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Taliban & India’s Own Great Game || Midweek Matters 26

08-09-2021published_dt 2021-09-08T09:29:26.567Z08-09-2021 14:59:26 IST
2021-09-08T09:29:26.567Z08-09-2021 2021-09-08T09:29:26.567Z - - 18-10-2021

Hello and welcome

To Midweek Matters.


Afghanistan inflicted humiliating defeat on every great power that attempted to subjugate it. On the British in the 19th century, the Russians in the 20th, and the Americans now in the 21st century. The clumsy, unplanned and ill prepared departure of the Americans from the country left Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban. Everyday we see pictures of utter chaos and the unfolding  gut wrenching human tragedy coming out from Afghanistan. American withdrawal changes the geopolitics of the region. It has profound impact on the political, and military equations among the great powers as well as the regional players. 

Much more importantly, the recent developments in Afghanistan signal the military exhaustion of the west and its reluctance to throw its weight behind the values of liberal democracy world wide. They also have the potential to alter the terms of the global discourse on democracy, autocracy, identity, and political legitimacy. And in our country, these events in our neighbourhood are likely to further precipitate the contest between the sharply contrasting ideas of India that are locked in a mortal combat with each other now. Today I want to dwell on these issues and leave you with some thoughts to reflect upon. 

I will first dwell on the global impact of what happened in Afghanistan and then come to what they mean to our own polity at home. 

From West Africa to Indonesia Taliban's victory in Afghanistan and the US retreat are bound to be seen as a triumph of Islamic faith. Except the ISIS which declared the Taliban as an apostate, all other Islamist groups across the globe are jubilant. ISIS considers Taliban as anti-Islamic because the latter did business with the United States. Not for compromising theological purity, but for its politics. Taliban's return to power in Kabul is also a boost to the forces that snuffed out the democratic flickers of the Arab Spring. For Russia and China and their allies US defeat and it’s clumsy retreat come as a welcome development. Both the powers will have concerns, to be sure. Russia will be anxious about the possible disturbances on the borders of its southern neighbours,  the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. China will be wary about the possible impact on the  Uyghur population in the Xinjiang province. However, for both of them it’s the US defeat that is the main takeaway from the Taliban victory. For them Taliban's victory first and foremost signals the irreversible decline of United States and the undermining of claims to superiority of the western narrative of liberal democracy. 

The message that Russia wants the west to read in the development is clearly spelled out by President Vladimir Putin. He told German Chancellor Angela Merkel a few days ago, during her farewell visit to Moscow, that the west should stop irresponsible experiments of trying to impose western values of democracy on other countries. 

Chinese engagement with the Taliban leadership is a pragmatic move. Most probably to extract assurance that it will desist from hosting any elements that are inimical to the Chinese State. Equally important could be to gain access to Afghanistan's mineral resources and to co-opt the country  into the Belt and Road Initiative. The US vacating the region leaves for China that much room to increase its influence in the region. 

Currently, it is not Russia but China that is leading the ideological charge against the west. Its academics and scholars are on a mission to evangelise, what they call, China Model among third world elites. The core of their message is that liberal democracy that is championed by the west is inferior to the China Model. It’s prominent state sponsored scholars, like Zhang Weiwei, in various forums argue that the west's democracy is merely procedural with one person one vote, whereas the Chinese democracy is more substantive. Under west's democracy government is of 1% of the people, run by 1% of the people for 1% of the people.

The Chinese democracy, on the other hand, is for, by and of over 90% of the people. They claim that the political decision makers and bureaucracy in China are drawn from 90% of its people and not limited to a small elite. That it’s leadership is not merely elected as in the west. It is first selected and then elected. A selection plus election method. The Chinese scholars proudly proclaim that theirs is the largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity today. And even in nominal terms it will surpass the United States and become the world’s biggest economy in the next five to ten years. It is this unique political organisation that is adopted by China that is reason for the country's success. The essential point of their presentations to the elites of countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia is that they need not look up to the west and to the tenets of western idea of liberal democracy as their model of governance. A better and more successful model is on offer from China. This positioning is likely to gain traction in the coming years especially after the US engagement in Afghanistan for about twenty years meant little to that country and the US had to exit in ignominy. The Chinese argue that the days of 'west is higher than the rest' are over. Resistance to China's influence in india should not blind us to its growing clout in many countries. That the west, especially the US, is not a dependable ally and a trustworthy friend is the message that China would like other countries to see in the Afghan developments. 

