Zelensky, top US officials to make case for Ukraine funding

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Kyiv has struggled to make major advances in its 2023 counteroffensive against Russia. ( Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty via Reuters)
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President Joe Biden pauses as he answers a reporter's question about Ukraine after speaking about the May jobs report, June 3, 2022, in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (AP)
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Updated 05 December 2023
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Zelensky, top US officials to make case for Ukraine funding

  • President Joe Biden has sought a nearly $106 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other needs, but it has faced a difficult reception on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON: Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelensky and top aides to US President Joe Biden will make their case to US senators on Tuesday about why a fresh infusion of military assistance is needed to help Ukraine repel Russian invaders.

US officials say the United States will spend all it has available for Ukraine by the end of the year, a dire prediction that comes as Kyiv has struggled to make major advances in its 2023 counteroffensive against Russia.

Biden’s administration in October asked Congress for nearly $106 billion to pay for ambitious plans for Ukraine, Israel and US border security, but Republicans who control the House with a slim majority rejected the package.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a close Biden ally, announced on Monday night that the administration has invited Zelensky to address senators via secure video as part of a classified briefing on Tuesday “so we can hear directly from him precisely what’s at stake in this vote.”

In addition, a variety of top Biden officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, are expected to brief the senators on Tuesday.

Schumer also started the process of advancing a Ukraine-Israel emergency aid bill on the Senate floor.

“America’s national security is on the line around the world” with the fate of Ukraine aid hanging in the balance, Schumer said in a Senate speech. “Autocrats, dictators waging war against democracy, against our values, against our way of life. That’s why passing this supplemental is so important. It could determine the trajectory of democracy for years to come.”

Zelensky said in a November interview that despite the slow going, Ukraine would try to deliver battlefield results by the end of the year and that he remained sure Kyiv would eventually have success in the war despite difficulties at the front.

But the stalled drive to get US assistance has alarmed the Biden White House, which fears a failure to help Ukraine further would increase the likelihood of Russian victories.


Blinken says US ‘not involved in any offensive operation’

Updated 4 sec ago
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Blinken says US ‘not involved in any offensive operation’

  • ‘All I can say is for our part and for all the members of the G7 our focus is on de-escalation’
CAPRI, Italy: The United States was “not involved in any offensive operation,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday following reports that Israel had carried out revenge strikes on Iran.
“I’m not going to speak to these reported events... All I can say is for our part and for all the members of the G7 our focus is on de-escalation,” Blinken told a press conference on the Italian island of Capri.

Indians head to the polls in world’s biggest election

Updated 32 min 58 sec ago
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Indians head to the polls in world’s biggest election

  • Polling takes place in phases over the next six weeks, with results expected on June 4
  • Over 968 million people are registered to vote, with 168.6 million casting ballots on Friday

NEW DELHI: Indian voters headed to the polls on Friday for the first phase of the world’s biggest general election, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is aiming for a rare third consecutive term.

More than 968 million people are registered to vote, with polling taking place over the next six weeks, as results are expected on June 4.

After April 19, the other voting dates will be April 26, May 7, May 13, May 20, May 25 and June 1, with some states completing the process on a single day, and others having it spread out in several phases.

Friday’s polling was held in 21 states and union territories, including the most populous ones such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra, as well as smaller northeastern states and the northern Himalayan territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

In Kashmir, this is the first election since its special autonomous status and statehood were scrapped through the Indian government’s controversial constitutional amendment in 2019.

Chief Election Commissioner of India Rajiv Kumar told reporters on Friday that 168.6 million people were expected to cast their ballots on Friday.

“The preparations started, actually, two years back. Wide range of preparations … It’s a tremendous exercise,” he said.

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More than 2,600 political parties are registered in the marathon election and 543 contested seats in the lower house of Parliament. The party or coalition that wins at least 272 is going to form the government.

Modi is targeting 400 seats for the National Democratic Alliance led by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been in power since 2014.

He is challenged by an alliance of two dozen opposition parties — the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, led by the Congress Party, which has ruled the country for close to 45 years since its independence in 1947.

The key leader of the opposition coalition is Rahul Gandhi — the son of Rajiv Gandhi, a grandson of Indira Gandhi, and a great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, all of whom served as prime ministers of India.

While the opposition is trying to appeal to Indian youth with promises to tackle unemployment, free education and medical facilities, the BJP has deployed the same tactics as in previous polls — by mobilizing voters through majoritarian Hindu sentiment, despite constitutional provisions that make it a secular state.

