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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ten Years On Bombs Over Baghdad

Roaming through the al-Jazeera Arabic headquarters in Doha, Qatar, last month, I was struck by its wall of relics. Behind glass lay the remains of their journalists who were either killed in action or else held in Guantanamo under false pretenses. The one tableaux that most affected me was that of Tareq Ayyoub (1968-2003), the reporter killed when US forces fired on the al-Jazeera station in Baghdad on April 8, 2003 – three weeks into the Iraq War. It was a day when the blood of journalists flowed through the streets of the city: US aircraft struck Abu Dhabi Television’s station that day, and a US Abrams Tank struck the Palestine Hotel, killing Taras Protsyuk (Reuters) and Jose Couso (Telecinco).
After an internal US investigation, General Colin Powell said, “Our forces responded to hostile fire appearing to come from a location later identified as the Palestine Hotel.” Nothing was further from the truth. Journalist Robert Fisk was on the ground in Baghdad. He wrote at that time, “I was between the tank and the hotel when the shell was fired. There was no sniper fire – nor any rocket-propelled grenade fire, as the American officer claimed – at the time. French television footage of the tank, running for minutes before the attack, shows the same thing. The soundtrack – until the blinding, repulsive golden flash from the tank barrel – is silent.” Mohamed Jassem al-Ali, al-Jazeera’s then head, had given the US the coordinates to its Baghdad station so as to protect it from attack; it was precisely those coordinates that were targeted. A month later, al-Ali was fired by al-Jazeera allegedly for hiring three “Iraqi agents” to work at the station. Pressure to silence the buzz of criticism from al-Jazeera and to remove the images of civilian casualties and suffering from its screens was fierce.
During the war, the US government either embedded journalists or tried to excise them. The war could have only one story-line, particularly given the unseemly means by which the US and the UK went into the war: with lies and evasions told to the UN to strong-arm a compliant set of governments into allowing the Bush-Blair team its way against an already prone Saddam Hussein and his regime. Now, with the war gone ten years, the challenge has been to try to remind ourselves that it happened in the first place. The US “withdrawal” of troops in 2011 is treated as an opportunity to withdraw the world’s attention from Iraq. We are told to forget the criminal
conspiracy that led the North Atlantic into a war of aggression. We are told to forget the way a country has been systematically destroyed not only since March 19, 2003, but perhaps since the West colluded with Saddam Hussein’s regime against Iran in 1980, flattering Hussein’s immense ego to take his people into a murderous conflict with its neighbor (1980-88), selling Hussein’s army chemical materials to allow him to launch them against the restive Kurds (1983-88), and then trying to contain his ambitions when he came asking for payment for Iraq’s services to the West against Iran (1989-91). There is an imposed amnesia about imperial motives and war aims, about the fact that many opposed the war on grounds that came to pass, and about the sheer suffering about the war.
What have we forgotten?
* The total number of dead – a figure impossible to fathom, somewhere near a million or maybe higher (the Lancet’s figure from 2006 if updated would lead us higher yet).
* The total number of refugees – around seven million according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Many fled to Syria, where the two-year bloody war has now left these Iraqis in a position of great peril.
* The destruction of infrastructure – now reconstructed on lines that favor the sectarian impulses of the new political class.
* The war crimes – Abu Ghraib, Falluja, the very rush to war itself.
Obama, who had staked out his own position on the impending Iraq War clear in 2002 (“a dumb war, a rash war”), could not revisit them in 2011: he was now the Commander in Chief and would find it awkward to belittle the sacrifices of troops who were sent to fight a false war. At most Obama could acknowledge the debate before the war, with the lead-up “a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate.” The Iraq war was not perfect, he accepted, but its outcome was good, with the troops leaving behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” American liberalism is not capable of any more than that. It is why American liberalism will not be willing to register its complicity in such a grotesque imperialist project, nor be willing to break with that project in the first place. Too much is to be gained through its silence.
