India goes into election fever


The Economist magazine has used the term “dog whistle politics” in describing the electioneering behavior of the mainstream Indian political parties, and has emphasized the role and style of Narendra Modi in this respect. On the other hand, a Sindhi has come to the support of a Guajarati. Lal Krishna Advani is not an ordinary Sindhi. He had opposed Modi’s elevation to the chair of the party’s PM nominee last year. The Indian general election, tense and complex, are kicking in from today.

Congress, the party in power, is facing criticism for not delivering. Political pundits have ruled it out. Still, the Indian Congress is an adept practitioner of ‘give and take’ in the constituency based election system of India. If the Congress is a spent force then Modi should be elated. BJP is also not a novice in the constituency based elections politics.

Here comes the David versus Goliath nature of the Indian elections. AAP, a new entrant in the political scene, is aspiring to challenge the narrative of BJP. The mythical Indian city of Banaras is the epicenter of this novel contest where Narendra Modi is being challenged by AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal.

AAP may have been successful in galvanizing the educated and liberal urban stratum. Yet it is not clear if it can seamlessly negotiate the exigencies of complex constituency politics. In Banaras, the Mukhtar Ansari sequel may not be beneficial for Arvind Kejriwal. It can, on the other side, indirectly bolster the chances of Narendra Modi in the key UP constituency.

BJP is strongly expecting to pick up steam from the states of Gujrat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pardesh and Maharashtra to get to the magical number of 272. As Hindustan goes into election fever, it makes sense to be a fly on the wall.

The Economist piece is here.

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He is about to publish a book on the geopolitics of the Hindukush Region. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for his latest updates.


Surreal Contradictions: Obama’s call with Karzai.

In the modern Afghan history it is a truism that anyone the outsiders tried to negotiate with became the person who wasn’t worth negotiating with. Hamid Karzai seems aware of this Afghan temper. By publicaly exhibiting an independent streak, Hamid Karzai, in the recent months, has been quite successful in impressing the discerning Afghans.

In a still recent interview with the British writer and historian William Dalrymple, the Afghan president sounded firm. “America and Britain behave as if we also came through a colonial experience,” Karzai said. “We did not. We always won in the fight, but we lost politically. This time I want to make sure we win politically too.”

Next in the interview, the presidential tone becomes characteristically nationalistic, “I would like to give a message through you to the West. Pressure tactics will not work on me. We are only looking for a fair deal — a deal in which the interests of Afghanistan are kept in mind. . . . You will not get an Afghanistan divided into fiefdoms. We will not allow it. Over our dead bodies.”

On a lighter side, Dalrymple had chip in comments from the associates of the Afghan President. “He’s very fit indeed,” said Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief. “He takes at least an hour’s exercise each night and exhausts the guards that have to keep up with him.” Mahmood, who is a brother, agreed: “He’s very disciplined physically. And he’s extremely moderate in his eating. You know how delicious our melons are? I’ve often seen his hand hovering over a second slice, and then he resists. He has steely discipline.”

To cap it all, the Afghan President had tell, “I am not an opponent of the West. I am just the slave of the interests of the Afghan people. And that I shall fulfill.”

But, there is more beneath the surface. Afghanistan is a land of bewildering yet fascinating paradoxes. To politically govern it, a leader is thrown with the challenges of surmounting surreal contradictions of his position. It is not clear that the US President Barack Obama intellectualizes this Afghan surreality. Obama’s recent telephone call to Karzai is bland in its political content.

In the latest academic literature on Afghanistan, there is one piece in Afghan historian Tamim Ansary’s Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan, which US President may look into. The passage is liberally quoted herewith, “Trying to negotiate between the local and global forces, between the inner and outer worlds, put Afghan rulers in a double bind. Anyone who wanted to rule this country had to secure the sponsorship of the strongest foreigners impinging on the country at that moment; yet no Afghan could rule this country for long without the allegiance of the country’s deepest traditional forces. To the dominant outside power, therefore, every would-be ruler had to portray himself as a partner. At the same time, to his country’s internal forces, he had portray himself as a tough guy standing up to foreign bullies. The kings who best succeeded in this balancing act did so by covertly pursuing “modernization” while overtly proclaiming themselves champions of conservative social and religious values.”

