Thursday, March 29, 2012

General V.K. Singh as Mir Qasim

The leaking of Chief of Army Staff V.K. Singh's top secret letter to the Prime Minister is more than the action of "a frustrated individual" as UPA minister Vayalar Ravi told reporters.

It is not a case of the General going "berserk" as former National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra put it on a television panel. 

It is also more than a liar hoping to escape entrapment in his own inconsistencies by creating a diversionary alarm.

If it is proved that General Singh is the source of the leak -- and none of the four or five men involved has any reason to release it -- he should be charged with high treason. The publication of the letter can have potentially disastrous consequences for the country.

Opposition parties in Parliament have demanded that General Singh be sacked, but that does not deal with the situation he has precipitated. His bizarre trajectory over the last year signals deeper systemic problems and we must understand what they are to deal with an unquestionably serious national crisis.

 To understand the situation it is essential to see General Singh's actions in the proper context.

First, the matter of his age. He told the media the revision of his age was a "matter of honor," but the fact that he made himself a laughing stock in pursuing it to the Supreme Court suggests that honor was probably not a high priority.

If the revision had been accepted, he would have led the Indian Army for another year, and that must be seen as the objective of his graceless ambition.

Considering that heavyweight interests abroad are invested in manipulating our military decision-making, it is safe to assume that his bid to stay longer in a key post was not driven purely by ego.    

Several facts suggest who might have encouraged his unseemly pursuit of an extra year in office. Perhaps the clearest indicator is that immediately after the Supreme Court declined to support his bid to grow younger, he rushed off to Britain. (A subsequent visit to Israel was vetoed by the Ministry of Defence.)

Britain is home to the world's largest arms corporation, BAE Systems, and is a major beneficiary of Indian military procurement. It does not take kindly to losing major deals in India.

In 1987, when it lost the Indian contract for field mortars to the Swedish company Bofors, the repercussions were heavy.

Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who had lobbied Rajiv Gandhi on the deal was assassinated.

The Indian Prime Minister was hit with charges of corruption originating from a  Geneva-based NRI stringer for The Hindu. She suddenly developed an anonymous source who provided a steady stream of entirely unsubstantiated innuendos and suggestions that led the Indian media a merry chase for over a decade.

That campaign of disinformation led to Rajiv Gandhi's defeat in the General Election of 1989 and his assassination weeks before he would have returned to power in a mid-term poll.

India finally got the Swedish mortar but by then Bofors had gone bankrupt and become a holding of BAE Systems.

A quarter century after The Hindu launched the "Bofors scandal" General Singh's peculiar antics have as background another major Indian arms deal gone sour for Britain: the Indian Air Force decision to buy the French-built Rafaele fighter jet instead of the Eurofighter Typhoon in which BAE Systems has a major stake.

The General's allegations of being offered a bribe and the letter to the Prime Minister about Indian military unpreparedness are calculated to cast doubt on the probity of the Indian procurement process, which the British, if we go by a statement Prime Minister David Cameron made in parliament, are now set on overturning. (A particularly interesting sentence in the General's letter notes that 97% of Indian Air defence is obsolete; I wonder how he arrived at that precise figure!)

Meanwhile, the slavishly pro-British elements of Indian "elite" media have been shouting from the rooftops about the need for mid-term polls: quite clearly, the Bofors game book is in use again.

But history is being replayed as farce.

General Singh has become a pathetic figure, almost clownish with cravat and swagger stick in looped television footage.

Instead of the rest of the media leaping on The Hindu's corruption bandwagon as in 1987, there is considerable scepticism about the General's allegations.

Cameron's assertion in parliament that the Eurofighter case continues to be pressed in New Delhi takes on a decidedly comic aspect when it turns out that his primary agent is Telegu Desam Rajya Sabha member M.V. Mysura Reddy, who was talking of retirement in January and has never before shown the slightest interest in military or foreign affairs. In February Reddy wrote a semi-literate letter to Defence Minister Anthony pushing for the Typhoon and explicitly raising the ghost of Bofors. It was publicized by the Gunga Dins at India Today/Headlines Today.

