Event Notice: "India's 2014 Parliamentary Elections: Analyzing the World's Most Populous Democracy," TODAY, 9:30 AM - 4:00 PM (SAIS).
Mullah Fazlullah, the new leader of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), has returned to the country from his hideout in Afghanistan, according to Pakistani intelligence officials (RFE/RL). Shahidullah Shahid, a TTP spokesman, confirmed these reports, telling Agence France Presse that Fazlullah was now "commanding the Taliban movement at an unknown location in the tribal areas" (AFP). Fazlullah, who is also known as "Mullah Radio" for his fiery FM broadcasts, was appointed as the group's leader in November after his predecessor, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a U.S. drone strike. He fled to Afghanistan in 2009 after a Pakistani military offensive pushed him from the Swat Valley. Bonus read: "Who is Mullah Fazlullah?," Daud Khattak (AfPak).
Media group attacked
At least four unidentified gunmen opened fire on the office of the Karachi-based Express Media Group, wounding at least three people and underscoring the ongoing threats to journalists working in the country (BBC, NYT). The media house publishes the English Express Tribune -- a partner publication of the International New York Times -- and the Urdu Daily Express, and owns the Express News television network. While the building was previously targeted (again by unknown assailants) in August, the motive of this most recent attack is still unclear and there were no immediate claims of responsibility. Journalists demanded that the Pakistani government arrest those responsible within the next 72 hours, threatening to hold countrywide rallies if they were not (ET, RFE/RL). According to the Committee to Protest Journalists, 53 reporters have been killed in Pakistan since 1992.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Gen. Raheel Sharif (no relation), the newly appointed Chief of Army Staff, met for the first time on Tuesday and discussed the country's national security and related military matters (Dawn). Gen. Sharif assumed the command from his predecessor, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, on Friday. While not much is known about the new chief, he is expected to maintain Kayani's focus on internal threats from militants and his avoidance of overt military interference in politics.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Brussels on Tuesday for NATO's annual two-day summit and it is likely that much of the discussion will focus on what comes next in Afghanistan (AP, VOA). The United States wants to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan once the alliance's combat mission ends next December to continue training and advising the Afghan security forces, but will not do so without a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai (Pajhwok). Despite the recommendations of thousands of Afghan elders, Karzai has refused to sign the document unless certain conditions, like the release of all Afghan detainees at Guantanamo Bay, are met, prompting the United States to threaten withdrawing all of its troops. Most other NATO countries are waiting for the BSA to be signed before determining their own post-2014 commitments to Afghanistan (RFE/RL).
Hoshyar Zebari, the current Iraqi minister of foreign affairs, arrived in Kabul on Monday to share his country's own experiences after failing to reach a similar security agreement with the United States in 2011 (Pajhwok). While Zebari did not provide any details about his talks with Karzai, Pajhwok Afghan News reported that he "hinted that Iraq needed help from the U.S. to overcome its security challenges following a wave of sectarian violence." However, no information was provided as to what those hints were. When the United States and Iraq could not agree on the terms of their own pact, all U.S. troops were pulled out of the country.
The upper house of Afghanistan's parliament discussed the possibility of delaying next April's presidential election on Sunday, due to concerns about extreme winter weather in parts of the country (RFE/RL). According to Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, the chairman of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, the delay was something even Karzai had suggested after constituents had expressed fears that heavy snows would prevent them from making it to the polls (AJAM). While Nuristani said the commission didn't have the constitutional or legal authority to change the election's date, an unidentified commissioner told Reuters that it could be delayed due to bad weather (Reuters). Though thousands of voters have been registered in advance of the elections, organizers say that poor security, a shortage of monitors, and a lack of funding are undermining their abilities to protect the process (Reuters). Maintaining the legitimacy of the elections is crucial, as it will mark the first transfer of power between presidents since the Taliban fell in 2001.
Transparency International, a Berlin-based non-profit organization that monitors corruption around the world, released its 2013 Corruption Perception Index on Tuesday, naming Afghanistan one of the most corrupt countries in the world (Pajhwok). While none of the 177 countries the organization looked at received a perfect score, Afghanistan was ranked 175, just above North Korea and Somalia. The countries are ranked on a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 means a country's public sector is considered highly corrupt and 100 is an indicator that it is very clean. Afghanistan was given an 8, a number unchanged from last year. Pakistan on the other hand, which scored a 28, a one-point improvement over last year's score, jumped 12 spots from 2012's list to appear at 127 this time around (AFP).