To go beyond Obama’s anodyne comments from last year is to accept that Iraq was not a “dumb war” but the outcome of a system premised on militarism and one that is capable of the harshest violence against its enemies. During the week of the US withdrawal from Iraq, a reporter for The New York Times found 400 pages of US military investigations on the 2005 massacres at Haditha, where US marines killed 24 Iraqis (including a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair, children and toddlers). Most of the US troops had been acquitted by their justice system, leaving a bad taste in the Iraqi body politic. As Michael Schmidt put it in The Times, “That sense of American impunity ultimately poisoned any chance for American forces to remain in Iraq, because the Iraqis would not let them stay without being subject to Iraqi laws and courts, a condition the White House could not accept.”
It was the aftermath of Haditha that forced the Iraqi government to no longer give a carte blanche to US troops. The Iraqi Parliament, in a sense, ejected the US because Washington would not allow its troops to come under Iraqi jurisdiction. That is how the Iraq War finally ended – not with a withdrawal but with an ejection.
I write this essay in New Delhi, remembering the day ten years ago when Shock and Awe began and remembering the months that led to the war. I remember two friends and teachers who departed over this decade, and write these words with their memory in mind – Edward Said (1935-2003) and Alexander Cockburn (1941-2012). Till the very end, Said, who died ten years ago, held fast against the imperialist project. Not long before he died, Said told al-Ahram that he felt that the imperialist states wanted to “terminate some countries” and “install regimes friendly to the United States,” a “dream that has very little basis in reality. The knowledge they have of the Middle East, to judge from the people who advise them, is to say the least out of date and widely speculative.” There were no flowers and sweets thrown to US troops as Fouad Ajami and Kanan Makiya assumed; more likely the troops were fired upon or found themselves victims to roadside bombs. I saw Edward speak bravely in late 1990 against Gulf War 1 in Chicago, when the tide was decidedly in favor of that bombardment and only a handful of people saw the ruse for what it was.
One of those other people was Alexander Cockburn. During 2002-03, I had several wonderful interactions with Alexander as he edited the essays I wrote for CounterPunch on the lead-up to the war. There was no fine line to be walked – the war was being based on false pretenses. We already knew that, and Alexander encouraged as much honest writing as possible against imperial mendacity on Iraq. I remember once asking him how he kept his nerve. His ancestor had burned down the White House, he told me. Nothing his pen can do matches that. High standards set by his past, not only for him but also for journalists with the memory of Tareq, Taras and Jose in mind.
Vijay Prashad’s new book, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, is out this month from Verso Books.

After CAG now ECI

Dangerous for democracy

The ‘counter-affidavit’ submitted by the Union government to the Supreme Court in the Ashok Chavan case is a scandal. Simply put, it argues that the Election Commission of India has no power to disqualify a candidate on the basis of his or her poll expenditure accounts, even if those have been falsified. It holds that the ECI’s power to disqualify a candidate “arises only in the event of failure to lodge an account of expenses and not for any other reason…” The government is, in the process, calling for a radical and dangerous change in the way polls are conducted in India. If there is one issue on which there is a consensus in the country, it is on the damage inflicted on free and fair elections by the unbridled rise of money power. Now the government argues that the “correctness or otherwise” of the accounts is no concern of the body that conducts and regulates elections. The United Progressive Alliance government is behaving with the ECI the way it has with the Comptroller & Auditor General. It is trying to bat its way out of ugly scams and scandals by seeking to curb the independence of these constitutional bodies. This is dangerous for accountability and for democracy, given the signal role assigned to the Election Commission in our political system.
The fact that this affidavit has been filed in the Ashok Chavan case — notoriously known as the ‘paid news’ case — makes things worse. Mr. Chavan was facing a rough time in the Election Commission’s inquiry into his poll expenses in the 2009 election campaign — especially the money he allegedly spent for ‘paid news’ in his favour in several newspapers. He has challenged the jurisdiction of the ECI on this matter in the Supreme Court. Though the Supreme Court is still seized of the matter and has made no ruling in the matter yet, the Centre’s affidavit raises troubling questions about the government’s motives. Why is it challenging the jurisdiction of the Election Commission over elections? Why is it taking such a blatantly unscrupulous stand, and to help whom? Yet, the damage this would do goes far beyond even the pernicious realm of paid news. If the government has its way, it would mean there is no institution or body that is empowered to regulate poll expenditures in the country. It would also mean the serious erosion of the powers of constitutional bodies like the ECI and the CAG that have performed their duties with diligence and integrity. Over a decade ago, a full bench of the Supreme Court held that the Election Commission had the power to disqualify a candidate whose accounts were not filed in a true and correct manner. That is the way to go. The government should withdraw its ill-advised affidavit at once and not stand in the way of the ECI doing what it is constitutionally mandated to do. 