Opinion polls show Modi as frontrunner, with 48 percent of respondents in the most recent survey released by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies last week naming him as their choice for the prime minister. Gandhi was second, preferred by 27 percent.

“Modi has created an image of a powerful leader, a leader who is not only popular in India but outside too. He has also created an image of not pandering to Muslim communities in India … This image of a leader who does not appease the Muslim sentiments appeals to the Hindu masses. Politics of polarization helps Modi to build an image and aura among a large section of the Hindu voters,” Prof. Venkat Narayan, political analyst and commentator, told Arab News.

“Then the use of social media and the mainstream media is also there to create an image and broaden Modi’s appeal. The media plays a great role in creating this image, they are soft towards Modi and do not ask critical questions.”

If Modi wins the election, he will become the second prime minister, after Nehru, to succeed in three consecutive polls.

“Modi is leading in the polls as he has created an image of doing a lot for different sections of the society. Besides, he projects himself as squeaky clean. People also think that as he has no children, he has no reason to be corrupt or be on the take,” Sanjay Kapoor, analyst and editor of the English-language political magazine Hardnews, told Arab News.

“There are other reasons for his popularity, which include adroit use of media and social media that control all criticism against him. Then there are issues of raising India’s global profile and pursuing an independent foreign policy.”

FUTURE FOREIGN POLICY

Whoever wins the election, the foreign policy direction is likely to remain broadly unchanged, except for India’s orientation toward Israel and Palestine.

Support for Palestine and Palestinian statehood was once an integral part of India’s foreign policy, but in recent years, under Modi’s rule, New Delhi has become closer to Tel Aviv, despite civil society protests breaking out across the country against Israel’s deadly war on Gaza.

“If the INDIA alliance comes to power, then we may see a change in our policy towards Israel and Palestine. The INDIA alliance is sympathetic to Palestinians,” Kapoor said.

“We expect that the INDIA alliance will also restore ties with neighbors like Pakistan, (and) revive SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation).”

The member states of SAARC — a regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of states in South Asia — are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

The last biennial SAARC summit was hosted by Nepal in 2014. Pakistan was to host the summit in 2016, but it was stalled after India refused to participate, following an attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir that New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based militants.

VOTERS’ CONCERNS

According to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey, unemployment emerged as the top concern for 27 percent of respondents.

Some 62 percent also said it has been more difficult to find a job in the last five years — during Modi’s second term in office.

“The biggest concern remains inflation and unemployment. The possibility of getting a job decreases if you study more. People are forced to leave India in search of jobs. Some have even gone as far as Russia and Israel,” Kapoor said. “The situation is really dismal.”

Rising prices and inflation were also a major issue — the top concern for 23 percent of the people surveyed by the CSDS.

“Women and the middle class are concerned about the rising prices. Modi is trying to divert attention from these main issues by talking about religion and temples,” said Shashi Shekhar Singh, associate professor at Satyawati College at the University of Delhi.

The CSDS pre-poll also revealed that despite the ruling party’s narrative promoting Hindu nationalist dominance to establish a majoritarian state in India, only 11 percent of respondents saw India as solely for Hindus.

But there were fears the reality on the ground could change if the BJP tried to amend India’s liberal and democratic constitution.

“Indian secularism and the very idea of a plural democracy is at stake,” Singh said.

“There is a fear that if the BJP comes to power with the thumping majority, the liberal and secular democracy will breathe its last. The BJP might lead the nation further down the path of a Hindu majoritarian state.”


ASEAN says ‘deeply concerned’ over escalating Myanmar violence

Updated 19 April 2024
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ASEAN says ‘deeply concerned’ over escalating Myanmar violence

  • ASEAN foreign ministers urge ‘all parties for an immediate cessation of violence’ in Myanmar

BANGKOK: Regional bloc ASEAN said it is “deeply concerned” about a recent upsurge in fighting in Myanmar, after fierce clashes over a key trading hub near the Thai border.
The foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations urged “all parties for an immediate cessation of violence” in Myanmar, which has been roiled by conflict since the military seized power in a February 2021 coup.
The ministers’ statement issued late Thursday said ASEAN was “deeply concerned over the recent escalation of conflicts, including in the area of Myawaddy.”
The military was last week forced to pull its troops out of positions in the valuable trading post after days of battling with the Karen National Union (KNU) — a long-established ethnic minority armed group — and other anti-junta fighters.
It was the latest blow suffered by the junta, which has suffered a string of battlefield losses in recent months, with some analysts warning it is its most significant threat to date.
Myawaddy is Myanmar’s main trade link to Thailand, and usually sees over a billion dollars worth of trade annually.
The clashes saw people flee across the border into Thailand — from where gunfire and the boom of artillery barrages could be heard.
Thailand has said it is ready to receive people from Myanmar, though the kingdom’s foreign minister warned it would not tolerate any violation of its sovereignty.


