What Pakistan Poll Outcome Holds For South Asia

th prime minister in seven decades, besides the military strongmen who have ruled for long years, reinforces this. It is tad unfair to single out Pakistan. Many more nations practising varying forms of democracy, while adhering to democratic processes, have elected right-wing demagogues with dictatorial instincts. Pakistan’s 11th general election has pushed the nation further to the right, with little hope of any far-reaching changes in the lives of the people. Mercifully, the parties and their candidates who represent the forces of pseudo-religious extremism who had muscled into the country’s electoral system have been rejected by the people. Knowingly, but unwisely fostered by the establishment they are, however, unlikely to slow down their campaign for curtailing whatever little freedom is allowed to women and the media. The persecution of minorities could increase. There is no indication that civil society will be allowed to work in peace. Apprehensions arise as Imran Khan for long empathized with these forces to an extent the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) once nominated him to represent them to talk to the government. He supported former military ruler Pervez Musharraf after the latter’s 1999 coup, but fell out later. Musharraf famously called him “Taleban Khan”. And now, exiled Musharraf supports Imran. It was quite open. Fazlur Rehman Khalil, founder of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and a US-designated global terrorist with links to al-Qaeda, formally joined Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI). With poll-day violence, not just the moderates, the mainstream Islamist parties also suffered electorally. Undoubtedly the world’s first cricketing hero-turned-politician to become the prime minister, the Oxford-educated, urbane Imran Khan represents all the contradictions of many foreign-educated third world leaders who must practice conservative politics. They abound in South Asia. But this has been Imran’s USP with Pakistan’s young, the middle classes and the rich, nurtured on a conservative ethos for over four decades that saw two long phases of military rule. He was ideal for the military establishment that co-opted him to oust the three time-premier Nawaz Sharif, its increasingly less pliable one-time protégé. Sharif’s ouster through months of political engineering for which the military establishment also co-opted the judiciary, yet again, and what domestic and international observers have called ‘micro-management’ of the elections helped catapult Khan to the top. This underscores the role the army has come to play of wielding power without grabbing it, through remote control. This is the unanimous verdict of whosoever has watched Pakistan. The establishment has got its man in, but limitations of this management of democratic processes are evident in the fractured popular mandate. Short of majority in the National Assembly, Imran must find allies. Smaller parties may join a coalition but managing it may turn out to be difficult for Imran, the one-man show used to dictating and being idolized. Next, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) that the establishment black-listed and engineered an exodus from has managed three-scores of seats, albeit a half of Imran’s score. It has emerged at the top in the all-too-critical Punjab province. Whoever forms the Punjab Government, it is not going to be easygoing. The once-powerful and popular Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), manipulated to keep away from joining forces with Nawaz, has retained its support base in Sindh. The loser in Sindh is the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), the party of ‘mohajirs’ or migrants from British India. It controlled and even terrorized Karachi, the commercial capital. Split into three and defanged with the ouster of its exiled founder Altaf Hussain, one of its factions may join Imran. MQM’s loss marks the decline of the mohajirs in Pakistan’s life, in political terms if not economic. The entire phalanx of losing parties, alleging large-scale rigging and irregularities, has demanded a re-election. This is a near-impossibility. There were two ‘spoilers’. One was Khan’s ex-wife Reham’s tell-all book leveling serious charges that seemed the work of a journalist and not a gossipy society lady. It was timed for the elections. Khan, well advised by his promoters, decided not to react at all and give currency to the book’s content. The book was ostensibly digested by Pakistan’s netizen that, however, do not go to the polling station. Beyond mud-slinging with the hope that some would stick, the book’s impact is doubtful. A deeply patriarchal society, Pakistan is not Europe or America. The other was a speech by Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the Islamabad High Court who created a stir by accusing intelligence agencies, specifically the arm’s ISI, of interfering in affairs of the judiciary. A maverick, he has earned the ire of the establishment. Forget the polite language of the Twitter posting by the Army’s PR chief Asif Ghafoor, it was nothing short of a publicly expressed demand to sack the offending judge. An enraged Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar denounced attempts being made “to defame the judiciary” and vowed that ‘justice’ would be dispensed to the rebellious judge. Post-elections, he is heading the bench that is hearing petitions against the rebellious judge. Neither the foreign media, nor the Observers, were amused at the way the polls were conducted. The US State Department concurred with the European Union and the Commonwealth Observers and with the fears expressed by the Human Rights Commissions of Pakistan. As a nation that loves cricket, India would have wanted to welcome Imran. To be fair, he was not anti-India like, say, Javed Miandad. Hence, the only people excited are Imran’s starry-eyed cricket lovers innocent of or unmindful of how his political career has shaped or that the forces that have brought him to power live and thrive on being anti-India. Officially, the reaction was cautious as India does not see prospects of ground reality changing. With Imran expectedly making Kashmir the ‘core’ issue and harping on the UN resolutions, his so called olive branch means little. Only Track-II dialogue may resume at some stage. Any understanding of global affairs says that not talking cannot be a permanent posture in diplomacy. Also, since both countries are nuclear-armed which is a cause for concern to everyone far and near. It is a fact that both the USA that has India as its security ally, and China that is backing Pakistan on just about every issue, are pressing both to talk and let peace have a chance. Regionally, although Pakistan’s ultra-right lost electorally, the genie has been out the bottle for too long. Its growing presence poses a threat to not just Pakistan, but the whole region, especially India with which it has permanently hostile relations and with Afghanistan where its intentions are predatory. As most of these groups are hardcore Sunnis and are avowedly anti-Shia, Iran would have cause to worry. How China that has invested millions with millions more in the pipeline in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) views the new political reality and tackles it would be worth watching. The CPEC is the flagship of its global BRI. Its Pakistan investments can bear fruit only amidst relative peace and stability. Gwadar, the port China has invested heavily in to gain access to the Indian Ocean, cannot function to its optimum capacity as long as Balochistan’s militant groups defying the army. Imran has arrived when geopolitical war has intensified in Asia. India is seen with the US while Pakistan and China are the other group with tacit support of Russia that has moved close to China to prevent the American advances.  After all, America needs Pakistan to let it withdraw honourably from Afghanistan where it is stuck for 17 years with no sign of winning. So, much as Indians may feel important and strong, Pakistan, too, has its uses. There is speculation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had invited leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to his swearing-in 2014, could bless the new government in Islamabad along with other Saarc players, should such an invite go out from Imran. As both neighbours enter next month the 71st year of their respective independence and the Partition that came with it, will there be a “South Asia Moment”? The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmal.com]]>

