Sunday, July 26, 2009

Must end-users end up as fools?

Breakfast at terrorist-decorated Taj, with Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani on either side -- what triumphant symbolism to crown Hillary Clinton’s public relations tour de force in India. But did it work? It did make possible one impossibility; uniting the BJP and the Communists in a common cause. They were equally agitated, as indeed were some ruling party MPs, over the “hidden details” of the agreements the American lady finalised with our Government.

What offended them, and a lot of others, was the way America insists on American laws overriding the laws of other sovereign nations. They want our business – billions of dollars worth military equipment. But when we buy them, we must also buy the superiority of American laws which demand the right of inspection by American officials of our equipment and their deployment. Even the Indian Prime Minister’s special aircraft is subject to American inspection/approval from time to time because a US company supplied it.

The problem here is an attitude of mind. Remember the saying, “What is good for General Motors is good for the world”. Well, it now stands proved that it was not even good for General Motors which has collapsed. But the attitude of mind has not changed. What the US Congress resolves for America is binding on the world.

There is a further problem. The high-falutin attitude works only with orderly countries that have their own functioning parliamentary and legal systems. It never worked with Pakistan, for example. Massive quantities of American arms were supplied to Pakistan to strengthen its democratic forces. But most of the weaponry was used against India. America did not or could not take action under its end-user laws. Pakistan is smart enough to know that America recognises only West-ward looking terrorists. So they mounted a serious campaign against the Swat Talibans and won applause from the likes of Hillary. Which left Pakistan free to carry on merrily with east-ward looking terrorists. (V.K.Krishna Menon used to scorn Americans for assuming that their guns supplied to Pakistan could only fire in one direction).

Why is it that India appears unable to call this kind of bluff? Is it just a matter of Manmohan Singh’s avowed admiration for America? Or is there, additionally, a lingering colonial mentality in our bowing to the West as a matter of habit?

Our history since independence is studded with events that suggest such a predilection on our part. We internationalised the Kashmir issue (when there was no need to do so) because Nehru was easily influenced by the Mountbattens. Imagine China taking the Tibet issue to the UN. In 1994 in the wake of the Bhopal gas tragedy, we allowed Union Carbide boss Anderson to walk free. Indian law was rendered toothless. In 1995 after a foreign aircraft dropped arms in the remote area of Purulia, five Latvian and one British crew were finally sentenced. But all of them were given executive pardon and allowed to go home. Will the American system allow any such leniency to jailed fashion designer Anand Jon who is widely believed to have been framed by business rivals in Los Angeles?

Six decades after independence, we are still to learn how to stand up for our dignity. Imagine how dramatically equations will change if we do a few things the American way. Give our business, for example, to European suppliers of weapons and nuclear plants who do not have humiliating end-user specifications. And ensure that a departing American dignitary or two are body-searched at our airport. That’s a language that will be instantly understood.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The CPM’s Last Hurrah


Perhaps we need not be surprised that the CPM is being driven by a death-wish. Perhaps the CPM should die away so that a genuine, progressive Left movement can take shape in India. It is written that destruction precedes creation.

Kerala, more than West Bengal, demonstrates the lethal certainty of the death-wish. For it is in Kerala that the CPM has turned against itself with devastating effect. In Bengal it is the people who turned against the CPM – the result of three decades of terror rule. That it was indeed rule by terror, the world is only now beginning to learn. Not only was the police, the schools, the civic services filled with party cadres, the CPM had set up armed squads of its own in the rural areas to ensure that not a mouse moved without their permission.

In Bengal, clearly, it was arrogance of power that undid the CPM. In Kerala it was the greed for power. Party boss Pinarayi Vijayan (PV) saw himself as a Vladimir Putin whose writ would run even if another man sat in the President’s chair naam ke vastay. Veteran V.S. Achutanandan (VS) was a stumbling block. The entire history of Kerala in recent years can be seen in terms of PV’s manoeuvres to make mincemeat of VS.

