Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Crimea & Punishment: US Influence in Decline

"If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning."
Robert S. McNamara

John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, recently visited Kiev, the besieged Ukraine capital. From there he accused Russia “of making up reasons for intervention in Ukraine, saying that ‘not a single piece of credible evidence supports any one of these claims*."  Kerry went on to further refute Russia’s justification for amassing troops in Crimea based on their assertion that “Russian-speaking citizens (were) under siege…*" (*Source: CNNArticle).

At face value I would be inclined to agree with Mr. Kerry. The people of Kiev marched in protest of their elected government led by Russian strongman Victor Yanukovich to overthrow him. It is true he was democratically elected (even though there were numerous anomalies and allegations of voter fraud and vote rigging). For our purposes let’s assume he was democratically elected. So while we can argue that his government’s demise was un-democratic in that it did not transpire at the ballot box, what cannot be argued is the fact that Mr. Yanukovich completely lost the confidence of his own ministers, cabinet and party. In the end he had no credibility, and therefore no legitimacy, left to govern the people of Ukraine. It was just a matter of time before he would have had to submit his resignation and hold new elections, which is why he fled.

What surprises me most about the current crisis in Crimea is not the recent turn of events but that nobody in NATO, the European Union, MI-5, State Department, CIA, NSA or the White House saw this coming. In my estimation, Putin was always going to take all necessary means to protect his substantial trade and geopolitical investments in Ukraine. We were all aware that Mr. Yanukovich was the Kremlin’s man in Kiev. Russia has historical ties to the region starting in the 18th century. Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, but they still share the same language and many Ukrainians work in Russia today. Most importantly Russia has billions of dollars invested there. “Take Crimea, for instance. More than half of its 2 million people are Russian, and Russia still maintains a naval base there.” (Source: NPR Article). Did the Western powers seriously expect Putin to walk away or agree to settle this matter with meetings, phone calls and group hugs? Mr. Putin is ex KGB and a man who has long portrayed a tough guy image. We have all seen the pictures of him wrestling a bear and riding a horse shirtless. He is not going to go silently into the night when there is a direct challenge to his authority and influence within his geopolitical sphere and right on Russia’s doorstep.

Putin claims that he was asked by Mr. Yanukovich to send troops to protect the Russian speaking populations in the East and in Crimea; it is a pretty thin argument. Even without a law degree one can see that there is no legal justification for Russia’s action. Let’s for a moment forget Putin’s claims for amassing troops in Crimea and go back to 2005 to another invasion of a sovereign country. Now consider John Kerry’s statement accusing Russia and substitute Ukraine for Iraq - of making up reasons for intervention in (Iraq), and that ‘not a single piece of credible evidence supports any one of these claims;" funny how his statement still applies to the Iraq invasion. To this day there is not proof of Iraqi links to Al-Qaeda, nor any evidence they supported, funded or harbored any terrorist organizations. We all know that there was never any credible evidence presented (only anecdotal from exiles and dissidents; which were written off by German intelligence who provided them to US and UK) of a stockpile of deadly chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. There was never any imminent threat to the United States of America or the world at large, as we were repeatedly told by Cheney, Bush and Blair. No matter how you feel about the Iraq invasion there can be no dispute that there was no legal justification for it within International Law. Perhaps this is why the US was able to convince only one of the more than one hundred and ninety countries in the world of its need to invade a sovereign nation.

There is no question that Mr. Putin has no moral right or legal justification to invade the Ukraine. The problem is that after the invasion of Iraq, the United States lost its moral authority to stop Russia or any other country from doing the same. It is a simple matter of International law; if the US can break it at will, then why not another country? Bush and Cheney set a very dangerous precedent, that too at a time when US economic dominance is in decline. Mr. Putin is well aware of this fact and has taken a calculated but smart risk. He knows the US can no longer take the high ground or afford another war. While the European Union can take the high ground, they are averse to war. However, since Russia supplies almost a quarter of their oil and natural gas, Putin knows that the EU is highly unlikely to do anything too damaging in terms of sanctions or economic reprimands. Perhaps, now Bush and Cheney can add this to the already high cost of their Iraq war.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why I Boycotted Martin Scorsese


“And as I've gotten older, I've had more of a tendency to look for people who live by kindness, tolerance, compassion, a gentler way of looking at things.”
Martin Scorsese 

Martin Scorsese is not a very imposing man at 5’ 4” but few will deny the towering influence he has had on global cinema since the early 1970’s. In fact I doubt that there is anyone in the world over the age of thirty who has not seen or heard of a Scorsese film. Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed and most recently The Wolf of Wall Street, to name just a few of the phenomenal movies and enduring movie characters he has created over the years. 