But, the curious part is: What if Obama is already aware of this Afghan surreality?

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He is about to publish a book on the geopolitics of the Hindukush Region. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for his latest updates.



From Napoleon to Najibullah – Jostling for Control in & around Afghanistan

BamyanFrench Emperor Napoleon and Russian Emperor Alexander II approached the Peace of Tilsit on July 7, 1807 to settle, mostly, the questions of war and peace. The agenda included the fate of French possessions in Europe and the future of Prussia, yet Napoleon had included several secret clauses that were not made public at that time. The undisclosed Franco-Russian understanding was about Napoleon’s wish to aim at Britain’s eastern source of opulence. India needed to be relieved from its British burden. That is how William Dalrymple touches upon the story of the genesis of the great game in Hindukash/Khurasan/Afghanistan in his Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan.

Dalrymple informs that the seizure of India as a means of impoverishing Britain and breaking its growing economic power had been a long-standing obsession of Napoleon and of several previous French strategists. Few years earlier, in 1798, French Emperor had based his troops in Egypt. “‘Through Egypt we shall invade India,’ he wrote. ‘We shall re-establish the old route through Suez.'” To the military assistance plea of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, the Emperor’s response was, “You have already been informed of my arrival on the borders of the Red Sea, with an invincible army, full of the desire of releasing you from the iron yoke of England. May the Almighty increase your power, and destroy your enemies.”

But Admiral Nelson, then, intercepted Napoleon’s plans in the Nile. Relentless in vacating India from Britain, the Emperor now turned his attention towards the land routes through Persia and Afghanistan. Persian Emperor was asked to grant passage to the French army. Dalrymple tells, “At Tilsit, the secret clauses spelled out the plan in full: Napoleon would emulate Alexander the Great and march 50,000 French troops of the Grand Armée across Persia to invade India, while Russia would head south through Afghanistan.”

British Governor General in India, Lord Minto had soon been made privy to the secret clauses of Tilsit Peace by his effective British intelligence. To this, Minto sent four separate diplomatic expeditions to ‘warn and win over’ the in-between authorities. British Indian emissaries went to Fatteh Ali Shah Qajar in Tehran, to Ranjit Singh in Lahore, to the rulers of Sindh states and to Shah Shuja in Kabul. According to Dalrymple Lord Minto did not regard Napoleon’s plan as fanciful. “A French invasion of India through Persia was not ‘beyond the scope of that energy and perseverance which distinguish the present ruler of France’, he wrote as he finalised plans to counter the ‘very active French diplomacy in Persia, which is seeking with great diligence the means of extending its intrigues to the Durbars of Hindustan.'”

Henceforth, William Dalrymple goes deeper into the story of Shah Shuja and of his handling by the British Indian administration.

On the other hand, Napoleon’s military expedition to India through Persia never took shape as the French Emperor got embroiled in subsequent European politics. His accord with the Russians had collapsed. In the east, Persia was passing through its own post-Safavid turbulence. Yet, Britain was consolidating its presence in northern India. As the 19th century advanced, British merchants were broaching the Central Asian markets; its intelligence agents were surveying the geopolitical dimensions of the region. The Russians were not pleased.