 This is not to say that General Singh's mischief is innocuous.

There is talk of his political ambitions, most probably in Rajasthan, where the Cairns/Vedanta "Creating Happiness" death's head is the new face of British rapacity in India.

On a recent visit to Jaipur I was told that the state had become home to mafiosi from all over the world, that Dawood Ibrahim came and went as he pleased, and that the local government seemed quite powerless.

General Singh is behaving "as if he were in Pakistan" (to quote Brajesh Mishra again), because powerful forces want India to be the next South Asian banana republic.

In a period of global economic slow-down, with China on the skids, the managers of the multi trillion dollar global black market need India to be "friendly" to their poisonous investments.

General Singh is their Mir Qasim in waiting.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Of Diplomats and Journalists

Diplomats and journalists are tribes of professional communicators that have little in common.

Diplomats at their best seek to be influential while revealing as little as possible. Their statements are nuanced, often to the point of obscurity, their motivations secret, their intentions cloaked. They measure success by how little they reveal about the reality of the situations confronting them.

The best journalists seek influence by revealing as much as they can. Clarity of statement, transparency of motive, and openness of purpose are ideals worn on their sleeves. They measure success by the level of understanding they generate about any situation.  

I became aware of these stark differences as a journalist working for the United Nations, an organization run by diplomats. My bosses would murmur appreciatively as they read my drafts (of articles, reports, film scripts, speeches et al), compliment me on their clarity and elegance, and then edit them into near incomprehensible UNese.

The situation was fraught with tension, and eventually it led me to trade in the plush security of a career contract at the top rung of the UN's Professional cadre and take to the insecure life of a freelancer.

Not to waste the expertise I had as a UN insider, I moved down to the Press floor in the UN building and began issuing a weekly newsletter with the sizzling title International Documents Review. (It was in homage to I.F. Stone, the legendary journalist who ran a solo shop in Washington and consistently scooped the mainstream media during the Vietnam War era. When he came to speak at Columbia Journalism School I asked him how he did it, and his memorable reply was "I read the documents. A democratic government cannot function without writing things down. Everything you want to know is in public documents.)

All this is background to explain how it was that in November 1990, as Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait pushed the United Nations into its first post-Cold War crisis, I was at the Security Council stakeout, asking the Indian Ambassador why he had made such a strong statement against the American resolution pushing for war and then voted for it.

His reply was pure diplomatic silk. "The statement and the vote are two different things" he said, noting a nuance that I would not have perceived on my own.

The Ambassador was Chinmaya Gharekhan, and he has unreeled some more of that fine silk in a piece in The Hindu on Nonalignment 2.0.

In a piece that I would hazard to guess was requisitioned by The Hindu's new Editor, Siddharth Varadarajan (who happens to be one of the authors of Nonalignment 2.0), Ambassador Gharekhan seems at first glance to be strongly supportive of the study. 

"Rediscovery of non-alignment" reads the large headline, followed in smaller type by: "Nonalignment 2.0 is not without its flaws but on the whole, the document offers a comprehensive view of foreign policy, makes sensible suggestions and is lucid, readable and deserving of wide debate."

On closer examination, Ambassador Gharekhan's enthusiasm for the study turns into pointillist criticism, the equivalent of limpid sunlight in a Monet landscape that turns into thousands of little discrete blobs as the viewer draws near.

"Why did they have to choose 'nonalignment' as the title for their document?" he asks. "It is not as if Nonalignment 1.0 was a golden era for Indian diplomacy. Some of us are unlikely to forget that we did not receive support from a single fellow nonaligned country when China attacked us in 1962."

That is a diplomatic kick in the crotch for the basic argument of Nonalignment 2.0, that we need to keep strategic autonomy from both China and the United States. 

Of course, Ambassador Gharekhan would not put it that way. But then, he is not a journalist.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Cry From Koodankulam

S. P. Udayakumar, the leader of the movement against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant, has just sent out a letter asking for help and support. His points are excellent and deserve the attention of all Indians opposed to "development" that is not only iniquitous but enormously dangerous.

