Saturday, September 25, 2010

A failure of leadership

Is there a curse upon India? Why do monstrous problems attack us all at once, and why does each one of them get more petrifying by the day instead of getting resolved as in most other countries?

The Commonwealth Corruption Games, the explosion of popular anger in Kashmir, the unrelenting terror spectre, the Maoist campaign, China’s unfriendly posturings and, in a bizarre instance of timing, a court verdict on a sensitive religious issue that has been hanging fire for half a century – proof yet again that when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.

The one problem that was within our reach to avoid/contain/solve was the Commonwealth Games messup. When evidence of massive corruption was revealed by the Comptroller and Auditor-General and by other independent investigators, the Organising Committee should have been disbanded and responsibilities given to a group of proven management executives. Instead, our political leadership defended the corrupt and allowed them to carry on. It’s almost like we wanted bridges to collapse and ceilings to fall.

Above all others, therefore, it is the political leadership that must be held accountable for the disgrace the Games have brought upon India. Loathsome creatures like Kalmadi would not dare pay four-thousand rupees for a roll of toilet paper if their political godfathers were not encouraging the kickback culture. The loot brigade is known for its system of sharing.. When the whole world is flabbergasted by the scale of sleeze, incompetence and irresponsibility, our politicians still refuse to take it seriously. For Sheila Dikshit and Jaiplal Reddy and M S. Gill, the disasters that shocked the world are “minor hiccups”. No wonder the guilty do not feel guilty and corrective measures receive no attention.

And where has been our Prime Minister? A few “PM steps in” headlines appeared in the eleventh hour when several star athletes had already pulled out, BBC was showing humiliating pictures of filthy beds and bathrooms and government leaders of Australia and New Zealand had publicly expressed concerns. All that “steps in” meant was that the PM called another meeting of ministers and officials – behind closed doors.

What stopped him from making a public statement, acknowledging the lapses and promising remedial measures? If this were followed up by the removal of Kalmadi, the symbol of all that went wrong, it would have helped restore confidence. Were there – are there – forces that prevent the Prime Minister from taking meaningful action? Why is Kalmadi still strutting about when his mere appearance has started offending the public? The inaction with which P.V.Narasimha Rao damned himself over Babri Masjid is being replayed by Manmohan Singh over the Commonwealth Games. A pity.

India has the resources, the talent and the organisational infrastructure to stage the Commonwealth Games and shows bigger than that. What it does not have is the political will and the political leadership. Nor the political imagination. The Prime Minister, allegedly sidelining Kalmadi (which is not true; the man is still too visible), gave all powers to the two most uninspiring ministers in his Cabinet – Jaipal Reddy who has shown no initiative whatever in his portfolio and M. S Gill, a sports minister who combines ineptitude with uncommon arrogance. Imagine that he had, instead, given the reins to an army general and/or a company or two like L & T. Alas, we can only dream of such decisive leadership.

Indeed, the political high command may be quite happy about the Games fiasco. The scandals have so completely grabbed public attention that the vexatious issue of Kashmir is forgotten. Given the short-sightedness of our leadership, they will see this “forgetting” by the public as an achievement, not realising that the kind of anger sweeping across Kashmir won’t just blow away. Nor will the respite provided by the Supreme Court in the Ayodhya case eliminate the inflammable communal divisiveness promoted by our politicians. Seldom in history has so capable a people been led by so maladroit and self-serving a political class.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Starve. This is !ncredible !ndia

What’s it with these economist wizards – that they can see figures and percentages so clearly and yet are blind to human beings. Food rotting in godowns when people go hungry attracts little or no attention. But the slightest suggestion that foodgrains likely to rot are better given away to the poor makes them throw textbooks at you.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia was the very picture of wizardry when he said that free distribution of grains would not be good for food security. The implication is that letting them rot in godowns would ensure food security. We the people cannot comprehend such obfuscating profoundness. That’s why we are not wizards and they are.

But who is talking about “free distribution of grains” anyway? The proposition is that free distribution is better than free rotting. To ignore the rotting situation and dwell on the economic philosophy of free distribution as such is not exactly wizardry. It is dodging. It is insensitivity which appears to have become an essential ingredient of governance Indian style.

The reality is worse than what we might innocently presume. The rotting, most of us thought, took place because of inefficiency leading to lack of storage space and lack of transportation. But in fact the unseen operators of the government machinery are very efficient. They allow the rotting because it is beneficial to them. To put it simply, this is another story of corruption.

