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‘Long march’ helps Rahul Gandhi shed playboy image

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'Long march' helps Rahul Gandhi shed playboy image

 Five months spent traversing his country on foot helped the scion of India’s most famous dynasty shed his playboy image — but the road to reviving his dismal political fortunes will be a tougher journey.

Rahul Gandhi has for years struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds a near-monopoly on power through nationalist appeals to the country’s Hindu majority.

Modi has revelled in casting his chief opponent, dubbed an “empty suit” in leaked US embassy cables from 2005, as an out-of-touch princeling more interested in luxury and self-indulgence than fighting to helm the world’s biggest democracy.

His Congress party, a once-mighty force with a proud role in ending British colonial rule 75 years ago, is now a shadow of its former self, plagued by infighting and defections.

But a decision to invoke one of India’s best-known protest traditions, flanked by ordinary people, has given him an air of authority that had so far eluded him in public life.

“Rightly or wrongly, the BJP’s campaign of him being an incompetent person was the dominant perception — he has managed to change that,” independent political analyst Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Junior told AFP.

Since his long trek began on India’s southernmost tip last September, Gandhi has struck a chord with fiery speeches and affectionate interactions with the thousands of bystanders that have lined streets to watch his procession.

The campaign harkens back to the famous 1930 trek by Rahul’s unrelated namesake Mahatma Gandhi, whose march to protest a salt tax imposed by British rulers was a seminal moment in India’s independence struggle.

It has bypassed the country’s traditional media in an effort to reach the public directly, with an in-house social media apparatus and interviews with online influencers.

Footage of Gandhi on the roadshows him with a newly commanding posture, sporting an unkempt salt-and-pepper beard grown during the march and trailed by smiling children.

His 3,500-kilometre (2,175-mile) journey — not all by foot — concludes on Monday in the frosty Himalayan foothills of Kashmir, after months spent finessing both his common touch and a voter pitch capitalising on widespread economic insecurity.

“The job of the nation is to make sure that you feel protected,” he said this month, while sharing kebabs and playfully joking about his sweet tooth in a YouTube interview with a popular food blogger.

‘Unite India’

The “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (“Unite India March”) has fashioned Gandhi into a more credible heir to the legacy of his father, grandmother and great-grandfather, each one a former prime minister, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

But Gandhi has already steered Congress to two landslide election defeats against the seemingly unconquerable BJP, whose victory in next year’s national polls is almost universally considered a foregone conclusion by experts.

“He has managed to redefine his public image,” Rao said. “Whether it will translate into votes, I am not very sure.”

Congress was dominant during the first half-century after Indian independence but now governs in just three of India’s 28 states.

The party weathered a messy and public internal brawl last year over who would take office as its president after the resignation of Sonia Gandhi — Rahul’s mother, widowed when her husband Rajiv was assassinated in a suicide attack in 1991.

Several leaders of other opposition parties historically aligned with Congress spurned Rahul’s entreaties to join his countrywide trek, an uncharitable estimation of his prospects next year.

His exhortations of religious tolerance and India’s secular traditions have in the past failed to dent the BJP’s muscular advocacy for the Hindu majority at a time of rising intolerance against Muslims.

‘He had no choice’

But his decision to undertake the march also reflects his biggest hurdle: the enduring power of Prime Minister Modi, whose skill in cultivating a populist public image well outclasses his own.

“Rahul Gandhi himself has said that he had no choice but to go for the (march) in order to connect with people and report it through social media,” Zoya Hasan, an academic and political scientist based in New Delhi, told AFP.

Modi is the beneficiary of a media environment largely in thrall to the BJP’s agenda, with Indian press freedoms declining significantly since he took office in 2014, according to international watchdogs.

While the prime minister’s daily movements are reported on frantically by cable news broadcasters, Gandhi’s exploits have largely failed to feature unless they cast him in a negative light.

“Anything that undermines the opposition is prime news,” Hasan added.

“Anything that is positive which actually brings people together, as the Bharat Jodo Yatra is seeking to do, is not.”

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

The US Coast Guard and Kiribati police boarded two Chinese fishing boats during a patrol against illegal fishing in the Pacific Islands nation’s vast exclusive economic zone this month but found no issues aboard, a coast guard official said.

The United States is seeking a bigger role for its coast guard in helping remote Pacific Islands nations monitor millions of kilometres of ocean – a rich tuna fishing ground – a move that also boosts surveillance as a rivalry with China over security ties in the region intensifies.