New Delhi Must Address Dhaka's Concerns

For over three decades, since 1981, the political discourse in Bangladesh has been the “Battle of 2 Begums”. Two-term prime minister Khaleda Zia whose official identity is that of  a ‘begum’ fights the three-term current incumbent, Sheikh Hasina who, despite being a devout Muslim, identifies herself with things Bengali. This is crucial in a largely Muslim society that also prides in Bengali language and culture.

Their personal (they rarely talk to each other and never share joy or grief) and political rivalries born out of differing legacies that they have inherited and perpetuated overawe Bangladesh and will continue, at least till one of them is around.

The current mood is one of intense speculation: will Begum Zia, who blundered into boycotting the last parliamentary polls and went into a politically damaging hibernation, contest the elections due this year-end or early next year?

Viewed from New Delhi, chances are that she will. This may be her last chance at political comeback. At 73, she is known to have undergone a heart surgery and has suffered joint pain for long.

Worse, she lost her younger son Arafat, said to be her favourite. He had sought exile in Singapore to escape money-laundering charges back home. Politically worst for her is the self-exile of elder son Tariq who is also wanted in Bangladesh for graft and misuse of power when the mother was the premier (2001-2006). His return would result in instant imprisonment.

An apolitical army-wife pitchforked into politics by the 1981 assassination of her husband, President Ziaur Rahman, Zia has a daunting task ahead fighting an intensely political Hasina.

Zia pursued politics, and legacy of her husband, whom India suspected of having benefitted, if not involved in, the 1975 assassination of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. To carve out a separate identity free of India/West Bengal, the Zias have been adversarial towards India, leaned towards Pakistan from which Bangladesh separated and the Islamic world outside.

At home, the Islamist parties have been their natural allies. Their party, named Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has sought to define ‘nationalism’ as different from rival Awami League.

