Murari Sharma: Binary Standards

Left-leaning American intellectual Noam Chomsky says, “For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.” As human beings, we often have Manichean standards — good and evil,  ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ and one for the powerful and another for the powerless. This is not an east-west or democracy-dictatorship dichotomy. It is universal. This duality is the main source of most problems, including violent conflicts.

While some conflicts have taken place within the same community, culture or branch of a culture, most happen between different communities, different cultures or different branches of the same culture. Wars take a high toll of human beings, which is also interpreted in binary context. As Voltaire says, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

The reality is often uglier than Voltaire has mentioned. Mass murderers who win wars become heroes, but those who lose become villains because, as Plato has said, “Those who tell the stories rule society.” Conversely, those who rule society tell the stories. Put more bluntly, history is written by victors.

I have my own evidence to start with. I grew up reading the vices of multiparty democracy and virtues of the party-less Panchayat system. King Mahendra had prevailed over his democratic rival BP Koirala and his supporters and written the history of Nepal. After the abolition of monarchy, textbooks have been changed to reverse the narrative. Now the monarchy is being presented as the embodiment of vices and democratic leaders as the fountain of virtues, though the truth is far from it.

As a student in Western universities, I studied the weaknesses of Marxism and communism and strengths of capitalism and democracy. I am sure, in communist countries, students had to read a completely opposite story. China embraced the capitalist economy without pluralist democracy in two decades ago. I presume that Chinese students now have to read the virtues of capitalist economy and vices of multiparty democracy, because the story is being told by communist leaders  who have made that choice.

Image could change with success, or failure. With Japan and Singapore’s economic success, Asian values, long deemed inimical to progress, have won respect and credibility around the world. Despite comparable population, China, a communist country, enjoys greater Western respect and investment, because it has become the second largest economy and third largest military power, than India, a pluralist democracy.

Victory in wars offers the most fertile ground for myths to sow and grow. We worship the warlords or yore. We read the virtues of US democracy, economy and culture because America was instrumental for victory in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito have justly been vilified because they waged the horrendous World War II and lost. If they had won, the history would have been written differently. Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill would have been projected as villains instead.

Human beings wage wars and commit cruelty in good conscience. But those who win get power and glory and those who lose face the consequences. In their narrative, victors highlight their virtues, hide their vices, such as mass murder, and justify them if they have already been exposed.  Bertrand Russell says, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists.”

This is true across cultures. For instance, in Islamic society, Muslims treat non-Muslims as infidels and their women as sub-humans in good conscience. Parents nominate a relative to kill their daughter  if she marries for love without their approval – deemed as honor killing — and pardon the murderer to save him from legal punishment. They do so to preserve the sanctity of Islam as defined by victors who set the rules.

In Hindu society, higher castes discriminate against lower castes in good conscience, without compunction. Dalits receive inhumane treatment as untouchable because, hundreds of years ago, incest had happened or someone powerful, angry with their forefathers, had declared them untouchable, the worst punishment of the time.

In Jewish society, Jews can treat Palestinians as worse than untouchable, as in apartheid, and destroy a whole village in retaliation if one of its citizens is harmed by them. It can treat them inhumanely, confiscate their land and build Jewish home there, deny them water, and refuse them their other basic rights in good conscience.

In Christian society, Christians treat other religions as inferior to theirs. In a bid to convert me, some devout Christians had told me at the University of Pittsburgh that my gods were inferior to their God. Now they are using their mission and money to proselytize the innocent and ignorant by using such deception and by bribing the poor in developing countries. God’s men and women do it in good conscience and prepare the faithful for cultural conflicts.

Crusades, jihads, dharmayuddhas, World War I, and World War II were fought in good conscience. So was the Cold War, in which the East and the West took opposite sides. Even after the communist bloc collapsed, Western countries continue habitually to insert themselves, directly or indirectly, in conflicts around the world under the veneer of promoting democracy and freedom and fighting terrorism. As most of these conflicts are situated in Muslim states, the clash of civilization, as predicted by Samuel Huntington, seems to be building up between the Christian West and Muslim East now.