Editorial of The Hindu

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Crisis and the Left - Change will come as the third world’s economies are hit harder -Prabhat Patnaik

In his new book, Power Systems, Noam Chomsky raises the question: why has the present economic crisis not evoked the sort of massive protest from the working class in the United States of America that the Great Depression of the 1930s did?
True, the scale of unemployment today is not as large as it had been during the 1930s. Nonetheless it is substantial; and the crisis has already lasted five years with no end in sight. And yet, America remains a ‘desert’ in terms of any militant working-class mobilization against it.
The proximate answer he provides for this difference is the collapse of militant trade unionism in today’s US; but underlying this, according to him, is the collapse of the US Communist Party, which had played a major role in mobilizing the workers during the Depression. Since Chomsky, as an anarchist, is not known to be particularly well-disposed towards communist parties, his lauding the role of the US Communist Party during the 1930s, cannot be dismissed as a paean from the faithful.
Elsewhere too the communists had played a crucial role in mobilizing the workers during the Great Depression. In Germany, for instance, the party’s support among the young and unemployed workers had soared before Hitler’s coming to power. Large-scale unemployment provides the soil not only for the growth of fascist tendencies that pit one segment of the people against another (“outsiders are stealing your jobs”), or that invoke a mythical conspiracy by an almost non- existent minority as the cause of the people’s woes (half a million Jews in the 1930s are responsible for the woes of 70 million Germans), it also nourishes the growth of a militant Left that mobilizes workers’ resistance.
The question then arises: why has the Left not emerged as a powerful force mobilizing the people in the current crisis? Of course, the growth of Syriza in Greece, of Beppe Grillo’s “Five Star” movement in Italy (and possibly of Yair Lapid’s movement in Israel), can be seen as part of people’s resistance in the context of the crisis. But these movements are not just amorphous (which is not surprising); they lack, as yet, any clear-cut socio-economic programme.
Their being ‘reformist’ is immaterial, for any significant mobilization of the people must necessarily begin with a ‘reform’ agenda; what they lack, however, is a clear programme of ‘reform’ with a thought-out strategy of coping with the implications of putting such ‘reform’ into practice. Their rise is more an expression of anger among the people than a reposing of people’s trust in an alternative economic trajectory. And the traditional communist Left continues to languish even in the midst of the crisis, which needs an explanation.
To say that the quietude of communist formations is because of the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough: many communist formations in the advanced capitalist world had broken with the Soviet Union long before its collapse; they surely should not have been shell-shocked by it. Likewise, to say that such formations are too small to matter at present unlike in the 1930s when communism represented a nascent, vigorous tendency, is not enough. The US Communist Party, like its German counterpart, grew because of leading people’s resistance; why is today different?
There is, in my view, a deeper reason behind it. Communism developed as an internationalist movement at a time when capitalist countries were engaged in a world war that apotheosized national chauvinism. Lenin’s slogan of converting the imperialist war into a civil war, so that workers of the belligerent countries did not have to kill each other across trenches in the interests of finance capital, or Rosa Luxemburg’s slogan of a European workers’ movement for peace, raised the banner of internationalism against the national chauvinism promoted by capitalism.
The finance capital against which they sought to mobilize workers was national finance capital, British, German, or French. The ideology of this finance capital, as analysed by Rudolf Hilferding in his opus, Das Finanzkapital, or as expressed in Erich Maria Remarque’s classic work, All Quiet on the Western Front, was the glorification of the ‘National Idea’. Socialist internationalism stood against capitalist national-chauvinism, and mobilizing the people in each country against the hegemony of such national capital created no theoretical problems for the communists.