I present below several extracts from Udayakumar's letter, beginning with the famous quotation from theologian Martin Niemoller about the spread of terror in Nazi Germany:

"First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me."

A few years ago I would have considered it demagogic to quote Niemoller about events in India, but my own experience with censorship and surveillance, and the ugly trends evident all over the country have convinced me that a police State is hardening around us as the super-rich beneficiaries of corporate globalization seek to promote their interests at the expense of the country as a whole. Unless all of us speak out now, the future of democracy in India could be very dim. Other excerpts from the letter follow:

"Pushparayan, the other 12 friends and I have become weaker and tired; but we are still able to sit up and talk to people. Today is the seventh day of the indefinite hunger strike. Nobody from the State Government or the Central Government has bothered to come and see us or talk to us. A medical team came to check our health day before yesterday (March 23) but no public health officials came and offered any help even though some 10,000 people have been congregating here at Idinthakarai every day since March 19th.

"Our friends from Idinthakarai have been cooking some simple meals for all these people and most of the people are sleeping here as there is the prohibitory order of 144 still in effect. They are scared of going out of this foot-ball stadium sized space in front of the St. Lourdes church. The police are waiting for me and Pushparayan to collapse so that we would go to an hospital for treatment and they could arrest us there. How cruel and anti-people our governments could become!"

"In the meantime, the Tamil Nadu government has convened a meeting of some 13 Panchayat leaders to plan to distribute the 500-crore package the government has announced for the victims of nuclear development. ... The police go to some of the coastal villages and order them to go fishing in order to create a pictue of normalcy in the area. They also ask them not to carry any food by boat to Idinthakarai and threaten them with cases if they did. People defy this kind of intimidatory exercises."

India is a highly- and densely-populated country and even a small mishap at a nuclear facility will create such a havoc and meyham for millions of people and jeopardize the survival and well-being of millions and millions of our brothers and sisters. We are not against the progress of our country and state but we feel that such a progress should be longstanding and sustainable for our future generations also. We have no moral authority to poison the resources of our future generations in order to produce electricity for us for 40 years. ..."

The letter goes on to detail some of the oppressive police initiatives to intimidate the poor folk supporting the anti-nuclear movement. Udayakumar's appeal is likely to lose a good deal of support because he presents the face-off in terms of upper caste versus lower caste and minorities. Nevertheless, the opposition to unsustainable development merits broad all-India support.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Nonalignment 2.0

NONALIGNMENT 2.0 is so incoherent in setting out a foreign and strategic policy for India it made me wonder how the group that produced it had assembled and organized its work.

To find out, I called Prakash Bhanu Mehta, the head of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi that published the 70-page text. What he said confirmed my feeling that there was no clear conceptual underpinning for the paper. It had emerged gradually from various conversations among a number of people in Delhi. They had decided at some point – there was no Eureka moment – to constitute a group. Eight of them met regularly for over a year, with an agenda and notes for each meeting but without an overall plan or expert issue papers to define and analyze the very complex matters at hand.

Such a procedure could have arrived at important and insightful conclusions but unfortunately, it did not. The paper is most interesting for what it omits.

The eight co-authors (see list below) have weighty credentials in different fields but only two, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and CPR’s Mehta (who did a stint on the National Security Advisory Board), have any directly relevant experience.

Of the others, one at least, Sunil Khilnani of King’s College, London, should have been excluded from the group because his 1999 book, The Idea of India revealed such a blurred and derivative set of ideas as to indicate a fundamental alienation from the national spirit. When the group began its discussions Khilnani was on sabbatical in Delhi and after that ended he flew in for the weekend meetings.

Khilnani’s inclusion in the group points to what is perhaps the most difficult obstacle we face in charting a national strategy: there is such a moral disconnect in the policy-making and intellectual circles of New Delhi that they are unable to recognize and respond to lack of integrity.

