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Western Press Review: Commentary Looks At Surprise in India, Crisis In Iraq

Prague, 14 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- What "The New York Times" calls "a stunning political shift" in India seizes the attention of Western press commentators today, sharing editorial space with the crisis in Iraq.


"The New York Times" editorializes today that India's poor demonstrated by yesterday's election returns that they were unimpressed by the incumbent government's economic advances. The newspaper says: "Liberalizing economic policies carried out under Mr. [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments have given India statistically impressive economic growth. Yet in a country where poor people vote in large numbers, most of them remain unimpressed."

The editorial says that Vajpayee is entitled to feel proud about his six years in office. "He has been a moderating force within his party, and history is likely to judge his economic policies and his diplomatic initiatives favorably. As the leader of the longest-serving non-Congress Party government, Mr. Vajpayee helped lead India toward a more competitive multiparty democracy."

It concludes that the election of Sonia Ghandi has possible future benefits also. "Even if Mrs. Gandhi becomes prime minister, these elections results do not mark a return to Congress Party dominance," the editorial says. "India's voters can now choose between two national parties and a multitude of regional and caste-based groups. This sometimes results in weak coalition governments and stop-and-start reforms. But it demonstrates the underlying vitality of India's democracy."


In an editorial, "The Christian Science Monitor" finds a positive lesson for tyrants and antidemocrats in the Indian elections. It says: "For the masses of poor in China who resent being left out of their nation's rush to riches, often the only choice is to revolt. In India, by contrast, the poor can vote.

"And vote they did over the past three weeks in parliamentary elections whose final tallies Thursday [yesterday] sent this message to the ousted ruling party: Don't let the country's historic shift to a market-driven economy leave behind over half of India's 1 billion people who still live on less than two dollars a day.

"A vibrant democracy is why India's economy, largely liberated in the '90s from the socialist smothering of the past, could someday surpass that of China, its competing global giant."

The editorial concludes, "The election taught India's leaders not to neglect the prosaic tasks of bringing roads and power to villages as they also grow its sophisticated knowledge industries, such as software."


Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" identifies what it says are "fascinating parallels" between the new India and China. It says in an editorial: "To achieve a parliamentary majority, Gandhi will have to seek alliances with left-wing parties. That reorientation will not reverse economic deregulation initiated by a previous Congress government in 1991, but the pace of privatization is likely to slow and more emphasis will be put on providing rural areas with the basic facilities of water, power and roads."

The newspaper says: "There are fascinating parallels between India once again under Congress's leadership and China under the fourth generation of revolutionary rulers. In the first, rural voters have impressed upon the urban minority that they still await the benefits of economic reform. Outsourcing in Bangalore is all very well, but does not provide that many jobs, and has no impact on an illiterate farmer in Bihar. Likewise, in China, Shanghai's forest of tower blocks impresses, but does nothing to alleviate misery on the upper reaches of the Yangtze. Fearing social unrest, the Communist Party wants to slow GDP growth and concentrate on lowering the gap between rich and poor. In the light of the BJP's defeat, Congress will emphasize rural development. Both countries, each with a population of more than 1 billion, face a huge challenge in spreading the fruits of economic growth. But India has the inestimable advantage of democratic checks and balances, as its vast electorate has just demonstrated."


"The Irish Times" describes the election results as not just a victory for Ghandi, but also for the idea of democracy itself. In an editorial, it says: "The surprise defeat of India's ruling coalition, dominated by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its leader, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, is a stunning victory for democracy in that huge country as well as for the opposition Congress party which will now lead an alternative government. Voting for the 543-seat Lok Sabha or lower house of the parliament has been going on for three weeks, involving a gargantuan organizational effort to bring electronic voting to the 370 million who voted.

"The result is a decisive rejection of Mr. Vajpayee's coalition, especially by tens of millions of the rural poor who felt left out of the new prosperity he proclaimed to have brought the country."


Britain's "The Guardian" daily says that the losers in India were everybody except those who matter most. The newspaper editorializes: "The result came as a complete surprise to everyone but the people who matter in an Indian election. Not online India, the India of software developers, the India that produces 2 million graduates a year, the India with a runaway economy widely predicted to become a global power in the 21st century. But its rural poor, its illiterates, the villagers who live without electricity in mud and thatch houses, those who have to walk 2 miles to fetch water, some 300 million people in all, or twice the population of Russia."

The editorial concludes: "If this was a protest vote against Coca Cola consuming the aquifers of Kerala, or Monsanto being awarded the patents for wheat used for making chapatis, then Congress will be hard put to respond. It sees nothing wrong and much right in neoliberalism. But the genuinely good news of this result is what this vote was against. The Hindu nationalist BJP were not just voted out of power, they were drummed out of it. In the western state of Gujarat, where more than a 1,000 Muslims were killed by Hindu mob violence, the BJP lost half its seats, despite attempts by the BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee to reach out to India's 140 million Muslims. This too was a vote against nationalism and sectarianism. If Gandhi uses this mandate, it may herald a new era in Indian politics."


An editorial in "The New York Times" looks at the death of U.S. citizen Nicholas Berg, whose beheading was videotaped and posted this week on an extremist Islamist website. The editorial urges U.S. occupiers to quit passing legitimate questions about Nicholas Berg's death off to Iraqi police "authorities," who are not sufficiently trained or organized to take responsibility for the case.