Love knows no bounds
Ikram Akhtar, an influential Indian screenwriter, will make his directorial debut with the film India Mein Lahore, a cross-border romantic comedy featuring acting talents from both India and Pakistan (ET). In describing the Dubai-based project, Akhtar said, "Whenever we speak about India and Pakistan, I feel as if we are talking about war. There is actually a lot of love between the people of both countries...[and the film] stresses on the fact that the perceptions we share about each other are wrong." The film, which is still in the audition phase, will be released internationally, including in India. Akhtar says he hopes "to envoke [sic] the romance of the era when our differences were less pronounced."
-- Bailey Cahall
Storm in a kahwa cup
In his first visit to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi sparked an outcry by suggesting that Article 370, which grants J&K autonomy, as well as special laws on ownership, movement and fundamental rights, could be up for debate (BBC, Indian Express, Times of India). At a rally in Kupwara on Monday, Modi accused the central government of using Article 370 to promote the politics of regional discrimination and suggested the state may be better off without it. Major J&K political figures, including former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, denounced his remarks. Former J&K chief minister and erstwhile National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition partner Farooq Abdullah said Modi could not do away with the article, even if he "becomes Prime Minister ten times" (Hindustan Times). Several other national political figures such as Congress leader Digvijay Singh and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar also criticized Modi for his stand.
While Modi has been harsh on Pakistan in his campaign trail, an article by the Economic Times suggests Pakistan is watching Modi's campaign to see if better trade relations will ensue (Economic Times). Sections of the Pakistani business and political community interviewed by the paper said his election may boost Indo-Pak ties, citing overtures by the previous Vajpayee-led NDA coalition (where the BJP was the majority party), Modi's ‘strong man' image, and apparent trade friendliness. But not everyone interviewed was in agreement: The Pakistani media was divided on whether he would improve Indo-Pak relations, while the communist Mazdoor Kissan Sabha was hopeful the Congress and left parties could yet "learn from their mistakes."
India slips on corruption index
A survey released by international corruption watchdog Transparency International on Tuesday ranked India 94th among 177 countries in terms of public sector corruption (Hindustan Times, WSJ). The list, which ranks countries from least to most corrupt, based on public perception, put India ahead of Pakistan (127) but behind China (80). India, whose rank remained unchanged from last year, has slipped 22 spots since 2007, after which political and business scandals battered public confidence.
What to expect this winter session
With the winter session of India's parliament set to begin on Dec. 5, the country's political parties have begun storing up their political ammo. According to the Economic Times, the government is likely to discuss ratifying the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement; introduce bills reserving 30 percent of the parliamentary seats for women and creating an anti-corruption ombudsman; and an amendment to the Coal Mines Regulation Act of 1957, after the government faced several coal scams this year (Economic Times). The BJP-led opposition will likely bring up the Muzaffarnagar riots, economic issues, terror attacks in the country, and oppose the Bangladesh land agreement. Uttar Pradesh's Samajwadi Party will likely oppose a bill granting mandatory female representation in parliament, while the left parties will likely oppose foreign direct investment in India's insurance sector.
"Too big to fail"
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced on Monday that it will create a separate category of banks that with higher capital requirements and will be subject to more intense scrutiny. Dubbed "Domestically Systematically Important Banks (D-SIBs)," the financial institutions are being identified in advance to avoid a repeat of the 2008 global financial crisis, where a failure in the U.S. financial system caused major harm to the world economy. Large public sector banks, such as the State Bank of India and Punjab National Bank, as well as large private players, like ICICI bank, are likely to be included in this new category. In a separate note, RBI emphasized the need for all banks to carry out stress tests to understand their ability to withstand shocks from the financial system (Mint, Economic Times).
India's current account deficit narrows
Data released by RBI show India's current account deficit has been reduced from 5 percent of GDP in the 2012 July-September quarter to 1.2 percent during the same period this year. The decline has been attributed to high taxes on gold imports, as well as an uptick in merchandise exports. The government had been grappling with a high current account deficit for several months, but Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said the data indicated the country was "on target" to reduce it (Bloomberg, BBC).
-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson