Will Italy take advantage of India’s efforts to lead the global south?

The XVth BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit has concluded with the long awaited expansion of the bloc with new members being announced. Effective 1st January 2024, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Iran, Argentina, Egypt will join the BRICS bloc as new members. The expansion was controversial, with China trying to pack the grouping with its allies, including Venezuela and India rather contrary to a sudden expansion. The Indian Prime Minister almost canceled his in person participation for this summit in South Africa.

While the inclusion of Iran gives the group an anti-west tilt, the other new members balance out Iran’s inclusion and provide India strong support to continue as a member of the bloc without having to bow to China’s demands. Modi also has almost achieved African Union’s (AU) entry into the G20 during India’s Presidency with China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping expressing his support for the AU’s entry into the G20 at a bilateral meeting with Senegal’s President Mickey Sall.

China’s attempt so far had been to create a separate grouping of developing nations under the BRICS umbrella which would counter the G7 while India’s attempt was to pull the African Union into the G20 fold during its Presidency. Xi also left dissatisfied, instead of BRICS announcing its own currency to counter the US dollar, the bloc encouraged members to trade in their own and local currencies. Xi has been under fire recently at home, a financial crisis in China and a decelerating economy much attributed to Xi’s authoritarian stance have started to challenge Xi’s capacity and leadership.

On the sidelines of the BRICS summit Modi also met with his counterparts from Iran, Mozambique, South Africa, Ethiopia, Senegal among others for bilateral meetings. All leaders congratulated India on its moon landing, the first country to reach the south pole of the moon and the fourth to land on the moon’s surface, a huge achievement for India and the global south.

The leadership of the Global South

China has followed a strategy to seize leadership of the global south, while India has always maintained its role as a spokesperson for the global south advocating for the concerns of developing countries with western developed economies. China’s various strategies included obtaining the leadership of UN entities and now proposing BRICS as a direct alternative to the Group of 7 (G7) where it is not invited despite being the world’s second economy. India has been a regular guest at G7 meetings. The world’s most populous country, its largest democracy and fifth largest economy neither has a permanent seat in the UN security council, nor is a permanent part of the more informal G7 and continues participating as a guest of the Presidency.

In Africa, China and Russia’s intentions have come to the fore over years. In the past decades, between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and development assistance, China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping has doled out billions of dollars in aid and loans. African leaders have discovered that most of these loans were to make their countries dependant on China or seize strategic assets such as ports and other infrastructure at default which China assumed would be a certainty.

Russia’s interference through the Wagner group and other private military companies in Libya, Mali and Niger Africa as well as its support to Syria in a bloody civil war has not gone unnoticed by African leaders.

Africa has a long-suffering relationship with colonialism and imperialism. African people and leaders have developed an aversion to European countries which have colonized and looted them for centuries. The EU continues to preach human rights and provide funds with impossible conditions, despite a lot of individual countries’ prosperity being due to their colonial abuse of Africa.

Despite being the beacon of western democracy, slavery was an important ingredient in prosperity of the United States of America. The US and the EU have continued to meddle in African politics until recently, replacing heads of state at their whim and blaming suffering and poverty in African countries on corruption and mismanagement.

Africa finds the same imperial vein in China and Russia, both rush to prove their leadership and in that rush impose their will and leaders on the African people often with the use of deceit and violence. India instead has never had imperial ambitions. It has been a beacon for the independence struggle of most African countries. Indian communities have settled in Africa for hundreds of years, some attracted by middle management opportunities offered by colonial Britain, France and Portugal, others dragged in indentured servitude by the colonial masters. Despite the reasons, India’s culture, cuisine, languages as well as Africans of Indian origin are now an indelible part of the continent. India understands the pain from colonial plunder and has developed into a global power within 75 years of its independence from Britain despite its “two centuries of humiliation”.

Despite money and muscle that China and Russia may possess, India will continue to be the voice of the global south-it understands colonialism, poverty and humiliation. The world’s largest democracy now has the muscle, credibility, the authority, and understanding of the developing world’s issues far beyond what a dictatorial China or an imperialist Russia ever can.

Italy’s G7: Countering China and Russia

Italy is one of the only European countries which has failed at a colonial project. Its flirtation as an imperial power in Ethiopia and Libya was short-lived. Prime Minister Meloni also understands the importance of Africa. Her “Mattei plan” which focuses on development and cooperation with Africa is the cornerstone of her international relations strategy. She will visit India in September 2023 for the G20 Heads of State, her second visit to Delhi this year. Meloni also understands and appreciates the rising importance of India in global geopolitics, especially as Italy is preparing to exit its Belt and Road Initiative MoU. Meloni and Modi have developed a strong relationship since her election and both have convergent strategies for Africa.

