Editorials - 19-03-2021

The U.S. is a sunset power in the region and the President faces challenges in reshaping American engagement here

It took just 36 days for United States President Joe Biden to order his first air strike abroad since taking office. On February 25, the U.S. bombed facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria, in retaliation for a rocket attack at an American base in Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan, earlier in the month, allegedly by pro-Iran Shia militants in Iraq. The next day, the administration released an intelligence report on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate on October 2, 2018, which concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the operation. Separately, the Biden administration has taken steps to revive the Iran nuclear deal, and asked the Islamic Republic to comply with the terms of the multilateral agreement that was reached in 2015 but abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018.

The strategic reality

These three decisions may not be directly interlinked, but they draw a broad outline of Mr. Biden’s West Asia policy. Almost all American Presidents since the Second World War have left deep policy imprints on the region. Barack Obama and Mr. Trump sought to refocus away from West Asia to East Asia where China is rising, but they did it differently. Mr. Obama identified Iran’s nuclear programme as his primary foreign policy challenge in the region — as it could end Israel’s nuclear monopoly and trigger an arms race — and sought to address it diplomatically. This was also out of a reluctant conviction that going to war with Iran would be too risky.

Mr. Trump took a more hostile approach towards Iran. He abandoned the nuclear deal, reimposed sanctions on Tehran, offered unconditional support to Saudi Arabia and Israel in taking on Iranian proxies, and even assassinated a top Iranian General. But Mr. Trump was also careful not to open a direct war with Iran. He ordered the hit on Qassim Soleimani in Iraq, not inside Iran. When Iran retaliated by firing missiles at American bases in Iraq or when it shot down an American drone over the Gulf, Mr. Trump chose not to order counter attacks.

Mr. Biden faces the same strategic reality, with a greater urgency. The competition with China has revived memories of the Cold War, and the administration has moved fast to build an alliance system in the Indo-Pacific. Mr. Biden cannot get stuck in West Asia for too long, but he cannot just leave a region, which has some of America’s closest allies, and hosts thousands of its troops, either. His initial decisions suggest that he, like Mr. Obama, has identified the Iranian nuclear programme as the key challenge. Because, if that is not tackled, it could trigger a chain of incidents, drawing both the U.S. and its allies into another prolonged conflict in the region which would slow down his pivot to the Indo-Pacific.

Mr. Obama was narrowly focused on the Iran nuclear programme. (He did not use force against Iran or its proxies that could have endangered the nuclear talks.) Mr. Biden, on the other hand, has set a more ambitious plan in motion. By offering talks to Iran while at the same time bombing Iranian proxies and ending support for Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen and releasing an intelligence exposé on its de facto leader, he is seeking to strike a balance between the region’s two key powers — one an ally and the other a rival.

The Iran deal as ticking clock

But Mr. Biden faces at least three key challenges in his bid to reshape the U.S.’s engagement with the region. One, his decision to bomb pro-Iran militants in Syria in retaliation for an attack by Iran-backed militants in Iraq could be read in Iran as a weak show of strength rather than a tough warning. Mr. Trump ordered the Soleimani hit in Iraq. Mr. Biden picked Syria, further away from Iran. When Soleimani was killed, the Trump administration claimed that the attack reestablished America’s deterrence. But in fact, Shia militants continued to target American positions inside Iraq with rocket attacks. Even after Mr. Biden’s Syria strikes, attacks targeting U.S. presence continued in Iraq. After Mr. Biden stopped America’s support for the Yemen war, the Houthis, backed by Iran, also stepped up attacks against Saudi Arabia.

While attacks and counter attacks continue, Mr. Biden is losing precious time to revive the nuclear deal. Iran is going to presidential elections in June. Mr. Biden’s best practical way to contain Iran’s nuclear programme is by reviving the deal. And his best bet to revive the deal is to do it before President Hassan Rouhani, whose government signed the original agreement in 2015, leaves office. The clock is ticking.

Saudi Arabia and Israel

Two, if the U.S.’s dependence on Saudi Arabia has reduced in recent years, Riyadh’s dependence on Washington has also come down in a changing West Asia. The U.S. did nothing when Saudi oil facilities came under attack in September 2019. The Saudis know that America’s ability in shaping geopolitical outcome in West Asia is in decline. Today, there are more power centres in the region — from Turkey to Russia. MBS, as the Saudi Crown Prince is widely called, has established a good working relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Foreseeing some blowback from the Biden administration, he moved quickly to mend ties with Qatar, even ignoring the scepticism from the United Arab Emirates.

On March 7, in an apparent defiance of America’s call for an end to the war on Yemen, Saudi Arabia carried out massive air strikes in the country amid Houthi attacks. Unless there is a palace coup, MBS is set to become the monarch when his father, King Salman, leaves the throne. Washington will have to deal with him, and when it does, he will have more options on his side than his father, uncles and grandfather had.