Reuters reported on Friday that Chinese police are working in Kiribati, with uniformed officers involved in community policing and a crime database program.

Kiribati, a nation of 115,000 residents, is considered strategic despite being small, as it is relatively close to Hawaii and controls a 3.5 million square kilometre (1.35 million square mile) exclusive economic zone. It is also host to a Japanese satellite tracking station.

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Washington has flagged plans to build an embassy in Kiribati to compete with China, but has not yet done so.

Kiribati police officers were on patrol with the US Coast Guard as “ship riders” for the first time in almost a decade, between Feb. 11-16, a US Coast Guard Guam spokeswoman said.

“The two People’s Republic of China (PRC) flagged fishing vessels were boarded as part of routine maritime law enforcement activities to ensure compliance with regulations within the Kiribati Exclusive Economic Zone,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed comments.

No concerns were reported during the boardings, she said.

“Both Kiribati officers from the Kiribati Police Maritime Unit and US Coast Guard officers were involved in the boarding operations. This collaboration underscores the partnership between the two nations in upholding maritime law and good governance,” she added.

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The Kiribati president’s office and Chinese embassy did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Kiribati’s acting police commissioner, Eeri Aritiera, told Reuters last week that Chinese police on the island work with local police.

China built a large embassy on the main island, Tarawa, after Kiribati switched ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019. 

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Russia launched 14 attack drones and a barrage of missiles at Ukraine overnight, with air defence systems destroying nine drones as well as three guided missiles over the Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions, Ukraine’s air force said on Monday.

Russia also launched two S-300 missiles from anti-aircraft missile systems and one air-to-surface Kh-31P missile, the air force said on the Telegram messaging app.

It was not clear what happened to the missiles and drones that were not downed. 

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Tuvalu on Monday announced former attorney general and fisheries official Feleti Teo as its new prime minister, after he was elected unopposed by lawmakers in the Pacific Islands nation, officials said.

Former Prime Minister Kausea Natano lost his seat in a general election on Jan. 26 closely watched by Taiwan, China, the US and Australia, amid a geopolitical tussle for influence in the South Pacific.

Tuvalu, with a population of about 11,200 spread across nine islands, is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan, after Nauru cut ties last month and switched to Beijing, which had promised more development help.

Teo received unanimous support from the 16 lawmakers, two lawmakers told Reuters on Monday.

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Teo, who was educated in New Zealand and Australia, was Tuvalu’s first attorney general. He has decades of experience as a senior official in the regional fisheries organisation and has worked with the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s major political and economic group. Fishing is a major source of revenue in the Pacific islands.

“Feleti Teo was declared by the Governor General as Prime Minister for Tuvalu,” Tuvalu’s government secretary, Tufoua Panapa, said in an emailed statement.

Tuvalu lawmaker Simon Kofe congratulated Teo in a social media post.

“It is the first time in our history that a Prime Minister has been nominated unopposed,” he said.

The election result in Tuvalu had been delayed by a month as dangerous weather stopped boats from bringing new lawmakers to the capital to vote for prime minister, highlighting why climate change is the top political issue in the Pacific Islands nation.

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Taiwan’s foreign ministry said its ambassador to Tuvalu, Andrew Lin, expressed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s congratulations to Teo, adding that deputy foreign minister Tien Chung-kwang will visit Tuvalu in the near future.

Teo is a friend of Taiwan’s and has visited many times, and has said relations are stable and that maintaining ties is the widespread consensus in Tuvalu, the ministry added.

Taiwan previously said it was paying close attention to the election after Tuvalu’s finance minister in the previous government, Seve Paeniu, said the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China should be debated by the new government.

There had also been calls by some lawmakers to review a wide-ranging deal signed with Australia in November, that allows Canberra to vet Tuvalu’s police, port and telecommunication cooperation with other nations, in return for a defence guarantee and allowing citizens threatened by rising seas to migrate.

The deal was seen as an effort to curb China’s rising influence as an infrastructure provider in the Pacific Islands.

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Teo’s position on Taiwan ties, and the Australian security and migration pact, have not been made public.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on social media he looked forward to working with Teo.

“Australia deeply values our relationship with Tuvalu, in the spirit of the Falepili Union,” he wrote, referring to the migration pact.

Tuvalu’s ministry would be announced at an oath taking ceremony for the new government later this week, Panapa said.

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