Now let us turn our attention to the situation at home and try to understand the implications of unfolding developments in Afghanistan for our polity. The BJP National President and one of the Union Ministers are quick to use Afghan developments to justify their government's controversial legislation. They want us to believe that the developments show that the Modi government is vindicated in bringing about Citizenship Amendment Act.  On the other end of the spectrum, Mehbooba Mufti says that the union government should learn lessons from Afghanistan and restore Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. While the western countries are worried about the large scale influx of refugees into their borders, Indian government and security agencies are beginning to worry about what the Afghan crisis means to the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir. Obviously, the Taliban government will not be able to absorb the energies of all its well armed and highly motivated, religiously inspired fighters in governing the country. A large chunk of them will have to find new causes to fight for and so will inevitably turn their attention to Kashmir valley. Pakistan's deep state will do everything in its power to see the flames continue to burn  there. A little help from China will not be far away, presumably.   

Taliban's victory over the might of a super power sends an important signal to the Islamic fundamentalists all over the globe. That God is on their side. Their faith, belief in its worldview, their interpretation of laws and practices laid down by the religion's texts empowered them to drive away the mightiest military power from their country. Such sentiment will form the core of the renewed propaganda of the radical Islamic groups in our country. The already frayed communal equation here can only become worse. Any act by an Islamic group in any corner of the country, will fuel Hindutva militancy. An act of Hindutva Militancy will only fuel Islamic terror groups. A spiralling down to the depths of dark hate is a distinct possibility.

Three actors stand to gain enormously in this Indian Great Game that will begin sooner than later in the country as a direct result of the developments in Afghanistan. They are, Islamic fundamentalists, Hindutva Militants and the Indian State. Every untoward incident will necessarily and inevitably strengthen all the three actors at the same time. Every set back to each one of them will only strengthen their appeal and resolve.

And all of them together will pose, separately as well as collectively, the biggest challenge to the idea of a liberal, free, democratic, secular, tolerant and diverse India. Islamists will start reeling out the incidents of Hindu attacks. Hindutva  militants will list out the historical atrocities, such as destruction of temples and link them to the contemporary acts of militancy. The result, Advantage State. Showing both these forces, the Indian State will further arm itself. We have seen, even without the help of such extreme scenarios, how the state empowered itself: progressive strengthening of UAPA, NIA, NSA, indiscriminate use of sedition laws, and the the enactment of various polarising and repressive legislations. Voices of moderation, goodwill and restraint in both the communities will face charges of treason from the shrill mobs of their own communities. And accusations of anti-national activities from the State. It will become increasingly difficult for political parties to withstand the assaults from such currents. We have seen those signs as early as the 1980s. Our electoral dynamics are such.

Let me bring all the strands together. Taliban's victory will be seen as a sign of west’s irreversible decline. Of it’s undependability. Of it’s unwillingness to dig in for democracy and liberal values. Of it’s vulnerability. It will be showcased by Islamists that God is on their side. Gives a fillip to radical Islam across the globe. West's retreat will undermine the standing of liberal democracy as the hegemonic legitimising factor of modern State. Competing and alternative narratives of legitimacy - based on identity, religion, civilisation, performance - will find fresh advocates, gain ground and force of respectability. The burden of proving legitimacy will become lighter on China, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and a host of other such states. And for political platforms that share elements of these intolerant political projects. Victor Orban's call for elimination of political debate through 'a force field of power', may not after all be all that unacceptable. Indian political discourse will increasingly revolve around Hindu vs Muslim and Hindu Vs Other. Around identity questions where only numbers decide the outcomes. Not universal values.

I know some of you are feeling that I’m forecasting an extreme scenario for India's polity. Well, let me tell you, I have not said anything that’s not in the realm of possibility. It is, indeed, a clear possibility. We are seeing such scenarios played out in many countries in our own times. And we have seen them, in the middle of the last century, in the so called enlightened European mainland. But those scenarios need not be a probability. There’s nothing in human history that was and is inevitable. Not learning from the past, failing to understand the present, and inability to grasp the present currents and reluctance to assume agency by sane elements in societies will give undesirable scenarios a chance to become realities. 

Remember, there are no impossible scenarios for India. Both desirable and undesirable. At the same time, no scenario is inevitable. Both desirable and undesirable. That’s what history has taught us. Probability and the eventual realisation of a scenario or its prevention are a result of a clear understanding, uncompromising persistence, willingness to mobilise and marshal, possession of stomach for the fight, and above all assumption of agency. None of them comes easy. I will leave you with a question and a thought to reflect on. Does our political system still have democratic and liberal forces that are willing and capable of a difficult fight? 


That’s all for this week. Will be back again next week.

Wednesday afternoon, lunchtime at 1:00 o’clock.

Stay safe, and do take good care of yourselves and all your dear ones.

Until then, Bye.