To be successful abroad an Indian academic must adjust to the direction and force of foreign winds; he cannot be a nationalist. That is especially true in the ideological citadels of the West. Truth as an Indian sees it must be cozened to please sensibilities long conditioned to intellectual dominance. That is an unavoidable fact of NRI life. Even the brilliant eye of Amartya Sen cannot see as genocide the unprecedented string of man-made famines with which the British Raj killed, by the most conservative estimates, several hundred million Indians. He draws from that harsh Indian experience – shared by populations in every territory the British dominated – the gentle rule that famines do not occur where there is democracy.

Nonalignment 2.0 reflects fully the results of moral disability. Consider the basic recommendation of the paper, that India’s “strategic autonomy” during the Cold War should be continued into the 21st Century in our relations with China and the United States. To equate those two countries in the Indian world view is outrageous.

China’s murderous regime occupies a sizable chunk of Indian territory, and claims more. It has a long history of arming and funding insurrections in the North-East of the country, and is an “all-weather ally” of Pakistan, which it made a nuclear Power for no other reason than to contain India strategically. Beijing's claims to be “rising peacefully” are patent nonsense. China has an aggressive, and indeed, brutal record, both in domestic and foreign affairs. State policies have killed 30 to 40 million Chinese, and the murders continue today in torture cells and mobile execution chambers at a rate unparalleled anywhere else.

Beijing has resorted to war not only against India but against Russia, Korea and Vietnam. It has adopted a law requiring war if the people of Taiwan should assert their freedom. It is committing genocide in Tibet, a territory from which tribute was first exacted -- it was never ruled until Mao sent in the PLA -- at about the same time as Europeans were establishing their own colonial empires. It has threatened Southeast Asian countries that claim sovereignty over offshore islands in international waters. In any ranking of threats to world peace and order China tops the list; and it is at our doorstep.

The United States is a democracy that has supported India from the days of our struggle for independence: the pressure Roosevelt exerted on Churchill ensured that Gandhi did not die during his last imprisonment (1942-1946). It was America’s steady opposition to colonialism that forced European empires into retreat during the 1950s and 1960s.

During the “Cold War” the United States opposed a dangerous and insidious enemy with thuggish force in South East Asia and Latin America, and although India stood apart internationally for excellent domestic reasons, it was a major beneficiary. Since the end of the Cold War all of Latin America has become democratic, and as Washington pushes neo-colonial Europe out of Africa democracy is spreading there too.

American policies are now the most important reason China is not more openly militaristic and aggressive; that is widely recognized in Asian capitals, including New Delhi. To counsel equidistance from China and the United States at such a time is foolish.

How do the authors of NONALIGNMENT 2.0 justify their silly equation?

They don’t. This is the closest they come: “The U.S. can be too demanding in its friendship and resentful of other attachments India might pursue. The historical record of the United States bears out that powers that form formal alliances with it have tended to see an erosion of their strategic autonomy. Both India and the US. may be better served by being friends rather than allies. China remains suspicious of India’s partnerships, and in particular sees improved Indian ties with America and Japan in simple zero-sum terms. It follows that over the long run, the triangular relationship between India, China and America will need very careful management.”

And how are we to carefully manage that relationship? “On the political side, our posture towards China must be carefully nuanced and constantly calibrated in response to changing global and regional developments.” And what is it that we should be nuanced and calibrated about? “Our Tibet policy needs to be reassessed and readjusted. Persuading China to seek reconciliation with the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan community may contribute to easing India-China tensions.”

How exactly does India persuade China on Tibet?

“The initial soundings must be discreet and exploratory. And we must be mindful of the risk of hostile reaction, particularly from conservative sections of the People’s Liberation Army.” We also have to keep in mind that the “situation vis-à-vis Tibet has been complicated by the transition to a democratically elected Tibetan government-in-exile. The Chinese had, in part, expected that the Tibetan community would continue with its traditional method of selecting the Dalai Lama—a method that was amenable to manipulation by China. The Dalai Lama’s popular legitimacy among his own people is a fact that the Chinese government must acknowledge.”

