Wednesday, August 24, 2011

BANGLADESH: After The Massacre

"Bangladesh had its massacre," said a senior Western diplomat in Dacca, the capital, last week. "It still awaits its coup." The bloody upheaval that ended the government, and the life, of Sheik Mujibur Rahman two weeks ago (TIME, Aug. 25) was the work of about a dozen young officers (most of them majors). According to the same diplomat, "They are too powerful to be arrested but not powerful enough to run the country."

 His point was that the young officers were strong enough to fend off challenges from their superiors in the army but that in order to form a government, they had been obliged to turn to a respected member of Mujib's Cabinet, Commerce Minister Khondakar Mushtaque Ahmed, to serve as their front man. By week's end, the officers were reported to have retired to a behind-the-scenes role, leaving Khondakar in charge—and the country in a state of confusion.

Though all foreign correspondents have been expelled from the country, a few more details about the men who engineered the coup began to emerge. Several had been dismissed from the army for anti-Indian prejudice and were believed to be more militantly Moslem than Mujib's secular regime. Like many other officers, they were fearful of the growing power of Mujib's special security force, the 25,000-man Rakkhi Bahini. They may have been alarmed by reports that Mujib was planning to put the armed forces under control of the ruling Awami League party. They were also displeased by Mujib's increasingly authoritarian tactics, the rising corruption within his government and his inability to cope with the crushing problems of Bangladesh, a destitute and overcrowded country the size of Wisconsin that has a population of 75 million.
When they struck, the officers had only about 200 soldiers behind them, but they moved with deadly speed. The focus of their predawn attack was the cream-colored mansion of Sheik Mujib. Everyone inside was killed, including Mujib, his wife and several other members of his family; overall, perhaps 100 died during the takeover. At the end of last week the capital appeared calm under martial law. About a dozen M-47 tanks, their gun muzzles covered, were posted at main intersections, and soldiers leaned against the machines as pedestrians walked by. More ominous than the tanks, however, was the sense of uncertainty that seemed to pervade the new regime.

Yards of Fabric. Even the name of the country was in dispute. On the morning of the coup, Radio Bangladesh had declared that the nation would no longer be known as the "People's Republic" but as the "Islamic Republic" of Bangladesh. That would have been a significant change as far as its powerful neighbors, Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan, were concerned. Ever since Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971 and became independent, it has been at odds with the Islamabad regime and closely aligned with India and the Soviet Union. Pakistan's Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was so delighted by the change in Bangladesh that he hastened to recognize the new government and urged all Arab and Third World countries to do likewise. In addition, he offered Bangladesh 50,000 tons of grain and 15 million yards of fabric.

Last week, however, the new government of Bangladesh let it be known that the country would continue to be called the "People's Republic" after all. The reason for the quick about-face may have been the displeasure of India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Having gone to war in 1971 on behalf of Bangladesh in its struggle against Pakistan, India would be unlikely to tolerate any strong new relationship between the two countries that were formerly known as West and East Pakistan.

Apparently, the officers who overthrew Mujib timed their coup for Aug. 15, the anniversary of Indian independence. They figured that the New Delhi government would be preoccupied that day—"a sort of Yom Kippur War situation," as a Western diplomat put it. The coup was over so quickly that New Delhi had no time to respond militarily. Later, however, when New Delhi warned that it could not "remain unaffected by these political developments in a neighboring country," the new rulers of Bangladesh appealed to India for "friendship and cooperation."

Most Western diplomats believe that Bangladesh's troubles are far from over. Khondakar is not yet a strong enough figure to rule the country effectively, and fighting could break out among the various military groups at any time. More ominous still is the possibility that if fighting should break out, Indira Gandhi might be tempted to send her army across the border, as she did so successfully in December 1971.

Will Sonia Gandhi Fall?

World’s #9 most powerful person now accused of corruption.

SOME of India’s biggest fish are getting caught up in the country’s fast-growing wave of anti-corruption activity. In what could be India’s equivalent of a judicial jasmine revolution, previously invulnerable politicians, business icons, and pillars of the community are all nervously keeping their lawyers on speed-dial.

The anti-corruption push is an unprecedented coming together of myriad facets of Indian society. Religious leaders are concerned about the effects on morality and spiritual growth. NGOs speak of the effects on the poor. The middle class is angry about its future being stifled by a smothering blanket of day-to-day corruption. The intelligence services see corruption a clear threat to national security. And the business community, thanks to globalisation, has seen how efficiently things can operate without having to constantly pay bribes or be tangled in red tape, and they want the same thing at home.

Even the Supreme Court is fed up, with Justice B Sudarshan Reddy saying about the vast sums of Indian money being illegally hidden away in Liechtenstein Bank:

We are talking about the huge money. It is a plunder of the nation. It is a pure and simple theft of the national money. We are talking about mind-boggling crime.

The scandals are bursting on to the front pages fast and thick. Suresh Kalmadi, a Congress Party politician and the former head of the corruption-plagued Commonwealth Games, was arrested April 25. According to a report by the Indian Comptroller and Auditor General, the 2G spectrum scam alone, in which 2G licences were sold off in a manner that was, to say the least, less than transparent, cost close to $40 billion in lost revenue.