It turns out that babus can make money from decaying wheat which is an ingredient liquor companies need. So a quiet little tie-up with breweries is a nice little way to get rich. You can also have quiet little tie-ups with big-time grain merchants because thousands of tons of grain going bad means higher prices in the market.

Sharad Joshi, the maverick farm crusader of Maharashtra, threw light on another aspect of the corrupt system. According to him large-scale rotting of foodgrains and periodic fires that gut the government’s cotton godowns fit into the same pattern. In both the Food Corporation of India and the Cotton Corporation of India, procurement is often less than recorded figures thanks to (a) profitable pilferage at source, (b) profitable generosity to vendors, and (c) profitable diversion of stocks. (Profitable, that is, to the crooks).

“The accounts of Maharashtra’s Cotton Procurement scheme”, says Joshi, “can never be tallied unless there are half a dozen fires in the cotton stocks at different places in the state. Wheat is not as combustible as cotton, but it is susceptible to spoilage”.

The likes of Montek Singh Ahluwalia may not even be aware of these grassroots realities. They are ivory tower wizards. The real wizards are the faceless, nameless denizens of babudom and clerkdom who device loopholes in every foolproof system, every economics theory.

This must have been known to our Union Minister for Cricket, Sharad Pawar, since he is a politician and not a PhD. That perhaps explains why he said that free distribution of grains to the poor was not an implementable idea. When the Supreme Court said it was an order and not just an idea, the Minister promptly said he would try to implement it. Of course he won’t because, among other things, he can’t.

The “other things” include the sinister influence of foreign consultants. It transpires that substantial storage space the government had rented earlier was returned to the property owners five-six years ago. This was on the advice of an MNC consultant. Now there is a proposal to rent space again. Naturally the rents will be double or triple what they were six years ago. Large property owners across the country will benefit and perhaps another well-connected foreign consultant.

The problem is beyond Ahluwalia’s wizardry to solve. The culture of middlemen and politician-bureaucrat nexus will triumph because the wizards make no attempt to counter it. Therefore wheat will rot, cotton will go up in flames – and the starving will continue to starve. We are !ncredible !ndia !ndeed!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The politics of kidnapping

Our world shuddered with horror when one of the four Bihar policemen kidnapped by Maoists was murdered in cold blood. Three were released unharmed – and we rejoiced. But is this the end of this cruelest of political games?

Of course not. Within days of the Bihar release, three insurance agents were kidnapped somewhere near Kolkata by suspected Maoists. Why insurance agents? The question is really irrelevant because any human beings will do for militants around the world. They may be policemen, civil servants, children, women, journalists or air/train passengers. Human lives are the best bargaining chips.

Bihar had seen, according to police records, 32,085 kidnappings between 1992 and 2004. As much as 20 percent of these were for ransom. Politicians were widely believed to be partners of the kidnap gangs. Lalu Prasad’s regime was branded by the scandal. Bihar-UP even developed the “ Pakatuah Shadi” system in which families with marriage-age girls would kidnap eligible bachelors, preferably IAS candidates, and get them forcibly married. There were cases where the bridegrooms were beaten up to make them amenable.

Lalu’s Bihar might have taken kidnapping to the level of an everyday business. But whether it is a doctor kidnapped for ransom, or a busload of passengers hijacked by an aggrieved policeman as in Manila, there is a unique fear factor in this business. When Mumbai-based American journalist Daniel Pearl was captured by terrorists in Pakistan, video footage released by the captors, masked men holding guns to the kneeling victim’s head, terrorised the whole world. Then that innocent young man was beheaded. The extraordinary cruelty involved in many kidnappings makes this perhaps the most vexatious problem of our times.

That could also explain why most politically motivated kidnappings are successful. The Iran hostage crisis lasted 444 days in 1979-81 following the seizure of the US embassy in Teheran by militants. It lasted that long because neither side wanted a bloodbath. The Americans staged a military rescue operation, but it failed. Eventually diplomatic negotiations by third parties led to the release of all 66 American hostages.

The Tupamaros guerilla movement in Latin America succeeded in ending the myth of American invincibility. Their most dramatic operation was the kidnapping of the US ambassador near his home in Rio de Janeiro in 1969. In two weeks the Brazilian Government capitulated and agreed to release 15 Leftist prisoners. In 1970 the German Ambassador in Guatemala was kidnapped. But the Government refused to free prisoners in exchange and the hapless ambassador was killed.

