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Of honest fascists, corrupt democrats

Of honest fascists, corrupt democrats

BOOKS can sometimes shepherd us to unplanned journeys. One that I picked up last week relentlessly targets Hillary Clinton’s alleged shady deals, including some with cash-rich Indian nuclear lobbyists. Unwittingly, I imagine, Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash found me pondering a line of moral reasoning that was probably not the intended purpose of the book. Hobson’s choice, we call it. That’s what the book carelessly left me handling.

A recurring if extreme example of my quandary first surfaced in Germany of 1932. Assuming that chancellor Franz von Papen was corrupt, or incompetent, or both, should that have made him a less desperately needed choice to lead his country if the man to succeed him was Adolf Hitler? And suppose the Fuhrer had both qualities — of squeaky-clean probity and administrative abilities, which he probably did?

The question is old, and so are the two answers it usually brings, putting us in a bind all too often. The dilemma has arisen several times in Pakistan. Who to choose between a perceptibly corrupt democratic leader and a pious, preferably scriptures-quoting military dictator? India needs military rule, goes the refrain on the other side of the border. British rule was so much better. Such utterances are common to Delhi, usually in response to water scarcity or power outages, or even if the auto driver forgot to return the change. People like Narendra Modi have profited from this self-defeating logic.

If Hillary Clinton is corrupt and her opponent was to be Jeb Bush, with his biblical morality and claim to probity, who should we choose? You would probably apply the same yardstick my other friends used to root for Barack Obama against Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Clinton’s near hysteria over Iran with her eyes on the American-Israeli lobby, turned people firmly towards Obama. Compared to yet another Bush prospect, however, she smells of roses.

An inescapable fact about Schweizer’s book is its timing. By design or default, it tries to damage the Democratic presidential hopeful’s chances in the coming races. If you are a Clinton fan you are quite likely to trash the book. A Jeb Bush supporter, on the other hand, would buy copies to distribute “the untold story of how and why foreign governments and businesses helped make Bill and Hillary rich”. I could discuss here the chapter titled: India nukes — how to win medals by changing Hillary’s mind.

For president Clinton, India’s May 1998 nuclear tests were a “surprise slap in the face”. He had launched a personal initiative “to halt, roll back and eliminate the nuclear programme of both India and Pakistan”. Clinton denounced the tests with then Chinese president Jiang Zemin at his side.

Senator Hillary Clinton, on her part, stood vociferously against India’s bid to gatecrash into the nuclear weapons club. As presidential candidate and later at her confirmation as secretary of state she fervently supported NPT and the test ban treaty. From the Bush era when faced with legislative obstacles to befriend a nuclear India, how did things change? Two names surface in the book that appear to have tilted Hillary Clinton towards Delhi. They include a New York-based Sikh hotelier Sant Chatwal and a political go-between and former MP Amar Singh. “When Hillary ran for the Senate in 2000, Chatwal became one of her largest soft-money donors.”

The Sikh tycoon had a history of legal trouble. In a visit to India with Clinton in May 2001, Chatwal was arrested and charged with defrauding the New York City branch of Bank of India of $9 million he borrowed in 1994. “He posted a bail equivalent to $32,000, then fled India, boarding a flight to Vienna, despite an attempt by authorities to detain him,” the New York Daily News is quoted as saying.

Schweizer quotes Chatwal as openly admitting he spent “tons of money, time and effort to make sure that the (Indian-US) nuclear deal goes through”. Some of that money was spent in India, where according to a leaked diplomatic cable between the US embassy in Delhi and the State Department, cited in the book, “at least two ministers and several members of parliament were claimed to have been paid off, with reports of ‘two chests containing cash’ ready as ‘pay offs’ to win support for the Indian-US nuke deal”.

What Schweizer does claim to know is that millions were spent on cultivating the relationship with the Clintons, “who not only received the money directly through lucrative speaking deals, but also reaped millions in donation to the Clinton Foundation”.

In September 2005, Bill Clinton flew on Frank Giustra’s plane from Uzbekistan to Lucknow. “Before the festivities began, Clinton joined Chatwal for a private meeting where he was introduced to an obscure member of the Indian parliament named Amar Singh.” The Lucknow friend would be implicated in a number of financial and vote-buying scandals in Indian politics. In 2011, he was indicted on charges that he bought votes in parliament to secure the nuclear deal. The trial was never held. Amar Singh was next seen at the head table with the Clintons. Chatwal was decorated with a prestigious civilian award by prime minister Manmohan Singh.

In 2006 Hillary Clinton was both a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a co-chair of the Senate’s India Caucus. But she showed no immediate favour for the nuclear deal-friendly Hyde Act. How did she subsequently change her stance to enable the deal? Schweizer’s book has a whole chapter to deal with that question.

If she wins the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton will present the world, not the least Indians opposed to nuclear weapons, with the classic double bind. Damned if she loses, damned if she wins.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2015

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