While many analysts have spoken of enlarging the G7 to counter China’s aggressive ambitions, Italy’s G7 should propose only two names for an expansion during its presidency in 2024: India as the 8th member and the African Union as a non-enumerated member as is the EU. As the world’s fifth economy, India has a right to be invited to the table, not having to wait for a larger reform or expansion of the G7. The gains India has made during its G20 Presidency and the effort it has put in ensuring that BRICS does not become a China led platform can be maximized with this invitation to the G7 during Italy’s Presidency to India and the AU. As former undersecretary for external affairs of Italy, Gianni Vernetti, summarizes in his opinion piece “The entry of India into the club of powerful nations (G7) would be of great benefit to the west”.

Such an invitation will be a clear signal to India and Africa of their importance to the world’s democracies and their place in global geopolitics. It will encourage African leaders to be stakeholders in democracy and development and empower India to be the bridge and voice between the global south and the world’s leading democracies. A non-confrontational, India-Italy partnership can continue to keep most of the global south in the corner of democracies without a direct confrontation with China.

The recent BRICS expansion should be a wake up call to western democracies. As Meloni heads to Delhi she has a historic opportunity to consolidate Italy’s role on the global stage in 2024.

Al-Zawahiri dead: bad timing?

Zawahiri’s assassination opens a pandora’s box
5th august 2022 jerusalem post

JPost article in English

Formiche.net article in Italian

The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the lackluster, pedantic idealogue of Al-Qaeda, brings a strange closure to the US “War on Terror”, which started with 9/11. Egyptian born al-Zawahiri, was known to be a confidant of Saudi Osama bin Laden, who was America’s Public enemy number one, until he was found and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, over 10 years ago.

The world had all but forgotten about al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. Once the primary global Islamic terrorist organization, the Al-Qaeda had become a footnote with more deadly organizations such as the ISIS taking its place. Islamic terrorism has also evolved extensively since Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri masterminded the attacks on 9/11. Al-Zawahiri neither had the finances nor the sophistication to upgrade to terrorism 4.0.

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Will Di Maio’s visit to Delhi build on Von der Leyen’s momentum?

Will Di Maio’s visit to Delhi build on Von der Leyen’s momentum?

India has become a hub of activity recently, despite its unpopular position in the west on Russia. On the heels of UK Prime Minister Johnson’s visit to India, European Commission President, Ursula Von Der Leyen, now visits Delhi. Von der Leyen has visited the Indian capital several times as a German politician and defense minister, this is her first as the President of the European Commission. Her visit comes at a challenging time, as Boris Johnson, who despite protests from different segments in the UK, was in India to encourage trade and to push ahead the Enhanced Trade Partnership (ETP) which envisions doubling UK-India trade by 2030. He also was looking to boost the UK-India Free trade agreement negotiations (FTA) which started in January 2022. By all reports, Johnson’s visit was very successful and the crux of Brexit was the EU-British trade competition, especially in the 2.4 billion people strong commonwealth of which India is a member.

Boris Johnson in India

The United Kingdom was almost 100% supplier of India’s defense equipment in the 1950’s. In 2020, it was reduced to around 1% of the $70-80 billion that India spends annually on defense. Johnson was aiming at clawing back into the defense segment, which is lucrative for the UK and  had to be ignored during the UK’s EU membership, given competition rules.

Johnson tried, during his visit, to shore up the UK’s sales in this lucrative market while announcing investments in the Green economy, technology unicorns etc. to a tune of £1billion. Flying directly to Ahmedabad, the erstwhile capital of Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state and more importantly Mahatma Gandhi’s home state, Johnson all but atoned for all his predecessors’ actions in 190 years of colonialization with the show he put on, which frankly surprised experts and observers. What now remains to be seen is if Von Der leyen can triumph Johnson’s act and if Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio is able to continue with Von de Leyen’s momentum when he visits Delhi in May.

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Ukraine: Who will bear the cross?

Ukraine, the conflict now rages while it is more apparent that this is a proxy war fought at the doorsteps of Russia and Europe.

A comedian kickstarts his career with a parody. The story runs thus, a schoolteacher accidently getting himself elected as the President of his country when his students post his rant against the government online and crowdfund for his election. The show is so successful that four years later, the comedian really lands up in the top office. The plot doesn’t stop there, he takes on a feared, despised, and evil dictator, who decides to invade his country and …. (wins?). World leaders who tolerated the evil dictator and his evil, sidekick corrupt billionaires for decades rally with the upstart and move to send weapons and medicines to the besieged population while government employees in various countries which welcomed the evil empires evil money go to confiscate their yachts and arrest the billionaire cronies.

This isn’t the plot of “Argo returns” or a B-grade Hollywood film, but of the state of the world’s geopolitics. The script seems to have been written in the Obama White House in 2014 as an afterthought to the Maidan revolution, which brought western democracy to Ukraine and brought Ukraine to “NATO-sphere”.