India starts voting in the world’s largest election as Modi seeks third term as PM

Updated 19 April 2024
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India starts voting in the world’s largest election as Modi seeks third term as PM

  • Nearly 970 million voters will elect 543 members to lower house of Parliament 
  • The staggered elections will run until June 1, votes will be counted on June 4

NEW DELHI: Millions of Indians began voting Friday in a six-week election that’s a referendum on Narendra Modi, the populist prime minister who has championed an assertive brand of Hindu nationalist politics and is seeking a rare third term as the country’s leader.
The voters began queuing up at polling stations hours before they were allowed in at 7 a.m. in the first 21 states to hold votes, from the Himalayan mountains to the tropical Andaman Islands. Nearly 970 million voters — more than 10 percent of the world’s population — will elect 543 members to the lower house of Parliament for five years during the staggered elections that run until June 1. The votes will be counted on June 4.
One voter said she came early to avoid the summer heat later in the day.
Prime Minister Modi urged people to vote in record numbers. “I particularly call upon the young and first-time voters to vote in large numbers. After all, every vote counts and every voice matters!” he said in a message on the social media platform X.
This election is seen as one of the most consequential in India’s history and will test the limits of Modi’s political dominance.
If Modi wins, he’ll be only the second Indian leader to retain power for a third term, after Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister.
Most polls predict a win for Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, who are up against a broad opposition alliance led by the Indian National Congress and powerful regional parties.
It’s not clear who will lead India if the opposition alliance, called INDIA, wins the election. Its more than 20 parties have not put forward a candidate, saying they will choose one after the results are known.
The BJP is facing the toughest challenge in southern Tamil Nadu state with 39 seats where the voting is being held on Friday. The BJP drew a blank in 2019 and won one seat in the 2014 elections with the region dominated by two powerful regional groups, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
Modi focussed on the state this time and visited it more than a dozen times, holding several rallies and roadshows.
P. Chidambaram, an opposition Congress party leader and the country’s former finance minister, said after voting in Tamil Nadu state that people would not vote for the BJP in the state as “It is imposing one language, one culture, one system and one kind of food.”
The voting also is taking place in the northeastern state of Manipur that was ravaged by a near-civil war for a year caused by fighting between the majority Meitei and tribal Kuki-Zo people. Mobs have rampaged through villages and torched houses.
The election authority has set up voting stations for nearly 320 relief camps where more than 59,000 men, women and children are living. The state stands divided between a valley controlled by the Meiteis and the Kuki-dominated hills.
More than 150 people were killed and over 60,000 displaced. The voting for two seats will be completed on April 26.
In the 2019 elections, the BJP and its allies had won 39 of 102 seats where the voting is taking place on Friday. These include Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and West Bengal states.
The election comes after a decade of Modi’s leadership, during which the BJP has consolidated power through a combination of Hindu-first politics and economic development.
Modi has ratcheted up Hindu nationalist rhetoric on the campaign trail, and has sought to present himself as a global leader. His ministers tout him as the steward of a surging India, while his supporters celebrate his campaign promise to make India a developed nation by 2047, when it marks 100 years of independence.
But while India’s economy is among the world’s fastest-growing, many of its people face growing economic distress. The opposition alliance is hoping to tap into this, seeking to galvanize voters on issues like high unemployment, inflation, corruption and low agricultural prices that have driven two years of farmers’ protests.
Critics warn that Modi has turned increasingly illiberal and that he could use a third term to undermine India’s democracy. His Hindu nationalist politics, they argue, has bred intolerance and threatens the country’s secular roots.
The alliance has promised to arrest the democratic slide it says India has witnessed under Modi’s rule. They accuse Modi of sidelining elected ministers in favor of trusted bureaucrats and using tax authorities and the police to harass critics and opposition parties.
“Modi has a very authoritarian mindset. He doesn’t believe in democracy. He doesn’t believe in Parliamentarianism,” said Christophe Jaffrelot, who has written about Modi and the Hindu right.
Modi insists that India’s commitment to democracy is unchanged. He told a Summit for Democracy meeting in New Delhi in March that ‘“India is not only fulfilling the aspirations of its 1.4 billion people, but is also providing hope to the world that democracy delivers and empowers.’’
The Indian leader enjoys vast popularity among India’s 1.4 billion people. His BJP dominates in Hindi-speaking northern and central parts of India, and is now trying to gain a foothold in the east and south to capture a two-thirds majority. Modi and other BJP candidates have repeatedly vowed to take at least 400 seats.
The party hopes for a landslide win powered by its popular welfare programs, which it says have improved access to clean toilets, health care and cooking gas, as well as providing free grain to the poor. Moves like the construction of a controversial temple to Ram on the site of a demolished mosque, and the scrapping of the disputed Muslim-majority region of Kashmir’s former autonomy, may resonate with supporters who hail him as the champion of the Hindu majority.
“Any party that comes back for a third term, and with a brute majority, is a scary prospect for democracy,” said Arati Jerath, a political commentator.
Modi’s two terms have seen civil liberties in India come under attack and it implementing what critics say are discriminatory policies. Peaceful protests have been crushed with force. A once free and diverse press is threatened, violence is on the rise against the Muslim minority, and government agencies have arrested opposition politicians in alleged corruption cases.
The BJP has denied its policies are discriminatory and says its work benefits all Indians.


