Pakistan standoff helps India’s Modi shift focus from jobs

A standoff with nuclear rival Pakistan appears to have given Modi a boost ahead of national elections set to begin in April, 2019. (File/AP)
Updated 15 March 2019
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Pakistan standoff helps India’s Modi shift focus from jobs

  • India’s air force launched a strike on an alleged terrorist training camp inside Pakistan
  • The crisis has helped the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led government to turn attention away from its mixed record on the economy

NEW DELHI: A standoff with nuclear rival Pakistan appears to have given Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, a boost ahead of national elections set to begin in April.
After a suicide bombing killed 40 soldiers in Indian-controlled Kashmir, India’s air force launched a strike on an alleged terrorist training camp inside Pakistan.
Although India has refused to produce evidence of the damage it says was caused by the strike, BJP and Modi supporters immediately branded it a decisive victory.
The crisis managed to turn attention away from Modi’s economic record.
Modi swept 2014 elections promising to reform India’s economy, but his signature demonetization policy, intended to reduce money laundering, choke terrorist financing and boost digital payments, has been largely deemed a failure.
And a small scandal erupted earlier this year when a respected financial newspaper reported that the government was suppressing jobs data that showed India’s unemployment rate at its highest level in 45 years.
But Modi, 68, seems to have regained ground after taking a tough stance in brinkmanship with Pakistan, even though violence and massive protests continue to rock Indian-controlled Kashmir, where insurgent groups have been fighting for independence or a merger with Pakistan since 1989.
Making the most of the confrontation with Pakistan and his party’s efforts to project him as a strong leader, Modi has been crisscrossing India addressing rallies and claiming that his government’s response to the suicide bombing shows that a “New India” is emerging.
Boasting of his “muscular” policy, Modi said at one recent rally that India “will go and hit people inside their homes who try to harm” the country.
At rallies, he has been comparing his policies with those of earlier governments, denouncing the Congress party-led government for not retaliating after attacks in Mumbai in 2008. India blamed a Pakistan-based militant group for the attacks that killed 166 people.
His fiery speeches are a clear indication that national security will be a key issue in his campaign and that the BJP believes it will help swing enough votes to win him a second term.
His supporters are using social media and several television news channels to fan nationalist sentiment and label anyone who questions Modi as unpatriotic, particularly during television debates where hysteria reigns.
The inflammatory rhetoric is brushing aside key economic issues that affect the nearly 70 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people who live in rural areas.
“I wouldn’t say the BJP leaders will completely abandon economic issues. But they definitely are going for a mix of Hindu nationalism, terrorism and a very strong pitch against Pakistan. What was missing was so far was a national threat to bind the BJP campaign,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst who has written a biography of Modi.
Modi became prime minister in 2014 promising inclusive economic development, the creation of 10 million jobs every year, double-digit economic growth, and an end to farmers’ distress caused by low prices for their produce.
But the opportunity was missed owing to the demonetization and the haphazard implementation of a Goods and Services Tax. To make matters worse, the unemployment rate hit a 45-year high of 6.1 percent in the last fiscal year.
Modi’s party suffered defeats in three major state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December at the hands of the Congress party, led by 48-year-old Rahul Gandhi.
Buoyed by these wins, Gandhi’s style became more aggressive. His criticisms of Modi over farmers’ continued distress and unemployment were gaining some traction before tensions broke out with Pakistan. He also had been making efforts to rally various opposition parties into a united anti-Modi front.
The Congress party is in no position to win the election on its own. Polls suggest Gandhi’s party can hope to win seats in between eight and 10 out of India’s 29 states. In the others, it will have to depend on the support of regional groups.
But things changed after India’s strike into Pakistan territory. Modi’s claims of victory allowed him to take back control of the narrative from Gandhi, leaving the latter and other opposition leaders slightly uncertain about how to deal with Modi.
First they supported the government action against Pakistan and praised the actions of security forces.
Within days, however, they started criticizing Modi for not calling an all-party meeting to discuss security issues. Soon, conflicting government accounts of the damage caused in Pakistan by the Indian strike gave them more ammunition to attack Modi.
But Modi used their doubts about the strike to polish his own “strongman” credentials.
While his current position looks quite strong, the latest surveys say he might have to settle for a thinner majority this time. A survey by C-Voter predicts that Modi and his allies could win 265 seats, just seven short of the halfway mark, while an India TV-CNX survey gives them a clear majority with 285 seats.