Evidence suggests Western countries are more interested in expanding their own influence, market, and faith and in controlling resources. They helped East Timor and South Sudan, both Christian parts, carve out of Muslim Indonesia and Sudan, respectively, for oil reserves and religion. For a decade, they supported Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan who removed an elected government in a coup, protected the terror-in-chief Osama Bin Laden, supported Taliban, and aided and abetted Islamic terrorists to hurt India and Afghanistan. They installed Nouri Al-Maliki in Iraq who is sectarian, corrupt and dictatorial. Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan was no better than his predecessors.

More recently, Western countries backed General Sisi in Egypt to remove the duly elected Morsi, and enthrone himself, exposing their hypocrisy of love for democracy. Besides, Western countries are fomenting unrest against the elected government in the oil-rich Venezuela to install a friendly regime. They supported the Maidan uprising against the ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych for geopolitical reasons. Russia did its part as well by annexing Crimea and lending moral support to the uprising started by the Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine may end up being divided.

Sure, governments must promote their vital national interests. That is what they are for. The problem I have is about their lying and causing colossal loss of life in the process. Saddam Hussein and Mommar Gaddafi were brutal dictators, and the Iraqi and Libyan people deserved their human rights. But the United States and United Kingdom lied that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and sheltered al-Qaida to go to war. They said they were hoping Libyan people to obtain democracy, but they were only trying to protect their oil interests from the increasingly pesky Gaddafi.

More disturbing is the loss of life. Casualties are much higher when wealthy countries with high technology join war. Such states use sophisticated and deadly weapons from a distance with impunity and try to keep their own boots out of the battlefield. This allows them to minimize their own losses, to kill the other side indiscriminately and kill many more people than in direct combats, and to walk away, leaving the host country in ruin.

Americans used atom bombs towards the close of World War to destroy two whole towns in Japan and chemical weapons in Vietnam. Nearly a million Iraqis lost their lives on American watch compared to 350,000 under Saddam Hussein in his 23 year rule. America walked away when internal pressure for withdrawal mounted, giving the Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to come back and destabilize the whole region using American equipment. Now Western countries are equipping the Sunnis in Syria who could soon join forces with ISIS.

Of late, Ukraine has become the victim of geopolitical contest. Western countries supported the Maidan uprising against the ousted President Yanukovych. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and it is supporting the uprising in the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, in response. The West is supporting Kiev to suppress the rebellion and Russia is urging it to negotiate. They are doing it all in their good conscience. But Ukraine, chaotic and unstable now, might end up divided.

The binary vision was on full display the other day in Washington. Quoting the number of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Russia in the ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine, a correspondent asked the spokesperson of the US department of states for her opinion. She said she did not believe the UN figures, because Kiev is part of American ‘us’ in the geopolitical contest with Russia. Sadly though, the duality game goes on.


Murari Sharma: Democracy Project Has Failed in Iraq

The militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have captured several towns in Iraq, including the second largest city Mosul, over the last couple of days, only a year after the American and British forces left after staying there for more than a decade. When the Sunni rebels attacked, the Iraqi security forces simply abandoned their posts and uniforms and ran away.

US President Barack Obama and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malaki, a Shia, for his failure to reach out to the Sunnis and secure Iraq. A majority of commentators in America and Britain has dragged their governments over the coal for this debacle or for the seeds sown for it.

Maliki, a sectarian leader who alienated the strong Sunni minority, is partly to blame for the success of ISIS. But let us not forget he was America’s man. Besides, America and Britain disbanded and destroyed the Iraqi security forces after they invaded Iraq, creating a vacuum they could not fill by spending more than 25 billion dollars over a decade to build and train new police and military forces.