Once a fringe Indian ideology, Hindu nationalism is now mainstream, thanks to Modi’s decade in power

Updated 19 April 2024
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Once a fringe Indian ideology, Hindu nationalism is now mainstream, thanks to Modi’s decade in power

  • While Mahatma Gandhi preached Hindu-Muslim unity a few decades earlier, the RSS advocated for transforming India into a Hindu nation
  • RSS, which stands for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is paramilitary, right-wing group founded nearly a century ago
  • Modi joined the political wing of the RSS in the late 1960s in their home state, Gujarat, when he was a teenager

AHMEDABAD, India: Hindu nationalism, once a fringe ideology in India, is now mainstream. Nobody has done more to advance this cause than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of India’s most beloved and polarizing political leaders.

And no entity has had more influence on his political philosophy and ambitions than a paramilitary, right-wing group founded nearly a century ago and known as the RSS.
“We never imagined that we would get power in such a way,” said Ambalal Koshti, 76, who says he first brought Modi into the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the late 1960s in their home state, Gujarat.
Modi was a teenager. Like other young men — and even boys — who joined, he would learn to march in formation, fight, meditate and protect their Hindu homeland.
A few decades earlier, while Mahatma Gandhi preached Hindu-Muslim unity, the RSS advocated for transforming India — by force, if necessary — into a Hindu nation. (A former RSS worker would fire three bullets into Gandhi’s chest in 1948, killing him months after India gained independence.)
Modi’s spiritual and political upbringing from the RSS is the driving force, experts say, in everything he’s done as prime minister over the past 10 years, a period that has seen India become a global power and the world’s fifth-largest economy.
At the same time, his rule has seen brazen attacks against minorities — particularly Muslims — from hate speech to lynchings. India’s democracy, critics say, is faltering as the press, political opponents and courts face growing threats. And Modi has increasingly blurred the line between religion and state.
At 73, Modi is campaigning for a third term in a general election, which starts Friday. He and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are expected to win. He’s challenged by a broad but divided alliance of regional parties.
Supporters and critics agree on one thing: Modi has achieved staying power by making Hindu nationalism acceptable — desirable, even — to a nation of 1.4 billion that for decades prided itself on pluralism and secularism. With that comes an immense vote bank: 80 percent of Indians are Hindu.
“He is 100 percent an ideological product of the RSS,“in said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a Modi biography. “He has delivered their goals.”
 

