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• US: Democratic Presidential Hopefulls • Afghanistan: Neither War nor Peace • Venezuela’s Crisis Continues • India’s Elections: Final Phases

BY SHASHI MALLA
US: Democratic Challengers to Trump
Joe Biden, the former vice-president serving under Barack Obama for two terms, has now emerged as the clear front runner challenging incumbent President Donald J. Trump in the 2020 presidential elections. He has formulated his leitmotif and hit the nail on the head: ‘it is a battle for the soul of America’. The country – and the world at large — cannot afford a second term under such a divisive president and compulsive pathological liar.
In CNN’s first national survey after Biden announced his formal candidature, Joe Biden leads well ahead with 39 percent to Senator Bernie Sanders’ 15 percent to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s 8 percent and Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s 7 percent. Senator Kamala Harris has seen her numbers drop 7 points to the mid-single digits after announcement bumps.
The former vice-president has reached pole position because as the CNN analyst Harry Enten already pointed out a few weeks ago “the Democratic electorate is older, more moderate and less educated than you think”, and, therefore, ideally situated to challenge Trump [who has nicknamed his primary rival “Sleepy Joe”].

The CNN poll has overturned the misconception about the Democratic base. Actually:
 A majority of Democrats are over the age of 50
 At least 50 percent of Democrats call themselves moderate or conservative
 A majority lack a college degree