The Indian Airlines hijack saw the most abject of surrenders. One passenger was killed and many wounded. Even then Delhi not only released the prisoners named by the terrorists, but Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh personally accompanied them to Kandahar. The need for that special tribute to terrorism still remains unexplained.

By contrast, Veerappan was rather decent the way he treated the captured Rajkumar in 2000. The Kannada hero was held captive for 108 days. The desperate Karnataka Government was willing to release the prisoners Veerappan mentioned, but the courts barred any release. In the end money changed hands, though nobody admitted it. But the point was that Rajkumar was safe and sound – and rather more philosophical about life, as was evident from the grace and dignity with which he met the press upon release.

Kidnapping ordinary people is an easy crime to commit. Hence its appeal to those who operate beyond the lines of legitimacy. Religious terrorists do it for a doomed cause. Political terrorists may cite a more plausible cause such as fighting for the rights of the poor and exploited. But all are terrorists and all are taking advantage of the helplessness of the unprotected.

We don’t know what bargains were struck to save at least three lives in Bihar. But we know that more kidnappings, more cowardly acts like train derailment, will take place as long as the problem of basic deprivations of people is not addressed. The more is the pity.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Options we have; have we the will?

Another war with India is unlikely to be on China's agenda. But menacing military build-up and other needling tactics to divert India's energies and attention is central to its agenda. It’s an old ploy. But the level of aggressiveness is new.

India's politicians, the TV channels in particular, have a way of reacting to such unfriendly actions in an emotional, high-decibel style. Which is reminiscent of the Nehru-era cries like “we won't let them get one inch of Indian territory”. If anything, such declamatory posturings only reduce our own ability to work out counter-strategies in a cool and calculating manner.

Actually, we should learn from the Chinese how to be calculating. With a hundred-year perspective, they planned the strategic encirclement of India, with bases in Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – even as we steadily lost our influence in neighbouring countries. With the same long-term view of history, they built up their road and rail networks in the Tibetan territory previously considered inhospitable to such transportation facilities. Recently they successfully tested their strategic airlift capability, an area where they have advanced very far with 450 high-capacity military cargo planes.

India is famous for dithering when it comes to military acquisition. Unseen middlemen still controlling the bulk of the transactions is only half the problem. The other half is our insistence of all kinds of special provisions, from incorporating systems still on the drawing board to establishing joint venture facilities. The result is that in all three wings of the defence forces, our strike capacity is well below the required level.

Sure, we have deployed significant troop numbers along the northern border and mountain road networks are being expanded. There will be no repeat of 1962. But it will take a heavy dose of unilateral patriotism to claim that India is a match to China in the military field.

The Chinese have been very smart in their diplomatic tantrums as well. Look at the calculations that must have gone into the stapled-visa system they invented for residents of Jammu & Kashmir. By introducing that system, China did not deny the validity of Indian passports held by Kashmiris, nor did it debar Kashmiris from travelling to China because of their Indian passports. It merely established that it did not recognise J & K being a part of India either in theory or in practice.

Smartly, again, it made no such distinction vis a vis residents of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir; they continue to have their visa stamped on their passports. By doing so, China established its recognition of the PoK areas as a legitimate part of Pakistan. A cleverly nuanced dual policy that hit India on the head and patted Pakistan on the shoulder.

Pakistan has been no less smart. By pretending to fight the Taliban, it has won the backing of the Americans. It has won also all-inclusive support from the Chinese by giving the Chinese three vital services they need: Keeping India pinned down, providing access routes to Iran and suppressing the Muslim nationalists in Xinjiang. While it encourages and finances Islamist groups, it suppresses the Uighur Islamists who are fighting the Chinese. It gets full help from China and the US at the same time.

India is demonstrably friendless because (a) we do not have a bold enough political leadership and (b) we are too obsessed with the US. We should be having a stridently active programme in east and Southeast Asia. From Japan and South Korea to Indonesia, all the countries of the region have been angered by China’s claim that all of the South China Sea is its territorial waters. This is a theatre where India would be warmly welcomed.

The first thing to do is to have a military-strategic action plan with Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. As China’s economic power grows, its ambitions to dominate the world are also growing. This is the explanation for its newfound haughtiness. India has options in such a context – if it has the will to use them.