Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Armchair activists and the struggle in Iran

I feel sorry for all the good natured armchair activist types. They rarely know what fight they are really fighting. Take the recent protests in Iran, for example. A lot of armchair activists around the world joined in support. They wrote Twitter messages and Facebook status updates, and some even went so far as to send forwards! They probably had the best of intentions, mostly, but it is quite likely that they were actually supporting one bunch of radical Shia against another.

In a report released today, the US think tank Stratfor has analysed the causes of the present unrest in Iran. Their analysis is that it is primarily a fight between the class of clergy that came to power after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who wants his own appointees in the ruling clergy. George Friedman writes that the focus of the current power struggle was not Mir Mousavi, a founding member of the Islamic Republican Party who was prime minister of Iran during its disastrous war with Iraq, but Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Here is part of what Startfor wrote:

Rafsanjani represents the class of clergy that came to power in 1979. He served as president from 1989-1997, but Ahmadinejad defeated him in 2005. Rafsanjani carries enormous clout within the system as head of the regime’s two most powerful institutions — the Expediency Council, which arbitrates between the Guardian Council and parliament, and the Assembly of Experts, whose powers include oversight of the supreme leader. Forbes has called him one of the wealthiest men in the world. Rafsanjani, in other words, remains at the heart of the post-1979 Iranian establishment.

Ahmadinejad expressly ran his recent presidential campaign against Rafsanjani, using the latter’s family’s vast wealth to discredit Rafsanjani along with many of the senior clerics who dominate the Iranian political scene. It was not the regime as such that he opposed, but the individuals who currently dominate it. Ahmadinejad wants to retain the regime, but he wants to repopulate the leadership councils with clerics who share his populist values and want to revive the ascetic foundations of the regime. The Iranian president constantly contrasts his own modest lifestyle with the opulence of the current religious leadership.

Recognizing the threat Ahmadinejad represented to him personally and to the clerical class he belongs to, Rafsanjani fired back at Ahmadinejad, accusing him of having wrecked the economy. At his side were other powerful members of the regime, including Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, who has made no secret of his antipathy toward Ahmadinejad and whose family links to the Shiite holy city of Qom give him substantial leverage. The underlying issue was about the kind of people who ought to be leading the clerical establishment. The battlefield was economic: Ahmadinejad’s charges of financial corruption versus charges of economic mismanagement leveled by Rafsanjani and others.

When Ahmadinejad defeated Mir Hossein Mousavi on the night of the election, the clerical elite saw themselves in serious danger. The margin of victory Ahmadinejad claimed might have given him the political clout to challenge their position. Mousavi immediately claimed fraud, and Rafsanjani backed him up. Whatever the motives of those in the streets, the real action was a knife fight between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani.

This may not be the whole truth either, but since Startfor (www.stratfor.com) is not known as the ‘shadow CIA’ for nothing, presumably they know a little more than the rest of us.

So next time before you jump on to a bandwagon, look before you leap.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Let's move the capital of India!

Mothers smeared their children with mud, and men swathed themselves in wet towels. Tar oozed in the streets…In India last week not even mad dogs or Englishmen went out in the midday sun.”

This could have been written last week. In fact, it was a report on the Indian summer in Time magazine in the first week of July, 1958.

The monsoon is late. Everyone from the prime minister to the marginal farmer is waiting anxiously for news of rain that hasn’t come. So far, the weatherman has only this to say: that it’s not going to be a good monsoon, and that temperatures are even higher than they always are at this time of the year.

It didn’t take thermometers or experts to tell. We’ve felt it in Delhi. It has been about five degrees above the normal, hitting 44 degrees Celsius on Wednesday. With rain clouds nowhere on the city’s horizon yet, both water and power supplies are beginning to falter.

To be stuck in this searing heat without electricity or water is rather uncomfortable. Add a fire and it could be a version of life in hell. There is no shortage of devils here; that deficiency won’t be felt.

This is when a Raj-era practice begins to make sense. From 1864, every summer, the British began moving the administration to a summer capital up in the Himachal hills in Shimla. It was quite an effort — the national capital then was in Calcutta, 1,700 km away.

This very civilised practice was discontinued after Independence.

Perhaps India should think of  reviving it. If the British empire at its zenith could rule its Asian territories from Shimla long before there was telephone or Internet or air travel, surely it is not impossible to do so now.

Another alternative might be to take the capital to a city with a more salubrious climate, like Bangalore. There, the summer maximum temperature rarely rises above 33 degrees Celsius, or the winter minimum falls below 15 degrees.

Making it the capital would do Bangalore — and India — a world of good. The city’s identity crisis would be resolved for good. It would stop being conflicted between its laid back small town self and its identity as a global city. Its infrastructure problems would be addressed seriously, like Delhi’s have been.

The sense that south India is like a whole other country would also evaporate. At present, the general impression among most people in other parts of India is that all of south India is one homogeneous mass, where everyone speaks either Tamil or Malayalam, and eats dosas and idlis. Nothing like transplanting an army of these ignoramuses to the southern heartland and exposing them to Andhra, Chettinad and Mangalorean meat and fish dishes.

There would be other benefits as well. The capital would be 2,000 km further away from the borders with Pakistan and China, for one.

Of course Bangalore and Shimla are not the only options. Capital cities can and have been built from green field up — Brazil did that with Brasilia. It deliberately located the new capital in an underdeveloped region to take development to that part of the country.

So, on third thoughts, maybe India can build a new capital in the hills of Northeast India somewhere near Shillong. Moving the centre is really the best way to make the periphery feel it belongs.