Sunday, September 27, 2009

Why this cat and mouse show?

As Mr Hardy would have sternly told Mr Laurel: “Well, there’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into”. Except that Manmohan Singh and associates are not doing a Laurel and Hardy show. It’s more like a cat and mouse show. India, rising economic power and IT giant, looks today like a cornered mouse being teased and taunted by a gang of sadistic cats.

Consider the fine mess. America’s military boss reports that growing Indian influence in Afghanistan is a problem because it will invite Pakistani counter-measures. Washington is finalising an aid package to beat all previous aid packages to Pakistan. To Indian protests that American-supplied weapons are used by Pakistan against India as Musharraf testified, America replies that Musharraf is a private citizen.

At the UN, America puts unprecedented pressure on India to sign the non-proliferation treaty called NTPT which India has strongly resisted. America tacitly accepted the Indian position when it signed the nuclear deal with India ( during the Manmohan-Bush Bhai Bhai days). But now America says, that was then, this is now.

China puts pressure along the Himalayan border. “Unofficial” blogs talk of India splitting into 20 or more countries while official circles deny a visa to an IAS man from Arunachal Pradesh because Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese, they say. In the wake of reported incursions, Indian military chiefs admit that we cannot match China’s might. Which is what China wants the world to note.

Pakistan does not budge an inch on the Mumbai attack issue. The world knows Pakistan is involved. The US has said so publicly. But Pakistan smartly goes to war against the terrorists who bother America. America then leaves Pakistan free to promote and protect the terrorists who bother India.

The world’s longest ruling dictator, Muammer Gaddaffi, performs in the UN to demand that Kashmir be made an independent nation. Has he been reading Arundhati Roy? Israeli intelligence warns that another Mumbai model attack is being planned by Pakistani jehadists. According to NATO intelligence, Somali pirates have been equipped by Al Quida to attack Indian ships. Australian racists are always ready to attack Indian students. Nepali Maoists are on the look out for any Indian priest lurking around Pasupatinath. LTTE operatives met secretly in Trivandrum recently for a seminar.

It’s almost as if all the sinister forces around the globe have joined hands to torment India. Why? It cannot be that India poses a potential hegemonic threat as Soviet Union once did and China does now. The care with which even adversaries treat China is a case in point. We’ll have to conclude that the world likes to kick India around because (a) the world does not respect India, and (b) India’s internal weaknesses invite a kind of derision.

Despite the Great Leap Forward that caused a famine that killed 20 to 43 million Chinese, and despite atrocities like the Tienanmen Square massacre, China is respected because of the modernity it has achieved and the military might it has built up in a short period. India has made significant progress too, but the large-scale corruption and the continuing influence of middlemen have ensured that a good proportion of our defence budget is wasted. Our military preparedness is not what it should be, or could be.
Our personality-based politics prevent our system from either achieving the national unity required on crucial issues or eliminating social disgraces like poverty and discrimination. Our vast filthy slums and our atrocities against women and dalits are open for all the world to see. No country can allow mass misery among its citizens and win the world’s respect. And a country that is not respected becomes a mouse for cats to kick around.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tricks to learn from Pakistan

Pakistan may be a failed state politically and socially. But it is demonstrably successful militarily and diplomatically. More successful than India, if you want to rub it in, for they have achieved what they set out to achieve. We have not.

Different types of dictators ruled Pakistan. All of them had one immutable objective: Make the world recognise Pakistan as a hyphenated equal of the unequally bigger ( in size, population, economy) India. Pakistan has achieved that objective – in the early days with the connivance of Britain which was an interested party in the India-Pakistan confrontation in the UN over Kashmir, and subsequently with the help of China which ensured that, as soon as India exploded a nuclear device, Pakistan did too.

The smartness with which Pakistan plays the diplomatic game is best reflected in the mileage it gains vis a vis America, and the mileage we do not gain. In the Cold War era, it was simple: Pakistan just joined the American bloc while India ploughed the non-alignment path and thereby incurred America’s wrath.