All across India, people are saying enough is enough. And suddenly the unthinkable is starting to happen. People considered above reproach, or at least untouchable, are coming under the judicial cross-hairs. 2G alone has seen charges laid against one former government minister and several captains of industry.
And the latest high-profile target is one of the biggest fish of all, Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi, currently #9 on Forbes list of the World’s Most Powerful People.

Sonia Gandhi has one of the most remarkable life stories in international politics. Born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino into a family of modest means in rural Italy, she didn’t even get a chance to complete high school before heading to the UK for work. There she met Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She eventually married him and the young family moved in to Indira Gandhi’s New Delhi’s home, putting her literally in the heart of Indian politics.

After Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, Sonia’s husband Rajiv became prime minister. Following Rajiv’s 1991 assassination by Tamil terrorists, there were rumours that Sonia was going to put herself forward as prime minister.

As she herself later said, she ‘could not walk past the portraits of my husband, my mother-in-law and her father and not feel that I had some responsibility to try and save the party they had given their lives to.’
Given her focus on the party, it was fitting that instead of becoming prime minister, she ended up as president of the powerful Congress Party. Politically, it proved to be a smart move as it gave her power without direct responsibility—while she is #9 on Forbes list of power people, the actual prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, is only #18. According to Forbes, ‘Gandhi remains the real power behind the nuclear-tipped throne [...] she has cemented her status as true heiress to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty.’

Her image is of a dutiful, submissive Indian wife, now widow. When her husband was alive, she would walk behind him. In public she wears saris. Although a devout Catholic, she is often photographed at Hindu Temples. And like a good Indian mother, though she has decorously pulled herself out of the race for prime minister, she is happy to encourage her son, Rahul, to take the job.

However, there have been growing, persistent murmurs about questionable business deals and inexplicable exponential jumps in the personal wealth of her and her family.

The allegations came out in the open in 1995 when MD Nalapat, then resident editor (Delhi) of the world’s largest English-language newspaper, the Times of India, began a groundbreaking series of articles about Sonia.

The articles made the controversial (at the time) claim that the public docility was just a ploy, and that Sonia actually had serious political ambitions (later confirmed by her role in Congress). Also, crucially, the series said that her desire for power wasn’t simply altruistic and that the wealth not only of her, but of her Italian relatives, rose stratospherically after Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister in 1984.

Nalapat’s articles could not be ignored as he was one of India’s most respected journalists and had, throughout his career, taken on corrupt politicians, social inequity and institutionalised discrimination.

This, however, was a ‘topic too far’. While the facts in the article were never refuted, Nalapat was forced out of journalism in 1998 and moved into academics.

Next came public questions from another highly reputed source, Sten Lindstrom, Sweden’s special prosecutor investigating the pay-offs associated with the sale of weapons by Bofors to the government of India. His investigation showed that a close friend of Sonia’s, Ottavio Quattrocchi, has received kickbacks in the millions.

In 1998 Lindstrom gave an interview in which he said:

the Gandhis, particularly now Sonia, should explain how Quattrocchi-owned companies got such fat sums as payoffs from the Bofors deal. After all, what is the connection of Sonia and the Gandhi family to Quattrocchi? Who introduced Quattrocchi and his AE Services to Bofors? At least one thing is certainly known now. A part of the payoffs definitely went to Quattrocchi. [...] the papers all pointed to the Gandhi family.
Not only have the questions not been answered by Sonia, but in spite of substantial evidence against him, Quattrocchi has managed to evade prosecution in India, and has even had his kickback funds unfrozen from overseas accounts.

Part of the genius of Sonia Gandhi is her ability to present herself as a helpless victim, convincing even her political rivals not to fear her as she is fatally flawed. In 1998, India was being led by BJP Prime Minister Vajpayee. When Nalapat spoke with him about Sonia, he was bluntly told to lay off, as, ‘so long as a white Christian lady is head of the Congress Party, I [Vajpayee] and my party will always be in power.’ Vajpayee and his party lost power to Sonia’s Congress in 2004.

But the most serious threat to Sonia—and, as she is at the apex of the Congress Party, and so to Congress itself—is now lying on the desk of #18, the prime minister of India.

On April 15, former law and justice minister and Harvard professor Dr Subramanian Swamy asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for leave to lay corruption charges against Sonia Gandhi. In a meticulously researched 200+ page submission Dr Swamy alleges Sonia Gandhi has been involved in corruption in India since 1972 and personally benefited from the Bofors scam (1986), has held billions in non-Indian bank accounts since at least 1991, illegally profited from the Iraqi oil-for-food deals (2002), and even accessed KGB payoffs during the Cold War.

The prime minister has three months to decide whether or not to grant sanction to prosecute. If he doesn’t, Dr Swamy can take the case directly to the Supreme Court, which under Chief Justice Kapadia is showing a definite proclivity towards facilitating corruption cases.