Indeed, while the husband rehabilitated Sheikh Mujib’s  killers and ended the ban on the Muslim League that had sided with Pakistani rulers, the wife aligned with that party, having League’s ministers in her government during 2001-2006. She has engaged in anti-India tirade, whether in power or out of it. Rival Hasina and her party are painted as “Indian agents.”

By a natural political corollary, she subtly leans towards Pakistan whose establishment has always wanted to undo the humiliation it suffered in 1971, of losing Bangladesh and losing militarily to India.

Under Khaleda, Islamist parties and militant bodies spread terror at the turn of this century, targeting religious minorities and the liberals. Denying their presence at for long, Zia finally acted when threatened with sanctions by the US and criticized by the world community. There were at least three recorded attempts on Hasina’s life.

As opposition parties do, the BNP is showing sudden signs of revival. This month, Zia dispatched three former lawmakers to India. The exploratory visit explains the importance of the larger neighbor, but such visits to the US and Britain cannot be ruled out.

Former Commerce Minister Amir Khosru addressed Indian think tanks and gave media interviews to emphasize that India was “mistaken” in thinking that Begum Zia and the BNP are anti-India. Their effort is to keep India out of the polls discourse and build a scenario of lasting relationship, particularly the economic ties (on which Bangladesh heavily depends and gains) whatever the election’s outcome.

How India looks at Zia and her past record to judge the future remains uncertain. In the past, India has been subtly accused, particularly by the Western powers who are vary of India’s domination in South Asia, of siding with Hasina and prompting her to push on with the 2013 elections. When Zia boycotted them, Hasina received a walk-over and five more years in power.

This discourse leads with Zia, and not Hasina, for three reasons. Firstly, the Islamist forces have gained ground in Bangladesh impacting India’s internal security in the east and north-east. This is despite Hasina emasculating Zia’s main ally, the Bangladesh Muslim League, trying and imprisoning its top leadership and hanging some of them, for targeting unarmed civilians and religious minorities while siding with the Pakistani regime during the 1971 freedom movement.

The nationalist sentiment remains strong 47 years after freedom, but pro-Pakistan sentiment, and the feeling of being ‘surrounded’ by India, do influence the powerful middle class’ mind. They are also influenced by Islamist resurgence that promotes extremism in some parts of the world and a general rightwing lurch across it.

Targeting of liberals has been serious under  Hasina. Her response has been inadequate – she is caught between a pious Muslim identity needed to govern and the need to defend and protect democratic freedom. She could fall between the two stools.

Secondly, in power for over nine years, Hasina faces serious anti-incumbency challenge from a volatile Bangali populace that does not easily re-elect a party and a government. Many socio-economic indicators have certainly improved in last nine years and the economy is performing better than, say, Pakistan or Nepal. But it is a mixed bag of achievements.

Thirdly, the India factor, since Hasina, by her legacy and record, is perceived as pro-India. She has to ‘gain’ from India without ‘surrender’. Like Zia’s, this is also a daunting task.

The extent to which India can and has helped is open to serious doubt and debate. Hasina closed the camps of militants from the Indian northeast, helping the region’s internal security. She naturally expects a quid pro quo. Even allowing for expectation of a smaller neighbor from the bigger one, she has not felt compensated enough.

The Land Border Agreement settled the population/territorial dispute that was legacy of the 1947 Partition. The maritime boundary has also helped. India has not pursued river projects in the northeast to avoid raising alarming sentiments in Bangladesh.

 But water sharing agreement on Teesta river remains crucial to India-Bangladesh ties, no matter who rules in Dhaka. West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee has pursued narrow politics to thwart it, first during the UPA rule and then with NDA. PM Narendra Modi, who has won some support in Dhaka, has failed to convince Kolkata. Looking at Mamata’s political posturing against Delhi and her fear of the BJP, any pact on Teesta seems impossible.

When Teesta pact has not materialized, it is hardly surprising that Bangladesh continues to allow India access through its territory to the Indian northeast.  In denying Teesta waters, India is losing much more.

Imagine a situation if and when Zia returns to power. She could well take Teesta, like she did Farakka issue, to the United Nations General Assembly.

Imagine the prospect of Zia, or any future government in Dhaka, approaching the upper riparian China to pressure India to release more water on the Ganga and less water from Brahmaputra. Dhaka is already on the Belt and Roads Inititiative (BRI) bandwagon and China is already Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and arms supplier.