It was in such a setting that Governor of Orenburg, General Perovski, had argued to his Russian superiors that if the British succeeded in establishing themselves in Kabul ‘it would be only a step for the British to reach Bukhara; Central Asia would be subjected to their influence, our Asian trade would be ruined, they might arm…our Asian neighbours against us, and supply them with powder, weapons and money.’ This argument is borrowed from Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, written by retired British diplomat Rodric Braithwaite, who, in a pithy style, introduces the elementary moments in the genesis of the great game, especially from the Russian perspective: “One confidential analysis after another argued that the British were aiming at establishing control over Central Asia and driving out the Russian trade; and that it was essential for the Russians to pre-empt them. Whether the British ever had any such intention is not so important. The belief affected and distorted policymaking in St Petersburg and Orenburg, just as policy-making in London and Delhi was effected and distorted by the belief that the Russians intended to come through Afghanistan into India. Paranoia affected judgement in all four cities.”

As the 19th century approached its end, German ascendancy in Europe impelled a hesitant Anglo-Russian arrangement over Afghanistan. Amu Darya was agreed as a frontier between Afghanistan and Russia. The British insisted that the Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman assume sovereignty over the Wakhan Corridor, in the north east corner, so that British India and Russian Empire could remain noncontagious.

Still, most derisive for the local inhabitants – with grave and lasting international and strategic consequences – was the sketching of the Durand Line among the tribal lands of Pushtun. On one hand, the line delineated British India from Afghanistan, but on the other hand, it had split the Pushtuns who were the principal regional ethnicity. Peshawar went under the Hindustani Durbar. Successive Afghan regimes never acquiesced to the loss of territories. Kabul voted against Karachi when the Pakistani inclusion was sought to the United Nations in 1947. Daud Khan, Afghan Prime Minister and later President, backed the cause of ‘Pushtunistan’ which called for the recovery of the Pushtun lands on the Pakistan side of the Durand Line. Islamabad, in its discontent in the nineteen seventies, was beginning to experiment with retaliation and control tactics on its smaller eastern neighbor.

Yet, how the local Pushtuns responded to the imposed borders? Braithwaite has an interesting account, “The local people took no notice of the Durand Line except when they were compelled: they feuded, smuggled, traded, and fought indifferently on both sides of the border. The British attempted to control the border in the 1920s and the and the 1930s by a policy of ‘butcher and bolt’, with punitive raids against errant tribesmen, including the destruction their villages from the air. Soviet attempts to seal the border during the war of 1979-89 were almost a total failure.” The US intelligence was made aware of this situation during ‘the Mujahideen’ resistance against the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Washington would also, militarily, try its luck in and around the steppes, gorges, defiles and cliffs of Hindukash by the turn of the twenty-first century.

For the Soviet administration, US threat had replaced the waning British presence in Afghanistan after 1945. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had shown attention to the landlocked country by visiting Kabul in 1974 and 1976. Before in 1955, Nikita Khrushchev, the First Party Secretary of the Soviet Union had visited Kabul. Khrushchev’s thinking was that Washington was enticing Kabul into the American camp, because it intended to set up military bases in Afghanistan (Khrushchev Remembers, London, 1971, cited in Braithwaite’s Afgantsy) Such concerns played a part in the Soviet decision to militarily intervene in Afghanistan in 1979.

Soviet Union had to respond to many questions. First, how should they react to Kabul’s increasingly desperate pleas for Soviet troops to help put down the insurgency? then, What could the Russians do about the deviousness, brutality and incompetence of their Communist allies in Kabul? finally and after being ensnared, What was the real Soviet interest in Afghanistan? Historians and strategic experts would continue to grapple with such puzzling enquires, however Soviet government’s official justification for intervention was provided by its Defense Minister Dmitriy Feodorovich Ustinov as follows: “In view of the political and military situation in the Middle East the latest appeal by the government of Afghanistan has been considered positively. It has been decided to introduce a few contingents of Soviet forces, deployed in the southern regions of the country, on the territory of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in order to provide international help to the friendly Afghan people, and also to create favourable conditions for the prevention of possible anti-Afghan actions on the part of neighbouring states…”   