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The second chapter of the Great Game: Kazakhstan

Barely five months into the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, central Asia is again in the news. The rapid rising tensions in Kazakhstan with violence on the street and the seeming sidetracking of longstanding Kazakh strongman and Putin ally Nursultan Nazarbayev, has left the world perplexed. Kazakhstan’s lack of human rights and Nazarbayev’s iron rule have been long ignored by the world, in a country which has known a single leader since the fall of communism. 

While the inspiration behind Kazakhstan’s revolution is uncertain, what is worrying global leaders and markets is the uncertainty this has created in central Asia. The country itself is strategic to global markets, speaking for 12% of the world’s uranium deposits and is the worlds largest uranium producer producing 40% of global uranium consumption. It is also China’s strategic ally and a key pawn and member of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China General Nuclear (CGN), a China state owned company on the US sanctions list, is one of the biggest players in the uranium mining industry in Kazakhstan. 

More importantly, Kazakhstan borders China and Russia by land and shares a sea border with Iran on the Caspiansea. The country also has key interests in the stability of Afghanistan and has been a strong Indian ally on the Afghan situation. Kazakh youth also are at risk of radicalization, given potential infiltration by Islamic radical groups, who have been attempting at creating a foothold on the borders with China and Russia. 

China and Russia: securing central Asia

The destabilization of Kazakhstan is currently mired in intrigue. Some analysts present a possibility that insiders, part of an elite close to the former President and leader of the nation “Elbasy”, organized the protests in an attempt to take over the Presidency from President Tokayev, who was appointed by Nazarbayev as his successor. The firing of Nazarbayev as the Chairman of the all powerful security council by Tokayev and the firing and arrest of Karim Masimov, a Nazarbayev loyalist, from his position of the head of the KNB (National Security Committee) point to Tokayev buying into the narrative that Nazarbayev and his loyalists were behind the protests.Sources also accuse Masimov of being associated with the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global pan-Islamist, fundamentalist organization whose stated aim is to re-establish the Islamic caliphate globally.

However, with tensions rising between Russia and the NATO on Ukraine and friction between Belarus and the EU which is an extension of the Russian tensions with the US-it is hard to rule out a strong Russian and Chinese hand in destabilizing Kazakhstan. 

Both Russia and China, in the past year, have increased their bilateral cooperation partly due to their increasingfriction with the US. Both share growing concerns on the rise of Islamic radicalization on their borders, also due to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. China worries about Islamic extremism spreading in its Muslimmajority Xinjiang province, where it is accused of trying to eliminate the local Turkic Muslim population and Russia worries about Chechnya.  Despite China’s bonhomie with Pakistan, the country remains a nightmare to manage and China has been so far unable and unwilling to buy-into Pakistan’s control of Afghanistan and its Taliban and Haqqani led Emirate. 

While Nazarbayev has been a Russian and Putin ally for the past several decades, using him to destabilizeKazakhstan allows Russia to step in. His last reportedmeeting with Putin was on the 28th of December on the sidelines of an economic summit in St. Petersburg. 

This intrigue, moreover, offers additional insight into what may have moved Tokayev to appeal to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, to provide assistance in ending the ongoing unrest. As of January 7, thousands of elite troops from Russia, as well as a smaller number from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have been pouring into Kazakhstan, ostensibly with the task of guarding key strategic facilities, such as airports and important government buildings. This puts Russia and its allies in firm control of Kazakhstan-with it its resources of Uranium, oil and natural gas, all key for the west.

The role of China in this is still to be cleared. President Xi Jinping has been on an year long crackdown against Chinese oligarchs and the Chinese financial system. In an attempt to exert state control over the economic apparatus, Xi has conducted a massive crackdown against bitcoin and bitcoin mining. Most of this had moved to Kazakhstan with Chinese companies and individuals continuing to control the mining. Now thanks to the revolution, Kazakhstan is without internet and at times electricity, causing uncertainty for around 20% of bitcoin’s mining globally causing a crash in bitcoin prices with market cap of over $1 trillion being wiped off in a few days.

The Great Game: the second chapter, Kazakhstan

While the first chapter of the great game was Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul, the second chapter is being written in Kazakhstan. All this reduces the west’s and the US’s role in central Asia.