Whatever the political compulsions of Delhi and/or Kolkata, the larger neighbour has failed the smaller one. India can compensate on the trade front. But that would be grossly inadequate.

 At a time when even tiny Maldives and Seychelles thumb the nose at India, in a region where Chinese Dragon is spreading its presence,  New Delhi should work really hard to keep the only neighbor with which it has a genuinely positive relationship.

The author can be reached mahendraved07@gmail.com]]>

China can aid India in artificial intelligence

By Nishant Arora Tech honchos in Silicon Valley are deeply worried at China’s rapid progress in harnessing Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology that has shown encouraging results in changing the way we work and live. According to Eric Schmidt, former chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, China will overtake the US in AI by 2025. Measured by start-up financing deals and dollars from venture capitalists, the United States’ AI start-up ecosystem currently dominates — followed by China, says a recent Accenture analysis titled “Rewire for Growth”. When it comes to India, the number of AI start-ups has increased since 2011 at a compounded annual growth rate of 86 per cent. But the size of funding till date is substantially smaller in India than in the US and China, reflecting the limited success of India’s AI start-ups in achieving scale so far, the report noted. “According to our analysis, AI has the potential to add $957 billion, or 15 per cent of current gross value added, to India’s economy in 2035,” said Accenture. Prime Minister Narendra Modi now wants that AI technology should be “Made in India” and “Made to Work for India” but despite promising starts, the country’s policy initiatives are not comprehensive yet and lag other G20 countries. China, on the other hand, today harbours one of the biggest clusters of AI scientists. According to The Economist, China’s State Council has issued an ambitious policy blueprint, calling for the country to become “the world’s primary AI innovation centre” by 2030. “China’s AI programme is highly structured and driven ‘top down’ whereas India’s approach is more ‘organic’ — at least till this point — driven largely by the private sector and driven by their unique needs for AI,” said Dr Prashant Pradhan, Chief Technology Officer, IBM India/South Asia. These represent very different approaches to “getting ready” for AI. “China’s approach carefully manages investment, infrastructure, focus verticals and training. This has benefits in speed of execution and outcomes — especially when there is clarity on the priority areas of application,” Pradhan told IANS. Advances in AI largely happen in an open, peer-reviewed community with free exchange of ideas. “Over time, there may be more coordinated government investment — especially in resource-constrained environments,” Pradhan noted. When it comes to funding, Machine Learning (ML), recommendation engines and computer vision are the most popular segments of AI, accounting for almost 80 per cent of total funding globally. “Big industry players that have the financial strength and business experience to invest in AI research and development (R&D) typically lead the strategic charge on global competitiveness for their country,” the Accenture analysis stressed. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are spearheading AI innovations in the US, and Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu are funding the AI research in China. In line with the global trends, the digital platform companies are becoming the driving force of AI innovations in India too. According to Rajesh Janey, Managing Director and President, India Enterprise, Dell EMC, the country is entering an era of monumental technological change, rich with opportunity. “Globally, businesses plan to triple their investments in advanced AI within five years. India too will see the same enthusiasm, with investments in AI jumping from 31 per cent to 89 per cent in the same time-frame,” Janey told IANS. AI will improve our interaction with technology, understand the abundance of data and rely on the predictions to automate excessively complex or mundane tasks, said Shaakun Khanna, Senior Director, HCM Strategy and Transformation, Asia Pacific at Oracle. In February, Modi inaugurated the Wadhwani Institute of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Mumbai’s Kalina campus — reported to be the first AI research lab in the country. US-based philanthropist brothers Romesh Wadhwani and Sunil Wadhwani have established the institute and want it to become like San Francisco-based non-profit “OpenAI” that has SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk as one of its co-founders. In order to become a true AI powerhouse, it is high time that New Delhi makes Beijing a bigger partner in fuelling AI research at home. According to Accenture, AI research has been motivated by societal needs in India so far and the first step now is to create a comprehensive, long-term vision and road-map for AI. “The national AI plan with clear milestones should be set as a priority. Here, India can follow the lead of China which has laid out clear targets for AI development in phases, initially by 2020 and going forward by 2030,” it added. The first critical thing is to understand the role AI is likely to play across multiple professions. “Targeted augmentation in every field will be the key to success for the country to have an AI-ready workforce,” Pradhan stressed. (IANS)]]>