The biggest movie stars in the world line up to be cast in one of his movies, new directors would kill to have made one movie from his long resume, in their entire career, and moviegoers flock to his latest creation in droves. Apart from the films he has directed, he has also produced countless classics and served as mentor and inspiration for a few generations of filmmakers. 

Being a movie fanatic myself, he has long been a hero of mine. No matter the subject matter or the cast, I used to be one of the faithful who would gladly pay to watch the next Scorsese film with blind devotion.

This is a man whose every film I would run out to be the first to see; a man for whom I had a great deal of respect. A man whose pain I personally felt, each time he was cheated out of a Best Director Oscar; amazingly he has still won ONLY one Oscar for The Departed in 2006; but I digress. The point is that in an industry filled with shallow, self-absorbed and feckless people, this was a man I admired for being the opposite. 

He is someone I believed held values and principles that were made of sterner stuff in the midst of an often morally bankrupt profession. This was a man who in my mind had not drunk the Hollywood Kool Aid of self-importance. Instead of using his fame to preach to us, off the camera, he spoke purely through his art; staying true to his vision and not succumbing to chasing the box office numbers and studio-driven bottom-lines. 

To be clear, I am not comparing him to Gandhi or Mandela but within Hollywood he was someone who stood out from the rest of the big studio sell-out pack, with his humble, gentle and self-effacing demeanor. Why then you might ask did I take this drastic step and boycott a genius and someone whom I clearly held in such high regard?

In September 2009, Roman Polanski was detained on a U.S. arrest warrant related to a 1977 child sex charge while trying to enter Switzerland. He was on his way to attend the Zurich Film Festival, where he was to be honoured. Polanski has been on the run since 1978. 

He was 43 years old when he pled guilty “to a single count of having unlawful intercourse with a minor acknowledging he had sex with a 13-year-old girl.” It seems there “have been repeated attempts to settle the case over the years, but the sticking point has always been Polanski's refusal to return to attend hearings. Prosecutors have consistently argued that it would be a miscarriage of justice to allow a man to go free who "drugged and raped a 13-year-old child." (Source: CNNarticle). I would be inclined to agree with the authorities. 

Mr. Polanski not only committed a crime but actually admitted to it. After he was arrested a section of the Hollywood community led by Harvey Weinstein started a petition to ‘FREE POLANSKI’ because they claimed "it seems inadmissible to them that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him" (Source: ONTD article). The petition called on every filmmaker we can to help fix this terrible situation," (Source: CNNarticle). Martin Scorsese was one of the signatories to this petition.

Let’s begin by stating the obvious; it seems to me that these petitioners are suggesting that due to Mr. Polanski’s greatness as a filmmaker and based on his tremendous contribution to the arts, he should somehow be forgiven for raping a 13 year old girl; or worse that perhaps the laws of the land that apply to the rest of us mere mortals do not apply to Hollywood greatness. It would be one thing to request that the authorities arrest him after the function (personally, I don’t believe a child rapist should be afforded even that courtesy) but to suggest that he not only not be arrested but that he be allowed to remain a free man, is abhorrent and an insult to the rights of women and every daughter, sister, wife and mother. Also, I am aware that the girl he raped famously forgave him in 1997 and requested that the charges against him be dropped; she did so to find closure and move on with her life. Irrespective, her forgiving him should change nothing. Mr. Polanski committed a serious crime and must face the consequences for his actions. It is for the Judge and jury to weigh the victim’s forgiveness when Mr. Polanski faces them in a court of law. If we start to determine criminality and sentencing based purely on a victim’s forgiveness of the perpetrator, we may as well do away with the criminal justice system.

It honestly does not matter to me that there were other famous Hollywood personalities like Woody Allen, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson and Jonathan Demme who also signed the same petition. But it troubled me deeply that Mr. Scorsese did. Perhaps, naively so, but I had never equated him with the rest of this industry and had held him to a higher standard. His signature and support to free a confessed child rapist felt like a personal betrayal and I chose to show my indignation by boycotting his movies from that day.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Narendra Modi: India’s Saviour or the Devil in Saffron?