Unfortunately for PV, VS has the reputation of a clean man who lives a simple life. He is therefore immensely popular with the people. By contrast, PV’s image is that of a jet-setter with interests in Dubai and Singapore. Under him the CPM in Kerala has become a successful corporate enterprise with big buildings and businesses. He is feared as a tough nut who will stop at nothing to have his way. When he was chargesheeted by the CBI recently in a corruption case, public opinion hardened against him.

Who cares about public opinion? Not Vladimir Putin. What matters is opinion in the CPM Politburo. And that buro is obviously amenable to pressure. It is widely known that the CPM lost the parliamentary elections in May (the Left Front got only four seats out of 20 as against 18 in 2004) largely because of PV’s unilateral decisions, from alienating alliance partners to sharing platforms with known communal leaders. But PV succeeded in giving the impression to the Politburo that it was all due to VS’s anti-party activities.

In a final showdown in the party’s highest forums in Delhi, PV clinched his Pyrrhic victory. Powerful voices were raised within the party that both PV and VS deserved to be punished for the party’s miserable showing in Kerala. But the Secretary General, the equivalent of Josef Stalin, stood firmly on the side of PV and insisted that only VS should be punished. Since communist tradition is to yield to Stalin’s wishes, VS was ousted from the Politburo. In an extra-judicial pronouncement, the Karat group also proclaimed that PV was not guilty in the corruption case. (What can the courts do now!)

The immediate effect of these decisions was to increase VS’s popularity and further alienate the CPM and its victorious Vijayan. The likely consequences of the party’s actions were best summed up by Justice Krishna Iyer (who, let it be remembered, was a minister in Kerala’s first communist government in the 1950s). Said the eminent jurist-politician: “The ultimate result of the Politburo’s decisions will be to wipe out the Left from Kerala. If factionalism continues as now, the next elections will mark the end of the CPM”.

So be it. The old must be destroyed to make way for the new. Destruction is redemption. Inquilab zindabad!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Why Rs 1417030000000 won’t save us


One followed by seven zeroes, a crore, is easy to conceptualise. It’s the unit in which politicians count their money. But one followed by twelve zeroes? It takes an Indian budget to think in those terms – 1417030000000 being the allocation for defence in the Mukherjee budget. It’s 34 percent higher than last year’s but it’s for our defence, so no one will grudge it.

That’s a pity because we must indeed grudge it. And precisely because it is for defence. Not that the money is too much. India spends only 2% of its GDP on the military. Pakistan spends 5% and China 7%. But the problem is that, unlike them, we don’t get the full benefit of the money we earmark.

So the services remain seriously handicapped. The army badly needs light helicopters and artillery guns, but has been “unable” to buy them. Half the submarine fleet is useless for war. IAF crashes in recent months have pointed to the need for urgent equipment upgradation. Even fast patrol boats the Coast Guard desperately requires are yet to be acquired.

Actually the services were given Rs 48,007 crore last year. But as much as 7000 crore out of it remained unspent. The Coast Guard, for example, was given Rs 947 crore, but it returned Rs 200 crore unspent.

Why are they unable to buy what they want though they have the money? The lay mind will immediately think of the corruption that has plagued defence purchases for long years. Maybe because huge sums of money are involved, middlemen have become active in this field. Neither the law nor proverbially clean defence ministers seem able to get rid of the manipulations.

V.K.Krishna Menon had many failings but corruption was not one of them. Yet, he was caught in the jeep scandal. George Fernandes, not considered corrupt, was badly cornered by Tehelka. The evidence of kickbacks was all on camera, yet the Defence Minister’s response was to destroy Tehelka through foul means.

Rajiv Gandhi was still wearing the Mr Clean halo when the Bofors bomb exploded. The institution of middlemen had officially been abolished by then, but powerful middlemen pulled strings, from Italy and elsewhere. It’s entirely possible that Rajiv Gandhi knew about things only after things happened, but he evidently went along thereafter. Otherwise, the coverup operation would not have been so effective and Ottavio Quattrochi, a professional middleman, would not have received the sustained protection that he did.