Emotional Muslims return to Christchurch mosque as New Zealand works to move on

Updated 23 March 2019
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Emotional Muslims return to Christchurch mosque as New Zealand works to move on

  • Al Noor was handed back to the local Muslim community on Saturday and began allowing small groups onto its grounds around midday
  • “We are allowing 15 people at a time, just to get some normality,” said Saiyad Hassen, a volunteer at Al Noor

CHRISTCHURCH: Muslims held emotional prayers inside Christchurch’s main mosque on Saturday for the first time since a white supremacist massacred worshippers there, as New Zealand sought to return to normality after the tragedy.
The Al Noor mosque had been taken over by police for investigations and security reasons after alleged gunman Brenton Tarrant gunned down Muslims gathered there and at a smaller mosque for Friday prayers on March 15, killing 50 people.
Al Noor was handed back to the local Muslim community on Saturday and began allowing small groups onto its grounds around midday.
“We are allowing 15 people at a time, just to get some normality,” said Saiyad Hassen, a volunteer at Al Noor, adding that there were no plans yet to fully reopen.
Among the first to enter was massacre survivor Vohra Mohammad Huzef, who said two of his roommates were killed and that he managed to live only by hiding under bodies.
“I could feel the bullets hitting the people and I could feel the blood coming down on me from the people who were shot,” said Huzef, a Christchurch civil engineer originally from India.
“Everyone wants to get back in again to give praise and to catch up. This is the central point of our community.”
The attacks shocked a country of 4.5 million that is known for its tolerance and prompted global horror, heightened by Tarrant’s cold-blooded livestreaming of the massacre.
New Zealand came to a standstill on Friday to mark one week since the bloodshed, with the Muslim call to prayer broadcast across the country followed by two minutes of silence.
The ceremonies saw poignant scenes of Maoris performing the traditional haka war dance, and non-Muslim New Zealand women donning makeshift Islamic headscarves in solidarity.
A day earlier, the country outlawed the military-style rifles used in the assault with immediate effect.
But one of four concert sites at a music festival in the capital Wellington was evacuated on Saturday night just before a planned minute of silence for Christchurch, underlining lingering apprehensions.
Police cited unspecified “concerns about a person,” but later called it an “innocent misunderstanding” and the concert was slated to proceed.
In Christchurch, police also handed back Linwood Mosque, the second killing zone several kilometers away from Al Noor, but no plans to allow visitors were announced.
An armed police presence will remain at both mosques, as well as others around New Zealand.
Workers have rushed to repair the mosques’ bullet-pocked walls and clean blood-spattered floors.
At Al Noor, visitors knelt at a garden tap to wash their feet and faces in ritual pre-prayer ablutions.
Some wept quietly inside the mosque, where bright sunlight streamed through windows and the air smelled of fresh paint. No bullet holes were seen.
Men and women then knelt and prayed on a padded carpet underlay taped to the floor, still awaiting replacements for the mosque’s blood-stained rugs.
Several members of Christchurch semi-professional football club Western A.F.C. arrived in team colors to honor three victims who were known to the team due to their interest in the sport. The players left a bouquet of flowers outside the entrance to the mosque’s grounds.
The victims included 14-year-old Sayyad Milne, who dreamed of playing in goal for Manchester United, according to his father.
“We all love playing football and the best thing we can do is just to go out and enjoy it really, and obviously play for those guys that have been lost and think about them while we are doing it,” said team member Aaron McDonald, 20.
The mosque’s imam Gamal Fouda arrived draped in a New Zealand flag.
The day before, Fouda delivered an impassioned memorial service at a park next to the mosque that was watched globally and in which he praised “unbreakable” New Zealand for uniting in the tragedy’s wake.
Around 2,000 people gathered Saturday at the same park to join a “March for Love” procession through Christchurch.
Officials and police said two relatives of victims had died, with New Zealand identifying one as 65-year-old Suad Adwan, who had arrived from Jordan for the burial of her son Kamel Darwish, 38.
The grief-stricken mother was found Saturday morning having apparently died in her sleep, just hours after her son’s burial, of what police called a “medical event.”
No other details on the deaths were given.
But normality slowly returned to Christchurch as children played cricket near Al Noor and a previously scheduled 100-kilometer (62-mile) cycling race went ahead as planned.
New Zealand, which has already charged two people for distributing the gruesome livestreamed video of the attack, has now also made it a crime to share the alleged killer’s “manifesto,” local media reported.
In the document, Tarrant says the killings were in response to what he termed a Muslim “invasion” of Western countries.
“Others have referred to this publication as a ‘manifesto’, but I consider it a crude booklet that promotes murder and terrorism,” Chief Censor David Shanks was quoted as saying.