(Image credit: listaka.com)
“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
Mahatma Gandhi 

At the outset I want to be very clear that I hold no love for the Congress Party. Under Sonia Gandhi, it has raped and looted India like no other party or single-entity since our Independence; of that there is no question. I for one cannot wait to see the back of the UPA and am also desperately looking for an alternative to lead India. Today, the Congress party comes across as apathetic, complacent, autocratic and completely blind to the day-to-day hardships and realities of the majority of our country. I will give the Congress credit for liberalising the Indian economy and ushering in a hitherto unseen era of wealth and prosperity. But it now feels like the only beneficiaries of this economic largesse have been the politicians themselves and the politically connected classes. The majority of Indians have not seen any returns from the economic boom other than vote buying sop’s and poorly distributed government handouts that appear around election time.

Meanwhile, all the ruling politicians have become completely shameless in their own pursuit of ill-gotten gains, behave like they are all above the law and have also deluded themselves into believing that we are deaf, dumb and blind to their looting and selling of our country. Furthermore, they seem to believe that passing more toothless ordinances and feckless laws are the best way to obfuscate and placate the growing cacophony of voices that are sick and tired of their never ending scams, blasé corruption and endless indecision - that are now also destroying our economic growth rate and global reputation.

This government has also routinely used their reach and powers to protect their own while persecuting anyone who disagrees with them. Manmohan Singh, our Prime Minister and father of the original economic reforms, has been totally ineffective and, frankly, more compliant than a well-trained lapdog. Now Sonia Gandhi and her Congress cronies are threatening to replace Dr. Singh with a man who not only makes wallpaper look sexy, but also has the ability to make watching paint dry feel like an invigorating experience. Rahul Gandhi may be many things but he is no leader. He lacks charisma, vision, gumption, drive, a point of view, a grip on complex issues and ability for original thinking. What India needs is a leader who has balls, one who offers a vision for India’s future and is not deaf to the needs of the majority. So far the Congress party has failed to put forward such a candidate.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party, offers the only other alternative at this time. They are the political arm of the Rashtriya Sang Samaj (RSS) which was started in 1925 as a Hindu Nationalist movement that gained fame when one of its members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948; after which it was declared a terrorist group by the Indian government and banned for two years.  However, this did not diminish the RSS; it has expanded vastly and grown stronger and more powerful over the last fifty years. 

The BJP has only been in power at the center for eight of India’s sixty-six years since independence. A large reason for the BJP’s lack of national following and political clout has been their ties to the RSS and their extreme right-wing philosophies and fundamentalist views, that includes combat training camps across the country for Hindu youth (Source: “RSS combat training camps to woo youth”Indian Express article). In the last two dozen years the BJP worked hard to soften their image and champion leaders within the party with moderate views. However, now they sense a real opportunity based on the Congress’s inability to govern and rampant corruption. They see that the vast majority of the country is beyond sick and tired of the never ending scams, the endless vote buying handouts and institutional bullying tactics.

So confident is a resurgent BJP (and RSS) that they were willing to put forth an extremely polarizing figure for their Prime Ministerial candidate. Narendra Modi is a man with a chequered past including his ties to the RSS and the 2002 communal riots that happened under his watch in Gujarat, where many Muslims were massacred by retaliating Hindus as the police and state apparatus turned a blind eye.

So polarizing is Modi that even within his own party, there was a lack of consensus on his elevation. The announcement caused much consternation within the leadership and rank and file. The BJP also lost some close political allies in the process of elevating Mr. Modi, but given the sheer hatred for the Congress that prevails, they believed it worth the gamble. So far they seem to be right, judging by the recent walloping the Congress took in mid-terms Polls in four different states.

Unlike Rahul Gandhi, Mr. Modi comes from humble beginnings. He was the son of a tea seller who grew up poor and had a very hard life by his own admission: “I had a lot of pain because I grew up in a village where there was no electricity and in my childhood we used to face a lot of hardships because of this.”(*). Mr. Modi was drawn to the RSS at an early age and it was at their camps that his ideas about the world were formed (*).