These vaporous prescriptions have no reality beyond the fears and hopes of men who, with one exception, have spent their lives pushing paper (evidently without much comprehension of content). Nowhere is that more clear than in the following pathetic passage:

 “On the global canvas, China looks upon India not as a threat in itself, but as a ‘swing state’ whose association with potential adversaries could constrain China. The challenge for Indian diplomacy will be to develop a diversified network of relations with several major powers to compel China to exercise restraint in its dealings with India, while simultaneously avoiding relationships that go beyond conveying a certain threat threshold in Chinese perceptions. This will require a particularly nuanced handling and coordination of our foreign policy, both through diplomatic and military channels. If China perceives India as irrevocably committed to an anti-China containment ring, it may end up adopting overtly hostile and negative policies towards India, rather than making an effort to keep India on a more independent path.”

 What cowardice is in those words! What blindness to history! What profound ignorance of India’s manifold strengths and Chinese weakness!

In strategic terms India poses a formidable threat to China. The openness of Indian society, our individual liberties, our democratic governance, our ideals, are all anathema to the rulers in Beijing. If the Chinese people are infected with them it will no longer be possible for a small and brutal coterie to remain in dictatorial control.

To understand the full strategic significance of that difference we have to consider that all through history
Chinese civilization has stressed control and order above all things and India the free human spirit.

Control in China has always been brutal. The founder of the first Chinese dynasty found the teachings of Confucian intellectuals troublesome and dealt with it by murdering over a thousand of them and making great bonfires of their books. Over two thousand years later, a ruler of the last dynasty, the Manchu, also burned books and murdered writers. So too did Mao Zedong in the second half of the 20th Century.

Book-burning and the murder of writers are unknown to Indian history.

The different nature of the two countries is exemplified in what we have taken from each other down the centuries. We imported from China its silks and satins, camphor, cooking pots and peaches, and sent in return mathematics and philosophy, Buddhism and the art of unarmed combat. 

Both countries have been subject to invasion and foreign rule, China more frequently and for longer periods than India; but the responses of the two have differed dramatically.

In China the response was the Great Wall, a multi-generational expression of insecurity and fear. The Mongols took the country anyway, and their long humiliation of the Han majority – forbidden from inter-marriage with the conquerors, segregated to the Outer City of Beijing, forced to shave half their heads and wear a pigtail – continued from 1644 until the Europeans came with opium and added new layers of racial insult and indignity.

In India, invaders burned and pillaged as nowhere else, but if they stayed they became part of the society. No matter how bloody the initial encounter, the foreigner brought and received gifts: the tensile strength and free-flowing beauty of Urdu the “language of the camp” (urd); the fusion cuisine of Mughlai: the Sufi softening of Islam.

 In meeting the challenge of the West, the differences of the two countries once again became blindingly clear. India produced a long series of reformers and nationalists who quietly revolutionized society and in the final phase revived in Gandhi the best of its tradition.

In China a series of costly internecine wars culminated in Mao who murdered his way to power with military help from Stalin, and imposed on the hapless Chinese the nonsensical theories of a long dead German propagandist.

Mao brutalized Chinese society, unleashing massive famines and years of turmoil in efforts to make Marxist theory (and his own leadership) work. Predictably, China became a basket case and was headed for certain collapse when Mao’s successors, desperate to hold onto power, “took the Capitalist road.”

They succeeded in holding on with a vast flow of investments from Western corporations, but only postponed the crisis. As Prime Minister Wen Jia Bao told the long suffering Chinese last week, unless there is fundamental political reform, the country faces disasters comparable to to those of the Cultural Revolution. (No one asked why he had left that announcement to the end of his term in office.)

Whether such reform is possible or not, the “Chinese economic miracle” is coming in for a hard landing in the not too distant future. That will be bad news for the whole world; for India it brings a period of great peril. To pass through it safely we desperately need a national strategy grounded in reality and true to our traditions. Nonalignment 2.0 is not it.


The authors of NONALIGNMENT 2.0 are: Sunil Khilnani, Professor of politics, Kings College, London; Rajiv Kumar, Secretary-General, Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry; Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President, Center for Policy Research, New Delhi; Lieutanant General Prakash Menon (Retd), former Commandant of the National Defence College; Nandan Nilekani, formerly of Infosys, now Chairman, Unique Identification Authority of India; Srinath Raghavan, Senior Fellow at CPR and Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London; Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary; Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor, The Hindu.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Of Arnab Goswami and the Railways Budget

The ever sanctimonious Arnab Goswami of Times Now can chalk up yet another dubious distinction: his on-air bullying of Dinesh Trivedi made the hapless Railways Minister an object of sympathy.