According to a news report, 30,000 Iraqi troops fled when 800 ISIS militants launched the attack in Mosul. It raises doubts about the quality of training and other efforts to build capacity and confidence in the troops, something America must have ensured. Washington and London have promised military support, without boots on the ground, to repel ISIS. But such limited support will not bring lasting peace in Iraq. Only careful nation-building, based on inclusive politics and broadening economic pie for everyone, will help achieve that objective.

While the blame game will continue, one thing has been proven beyond doubt: The democracy project has miserably failed in Iraq. Former US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair invaded Iraq, citing falsely that then-Iraqi President Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. When no such weapons were found, they justified the invasion as a democracy project.

Under the project, the United States had promised peace, prosperity, democracy and human rights for the Iraqi people. But the Iraqi people have none of it. Rather, more people have been killed after 2003 than under the three-decade long dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Iraqis have become poorer and more desperate. Public services have deteriorated. The Iraqi government has been unable to defend its people from militants. And it seems increasingly likely that Iraq will disintegrate into Shea, Sunni and Kurdish nations.

The democracy project is a brainchild of the United States. In the wake of World War II, when communism began to spread in Europe under the Soviet Union’s communism project, America implemented the Marshall Plan to help the war-ravaged western Europe to recover, to rebuild democratic institutions, to secure markets for American goods and services and to prevent communism from moving west. The European Economic Community and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were part of this grand project.

The project has succeeded in some countries, partly succeeded in some and miserably failed in others. It was a great success in western Europe, where countries did not fall for communism and became more democratic, more prosperous and more cooperative. This success motivated America to try the project elsewhere, and western Europeans have been supporting the American endeavor.

In countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Algeria, Tunisia, South Africa, etc., the project has been partially successful. It has delivered elected government, largely free media, and relatively independent courts. But it has not made these countries more prosperous than less democratic China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, or Malaysia. In several states, the project has miserably failed. Iraq is only one of them. Afghanistan, Haiti, etc. are others.

A few reasons are clear about why the project’s success in Europe could not be equally replicated elsewhere. First, nation-building is the primary element of the democracy project. The recent crop of western leaders did not have experience in nation-building; neither the currently incumbent crop has it. Their countries developed generations ago, they are only reaping the harvest from the field that was sown by their forefathers. Besides, these leaders have little knowledge of and sensitivity towards the local culture and society necessary for the project’s success beyond their borders.

Second, the democracy project is meant to safeguard and promote American national interest. It has largely lost its credibility due to the fact that the United States supports the most undemocratic regimes when they serve its core interests, as in Saudi Arabia, helps topple democratically elected government, as in Egypt recently, and touts democracy, human rights and freedom elsewhere in the same breath. Many countries and peoples have doubts about the project’s lofty goal and sincerity in genuinely helping them.

Third, part of the difference in the success of the project between Europe and other countries can be explained by the difference in their political structure, society, culture, institutions, and level of development. American leaders understand Europe better than other continents.

But the project has served America well. Now the United States is the largest economy; controls the global economy through its multinationals; and dominates the modern world with its literature, arts, films, educational institutions, and values. Western European countries have often supported the project either for their own advantage or in deference to American interest.

For instance, they worked together with America against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya because they had shared interest in oil. There was no western invasion in Syria partly owing to their unpleasant experience in Iraq but more importantly because Syria does not have much oil to make it worth the cost. At times, European countries have supported Washington in deference to American interest. They helped America destroy Al-Quaida in Afghanistan; they are serving American geopolitical interest in Ukraine, even though it my alienate Russia, a major source of their energy supply.

The United States is not alone in promoting its political brand and economic interests. Indians, Chinese, Romans, Turks, British, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch have done it in different phases of history. They used armies, weapons, faiths and ideas to achieve their objectives and to keep their rivals at bay. They launched Dharma yuddhas, crusades, and jihads and secular wars. The journey of weapons, started with sharpened sticks and stones, advanced to guns and cannons.