That Moscow’s intervention in Afghanistan was a Soviet thrust for the sake of Great Game was a canard. No one in New Delhi felt threatened. India was, on the contrary, the only South Asian country which recognized the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government and the presence of Soviet military personnel. General Zia of Pakistan was made aware of the limited scope of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan by his able Foreign Minister Agha Shahi. But, Pakistani General, nevertheless, went on to paint the Soviet intervention with the semantics of the Great Game. He was part of fostering a belief among the people of region that the Russians were aiming for warm Indian ocean. In this endeavor, General Zia was assisted by the US administration, and was especially prompted by the Congressman Charlie Wilson to do more than just keep the pot boiling in Afghanistan. The water did boil over in the region and General Zia did fatally burned from its spill. Some twenty years later, and just before his death, Senator Charlie Wilson, with a nonchalant demeanor, would share that he had always considered the Soviet intervention as Afghanistan specific sans any Russian desire to cross the Durand Line.

The cold war ideological construct is more suitable to ponder over the events related to the Russians in Afghanistan. The last days of Soviet intervention substantiate. When the Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze forwarded to Moscow a proposal from the Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah to help protect the southern city of Kandahar from Mujahideen blockade in the late 1988, Anatoly Sergeevich Chernyaev, leading foreign policy adviser during the final days of the Soviet Union, was livid in his response, “Has he gone off his head? Doesn’t he see Najibullah is laying a trap to ensure we don’t leave, and to embroil us with the Americans and the whole of the rest of the world? Or hasn’t he got the guts to produce the counter-arguments?” An argument ensued:

Shevardnadze: You’ve not been there. You’ve no idea all the things we have done there in the past ten years.

Chernyaev: But why should we compound our crimes! What’s the logic in that? We’re not going to be able to save Najibullah anyway…

Shevardnadze: But he says that if he can hold out for a year after we leave, he will be able to survive indefinitely…

Chernyaev: And you believe that? And for that you’re ready to sacrifice our boys and break the engagement we gave in Geneva?

The cold war dynamics were in full swing. Dr Mohammad Najibullah’s fate was sealed. Later, he would naively expect to remain unaffected thinking of the Pashtun makeup of Taliban. Najibullah himself belonged to the Ahmadzai sub-tribe of the Ghilzai Pashtun tribe.

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He is about to publish a book on the geopolitics of the Hindukash. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for his latest updates.


Elections in Pakistan – A Trajectory for Gen Kayani

There is one central question, having international consequences, in the month of May: Who will govern Pakistan after the May elections? The question is important as it also leads us to explore the keen internal tussle that lies ahead between the politicians and military leadership in Islamabad.

Pakistanis are casting their vote at a time when the regional geopolitics is extremely fluid. Iran would elect its new president in June this year. Present Pakistani and Iranian presidents have agreed to construct a gas pipeline between the two states, which would be partly financed by the Chinese. The Saudis are not hiding their displeasure with the emerging arrangements, and in this context it is less striking how a leading Saudi press organ has permitted its space for using adjectives like cunning, sly and selfish to describe the present Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari.

Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 severed the Indian link with Central Asia and rarefied its geographical connectivity with the Middle East. Though, Indian elite opinion still remains mute about approaching the Middle East (read Iran) through Pakistan, India would like to reach to the Central Asian markets using the strategic geography of Pakistan. Indian media is casting Nawaz Sharif in favorable terms, and there’s the rub – how do you get to Central Asia through a possible Nawaz Sharif government when his political party is conniving in the elections with militants having links with the Taliban?

With this, and in an anti-clock wise manner, one comes to the Land of Afghans and its impact upon the present Pakistani politics. As the Pakistanis currently think of going to the polls, the Islamabad-Kabul equation is in disarray. For Pakistan, legitimization of its western frontier with Afghanistan is of foremost strategic priority. Primarily for this reason, it has been trying to seek “strategic depth” in Afghanistan over the last four decades.