What contemporary globalization has entailed, however, is globalization of finance, and hence the formation of an international finance capital, which champions, not national-chauvinism, but its own brand of internationalism. And mobilizing the people of any particular country for an alternative agenda in the context of the crisis, which means a struggle against the hegemony of such international finance capital, necessarily means a retreat into nationalism, a de-linking of the nation, presided over by a particular nation-State which the Left hopes to capture, from the internationalism essayed by contemporary finance capital. This puts the Left in a dilemma.
Matters would be different if international mobilizations of workers could be carried out against the impact of the crisis; but this remains a far cry, even in the European Union, which, in spite of being a supra-national entity, has witnessed no significant supra-national workers’ organizations or even movements. Communists of all kinds, and the Left in general, have thus appeared curiously devoid of any serious alternative agenda, since any such agenda, if voted to power, would necessarily risk a retreat from the internationalism promoted by finance, howsoever inadequate, into a nationalism that the Left in advanced countries has traditionally found distasteful.
For many in the European Left for instance, the EU with all its flaws represents an advance in a continent that had been torn apart by two world wars. The fact that the EU is dominated by finance capital whose cause is championed by Germany and which has brought crisis and unemployment to the workers, is not sufficient reason for them to abandon the European project. Unwilling to retreat, in spite of the crisis, from even the inadequate internationalism brought about by finance capital, and unable to put into practice any alternative internationalist project, the Left appears paralysed for the moment. It is the fascists, who have always revelled in national-chauvinism, with no such inhibitions about de-linking from a supra-national project, who appear better-placed to profit from the people’s anger at the predicament to which they have been reduced by the crisis.
In the third world, where nationalism has been associated with anti-imperialist struggles and hence has had an inclusive character (against which the effort has been to pit other narrow, sectional “nationalisms” like “Hindu nationalism”), the Left has had no such dilemma in opposing the ‘globalization’ brought about under the aegis of finance capital. But in many third-world countries the crisis has had only a muted impact till now. The fact that globalization of capital has led to some diffusion of activities from high-wage advanced countries to low-wage third-world countries, and in the process caused high growth rates of gross domestic product in some of the latter, has created the illusion, even within Left circles, that these countries will be able to avoid the crisis.
Of course, even their high GDP growth has been accompanied by rampant dispossession of peasants and petty producers, without any corresponding increase in organized sector employment; and, hence, by a swelling of the relative size of the labour reserves, and of the magnitude of absolute poverty. But this is something which many, including within the Left, are either oblivious of, or do not take seriously enough on the grounds that a development of the ‘productive forces’ is always to be welcomed. Additionally, they also believe that this phenomenon of high growth will continue in spite of the crisis, that any interruption in it is only temporary.
We are thus in a peculiar situation where both in the first and in the third world, the Left is paralysed in spite of the persistence of the crisis, unlike in the 1930s when the crisis had provided the setting for a massive worldwide growth of the Left.
This stasis, however, is likely to break soon, at least in the third world which is now being hit by the crisis to an extent far greater than before. Indeed China, the biggest gainer from the diffusion of activities from the advanced capitalist world, has experienced such social unrest that it has already started moving towards an alternative growth trajectory with far greater emphasis on the home market. This would require substantial measures of income redistribution towards the working people, especially in rural areas. Similar measures will become necessary in other third-world countries too, as they begin to experience the crisis in all its severity. And it is the Left alone that can lead the struggle for such a change of course.

How UPSC got its English wrong - Kankipati Rajesh

The suspended proposal to give the language a decisive place in the civil services examination will exclude large numbers of aspiring candidates
After a nationwide outcry, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) has suspended its proposal to make English a predominant component of the Civil Services Mains examination from this year. The UPSC must scrap the proposals altogether. This is why:
Page 11 of the notification says: “Candidates will have the option to answer all the question papers, except Section 2 of the Paper-I (English comprehension and English precis) in English or Hindi. If the candidate has had his/her graduation in any of the following language mediums using the particular language medium for qualifying the graduate level examination, then he/she may opt for that particular language medium to answer all the question papers, except Section 2 of the Paper-I (English comprehension and English precis). [Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu.]”