Three, the elephant in the room is Israel. How is Mr. Biden going to fit Israel into his larger scheme of things for West Asia? If Mr. Biden talks human rights to Saudi Arabia and ignores the rights abuses by Israel, which is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories, his policy would look hollow. If he “holds Iran accountable” for the actions of Shia militias by ordering air strikes and does nothing to stop Israel’s ever-expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, he would be accused of double standards. And if he takes a tougher line towards Israel and pushes them to revive the stalled peace process with the Palestinians at a time when his administration seeks to engage Iran for the nuclear deal, it would further infuriate the Israelis, who in the past had carried out intelligence operations and targeted killings inside Iran. An angry Israel can, to the least, torpedo Mr. Biden’s Iran policy.

China is the focus now

Mr. Biden does not have an easy way out of the West Asian tinderbox. Mr. Obama had narrower goals. Success for Mr. Biden would depend largely on how he manages to balance between the three key powers in the region. He may be hoping that a hybrid strategy of tough posturing, use of limited force and diplomatic outreach would yield results.

It would have worked 20 years ago when the U.S. push for democracy had forced even Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to hold multiparty elections. The U.S. today is a sunset power in West Asia, and its strategic focus is on China. Both America’s allies and rivals know that. And in geopolitics, consequences need not necessarily follow the plan of action.


Tamil Nadu awaits a political, economic and social environment that affirms marginalised identities with confidence

At a recent public interaction, Kamal Haasan, the leader of the Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM)-led political front — which positions itself as an alternative to the long-standing Dravida Munnerta Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led political formations — stated that his party’s application form for aspiring candidates had no column for caste. This was in response to a question whether Tamil Nadu will ever transcend caste-based politics.

Merit and identity

An often-paraded argument by the caste privileged is that merit is an untainted guiding light while identity is a biased lens. Merit is an absolute, a metric detached from social variances and undulations. It is not a product of society. On the contrary, it is a measure that circumvents societal discrimination. One solution advanced is the removal of the ‘caste column’ from all application forms.

Kamal Haasan speaks in the same vein. By the simple act of removing one column , presto, his party becomes casteless; and will, consequently, lead to caste-free politics. A meritocracy will be born!

The field is far from level

People enjoying caste privilege will no doubt demand that caste should not be a dominant determinant in electoral politics. If you belong to brahminical or politically dominant castes, it is convenient and self-serving to demand this false level-playing field. But the field is far from level. It is so uneven that those who have been pushed down the slopes into the crevasses and forced to remain there will not be represented unless they are specifically identified and representatives of their communities gain the power to speak for themselves.

When you are a Dalit, it matters that you are being represented by someone who shares your lived experience. The community lives on the margins, not just economically but in every socio-political sphere. This results in marginal political power and, in such an environment, the agency to speak for Dalits remaining with Dalits is essential. This is not very different from an African-American tending to identify with their own or women rallying around women candidates. Elimination of caste requires the dismantling of edifices of power and the empowering of those who remain unseen. These two seemingly opposite actions need to work in tandem in order to attain equity. A reserved constituency is an important political tool for Dalits. B.R. Ambedkar spoke of the ‘Annihilation of Caste’ but that did not mean keeping it out of political action. Rather, quite the opposite. An annihilation of caste can be achieved only when we create a political, economic and social environment that affirms marginalised identities with vigour and confidence. Parties such as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi with their thrust on Dalit political presence, are, therefore, indispensable to bringing about political parity, making that caste column central to empowerment.

Caste always lingers

The caste-empowered close their eyes to the reality of how caste operates. Biases are hereditary societal implants. When a provision for self-identification by caste is done away with, the candidate presumes he has elevated himself to a trans-caste pedestal. This is a delusion. The party, on its part, believes that prior social work for the marginalised or politically progressive answers given in an interview reveal the individual’s ‘above-caste distinction’ attitude. But this is not how the story unravels. Caste always lingers and operates in ways that go unnoticed. Even the most well-intentioned Forward Caste or Other Backward Caste politicians need to keep themselves in check. This will only be achieved if every political party consciously and deliberately looks for candidates from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities and fields them as such, up-front. Importantly, this must not be confined to the obligatory reserved seats. I would have been far more impressed had Kamal Haasan said that his party made a conscious effort to identify Dalit and tribal candidates and allocated a certain percentage of seats for them. Caste is such an enclosed identity that parties that present a progressive face take the route of negating its active presence rather than taking it head-on.

The counter argument would be that the Gounder and Thevar caste groups consolidated themselves only because of caste-based politics. What this perspective ignores is the fact that these were already socio-culturally dominant communities and they further consolidated this inherent position. Communities such as Vanniyars also formed caste-based formations, further squeezing Dalits into a corner. Therefore, to speak of caste-identity-less candidate selection is problematic. We need to break powerful caste-centric groupism-s but that will not happen unless we first recognise that such communities come together only because of their caste might within the social order. Whereas, Dalit communities find it much harder to assemble and are always viewed with suspicion by all. The brahmins’, even the anti-caste brahmins’, complaint about casteism in Tamil Nadu politics does not stem from their social, cultural or economic marginalisation. Their frustration comes from their removal from the high seats and being relegated to the gallery.