But, how to deal when Afghan president Hamid Karzai could resist Islamabad’s attempts to project Pakistani power in Afghanistan. Given Karzai’s hailing from the pivotal Afghan tribes of the south, he does have the dangerous capacity to entice the Pashtun political sphere away from Taliban in Afghanistan. It appears that Karzai has a political plan for himself for the next year, and perhaps beyond, which is seemingly not matching with the policymakers in Islamabad. His latest volleys aimed at Islamabad over issues of the Durand Line and Taliban could be interpreted in this complex context. Incidentally  Afghans are also supposed to elect a new President in 2014.

Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of Pakistani armed forces, presumably has a daunting task ahead. Other than regional geopolitical intricacies, he also needs to concentrate on charting a future course for the US-Pakistan interaction. US has not disclosed its intentions for post-2014 Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, on the other hand, is aiming for a tough bargain with Washington. In this situation, Gen Kayani needs an experienced personality for Islamabad who has a keen understanding of operations in the international diplomatic trenches, and simultaneously who is also adept in navigating the local military & political dimensions.

As Pakistanis go to the polls, a few points of immediate relevance would help: (i) No one political system of governance is natural or ideal. (ii) Political systems are nurtured and shaped to suit local conditions & requirements to achieve and safeguard national interests. (iii) The leading Pakistani political parties, except Imran Khan’s Justice Party, are clan based with stiff hereditary control. (iv) Voters, even with literacy, are susceptible to tribal, feudal, clannish and sectarian influences and considerations. (v) Leading political parties, irrespective of their program or manifesto, look for electable candidates in constituencies, and tend to overlook financial corruption, tax evasion and loan default. (vi) There is not a single political leader of national stature in today’s Pakistan.

In this matrix, it is imperative to understand Gen Kayani’s internal constraints. At this critical juncture, there could be grave risks in entrusting total authority to those who have already been tested and who have questionable democratic credentials. The Pakistani military is combating internal militants, and a consensus is slowly emerging that Imran Khan, the cricket legend, could do the tricky negotiations part with the militants for their peaceful reintegration into their own regions. The cricketer turned politician has stirred the imagination of many, especially the sizable youth segment that is to vote for the first time.

Imran Khan’s injuries that he has sustained from a fall during a rally are expected to generate additional sympathy vote for him. To quote a local journalist from the Guardian’s report about the electoral salience of the incident, “This really resonates because people like the image of a fighter, of a warrior,” and “He took this terrible fall and he’s recovering quickly – that is a powerful image.”

For Pakistan’s internal front, Imran is a reasonable administrative choice. But, Obama administration has recently named a new US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. James F. Dobbins has a tough assignment ahead in Kabul and in Islamabad. Yet, who will be the Pakistani special representative to confront a fraught relationship between Washington and Islamabad, as well as an uncertain American military presence in Afghanistan?

The need for an experienced Pakistani personality for Islamabad that has a keen understanding of operations in the international diplomatic trenches, as well as an ability to navigate the local military & political dimensions could lead Gen Kayani towards the splendid military farm at the outskirts of Rawalpindi where his ex-boss General Pervez Musharraf is presently incarcerated. The May 2013 elections in Pakistan are a multiple-cast political thriller.

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for all his latest analysis on international questions.

Beppe Grillo: A Reluctant Kingmaker in Rome?

It is often asserted that public politics is a serious and colorless undertaking. Yet, in rare and smart exceptions, some political personalities do try to synchronize public affairs with public entertainment. In electoral terms, till present, Silvio Berlusconi was the sole standard bearer of comic side to the Italian politics. He understood well that people secretly crave for theatrics from their political leaders in public rallies. But, Berlusconi is being dethroned from the title of the unique Italian politico-comic figure, as today a veritable and professional comic has proved that his own enterprise is politically electable.