This indicates that if an aspirant’s mother tongue is, say, Gujarati, but his language medium while studying for the first degree and writing his graduate examinations, was not Gujarati, he will not be allowed to write the exam in Gujarati. Many students study in regional languages till Class 12. Though they shift to English medium for their college education, their level of proficiency in English cannot be compared with those studying in “convents” and cities. When Hindi is allowed as a language medium for the UPSC mains examination unconditionally, why not other languages like Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati? This step is a negation to the “idea of India” that the founding fathers of the Constitution envisaged.
To elaborate further, in Gujarat, my cadre, 90 per cent of the candidates clearing the exam qualify with a language as an optional subject, and write the exam in Gujarati.
This is true for many other States of India. Any move to change this will be a retrograde step that will disrupt, destroy and dismantle the dreams of many of my fellow Indians.
My brother officer, Mohammed Ali Shihab of the Nagaland cadre, an orphan who worked as peon, pump operator and later as a teacher, made it into the civil services examination with Malayalam as an optional subject and with Malayalam as the language medium. Under the new rules, this man of humble origins from Kerala would never have become a civil servant unless he knew English (in which he was not proficient), because his college education was not in Malayalam.
Page 13 of the notification mentions that in Paper 1 of the mains examination: “Essay: Candidates will be required to write an essay on a specific topic. The choice of subjects will be given. They will be expected to keep closely to the subject of the essay to arrange their ideas in orderly fashion, and to write concisely. Credit will be given for effective and exact expression (200 marks). English Comprehension & English Precis will be to test the English language Comprehension and English precis writing skills (at 10th standard level) (100 marks).”
Paper 1 consists of 300 marks, and the marks obtained in this paper will be taken into consideration while deciding the overall ranking in the examination. This provision is anti-rural and anti-poor. As 100 marks of English comprehension and English precis can create many a disparity in the merit ranking, this is another retrograde step. In the preliminary examination, the screening process for the Mains, the aspirant is tested for English language skills. So, it is understood that a candidate appearing for the Mains has already proved his English language abilities in the preliminary examination. While the marks in preliminary examination do not affect the overall ranking of the candidate, the mains marks will. This will place many a rural and vernacular language aspirant at a disadvantage.
During the training of IAS officers at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, 40 per cent of the time spent in Phase-I of the programme is for the language of the State where the officer will serve. The excessive focus on English will only hamper the aspirations of rural India, and is a step that will widen the divide between India and Bharat.
Page 11 of the notification says that: “However, in the interest of maintaining the quality and standards of examination, a minimum number of 25 (twenty-five) candidates should opt for a specific language medium for answering the question papers in that language medium. In case there are less than 25 (twenty-five) candidates opting for any approved language medium (other than English or Hindi), then those candidates will be required to write their examination either in Hindi or in English only.”
This provision will seriously limit the aspirations of many in the country. If there is only one aspirant who wants to write, say in Santhali, why is his freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution being curtailed?
Optional subject
Page 16 of notification says: “Optional Subject Papers I & II: Candidates may choose any optional subject from amongst the list of subjects given in para 2 (Group 1). However, if a candidate has graduated in any of the literatures of languages indicated in Group-2 , with the literature as the main subject, then the candidate can also opt for that particular literature subject as an optional subject.”
This provision implies that literature cannot be chosen as an optional if the candidate hasn’t graduated in it. This means a medical science graduate cannot opt for Telugu or political science graduate cannot opt for Gujarati. This restrictive provision on the rights of the candidates to choose his optional paper serves no purpose and suggests a lack of application of mind and logic.
Page 10 of the notification says: “NOTE: (i) Marks obtained by the candidates for all papers (Paper I-VII) will be counted for merit ranking. However, the Commission will have the discretion to fix qualifying marks in any or all papers of the examination.”
This provision is again ambiguous. In the CAT examination, each section has a cut-off. This is already notified by the examination conducting agency. But the UPSC only says it has the discretion to fix qualifying marks in any or all papers of the examination.