The demolition of caste from Tamil Nadu politics needs to begin on the ground. Only then will it reflect in elections. At the same time, despite many serious failings, we have to applaud Tamil Nadu for the social progress that it has made over the decades. This is the direct result of robust, socially aware politics. But the caste column from a form can only be removed when Dalits and Tribals feel that it has become redundant and their caste identity irrelevant; not when those who will always benefit from caste proclaim castelessness in order to feel good about their hearts being in the right place.

T.M. Krishna is a musician and author

Inefficiencies in the Aadhaar project should not come in the way of welfare delivery

The Supreme Court, on Wednesday, did the right thing by terming as serious the allegation by a petitioner that three crore ration cards were cancelled for not being linked with the Aadhaar database and that these were connected to reported starvation deaths in some States. The unique identification scheme has been in existence for more than a decade and recent data has estimated that nearly 90% of India’s projected population has been assigned the Aadhaar number. Following the Court’s judgment in 2018, upholding the Aadhaar programme as a reasonable restriction on individual privacy to fulfil welfare requirements and dignity — a 4-1 majority Bench had also rejected a review petition in January 2021 — questions about the scheme’s validity for public purposes have been put to rest. But that has not meant that concerns about the failures in the use of the identity verification project have been allayed. These include inefficiencies in biometric authentication and updating, linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts, and the use of the Aadhaar payment bridge. With benefits under the PDS, the NREGA and LPG subsidy, among other essentials, requiring individuals to have the Aadhaar number, inefficiencies and failures have led to inconvenience and suffering for the poor. There are reports that show failures in authentication having led to delays in the disbursal of benefits and, in many cases, in their denial due to cancellation of legitimate beneficiary names. The government had promised that exemption mechanisms that would allow for overriding such failures will help beneficiaries still avail subsidies and benefits despite system failures. That has been the response by the government to the recent petition as well, but reports from States such as Jharkhand from 2017, for example, suggest that there have been starvation deaths because of the denial of benefits and subsidies.

Biometric authentication failures are but expected of a large scale and technology-intensive project such as the UID. Despite being designed to store finger and iris scans of most users, doubts about the success rates of authentication and the generation of “false negatives” have always persisted, more so for labourers and tribal people. Those engaged in manual and hard labour, for example, are susceptible to fingerprint changes over time. In practice, beneficiaries have tended to use Aadhaar cards as identity markers but there have been instances of people losing cards and being denied benefits. Given the scale of the problem, the central and State governments would do well to allow alternative identification so that genuine beneficiaries are not denied due subsidies. The question of fraud can still be addressed by the use of other verification cards and by decentralised disbursal of services at the panchayat level.

There is no hope of a sudden improvement in U.S.-China ties, but the Alaska meet is a start

As top diplomats from the U.S. and China begin their meeting in Alaska, there is no question that their conversation will be a difficult one. The meeting, between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Yang Jiechi, CCP Politburo member and Director, Central Foreign Affairs Commission, accompanied by U.S. NSA Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi, comes on the back of tensions that spiralled during the Trump administration around trade tariffs, 5G telecommunication, tech espionage, Chinese maritime actions and U.S. sanctions on China, and further exacerbated over the pandemic, which Mr. Trump called the “China virus”. Biden administration officials have said that they will bring up China’s crackdown in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Chinese aggression against U.S. allies and partners, in particular pressure on Australia over trade bans, aggression against Japan in the Senkaku islands and even the PLA’s incursions over the LAC, which China considers bilateral issues. Mr. Blinken prefaced the Alaska meet with visits to Seoul and Tokyo where he promised an American “pushback” to China, and he goes into the talks with the backing of the recent summit-level Quad conversations, with a commitment to ensuring a free Indo-Pacific. For its part, China is seeking a reversal of Trump-era policies, and structured dialogue to take forward ties from the point they have reached, arguably their lowest since the Nixon era. In particular, China wants an end to the U.S.’s trade sanctions, restrictions on American firms manufacturing in China and visa bans, and a reopening of its consulate in Houston.

Clearly, the scene is set for an extended airing of grievances, and expectations are low of any breakthrough, but the fact that the meeting is happening at all sends the signal that both sides are prepared to engage each other. Mr. Blinken’s formulation that the U.S. will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be” with China, chalks up climate change, the COVID-19 challenge and global economic recovery as areas of possible discussion. Research quoted by the World Economic Forum predicted that the U.S.-China tariff war itself could cost the world $600 billion. Afghanistan is another area where the U.S. and China have held three meetings last year as part of the “Troika” with Russia, and a common peace strategy could be another helpful conversation. The two sides are expected to discuss a possible summit meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. While New Delhi has a litany of its own grievances with Beijing, it too would benefit if a “Cold War” between the U.S. and China is averted, much like the rest of the world that has found itself akin to the proverbial grass when two elephants fight.