They funded religious missions to convert people in target countries, and these missions persuaded, bribed, deceived and intimidated peoples to join their faith. Trade was also used as a weapon to colonize and control far-flung territories. These old empires wrapped their naked ambition for power and resources in moral and material superiority of their armies, faiths, ideologies, knowledge and products.

America too has used wars, weapons, faith, political ideology, trade, and culture to dominate the world. But the context in which it has to promote its brand has become infinitely more complex. The world has weapons of mass destruction and is more connected economically and socially. We know more about our human rights, are more sensitive to cultural and social differences, and have more freedom to criticize without the fear of being punished. We also value our sovereignty and territorial integrity more than ever. Whistle blowers and courts often restrain the ruthless efficiency of government in silencing the opposition.

But this complexity does not absolve the United States of the mess it has left behind in Iraq or will leave behind in Afghanistan. The old adage says do not try to fix something that is not broken. But if you break it, you own it. The United States and western Europe brought down Saddam Hussein and installed Maliki in Iraq. So it is their responsibility to put Iraq back on its feet.

Murari Sharma: Significance of Modi’s Victory

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascent to power has received extraordinary global attention. But neither the reasons for the attention nor the reasons of his victory predict what he is likely or capable to do in the days ahead.

Several factors contributed to this global attention. Partly, America had denied him a visa and other western countries demonized him for his role, or lack of it, in the Gujarat riots in 2002 when he was chief minister there. Partly, it is the first time since 1984 when a single party has secured a clear majority in the parliament. Partly, he is Hindu nationalist, a former tea seller, a married and yet celibate man, a pro-business guy, and someone who has risen to national prominence straight from his state. Partly, India is a major regional player. And partly, his main rival, the Congress Party, was routed as never before.

Modi’s trip from his two constituencies to the prime minister’s office was also spectacularly media material. He visited his mother in his village to get her blessings. He invited all South Asian heads of government to his swearing-in ceremony where people from all walks of life in India, including some of his co-tea sellers, and held the function in an open place. His 45-strong cabinet is one of the smallest in Indian history. He lumped related ministries together and even gave charge of more than one big ministry to some of his trusted colleagues.

We know why Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party won the election: Corruption and mismanagement under the Congress government, slowdown in economic growth, weak leadership of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Modi’s 10 percent growth performance in Gujarat, Hindu backlash against secular parties, growing disenchantment with regional parties, and his well-funded and efficient campaign.

Now the question is: Where will he go from here? In the domestic front, he campaigned on the platform of a clean, efficient, pro-business government, relief to the poor and disadvantaged, removal of obstacles to investment, liberalization of the Indian economy, and accelerated growth, among others. Certainly, he will try to implement his election promises, but that would not be easy. First, his party does not have a majority in the upper house of parliament, so he will face obstacles in getting necessary laws enacted. Second, his party does not run most states. Third, the strong and change-averse Indian bureaucracy, patronized by the Congress Party for most of the post-independence period, will not make his sail smooth. Fourth, if he cannot push the growth rate up, he will not have enough resources to implement several of his election promises.

In the foreign policy front too, he will face formidable challenges. Although US President Barack Obama invited him to the White House as a signal to put the unpleasant past behind and although he is a pragmatic person, his relations with Washington will at best be professional and friendly but not warm. A personal insult will be difficult for him to forget. European countries have not been kind to him either, and it will in some way reflect on his reaching out to them. One thing is sure. He will welcome western investment, but he will not be loyal to the West as his predecessors. His pick of foreign minister also demonstrates it. Russia might get more importance under him than under his predecessor due to his discomfort with America and Europe. He seems comfortable working with Japan, but China may frown him for too much closeness with Tokyo. Dealing with China will be a challenge for Modi not only because it has occupied some land that India claims as its and supports its immediate rival Pakistan, but also because China is a strategic and economic regional competitor of sorts.