Aside from all this, I may point out that the examination cycle is a one year process. There are candidates who prepare over years for this examination. Introduction of a new pattern without giving them reasonable time to adjust to the changes is in violation of the principles of natural justice. The proposed changes will only increase the role of coaching centres. Candidates who have been already coached will now be further coached to face the new subjects, shelling out vast amounts for this.
The proposed changes are in violation of the Right to Equality (Article 14) and Right to Expression (Article 19).
(Kankipati Rajesh, IAS, is assistant collector (under training), Junagadh, Gujarat cadre. E-mail:
The Hindu 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

India’s rich are the problem - C. P. Chandrasekhar

Even as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) frets over the high rate of inflation and wards off pressures to cut interest rates, it is faced with another challenge. Balance of payments data for the second quarter of 2012-13 show that the current account deficit continues to rise, and has touched a record 5.4 per cent of GDP. Both of these developments that would be considered signs of “overheating” occur at a time when growth is slowing.
However, the high current account deficit to GDP ratio is not merely because the denominator – GDP -- is lower than expected because of slower growth. It also reflects certain structural problems characterising the numerator-the current account deficit-which prevent its contraction when the economy grows more slowly.
Consider figures for the first half of this financial year relative to the corresponding period of the previous year. As Chart 1 shows, the current account deficit is higher this year when compared to the previous one partly because the trade deficit has risen from $59.1 billion to $61.1 billion despite slowing growth. This has meant that despite absolutely large net capital inflows into the country, of as much as $40 billion over the first six months of this fiscal, India is just able to finance its current account deficit. The period when a large share of capital inflows went to buttress India’s foreign exchange reserves seems to be over. In fact, if inflows shrink or the deficit widens, the rupee would be under much pressure.
This raises the question as to why the trade deficit remains high. One reason, emphasised by the government, is that exports, especially to Europe, have been adversely affected by the global recession. As Chart 2 indicates, goods exports over the first six months of this fiscal year have fallen with respect to the last and the increase in services exports has been inadequate to neutralise that fall. But this is not the only problem. While India’s exports are sensitive to global income declines, India’s imports have been less responsive to the slow down in income growth. It is well known that two items of imports have played an important role in keeping India’s import bill high-oil and gold. In the case of both these commodities, prices have declined in international markets during the period in question. However, in the case of oil the quantum of imports has increased to push up the import bill. And in the case of gold, though the decrease in the import bill is a noticeable 13.7 per cent, high growth rates and levels in the past have ensured that the outgo on this account has remained high.
In sum, the import bills on account of both oil and gold do not seem to fall much despite rising prices and slowing GDP growth. A feature of both these commodities, especially gold, is that it is the rich that largely account for the growth in their demand. Over the year ended September 2011, demand for gold in India was 1059 tonnes, as compared with 214 tonnes in the US and 770 tonnes in China, whereas per capita income in the three countries stood at $1,410, $48,620, and $4,940 respectively. The “average” Indian could not be responsible for such “excess demand” for gold. It is the rich who are clearly responsible. The incomes of the rich are not affected as much by the slow down. And, the demands of the rich are relatively inelastic or non-responsive with respect to price changes. This structural feature influencing India’s import bill is what accounts for the asymmetry in the response of exports and imports to world and domestic incomes respectively. What is needed is an effort at curbing such elite consumption. While this may be difficult to implement through physical controls in the case of oil, it can easily be done in the case of gold.
With the government failing to do so, the balance in the trade in goods and services has turned increasingly negative. But that is not all. Corporate India, which has been borrowing heavily from international markets to exploit the lower interest rates prevailing there, has also begun tapping the nation’s foreign exchange earnings to meet its foreign debt service commitments. As the RBI’s Bulletin for March 2013 notes: “Net outflow on account of primary income not only continued in Q2 of 2012-13 but also showed an uptrend mainly on account of higher interest payments under external commercial borrowings (ECBs) and FII investments in debt securities.” In the event, despite increase remittance receipts from Indian workers abroad (Chart 3), there has been a decline in net receipts from income payments.
The consequence of all of this is a worsening of the current account deficit, which the RBI sees as having entered the danger zone. Addressing this requires reining in the import bill, which in turn requires curbing elite consumption. India’s rich are the real problem.
The Hindu