His brother says, “[Modi] was always greatly impressed by the fact that only one person gave all the orders in the [RSS camp] and everyone followed the command.” (*Source: “The Man Who Doesn't Wear Dark Green”Boston Review article). Today, he has grown to have a cult-like status as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. He is known for his take no prisoners attitude and for being an autocratic head of state. He is known to trust just a handful of people and insists on making every decision himself. He shows scant loyalty to his own people and party and a great savvy for promoting himself, even ahead of his party. 

You could not have two more polar opposite choices in party and candidates. The Congress is old, slow, incompetent, corrupt, turning a deaf ear to the needs of India’s basic infrastructure development and willing to sacrifice our pride for their own corrupt means. The BJP is resurgent and confident; riding on the wings on Mr. Modi’s growing popularity. Even though is he is known to have an authoritarian style, he is seen as incorruptible, and has effectively championed the economic development of this state; building infrastructure, creating tax incentives and favourable business conditions to successfully woo the biggest and best companies from across India. There is no doubt he has India Inc.’s vote, all of whom are tired with the Congress indecision, constant changes in policy and graft without any results. 

I can understand why Mr. Modi makes an attractive candidate for many Indians; especially among the youth and to the corporate sector. The current frustration and open hatred for the Congress over the past decade have almost started to make Mr. Modi’s status messianic, because people are so desperate for change, for some semblance of leadership to see some Indian courage on the world stage once more. As Indians, we were all sold the story of India shining, told that it was the dawn of a new age as a world economic powerhouse, but our current government never delivered on any part of this promise. Indians are tired of being pushed around and laughed at because our government only cares about filling their Swiss bank accounts, while our Prime Minister becomes the laughing stock of the world. Nobody wants another four years of the Congress led UPA. 

Yet, there is something unsettling about Mr. Modi’s brand of nationalism and his seeming apathy towards the merciless slaughter of Muslims in his state in 2002. I have no problem with his autocratic style of leadership. God knows we can use a little decision-making right now. Nor am I concerned with the fact that the BJP, as a party, is also corrupt (as they have shown in the past and in states they currently govern). What troubles me greatly is Mr. Modi’s outright refusal to apologise for the 2002 riots in his state and under his leadership. In fact, he has been known to refuse to answer any questions relating to the riots and at times even removed his microphone and walked off camera when asked about his role. Just this week a local court upheld an earlier report by a special investigation team, clearing Mr. Modi of any criminal wrongdoing. Yet, a “number of leaders and senior state officials have already been convicted and sentenced for inciting mobs and committing mass murder during the riots.” (Source: “Court Clears Narendra Modi in Riots Case” Wall Street Journal article). Nobody denies that state officials and senior policemen were complicit in inciting mobs and in some cases even leading them to kill Muslims. A landmark Human Rights Watch report published in 2002 said that the RSS that was responsible for passing out lists of Muslim-owned business and homes to mobs at the start of the violence.” (Source: “We Have No Orders to Save You” – HumanRights Watch).

Mr. Modi was the leader of the state when the riots occurred. Even if he did not personally direct officials to incite or seek revenge and there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing on his part, it is hard to believe he was unaware of what his senior state apparatus was doing. Especially for a leader who takes pride in making every decision and without whose authority we are told nothing can happen in his state. The issue to me is less about criminal culpability and more about moral responsibility. As the Chief Minister, if he can take full responsibility for the growth and economic development of Gujarat, then he must also do the same for any tragic event that occurs under his leadership. He did issue a statement on his blog, after the court verdict was announced this week, which the BJP claims is a personal and heartfelt apology from Mr. Modi. To me it reads more like a PR release written by a man hoping to soon hold the highest office in the land, and clear the one great blemish on his otherwise perfect record. There is also the question of why a man who felt so much guilt and anguish (as Mr. Modi states he does) would wait twelve long years to speak from the heart, and apologise to families of the thousands of innocent victims, most of whom were Muslims. And why does he never once use the word Muslim in his entire apology?

Believe me when I say I too want to believe in Mr. Modi and his vision for a corruption-free and super developed India. But his roots are from deep within the RSS; it was in their Hindu nationalist brainwashing camps that he formed his world-view at an early age --- in the context of this fact alone, his seeming lack of remorse, his refusal to wear green and his lack of genuine outward warmth towards Muslims scare me in a country that is more than two-thirds Hindu, and looking for someone to blame for their current woes. Satyameva Jayate!