicolas Maduro’s beleaguered regime a propaganda gift by strengthening its argument that its opponents are all traitors and American spies. Does he realise that an American invasion of Venezuela would trigger both a bloody civil war and a prolonged anti-American resistance movement?

Probably not. He knows that Venezuela is a superpower in the “Miss Universe” universe, but he will not have read the full briefing paper unless they remembered to put his name in every paragraph (and he may have caught onto that trick by now).

It would be nice if this threat about Venezuela were evidence that Trump knows he is in over his head with North Korea and is looking for a face-saving way out, but it’s not likely to be true. It’s much more likely to be just another example to his scattershot approach to dealing with a problem: create as many other problems as possible, and the pressure will come off.

Ronald Reagan knew he had walked into a hornet’s nest in Lebanon, and just needed
to create a diversion while he found a way of getting American troops out of the Middle East. It’s not clear that Trump even understands that he is in deep trouble, and that he is at risk of starting a nuclear war in order to prevent one.

Stream-of-consciousness decision-making is unfailingly interesting, if you are using “interesting” in the sense of the faux-Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” But in real life, that’s the last place you want to live.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“He then…people”)

Kim Jong-Trump

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, Mr President, but I do say not more than ten or twenty million dead, depending on the breaks.” So said General ‘Buck’ Turgidson, urging the US president to carry out a nuclear first strike, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 film ‘Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.’

But nobody in Kubrick’s movie talked like Kim Jong-un (“American bastards would be not very happy with this gift sent on the July 4 anniversary,” he crowed, celebrating North Korea’s first successful test of an ICBM). They didn’t talk like Donald Trump either (“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”)

Kubrick’s film came out the year after the Cuban missile crisis, when the world went to the brink of nuclear war after the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles into Cuba to deter an American invasion. It was a terrifying time, but neither US President John F. Kennedy nor the Soviet leaders used violent language. They stayed calm, and carefully backed away from the brink.

So Kubrick’s fictional leaders had to stay sane too; only his generals and civilian strategic ‘experts’ were crazy. Anything else would have been too implausible even for a wild satire like ‘Strangelove’. Whereas now we live in different times.

Trump may not understand what his own words mean, but he is threatening to attack North Korea if it makes any more threats to the United States. That’s certainly how it will be translated into Korean. And Pyongyang will assume that the US attack will be nuclear, since it would be even crazier to attack a nuclear-armed country like North Korea using only conventional weapons.

Maybe the American and North Korean leaders are just two playground bullies yelling at each other, but even in their more grown-up advisers it sets up the the train of thought best described by strategic theorist Thomas Schelling: “He thinks we think he’ll attack; so he thinks we shall; so he will, so we must.” This is how people can talk themselves into launching a ‘pre-emptive’ or ‘preventive’ nuclear attack.

Is this where the world finds itself at the moment? ‘Fraid so. And although a nuclear war with North Korea at this point wouldn’t even muss America’s hair – the few North Korean ICBMs would probably go astray or be shot down before they reached the US – it could kill many millions of Koreans on both sides of the border.

A million or so Japanese might die as well (that would depend on the fallout), and a few tens of thousands of US soldiers in western Pacific bases (from targeted strikes). Indeed, as the scale of the potential disaster comes home to North Korean strategists, you can see them start to play with the idea of a “limited nuclear war.”

North Korean planners have announced that they are “carefully examining” a plan for a missile attack on the big US base on Guam. In that way they could “signal their resolve” in a crisis by only hitting one isolated American military target. Their hope would be that such a limited attack would not unleash an all-out US nuclear counter-attack that would level North Korea.

‘Limited’ nuclear war typically becomes a favourite topic whenever strategists realise that using their cherished nuclear weapons any other way means unimaginable levels of death and destruction. It has never been credible, because it assumes that people will remain severely rational and unemotional while under attack by nuclear weapons.

Thinking about limited nuclear war, while unrealistic, is evidence that the planners are starting to get really scared about an all-out nuclear war, which is just what you want them to be. Nevertheless, we are entering a particularly dangerous phase of the process, not least because the other two major nuclear powers in the world, China and Russia, both have land borders with North Korea. And neither of them loves or trusts the United States.

What “process” are we talking about here? The process of coming to an accommodation that lets North Korea keep a nuclear deterrent, while reassuring it that it will never have to use those weapons. Because that’s what these North Korean missiles and nuclear warheads are about: deterring an American attack aimed at changing the regime.