More recently the game has been subtler. Yet, otherwise bankrupt establishments like Pervez Musharaff’s and Ali Zardari’s have been playing it very cleverly. A US-Israeli strike against Pakistan’s nuclear assets was widely speculated after America expressed fears of the Pakistani bombs falling into Taliban’s hands. Suddenly the Pakistan Government joined the American side and genuinely went to war against the Taliban. Domestically it was a risk, but it won America’s appreciation.

America’s appreciation meant that Pakistan’s real game – making India run around in circles – could be played on Pakistan’s terms. Consider, for example, the toing and froing Pakistan has been doing with great relish over the Mumbai terror attack. And consider America’s all-words-and-no-action reactions to it.

More pointed from America’s policy perspectives was the fact, revealed by the New York Times, that Pakistan had been illegally modifying anti-ship missiles and maritime surveillance aircraft for attacks on India. The US Government lodged a formal protest and Pakistan formally denied the charge. That, for all practical purposes, was that.

As India fumed in its characteristically vegetarian style, Musharaff rubbed salt into the wound saying publicly that arms provided by America to fight Islamic terrorists were instead used to bolster defence against India. Forget his subsequent retraction under pressure, for he was speaking the truth when he said he was “proud he did it for Pakistan”. America said it took Musharaff’s disclosure seriously. That, presumably, was that.

This is the same America that made such a fuss about the end-user clause in its nuclear deal with India. Unlike India, Pakistan uses the clause as a joke. Which seems all right with the US. Last March the Obama administration was reportedly considering increasing developmental aid to Pakistan three times ( current rate $ 450 m. a year) and boosting military aid as well (currently $ 300 m. a year). Obviously, Pakistan knows how to manipulate American yardsticks to its advantage and how to get away with it. Can we imagine a Manmohan Singh or an A.B.Vajpayee signing the end-user agreement as America wants and then twisting it “ proudly for India”.
Adding insult to injury, India paid nearly Rs 13 crores in three years to Barber Griffith and Rogers, a Washington lobbying company, to get the nuclear deal passed by the US Congress. Pakistan also must be employing lobbyists in Washington. But they get in return what they want. We get what the Americans want. As a bonus we also get American travel advisories asking its citizens to stay away from India. Now we know why Ali Zardari is always plastered cheek to cheek with a grin hearty and toothy at once.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

YSR & the problem with empires

By every Indian standard, N.T.Rama Rao and M.G. Ramachandran were mass heroes of a kind that Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy could never be. The succession battles following their passing were ugly, but relieved by a semblance of ethics. Chandrababu Naidu mounted what looked like a family feud primarily to save his father-in-law’s reputation from the clutches of Lakshmi-Parvathi who suddenly surfaced to claim the late patriarch’s mantle. MGR had a legal wife to claim his mantle, but everyone knew that the politically innocent Janaki was propped up only to block Jayalalitha, the political heir. The gritty heir prevailed in that war.

In the case of YSR, the succession battle has been ugly with no saving grace – a brazen campaign that was tasteless in its haste, and orchestrated in its intensity. Sure, it was done in the name of a genuinely popular leader. Nevertheless, it raises issues that go beyond Andhra. For example, has the dynasty concept become so deeprooted that its proponents don’t care about/perceptions? Also, is the Congress boxing India into a dynastic trap? Barring stray cases in the JD (S) and the BJP, only the DMK matches the Congress in politics by inheritance. But the DMK is a one-state party whereas the Congress influences the whole country.

So why were Andhra Congressmen so desperate for YSR’s son to follow him? One reason could be YSR’s own operational genius. He had built – and now left behind – an industrial and financial empire in which there were many stake holders. Their interests demanded that the empire be secured by passing the reins to someone who was already privy to its inner workings. Hence the vehemence of the lobbying even before the body was in the grave. Hence, too, the importance of YSR’s son.

Jaganmohan Reddy is “inexperienced” only in terms of formal electoral politics. In business and its political management, his experience is vast. No doubt under his father’s tutelage, he acquired and nurtured mines, steel plants, cement factories, power companies, TV channels, newspapers, real estate. This and his latterday induction as MP were clearly meant to make him the custodian of the empire that YSR built.