The current defence minister is cleaner than any other Mr Clean before him. Nevertheless, middlemen remain. The 10,000-crore missile contract with Israel earlier this year involved a 6 percent “business charge”. Who got this? And why was the contract signed with a company that was already being investigated by the CBI?

Some answers came from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. It revealed that the company gave large commissions to Sudhir Chowdhury to fix the deal. CBI had issued an arrest warrant against this man over a 2006 missile deal and he had then moved his base to London. He is one of three middlemen who are said to control nearly 80 percent of India’s defence procurement.

A gentleman like A.K.Antony would be unaware of such goings-on, let alone be party to them. But the innocence of leaders like him only helps the crooks who operate unseen. This ground reality adversely affects the quantity and quality of our military purchases and therefore of our capability to counter a hostile neighbour or an invading terrorist group. Unless this problem is addressed and solved, one followed by all the zeroes in the world won’t help us.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Spectacular Music, Spectacular Wreck


Death, we know, is a great leveller. What we do not realise is that it is also a great revealer. It strips off the many masks we wear in life and reveals the many truths we hope to hide. How glittering were the masks Michael Jackson sported. And how ugly the truths behind them.

The fans of course are uninterested in the ugliness. They remain dazzled by the magic of the Pop Emperor’s music. It was indeed superior music. It may have lacked the intellectual vigour of the Beatles, but it resounded with a throbbing, palpitating rhythm of electrical energy. It was thunderclap set to foot-thumping tempo. It was spectacular. It was music to watch.

Music to watch? Time was when the best way to enjoy music was to close one’s eyes and lose oneself in the uplifting pleasure of listening. Music was a function of sound. But the 1950s and 60s changed all that. While the Hippy culture was content with turning the abnormal into normal, Pop emerged as a conscious effort to tap the commercial potential of music. It envisaged the modern mass audiences as frenzied consumers. Elvis Presley marketed himself with bejewelled high-collar jackets and a provocative movement of the hips that earned him the title Elvis the Pelvis.

It was left to Michael Jackson to realise the full potential of the pelvis. Like a man inspired, he sent his hips into an erectile orbit that taunted an astonished world. His swirls and gyrations, his jigs and shrugs, his defiant gestures became his music. His “Thriller” thrilled millions of buyers. His “Bad” was adjudged good by millions more.

Even in showmanship, Jackson out-performed Presley. Presenting a transsexual image, he decked himself up in gaudy tunics with kinglike epaulets and sequinned gloves. Small wonder that he made the music video an art form in itself, establishing once and for all that music was meant as much for the cameras as for the recording microphones. Clearly Jackson was a virtuoso. Whether he was a genius is open to question, but he certainly was a prodigy. He was a celebrity from the age of 11.

Was that his undoing? To cope with Big Fame and Big Money, you need a Big Mind. Which does not come easily. Education can sometimes help. So can family background. The company one keeps can matter too. And the way one spends one’s spare time. Which of these would be accessible to a Black family with nine children growing up in the American inner state of Indiana? Chances get even dimmer when one becomes rich and famous too early in life. Unable go grasp the opportunities provided by celebrity status, unable to absorb the pressures as well as the pleasures of superstardom, unable simply to cope, Jackson withdrew into himself. He became not just a recluse, but a dangerously eccentric recluse.

Marriages and divorces, children from hired wombs, plastic surgeries one after another, chemical treatments to make his black skin white, sleeping in coffins, dangling a baby from the balcony – the man was a psychological wreck. And the drugs. They’ve calculated that he was taking drugs worth 24 lakh rupees every month. There was no food intake. What the post-mortem revealed was a skeleton sustained by narcotics. And an accumulated debt of nearly 3000 crore rupees.

What is the use of fame? What is life worth if it gives you the whole world, but not one day’s peace of mind? The biggest truth revealed by Michael Jackson’s death is a truth all of us know but few of us accept: Money cannot buy happiness.