Italy has large petrochemical investments in Kazakhstan though ENI and in 2019 imported over $7 billion of crude and minerals from the central Asian country. It has tried to keep a strong relationship with the central Asian republics and Pakistan-also given its G20 presidency. With Russia primed to take direct control of strategic sites in Kazakhstan, Italy walks into a minefield, on one end with its alliance with the US and NATO which have issued ultimatum’s to Russia on its military buildup with Ukraine and on another end its investments in Kazakhstan and the importance the country has for the Italian role in Central Asia. Italy itself enters a period of political instability with its Presidential elections which may cause Mario Draghi, Italy’s savior and Prime Minister, being elevated to the ceremonial Presidential role. Mr. Draghi, enjoys broad-based political support in the Italian parliament and parties are unable to agree on a compromise candidate to replace him in his role as the Prime Minister. This would mean Italian reforms as well as its foreign policy under threat as Italy would go back to short lived coalition governments unable to enact reforms. Mr. Draghi has also been able to pivot Italy away from Chinese influence and firmly back into the US/EU/NATO corner. 

2022 begins with uncertainty in central Asia as the great game continues to write its second chapter. What started with the fall of Kabul on the 15th of August now has spread to Kazakhstan with protests reported also in Iran, putting a shadow on all of Central Asia. Whether Kazakhstan is Russia’s response to NATO’s ultimatum on Ukraine or a joint Russian-Chinese project to increase their strategic depth in central Asia, the next move is now decisive for the Biden White House. The West’s victory or defeat in the Great Game may depend on it.

Social Media, new censors of democracy

Social media

Writing my first article on #Linkedin on this topic is probably not the wisest start to a prolific blogging career, but since the start of this year the outsourcing of free-speech censorship has niggled at me. Im of that generation which actually knows the world without the internet. I was in my teens when we still had archie and gopher and IRC was actually where people “hung out”. The WWW was just taking off and Sabeer Bhatia hadn’t even started hotmail (it was to be a few years that he betrayed us netizens by selling out to Microsoft). The internet was supposed to be free, self regulated and everything that the real world was not. It had rules and decency and was policed by idealistic geeks who had a code. Cut to 2020 the internet is a spammy, creepy place, where slick teenage billionaires in business suits now apparently tells us what to think, how to vote and we have effectively stopped using our brains.

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The Indian agricultural reforms: Protect the small farmer

The protests against the agricultural reforms in India have made headlines in Europe, breaking through the COVID related doom and gloom. Social media has convinced us that over 250 million people are protesting nationwide in India, labelled as the largest protest in modern times, with over 11 Indian opposition parties supporting the farmers and the India wide strike.

The world now weeps for the solitary, poor, Indian farmer and CNN quotes various predominantly Punjabi and Sikh groups who lament how the reform affects the “poor Indian farmer”. CNN asks you to worry, because your spice rack may be at risk as would be your fashion given than India produces 68% of spices globally and more cotton than China. Very few news sites actually explain what the actual problem is and how does one protect the Indian farmer. Most are content at bashing the Indian government.

Internationally, the protests have received strong support, especially in countries like Canada, UK and Italy where the Punjabi and Sikh diaspora are predominant, where pro-Khalistan groups have found shelter.

The agricultural structure so far in India

Over half of the Indian population is engaged in agriculture while generating only 16% of the GDP  85% of Indian farmers manage farms smaller than 2 hectares. The current legal structure is outdated and opposition leaders such as Sharad Pawar of the NCP have in the past criticized the existing legal structure as “outdated”. While these protests politicize the farmers demands, they do little to protect the small, poor Indian farmer who was exploited before and continues to risk exploitation now.

The previous legal framework, including the Essential Commodities Act (1955), is over 55 years old. They were passed when India was a socialist republic, in days of drought, shortages and license raj and originate from British colonial laws which were designed to keep agricultural produce in the control of the colonial government which was why they had colonized India to begin with, for raw material initially for their industries and eventually to keep their armies fed and clothed during the war. So laws which controlled how and to whom farmers sold their produce when made sense during the years of colonialization.

The current laws obliged farmers to sell their produce at the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees (APMC). The APMC’s are state government-controlled wholesale markets which are run by cartels of middlemen, who buy the produce from small farmers and resell them at higher margins, given that the small farmer neither has the money or the means to transport the produce to the APMC. Over time these middlemen have become a rich and powerful political lobby with strong political links. The APMC’s sell vegetables and several other goods through an auction system, which has been judged by neutral observers are non-transparent and farcical, with price fixing and corruption being rampant.

The second part of this story is the MSP or the minimum support price. Based on the recommendations of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), the Department of Agriculture and Co-operation, Government of India, the MSP is declared before every sowing season for 22 commodities on the Essential Commodities Act.  The Food Corporation of India, based on the MSP, buys wheat and rice from the APMC and sells it at highly subsidized rates to the Indian poor. The national government refunds this loss to the FCI, effectively financing billions of dollars making the Indian system the most expensive food procurement and subsidy initiatives globally. Then there are other issues, including the lack of cold storage etc. which create a lot of waste annually and make any exports of surplus by the FCI unfeasible.

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