They couldn’t be about anything else. North Korea can never have enough missiles to attack the US or its local allies and survive: it would be national suicide. But it can have enough of them to carry out a “revenge from the grave” and impose unacceptable losses on the US if it attacks North Korea. Deterrence, as usual, is the name of the game.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefly said that the US was not seeking to change the North Korean regime last week, although he was almost immediately contradicted by President Trump. In the long run, however, that is the unpalatable but acceptable way out of this crisis. In fact, there is no other way out.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“Maybe…attack”; and “They…game”)

Venezuela: Civil War?

There are two stories about the assault on Fuerte Paramacay military barracks in Carabobo state on Sunday. The Venezuelan government says that half the twenty attackers were killed or captured, and the rest are being hunted down. Sgt. Giomar Flores, who defected from the Venezuelan navy in June and now lives in Colombia, told The Guardian that the attack had been “a complete success.”

“We took four battalions and one put up resistance,” he said, claiming to be in direct contact with the leader of the attack, Capt. Juan Caguaripano. The rebels took “a large amount of weapons,” mostly assault rifles, and got away with no casualties.

Whichever story you believe, witnesses agree that large numbers of civilians living near the base in Valencia, the capital of Carabobo, spilled out onto the streets in support of the rebels. Civil war in Venezuela is not yet a reality, but there is ample dry tinder lying around just waiting for a match.

The attack came just one week after the election of a “constituent assembly” by the supporters of President Nicolas Maduro’s beleaguered government. It’s hardly surprising that the opposition boycotted the vote, because the purpose of the new assembly is to rewrite the constitution and save Maduro from defeat at the next election.

That’s not Maduro’s explanation for it, of course. He says it is the only way to bring “reconciliation and peace” to the country after months of political and economic crisis, but everybody outside his Socialist Party sees it as a constitutional coup.

The constituent assembly, which Maduro created by decree, consists exclusively of 545 Maduro supporters. There is no time limit on how long it will sit, nor any restrictions on what it can do. It can, for example, postpone the presidential elections that are due next year indefinitely. This matters a lot, since Maduro would certainly lose in a fair vote – recent estimates put his popular support at around 20 percent.

More immediately, it can dissolve the legitimate National Assembly, in which the opposition parties won a two-thirds majority in the December, 2015 election. And it has already fired Prosecutor-General Luisa Ortega, a member of the Socialist Party and former ally of Maduro’s who broke with him over his increasingly arbitrary behaviour.

The most threatening thing Ortega did was to open an investigation last week into the vote on 30 July that created the constituent assembly. Since only Maduro’s supporters voted, that would seem irrelevant – but in mid-July the opposition had held an informal referendum in which seven million people voted against the constituent assembly.

Maduro therefore felt the need to claim that more than eight million Venezuelans had voted for the new assembly. Even that would not really be a very impressive turnout in a country of 30 million people – but then the company that supplied the voting machines, SmartMatic, said that the result had been deliberately inflated. At least a million extra votes had been added.

Antonio Mugica, the chief executive of SmartMatic, said that all previous elections in Venezuela using their machines had been conducted fairly. “It is, therefore, with the deepest regret that we have to report that the turnout figures on 30 July for the Constituent Assembly in Venezuela were tampered with,” he said.

It may have been worse than that. Internal figures from the National Electoral Council (probably shown to Reuters by Luis Rondón, the only one of the five NEC directors who is not a government loyalist), show that only 3.7 million people had voted by 5.30 pm – and the polls closed at 7 pm. Ortega appointed two prosecutors to investigate the other four directors of the NEC, but she is gone now and the investigation will not continue.

“This is a dictatorship,” Luisa Ortega said on Sunday, and she is right. Maduro has concluded that he and his Socialist Party can only stay in power by suppressing all opposition, and he is probably right. The regime he inherited in 2013 on the death of its founder, Hugo Chavez, was once genuinely popular and won free elections, but four years of falling oil prices, economic mismanagement and growing corruption have put an end to that.

The street protests against Maduro have lasted four months now, and at least 120 people have been killed. Inflation is 1,600 percent, food and medicines are scarce, and the murder rate is among the highest in the world. The generals are richly rewarded for serving the regime, but rank-and-file soldiers earn a couple of dozen dollars a month.

Venezuela is a tinderbox. There are hundreds of thousands of devoted supporters of the “Chavista” regime, and the government has distributed weapons to them. If the report that most soldiers did not resist the attack on the Valencia barracks is true, the army may be about to split. The violence in the streets is mutating, with more police casualties as well as the daily toll of demonstrators.

There is no worse disaster for a country than a civil war, but Venezuela is drifting towards one.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“That’s…coup”; and “It may…continue”)