By the start of this year, I had surmised that Beppe Grillo, though coming from the Italian entertainment sector, has more to offer, politically, than just being a mere M.G. Ramachandran or K. Karunanidhi of Italy. He is a comic actor, but he has also technologized the Italian politics by anchoring his five star movement on the internet as opposed to making use of the Italian television. It was mentioned that Beppe Grillo is aspiring for a unique objective in Europe – the erosion by the internet of all other forms of political mediation. Today, as the results accumulate, Beppe Grillo’s five star movement has become Italy’s election success story.

If Burlisconi has earlier gained success by carefully exploiting the Italian television, Grillo has now succeeded by heavily banking on the most relevant medium of the day – the internet. Earlier, It had been written, here, that Grillo’s movement perceive’s the traditional political parties standing between the electorate and the authorities, and that it is confident that its internet based popular strategy is pioneering a new and direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state. Today, the development is being discussed by other contributors as well.

Apart this novelty, the mundane chessboard of Italian politics would earnestly wait for Grillo’s next move. The big question to speculate is: Would Grillo be agreeing to form a coalition with Bersani’s centre-left alliance? As otherwise, a re-election within 3-4 months seems presumable with a caretaker government taking temporary control – given the fact that none of the established parties has gained a clear majority, and that Beppe Grillo’s five star movement has vowed to refrain from forming a coalition with any other political party.

Due to his politico-economic agenda, the comedian turned politician is already unsettling the international business press. “But Grillo also wants to suspend interest payments on Italian debt, and to hold a referendum on euro membership. That could antagonize E.U. officials who are trying to pressure Italy to get its debt in order without leaving the currency union.” There is even a sadistic inkling for Silvio Burlisconi.

Beppe Grillo’s 20 points post-electoral agenda, in his letter to the Italians, is here.

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for all his latest analysis on international questions.

“A Gay Premier!” in Ontario

When the parents of Maclean’s contributor Adam Goldenberg texted him “A gay premier!” they were not only referring to the sexual orientation of the premier-designate of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, but were also, inadvertently, pointing towards still persistent and symptomatic aversion to the non-straight personalities at the top public-affairs slots.

It needs to be mentioned that the homosexual conduct was deemed responsible for the travails and subsequent untimely death of the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing. The harassment, which he suffered over his sexuality and which is generally credited as the cause of his death, was unleashed upon him during the so-called post-war & liberal 1950s. The point is that harassment over somebody’s sexuality is hopefully now an anachronism, yet the related repression does not belong to the distant past, and that its residue still lingers in the popular prejudices.

The fact that Kathleen Wynne would be the sixth actual female premier of the Canadian provinces is in itself worthy of celebrations, especially given the history of political enlightenment and participation of women in Canada; yet Adam Goldenberg, who received the brief text message from his parents, is jubilant for an altogether unprecedented reason. For him Wynne will be the first openly gay person ever to take the helm of a government anywhere in the Americas, the Commonwealth, or the English-speaking world.

Once at Queen’s Park, Kathleen Wynne would have to foster political consensus, for she would still be leading a minority government. As the Globe & Mail has noted, she would have to back up her fresh authentic style with a genuinely renewed offering for Ontarians.

It is my feeling that all political stakeholders in Ontario, including the political parties and general voters, are wary of another early elections. This particularly chary political mood in Ontario could, in the short-run, provide sustenance to Wynne’s premiership. Still, she cannot claim any reprieve from confronting the onerous Ontarian challenges.

Andrea Horwath, the provincial parliamentary head of the New Democratic Party (NDP) is adamant in demanding a public inquiry into the politically motivated scrapping of gas-fired power plants in Mississauga and Oakville that has costed the Ontarian taxpayers at least $230 million. Wynne has to mend the Liberal Party’s relationship with the provincial public school teachers. Ontario’s provincial government is in a heated labour dispute with the public school teachers since last fall, and it has alienated them when it introduced Bill 115, which froze wages, limited teachers’ right to strike and, at the end of December 2012, imposed contracts. It is her responsibility to restore the confidence of Ontario’s teachers. Then, Wynne is not expected to shirk from the provincial welfare reforms. For this purpose, she has the required research & analysis available in various timely reports & studies. Wynne cannot feign ignorance to the fact of frozen social assistance rates since the middle of 1990s; the cost of living, on the other side, has soared unabated. Would she send a powerful message that she is a woman of action and a leader with heart? Following the future proceedings at the Queen’s Park would yield some clues.