These three demographic and ideological elements favoured Biden over his other Democratic opponents. He has refused to criticize any of them, saying he will wait until the debates to crystallize the differences. At the same time, he holds is own among Democrats under the age of 50, even among those who call themselves “very liberal”, and those with a college degree.
Biden is set to challenge Trump on his so-called own turf and base, to which he is slavishly clinging and not attempting to expand. In addition, election turnout is expected to be massive [by American standards]. A record percentage of voters have indicated that they are excited about voting in the 2020 elections [presidential and Congressional]. “Tricky Trump” will have a run for his money!
However, according to eminent New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, Biden is ill-placed, as a pillar of the ancient regime and the ‘Party of Davos’, to overturn the populist/nationalist revolution. (NYT/International Edition, May 6, 2019).
Afghanistan in Disarray
Thousands of tribal elders, women and representatives met last week at a massive traditional “Loya Jirga” domestic peace summit in Kabul, which ended with a demand for a ceasefire between government and rebel Taliban forces. Last year the Taliban had announced a three-day ceasefire at the end of Ramadan after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had previously declared a unilateral truce for eight days earlier in the month.
It was the first formal nation-wide ceasefire since the consequential US-led invasion of 2001 and saw unprecedented scenes of reconciliation and jubilation across the country. Unfortunately, afterwards the war rages on, with thousands of civilians and fighters being killed.
US forces continue to train Afghan police and soldiers on the ground, and strike the Taliban from the air, in a bid to push the war to a political settlement – since even American commanders have said that a military solution is a hopeless venture.
Ashraf Ghani said he was prepared to call an “immediate” and “permanent” ceasefire, but the Taliban appeared to rebuff the offer. Ghani also released 175 Taliban ‘political’ prisoners as a goodwill gesture. His move and projection of a ceasefire comes as momentum builds in various Afghan peace talks.
The US special envoy Zalmay Khalizad [Afghan-born US citizen] is tasked with forging a peace agreement with the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha. This would see the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan in return for Taliban security guarantees. He has tweeted: “All sides laying down arms is the outcome of any peace process…All sides agreeing to reduce violence is a necessary step toward achieving that outcome and the morally responsible choiceto make. We stand ready.”
Unfortunately, it seems the Taliban have other ideas. Its spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid immediately tweeted that America should “forget about the idea of us putting down our arms” and “stop repeating failed strategies & expecting different outcomes.” The Taliban have smelt blood after Trump unilaterally announced [without first consulting his NATO allies or the Afghan government!] that he was withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan, and they are now more disposed to continuing the long drawn-out, low-intensity war which is frustrating the US and its allies.
Among the many problems on the path to a peace agreement, two stand out. One is what is to become of the more the nearly 200,000 Afghan security forces. Paying their salaries and taking care of the sick and wounded is already an almost unsurmountable problem for the current Afghan government. Second, what will be the fate of women and minority ethnic groups in a possible Taliban-dominated government? Previous experience has been terrible. Can the US, and the world at large, in good faith leave their fates in the hands of proven hardline, radical Muslims willing and able to apply draconian Sharia law?
Venezuela Crisis
Opposition leader Juan Guaido made a fresh bid last Saturday to rally armed forces behind him with protests at military bases in the crisis-hit South American country, south of the Caribbean. He had already failed in his third attempt to persuade the military to rebel against authoritarian strongman Nicolas Maduro , mainly because the generals did not want to jeopardize their power and privileges.
The United States and more than 50 other countries have recognized Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader after he declared himself ‘interim president’ in January 2019 to force Nicolas Maduro from power. Mostly all countries of South America support Guaido, including Argentina, Brazil, Chili, Colombia and Peru. The left-leaning governments of Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua support the “socialist” Maduro. There are many Cubans as civilian and military advisers propping up the regime. The European Union (with the exception of Italy, Greece, Slovakia and Cyprus) declared support in February 2019. Other significant powers like Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan and South Korea also support Guaido.
Nicolas Maduro was re-elected in 2018 in polls marred by opposition boycott and allegations of massive vote-rigging. World powers Russia and China are on his side. Russia has invested heavily in Venezuela’s oil industry and is “the lender of last resort”. China is also a significant creditor to the deeply indebted government. Other supporting countries include Iran, North Korea, South Africa, Syria and Turkey, and, of course, most surprisingly Nepal, the only country in South Asia to do so. Nepal is dancing out of rhythm because of ideological reasons – the Nepalese Communist government is in full solidarity with its far-off South American counterpart, even when it is brutally suppressing its citizens in Stalinist manner!
Most surprisingly, vacillating US President Donald Trump adopted a strikingly conciliatory tone after a more than hour-long conversation with President Vladimir Putin on the Venezuela crisis, describing the telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart as “very positive”. Trump played down the Russian involvement: “He is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela” [!] Trump’s tone was in stark contrast to that of his top members of his own administration, in particular Secretary of State (SoS) Mike Pompeo who had charged last week that Maduro had been poised to flee to Havana, Cuba, but was talked out of it by the Russians! Trump, of course, has no sense of history and doesn’t realize [although consistently boasting of his highest IQ] that Russian interference in America’s own backyard has shattered its famed “Monroe Doctrine”.
The US has been goading Guaido on all the time, even to the extent that on its part that ‘all options are on the table’, i.e. also military intervention. Unfortunately, the US stance is extremely inconsistent, and there is great contradiction between Trump and his principal foreign policy/national security officials, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. There is much bombast, but little concrete action. Instead of targeting the generals, Guaido should now attempt to win over the majors and colonels – who could effectively undercut the top brass.
India’s General Elections
The fifth phase of India’s general elections took place on May 6, the sixth is on May 12, and the seventh and final phase will be held on the 19th May. More than 87 million people across seven states in India’s heartland were eligible to vote in the 5th phase.
Rahul Gandhi, the 48-year-old leader of the main opposition Congress Party, is contesting from the Uttar Pradesh constituency he has already won three times, facing a tough challenge from union cabinet minister Ms. SmritiIrani of Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He is also contesting for a seat from the southern state of Kerala, to demonstrate his ‘national’ bonafides.
The tally of votes will occur on May 23, when the final results will also be announced. It has become clear that the incumbent Prime Minister is hell bent on using ‘Hindu Nationalism’ and the security element arising out of the terrorist attack by a Pakistan-based militant organization in Indian-administered Kashmir to boost his electoral chances. In this undertaking ‘social media’ has become the weapon of choice.
Already in 2014, Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became the first major political players to really comprehend the power of social media and to combine it with a robust electoral campaign on the ground. The current political scene is highly polarized, and Hindu Nationalism has been used as a driving force to spread fake news. In fact, Hindu-Muslim polarization is central to the BJP’s election strategy. In addition, countless votes will be cast on the basis of disinformation. As the eminent Congress M.P. Shashi Tharoor has written: “The BJP’s attitude is that all is fair in love, war, and politics; but Indian democracy is becoming collateral damage” [“Project Syndicate”, May 1, 2019].
In the meantime, the embattled Indian National Congress sent its general secretary and star campaigner Priyanka Gandhi Vadra [elder sister of Rahul Gandhi] to Uttar Pradesh to re-invigorate its campaign and where it is fielding 69 candidates of UP’s whopping 80 seats – the largest representation in the Lok Sabha. Campaigning will now become more fierce and bitter in the remaining phases of the elections.

The writer can be reached at: shashipbmalla@hotmail.com

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