Modi’s reputation with Islamic nations in general is not positive due to his role in the Gujarat riots and his pro-Hindu background and political plank. Though Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif showed up in Modi’s swearing in as a friendly gesture, the all-powerful Pakistani military and terrorists will not let him put  Kashmir on the back-burner and will not give him freedom to work with India as he saw fit. Last time, they put the spanner into the works with the Kargil incursion and removed Sharif from power when he resumed dialogue and started bus service between the two countries with his Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee from Modi’s party.  That danger continues to lurk for Sharif if he tried to do anything  that will improve relations with India and strengthen his position in Pakistan.

Neither will India’s relations dramatically improve with other immediate neighbors under Modi. Indonesia and Malaysia have not been enthused towards Modi because of his anti-Muslim reputation. India will be at odd with the military junta in Thailand.  Indo-Chinese contest for resources and friendship of Burma will continue. Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina has been closer to the Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress Party due to Indira Gandhi’s help in the country’s liberation in 1971, and Modi will not appreciate the growing anti-Hindu activities there. Modi will not take kindly Bhutan’s growing closeness with China. Afghanistan will get more robust attention from Modi because the United States military is leaving and Pakistan will try to fill the vacuum. Sri Lanka might get a breather because he invited to his swearing-in President Rajapaksha despite Tamil leader Jayalalitha’s strong opposition.

Nepal will probably have the most impact of Modi’s victory for several reasons. It is entirely dependent on India for transit, like Bhutan, but is more independent than Bhutan in its foreign policy and security policy, which gives room for considerable friction. Even the mild-mannered IK Gujral was angry at Nepal when it imported some military equipment from China. As a Hindu nationalist, Modi will try to persuade Nepali leaders to retain the primacy of Hinduism in Nepal, if not insist on declaring Nepal a Hindu state again, something that has been clear from the concerns expressed by the BJP Vice President Bhagat Singh Koshyari’s recent visit to Nepal about conversion to other faiths. Other than that, he might not be too much interested in Nepal for the simple reason that junior bureaucrats in the Ministry of External Affairs make and implement most of India’s Nepal policy.

So the question is not what Modi will do for or to Nepal, but what Nepali leaders can get from Modi by winning his personal interest and his government’s sympathy. Based on media reports, the starting has not been encouraging.  Prime Minister Sushil Koirala could not make his presence felt during Modi’s oath and afterwards in New Delhi. Besides, rather than talking about the aspirations of the Nepali people — such as democracy, interdependence, development, basis for economic cooperation and investment, etc. – to set a broad policy framework between the two countries, he talked about the nitty-gritty: Specific issues, projects and policies, which should have been left for ministers and senior officials, as the late King Birendra used to say and as other world leaders often do.

Koirala will have the opportunity to make up for the lost opportunity in New Delhi to some extent when Modi comes to Kathmandu for the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation later this year. He should try and focus on a broad framework for Nepal-India coexistence and cooperation and leave specific policies, projects, scholarship and medical treatment for his supporters and relatives to his subordinates. By doing that, he will be able to win greater respect from Modi and his government, stay out of irritating details, and be able to resolve any outstanding issues between the two countries at the highest level with the advantage of not being directly involved in creating and sustaining them.

Therefore, as such, there is no reason for Nepal to be specifically happy or unhappy about Modi’s victory and government. If the Indian economy picks up momentum under him, that will be a reason to celebrate, because it will also benefit Nepal. If he increases development assistance and trade concessions to Nepal, that will be welcome. If he does not interfere too much in Nepal’s internal affairs, that will be positive. But all this will depend on the Nepali leaders’ skill and ability to win his personal interest and confidence. If our leaders are smart enough to do it, there will be every reason for Nepal to be happy about Modi’s victory. If our leaders bungle with him, Nepal may end up shedding prolific tears as well. As they say, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.