While, so far, the corruption cases in India have caught up some pretty big fish, if charges are laid against Sonia Gandhi, it won’t just be part of a wave, it will be a sea change.

Sonia Gandhi is not just an individual, she is the steely core of a pillar of Indian politics. If she crumbles, it will shake the foundations of the venerable Congress Party, and possibly leave a gaping hole in the political scene.

Meanwhile, a range of polarising and regional parties are ready to rush in and stake their claim. Given the growing importance of India in our heavily globalised world, this is not just an Indian story, this is one all should be following very closely indeed.

By - Cleo Paskal.

The fast And The Curious

THOUGH August 22nd was a national holiday in India, a crowd of tens of thousands gathered in the Ramlila Maidan, a public ground in central Delhi, to cheer on Anna Hazare, a populist anti-corruption crusader who has tied the government in knots. They gathered in the dust and sunshine, some seated beneath enormous awnings, most wearing white Gandhi caps and badges proclaiming "I am Anna". Dozens of television trucks lined up outside the grounds, as cable channels feverishly broadcast every moment of Mr Hazare’s hunger strike. He is poised to complete his first week without food on August 23rd.

The crowd sweltered but remained in good cheer. These protests will not fade, whatever the temperature or the admonitions from a nonplussed government. Many have made big efforts to attend: one man had travelled 150km from Haryana state; a student had arrived from rural Maharashtra; another had arrived from Patna, in distant Bihar. For the youngsters, especially, there was a thrill of being part of something momentous—plus a decent chance of getting on national TV.

Asked if they worried about Mr Hazare becoming a cult figure, perhaps even usurping the image and methods of Gandhi, his supporters roared back that their leader was pure, set on a good cause to purge India of dreadful corruption. Mr Hazare and his legions of fans insist that the government passes, word-for-word, a bill he has drafted that would up a Jan Lokpal, a people’s anti-corruption ombudsman with powers to hold everyone from the prime minister and high-court judges downwards to account.

Is it democratic for street protesters to impose their law, however good or not, on an elected system? Do we know that the billion-plus other Indians really want to go along with it? Shouldn’t parliament have some sort of say? Other civil activists, such as Arundhati Roy, have blasted Mr Hazare’s campaign for its strong air of nationalism. Muslim leaders, too, are worried that it is taking on too much of a Hindu nationalist feel. Chants that "Anna is India, India is Anna" suggest a troubling demagogic tendency. Shouldn’t that give supporters pause to think?

Those in the crowd pushed aside such squeamish questions. India is the greatest democracy in the world, they pointed out. They support that system, but politicians are so venal that it now needs a jolt. Their protest, and Mr Hazare’s refusal to eat until his bill is passed, are that jolt. The youth, the middle class, the urban Indians, they said, are merely voicing what everyone surely thinks.

Mr Hazare, who is 74 years old but in good health, has lost about 5kg in the past week. But he appears to have got more sure of himself. At the weekend India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, delivered a conciliatory message and suggested a compromise was possible. His officials tried, too, to kick the whole thing into the long grass by saying that any law would take about four months to pass.

But Mr Hazare is having none of it. Despite his weakening body, such is his growing strength that he flatly turned away Mr Singh’s fluffy talk as a scheme to break his momentum. He gives the government until August 30th to pass his bill, or face the consequences. If anyone wants to talk to him, it must either someone from the prime minister’s office or a leading member of the Gandhi clan.

That is a barbed attack: Sonia Gandhi is absent, thought to be getting treatment for cancer in New York, so her son, Rahul, is supposed to be overseeing Congress (along with three loyalists) while she’s gone. But Mr Gandhi has been hiding in rural Maharashtra, desperate not to get entangled in the Hazare nightmare. For a young and rising leader, who has made a virtue of trying to talk for India’s youth, his silence grows more deafening by the day.

The options for the government are now few. The bravest route would be to call Mr Hazare’s bluff and let him fast until his doctors force him to call it off. A better communicator than Mr Singh (who sits in the unelected upper house of parliament) could meanwhile try to explain how his government has done more than any other in India’s history to fight graft. He might add that Mr Hazare should not threaten to kill himself to get his law passed—nor should democratic governments give in to such threats unless it wishes to invite other populists to follow suit.

But the risks of that route are evident. Enormous protests that become uncontrollable, perhaps violent, could follow. Already protests have spread to dozens of other cities. Among Mr Hazare’s supporters in Delhi, many claim that if their old leader suffers, a heavy price would be extracted from the government. A revolution or even an early election are unlikely. But Congress may face a future pummelling at the polls if voters with famously short memories are annoyed enough.

The government's other options are equally dismal. Some hapless officials grew so desperate (or perhaps confused) last week, they tried briefly to suggest foreigners, Americans apparently, were behind Mr Hazare’s campaign. That didn’t wash. In the end, therefore, the most likely outcome seems to be that the government will acquiesce in Mr Hazare’s demands. They would look weak. And in time, Indians may regret setting up a Jan Lokpal, what amounts almost to a constitutional change, in such chaotic circumstances. But it is hard to see another other way out.