Adam Goldenberg’s article in Maclean’s is here.

A Deep Italian Vomit?

“I don’t know what other name I could give it. It’s a thing that looks dangerously like a human, a thing that throws parties, that organises orgies and rules a country called Italy. This thing, this illness, this virus threatens to become the cause of the moral death of Verdi’s country.” In his then published English version of the Notebook, the celebrated Portuguese Novelist José Saramago was on the onset of his reflections on the present day Italy.

Today, the country of Verdi, while going to polls, sports those colorful political acrobatics, which are perhaps reserved for the South Asian electoral politics. Elections in European countries are dull affairs; Italy is an exciting exception. The Economist magazine, which is conservative yet influential, has termed the coming Italian elections, on Feb 24-25, as a heart-stopper.

Apparently, the excitement and colorfulness lingers on as Silvio Berlusconi is still very much part of the heart-stopping show. In his lifestyle, Berlusconi is not afraid of exhibiting a dionysian streak, and so his rivals make fun of him when Berlusconi talks of family values. He owns an ace European football club, and given the sensibilities of educated & middle class Italian youth – an important voting chunk in the coming election – he assumes an anti-racism posture. Yet, in the recent past, Berlusconi was criticized for making jokes at the expense of US President Barack Obama’s race.

But there is more to the excitement around coming Italian elections. As some of the entertainment stars of India have also made to the local political stardom, Italy in Europe has its own personalities that synthesize entertainment & politics.Think of Indian chief ministers like M.G. Ramachandran & M. Karunanidhi – both effortlessly transcending the cinematic & political as well as religious illusions; in a somewhat similar vein, Italy presents us with Beppe Grillo.  

But, it appears that Beppe Grillo, though coming from the Italian entertainment sector, has more to offer, politically, than just being a mere MGR or Karunanidhi of Italy. He is a comic actor, but he has also technologized the Italian politics by anchoring his five star movement on the internet as opposed to making use of the Italian television. In this change of possibly important consequences for the Italian politics, Beppe Grillo is being aided by his web-guru associate Roberto Casaleggio.

Casaleggio describing Silvio Berlusconi’s control of six of Italy’s seven main television channels tells, “it was like living inside the Matrix.” He says, Grillo has offered information and comments that are free of self-censorship. He adds, “And when people saw that what he said was true, they began to doubt the other information they were getting.”

The five star political movement of Beppe Grillo is aspiring for a unique objective in Europe – the erosion by the internet of all other forms of political mediation. Technologist Casaleggio asserts that as newspapers, according to him, are doomed to extinction because they stand between journalists and readers, so political parties are heading for annihilation because they stand between the electorate and the authorities. Thus, he is confident that their internet based popular movement, with entertainer Grillo as its figurehead, is pioneering “a new, direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state.”

The coming Italian elections are certainly not a drab affair. However, it would be an oversight to not to mention that Italian economy is in serious recession, and that the Italian youth faces severe unemployment. Reverting back to José Saramago’s notebook, he had cautioned while referring to the Italian political malaise, “If a deep vomit doesn’t succeed in ejecting it from the consciousness of Italians, the poison will end up corroding the veins and destroying the heart of one of Europe’s richest cultures.”

Would the dates of February 24 & 25 be providing cathartic release to the Italian politics? In the land of Verdi, the coming weeks keep a secret.

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. Follow him on twitter @asimovarifov for all the latest analysis from him.