YSR never allowed a No.2 to grow under him. Even in his Cabinet, there really was no No. 2. All key decisions of all ministries were handled directly by him. K.V.P. Ramachandra Rao was the only confidante whose counsel he valued – for 30 years. It speaks volumes that Rao quietly spent more than an hour in conversation with Sonia Gandhi when the campaign for Jaganmohan Reddy was in full swing in Andhra. All doors in Delhi were open to him.

That’s because YSR was the only regional Congress Chief who was not beholden to the High Command. It was indeed the other way round. After all, he ensured the Congress’s enviable position in Parliament by contributing 33 MPs from Andhra; he was also the biggest fund provider for the party. When other Congress chief ministers waited for the High Command to impose decisions on them, YSR took his own decisions.

Clearly this King of Cadappa was the cleverest politician on the Congress horizon. He secured his financial position through a business empire, his political position by strengthening the party in Delhi and by building strong personal relations with the Gandhi family, and his place in the hearts and minds of the people of Andhra by effectively implementing various welfare/development programmes. Such strong foundations may well come to his son’s aid. But that won’t automatically turn YSJ into YSR. The problem with empires is that they do not always pass from father to son. Even when they do, they do not always stay that way. Ask the King of Nepal.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Of desire, logic and social conscience

The Buddha describes lust/desire as the origin of suffering. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states pointblank that a person consists of desires. For Manu desire is one of humankind’s ten vices. Every source of wisdom warns us against desire, greed, avarice, the craving for more and more.

Yet, desire drives us. The latest example of this is cricket star Harbhajan Singh driving an unlicensed Hummar vehicle in Chandigarh. It may seem like a minor matter, but it is a symptom of what seems to have become a national trait – the arrogance of money.

Even California Governor Aarnold Schwa has given up his Hummar as unnecessarily showy. If an Indian cricketer lusts for this military-type macho car, we can’t stop him. But couldn’t he wait until it was registered? Contempt for such a simple legal requirement comes from arrogance of New Money. He will get away with it, thus justifying the Indian VIP’s contempt for the law.

Our Newly Rich display their wealth with what can only be described as vulgar abandon. Simply put, they lack class. Old Money is more civilised. Can we imagine Ratan Tata or Kumaramangalam Birla importing a Ferrari and asking for tax exemption on it as the other VIP cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, did?

Two characteristics mark out New Money pretenders from Old Money aristocrats. First, their ostentatious consumption is devoid of all logic. What is the logic of construction company boss Amit Bhonsale with three helicopters and twenty-five super luxury cars adding three new super luxury cars to his collection every year? What is the logic of paying Rs 15 lakhs for a bottle (that’s right, just one bottle) of Glenfiddich 50 Years whisky in a Delhi hotel? There’s no logic at all in paying Rs 10,000 for a bottle of Zacapa, a Guatemalan rum, in Mumbai when the 180-rupees Khoday’s rum is just as good except in snob value.

The other characteristic of the arrogant rich is their complete lack of a social conscience. The billions America’s super rich donate to charities is legend. Without the helpful tax structure that encourages philanthropy in America, many corporate entities in India have taken to social responsibility projects in a big way.

Elsewhere the picture is depressing. Some years ago in Bangalore, Amitab Bachchan’s company held a show promising to donate the proceedings largely to charity. That didn’t happen. Then it became known that he had bought land in Maharashtra on the false pretence of being a farmer in UP. Last year he got a show-cause notice after the Director of Revenue Intelligence charged that he walked through the Green Channel without declaring Rs 36 lakhs worth of clothes and accessories he bought in London. Why does one of the richest men in the country get into such problems?

Which is the same as asking: Why don’t our mega stars of sports and entertainment do more than token projects for the needy? The answer has something to do with character. National character, perhaps. Indians hold $ 1500 billion in personal deposits in Swiss banks making them world’s No. 1 in the slush fund league. The No. 2, Russians, hold only one-fourth of what Indians have. The Indian amount can clear our national debt and still leave a surplus the interest on which will be larger than the national budget. That means India can abolish all taxes.
Lovely dream! But note that modern living periodically gives us sobering thoughts. The latest has reminded us, sadly and poignantly, that all power and glory, all Lamborghinis and private jets and yachts can end suddenly in a lonely jungle in the mangled mess of a flying machine. RIP.