The newspaper says: "Nicholas Berg was a type familiar to all danger zones: an adventurous and naive young man who was perhaps keen to do a bit of business, but keener yet to test himself; old enough to understand the danger, but young enough to defy it. It is impossible not to feel grief, and horror, at his terrible end."

The editorial concludes: "Mr. Berg's parents have legitimate questions for the United States government about how he came to be in Iraqi police custody immediately before his kidnapping, what happened to him there and what knowledge American officials had about his situation. The occupation authority needs to stop passing off those questions to the Iraqi police force, which does not exist other than as an agent of American power. The Berg family deserves answers so they can grieve for their son's death in peace."

In a separate editorial, "The New York Times" tells U.S. President George W. Bush "and his Republican allies" to "stop trying to evade responsibility by accusing those who want to ask tough questions of being disloyal to the troops and the war effort."

The editorial begins: "Watching President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this week, it was hard to avoid the sinking feeling that they had already moved on from the [Abu Ghurayb] prison mess and were back to their well-established practice of ignoring all bad news and marching blindly ahead as if nothing unusual had happened. That was the impression that emerged from Mr. Bush's disconnected performance on [10 May], when he viewed photos and video stills of the atrocious treatment of prisoners by soldiers under his and Mr. Rumsfeld's command, and then announced that the defense secretary was doing a 'superb job.' It was stronger than ever yesterday, during Mr. Rumsfeld's road trip to Iraq, where he drew a curious parallel between himself and [U.S. Civil War commander] Ulysses S. Grant and announced his approach to the prison scandal: 'I've stopped reading newspapers.'

"Mr. Rumsfeld told the soldiers that they had broad public support at home despite the [Abu Ghurayb] scandal. That is obviously true. It is also beside the point. The proper way for Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld to show support for the troops is not to use them as a screen from the heat over the mismanagement of the military prisons."


"The Wall Street Journal in Europe" turns its editorial eye on a leaked Red Cross report on U.S. prisoner management and concludes that the Red Cross is at fault for abandoning its long commitment to objectivity above politics.

Under the headline "Red Double Cross," the newspaper says: "Pentagon critics are treating a leaked Red Cross assessment -- first reported in this newspaper [on 7 May] -- as proof that detainee abuse was widespread in Iraq and that the military was unresponsive to complaints. After reading the report, we think the real story is the increasing politicization of this venerable humanitarian group.

"We say this with regret, because it would be a real shame if the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) became just another left-wing advocacy group along the lines of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. This would ruin its long-held status as trusted and neutral guardian of the Geneva Conventions around the world, but that's the path it is now on."

The newspaper concludes: "The [Abu Ghurayb] offenders should be punished under normal military standards, but the uproar over their behavior shouldn't be used to undermine the U.S. ability to gather intelligence legitimately under international law. Yet both the fact and timing of the ICRC report's release seem to have been designed to achieve precisely that purpose: Hit the Pentagon at a politically vulnerable time in the hope that it concedes.

"This ICRC behavior poses a serious risk to its relationship with governments around the world, as well as to its special status when there are future revisions of the Geneva Conventions. We hope that some adults inside the organization understand this, because the ICRC's self-inflicted demise would be a real loss for prisoners of regimes that are truly odious."


In its opinion pages, "The Washington Post" devotes space today to a commentary by Jimmy Carter, chairman of the Carter Center in Atlanta and former U.S. president. Carter says that preceding the most recent U.S. "human rights embarrassments" were "well-known, high-level and broad-based U.S. policies that have lowered our nation's commitment to basic human rights."

Carter lists some of these policies as arbitrary incarceration of men of Middle Eastern origin living in the United States; arbitrary detentions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and reports that some accused terrorists were being sent to Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or other countries where torture is an acceptable means of extracting information.

Carter writes: "In the interests of security and freedom, basic reforms are needed in the United States and elsewhere, including restrictions on governments' excessive surveillance powers; reassertion of the public's right to information; judicial and legislative review of detentions and other executive functions; and strict compliance with international standards of law and justice. The United States must regain its status as the champion of freedom and human rights."

Also today, "The Washington Post" editorializes that the Pentagon continues openly to defend interrogation techniques that its own officials characterize as violations of the Geneva Conventions. The editorial says: "Senator Jack Reed asked two senior Pentagon officials exactly the right question yesterday about the Bush administration's interpretation of the Geneva Conventions: 'If you were shown a video of a United States Marine or an American citizen in control of a foreign power, in a cell block, naked with a bag over their head, squatting with their arms uplifted for 45 minutes, would you describe that as a good interrogation technique or a violation of the Geneva Convention?' The answer is obvious, and Marine General Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, honestly provided it. 'I would describe it as a violation,' Mr. Pace said. 'What you've described to me sounds to me like a violation of the Geneva Convention,' Mr. Wolfowitz said.

"Case closed -- except that the practices described by Mr. Reed have been designated by the commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez, as available for use on Iraqi detainees, and certified by the Pentagon as legal under the Geneva Conventions. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, they have been systematically applied to prisoners across that country. And earlier this week, the bosses of both Mr. Pace and Mr. Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard B. Myers, defended the techniques as appropriate."