Friday, October 11, 2013

Hopes of Autumn

Indian Express Oct 11, 2013

By T.P.Sreenivasan

The salubrious early autumn in New York offers the ideal setting for the General Assembly session, which opens in the third week of September every year. Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers, not to speak of Foreign Ministers and professional diplomats throng New York, some to mix business with pleasure, others to mix pleasure with pleasure. Diplomatic activities multiply everywhere and every one reviews policies and projects them to the world. Deals and pledges are made, even if they have to be broken subsequently. After the long speeches, gala dinners and joint statements, the guests return to their homesteads to continue their struggle for power and progress.
In Japan, they say that the autumn sky and the woman’s heart are susceptible to frequent changes. Leaves change colours and fall, paving the way for winter. This year, war clouds were visible on the Syrian firmament as delegates were packing their bags for their pilgrimage to the United Nations. Pundits around the globe declared that war was inevitable, now that Syria had used chemical weapons and thus breached the red line. The words from President Obama and Secretary Kerry were warlike. War drums were heard in London and Paris. The United States, they said, could not but attack Syria to maintain its global status and credibility among its allies. Money was no problem, as oil rich Arabs would finance the war.

The experts were obviously wrong. The Americans, the British and the French were in no mood for war even if their leaders were. Regime changes in the Middle East did not seem very attractive after the aftermath of the Arab Spring in other countries. The Morsi phenomenon in Egypt and the murder in cold blood of the American Ambassador, who was the architect of the new regime in Libya, had dampened enthusiasm for change. President Assad seemed still strong and fundamentalist elements had crept into the dissident movement. A dithering US Administration, therefore, grasped the straw that Vladimir Putin extended by way of a plan to eliminate the chemical weapons of Syria, as though the rebellion in Syria was not against President Assad, but his chemical weapons arsenal. President Obama claimed that Syria accepted the deal because of the gravity of his threat. Others thought that it was the defeat of imperialism and triumph of the “Communist” Putin, who threatened the Americans through the New York Times. But there was an element of wisdom and the preference to avoid war in the mind of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Nobody will concede this, as the world is not accustomed to the breaking out of peace. War and violence come more naturally to the Homo sapiens.

The beginning of a thaw in the Arctic freeze of US-Iran relations was more dramatic as the two countries had not spoken to each other since 1979. The feeble signs of a change after President Rouhani took over were dismissed as unreal, but the announcement of the first direct contact between the two leaders by way of a telephone call from President Obama to President Rouhani shook the very foundations of the theory of inevitability of war. What was more, President Obama said that it was not merely a goodwill call, but a discussion on Iran’s nuclear programme and that he was persuaded there was even a basis for agreement. Obama called the discussion an important breakthrough after a generation of deep mistrust and suggested that it could serve as the starting point to an eventual deal on Iran’s nuclear programme and a broader renewal of relations between two countries that once were close allies.

“The test will be meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions, which can also bring relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are currently in place,” added President Obama. “Resolving this issue, obviously, could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said.

The skeptics and the non-believers have ruled out any change in the future and have pointed out the geopolitical compulsions on both sides. They expect that the mirage of peace will give way to war clouds, as it is unthinkable for Iran to give up its nuclear adventure as long as the hidden weapons of Israel posed a threat to the Islamic world.

India too contributed to the autumn of hope with the farewell visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the White House, though seen by many as nothing but ceremonial. A significant step that was taken by the two sides went almost unnoticed in the midst of disappointment of on the Afghan front and the economic liberalization area. The media, which called the move “reckless adventurism” when there were indications that the liability law would be “diluted”, kept quiet when an agreement was signed to begin work on the installation of a Westinghouse reactor in Gujarat. We do not know whether the US relaxed its insistence on no liability for suppliers or we relaxed our liability law, but one irritant in India-US relations seemed to be fading away.

One exception to the general mood of change for the better was the disastrous India-Pak summit in New York. It was a summit, which should have gone the way of Obama-Putin summit and the Dilma Roussef-Obama summit, for which the time was not propitious. India and Pakistan did not even have the courage to announce the meet and it was made to appear as though no decision had been taken. Guns continued to boom across the Line of Control as a cover for infiltrators from Pakistan. The only substantive outcome of the summit was an agreement that Directors General (Military Operations) on both sides should look into cease-fire violations, a job already assigned to them. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not even show the courtesy of avoiding his meaningless reference to Kashmir in his speech to the UN General Assembly. Whether he referred to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a “dehathi aurat” or simply narrated the story of a village woman, who constantly complained about her neighbor, the body language did not show any warmth. Nawaz Sharif had the habit of embracing Prime Minister Gujral and breaking into Punjabi when they met. With his hands and feet tied up, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could only read the riot act on terror to him, for which he did not need to meet him face to face. The summit did more harm than good, because it highlighted that the two leaders were hostage, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his army and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the Indian public opinion. The claim that we lost nothing was untenable. We lost at least a dozen more lives on the eve of the meeting.

Though the India-Pak summit failed to take things forward, in the eyes of international observers, the summit also fitted into the general trend towards relaxation of tensions. The hopes of autumn, however,  must go through the rigours of winter before blossoming in spring. Chances are that the winter freeze will destroy some of the seeds planted in autumn.

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