In this Feb. 23, 2014 file photo, Indian Muslims shower flower petals as volunteers of Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, (RSS), march on the concluding day of their three-day meeting in Bhopal, India. For the RSS, Indian civilization is inseparable from Hinduism. (AP Photo/Rajeev Gupta, File)

Uniting Hindus
Between deep breaths under the night sky in western India a few weeks ago, a group of boys recited an RSS prayer in Sanskrit: “All Hindus are the children of Mother India ... we have taken a vow to be equals and a promise to save our religion.”
More than 65 years ago, Modi was one of them. Born in 1950 to a lower-caste family, his first exposure to the RSS was through shakhas — local units — that induct boys by combining religious education with self-defense skills and games.
By the 1970s, Modi was a full-time campaigner, canvassing neighborhoods on bicycle to raise RSS support.
“At that time, Hindus were scared to come together,” Koshti said. “We were trying to unite them.”
The RSS — formed in 1925, with the stated intent to strengthen the Hindu community — was hardly mainstream. It was tainted by links to Gandhi’s assassination and accused of stoking hatred against Muslims as periodic riots roiled India.
For the group, Indian civilization is inseparable from Hinduism, while critics say its philosophy is rooted in Hindu supremacy.
Today, the RSS has spawned a network of affiliated groups, from student and farmer unions to nonprofits and vigilante organizations often accused of violence. Their power — and legitimacy — ultimately comes from the BJP, which emerged from the RSS.
“Until Modi, the BJP had never won a majority on their own in India’s Parliament,” said Christophe Jaffrelot, an expert on Modi and the Hindu right. “For the RSS, it is unprecedented.”
Scaling his politics
Modi got his first big political break in 2001, becoming chief minister of home state Gujarat. A few months in, anti-Muslim riots ripped through the region, killing at least 1,000 people.
There were suspicions that Modi quietly supported the riots, but he denied the allegations and India’s top court absolved him over lack of evidence.
Instead of crushing his political career, the riots boosted it.
Modi doubled down on Hindu nationalism, Jaffrelot said, capitalizing on religious tensions for political gain. Gujarat’s reputation suffered from the riots, so he turned to big businesses to build factories, create jobs and spur development.
“This created a political economy — he built close relations with capitalists who in turn backed him,” Jaffrelot said.
Modi became increasingly authoritarian, Jaffrelot described, consolidating power over police and courts and bypassing the media to connect directly with voters.
The “Gujarat Model,” as Modi coined it, portended what he would do as a prime minister.
“He gave Hindu nationalism a populist flavor,” Jaffrelot said. “Modi invented it in Gujarat, and today he has scaled it across the country.”
A few decades earlier,
In June, Modi aims not just to win a third time — he’s set a target of receiving two-thirds of the vote. And he’s touted big plans.
“I’m working every moment to make India a developed nation by 2047,” Modi said at a rally. He also wants to abolish poverty and make the economy the world’s third-largest.
If Modi wins, he’ll be the second Indian leader, after Jawaharlal Nehru, to retain power for a third term.
With approval ratings over 70 percent, Modi’s popularity has eclipsed that of his party. Supporters see him as a strongman leader, unafraid to take on India’s enemies, from Pakistan to the liberal elite. He’s backed by the rich, whose wealth has surged under him. For the poor, a slew of free programs, from food to housing, deflect the pain of high unemployment and inflation. Western leaders and companies line up to court him, turning to India as a counterweight against China.
He’s meticulously built his reputation. In a nod to his Hinduism, he practices yoga in front of TV crews and the UN, extols the virtues of a vegetarian diet, and preaches about reclaiming India’s glory. He refers to himself in the third person.
P.K. Laheri, a former senior bureaucrat in Gujarat, said Modi “does not risk anything” when it comes to winning — he goes into the election thinking the party won’t miss a single seat.
The common thread of Modi’s rise, analysts say, is that his most consequential policies are ambitions of the RSS.
In 2019, his government revoked the special status of disputed Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority region. His government passed a citizenship law excluding Muslim migrants. In January, Modi delivered on a longstanding demand from the RSS — and millions of Hindus — when he opened a temple on the site of a razed mosque.
The BJP has denied enacting discriminatory policies and says its work benefits all Indians.
Last week, the BJP said it would pass a common legal code for all Indians — another RSS desire — to replace religious personal laws. Muslim leaders and others oppose it.
But Modi’s politics are appealing to those well beyond right-wing nationalists — the issues have resonated deeply with regular Hindus. Unlike those before him, Modi paints a picture of a rising India as a Hindu one.
Satish Ahlani, a school principal, said he’ll vote for Modi. Today, Ahlani said, Gujarat is thriving — as is India.
“Wherever our name hadn’t reached, it is now there,” he said. “Being Hindu is our identity; that is why we want a Hindu country. ... For the progress of the country, Muslims will have to be with us. They should accept this and come along.”