Shortly after presenting the Railway Budget to Parliament, Trivedi found himself under public attack by  that virago of empty populism, Mamata Bannerji, chief of the Trinamool Congress, his party.

It was an awkward situation to be in, but Trivedi soldiered on, appearing at a bruising Press Conference and on all the news shows to answer questions about why fares had to go up minimally after being frozen nine years.

He appeared on Times Now for more of the same but found himself confronted by Goswami in his familiar pose of Grand Inquisitor for "The Country!" Goswami expressed no curiosity about the budget; he focused entirely on Trivedi's political discomfiture as if it were a high matter of State.

When Trivedi refused to comment, Goswami got ugly mean. He clearly wanted Trivedi to leave in a huff, and once even suggested it. You could almost see him preparing to let loose with his favorite cry of "SHAME!" as his guest took off his ear piece -- but it was not to be. Trivedi stayed put and was let go at long last while an anonymous crawler writer had a final dig. 

And now for something completely different  ....

Trivedi merits no sympathy. He's made a hash of the Railway Budget, hiking fares paid by the poorest people substantially more in percentage terms than those for the higher classes.

And as all his predecessors have done, he presented an unimaginative, bureaucratic budget for a system that brings to life the great romance that is India.

With a little imagination, the system he presides over could be a gold mine instead of a perpetual drain on the taxpayer. It could be brought up to Swiss standards of cleanliness and performance using nothing but its own revenues.


By developing railway stations as retail hubs.

The larger metropolitan stations could easily have malls built on the real estate they own. They could have hotels, fine restaurants, recreation areas and communications centers.

Oh yes, and all of them could have lavish toilet and bathroom facilities built and maintained to world class standards.
 There could be a brand new line of Dining Coaches offering quality cuisine.

All of this revenue producing business SHOULD be franchised out, with contracts having a proviso for automatic cancellation if maintenance standards drop.

Such development of Railways property would produce a massive flow of perennial revenue. It would create millions of private sector jobs spread around the country and be a substantial bump up for tourism.

Why, I can foresee a day when the presentation of the Railway Budget will be newsworthy more for the announcement of exciting holiday packages rather than for fare increases.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Too Much of a Coincidence?

First, American soldiers in Afghanistan burn copies of the Koran. Now one of them goes on a rampage and kills a bunch of Afghan civilians.

In an election year for President Barak Obama this is more than just bad luck. It smells of conspiracy.

 Seems like someone's trying to make it impossible for the United States to stay on in Afghanistan.

Who and why?

The choice of answers is very limited. It must either be an inside job -- someone with a lot of clout in the line of military command -- or someone with the means to corrupt and turn the individuals involved.

The first is highly unlikely unless a strategic decision has been made high up that the chaos that would necessarily follow a precipitate withdrawal would serve long term American interests. Such a decision too is not likely, but it is possible: if the United States is to remain the world's preeminent power, Asia must be kept in check, and a regional war would do that very nicely.  It would also help bring Pakistan and Iran to heel.

The second explanation is far more likely: that those who profit from the drug trade out of Afghanistan (to the tune of some $60 billion a year according to the latest estimate of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime), have suborned the individuals responsible. Their acts have made it difficult for any Afghan to consider Americans with a friendly eye.

American investigators into the two incidents would do well to look into whether the individuals involved or their family members have suddenly and quietly struck it rich. Of course, the payoff might have been through a numbered account in a "tax haven," in which case there would be no trace.

Whatever the case, if Project Afghanistan comes a cropper the implications for India can be dire. New Delhi should be prepared for the return of Nadir Shah -- the Persian raider who laid low the mighty Mughal Empire after Aurangazeb's death. He left the door open for the British to steal in.

If something like that happens I just hope Mamta and Patnaik and Jayalalitha with their talk of "Federalism" will remember their history.