Saturday, February 27, 2010

Whose security is Pawar working for?

His friends say that Sharad Pawar is more knowledgeable about agriculture management than any other political leader. May be. What the public knows is that he pays less attention to his portfolio than any other minister. The little attention he pays leads to dubious results.

Farmer suicides have become a feature of life in India, with Vidarbha in his own state at the heart of the tragedy. But the minister never seemed worried about it. Food prices went up so badly for so long that his own government colleagues openly pointed a finger at him. He replied casually that the Cabinet as a whole was responsible and went off to play games at Bal Thackeray’s house.

He has now written a six-page letter to the Prime Minister pleading strongly for Bt. brinjal. He says GM food will bring about “increased yield and reduced crop loss” and is therefore being increasingly accepted as a means to food security. Monsanto’s spin specialists could not have written a more one-sided thesis based on half-truths. Pawar doesn’t say a word about the dangers a Supreme Court-appointed scientist mentions. And not a word about GM being roundly rejected in Europe and Japan.

Strange things are happening in the Government where powerful lobbies are at work. Two MOUs were recently approved by the Cabinet, both in a hush-hush manner. One regulates intellectual property rights pertaining to agriculture and biotechnology as per the Science and Technology Agreement between India and America. The other promotes the privatisation of agriculture and, specifically, collaboration between America’s agribusiness and India’s farm sector. These are in addition to the India-US Agricultural Knowledge Initiative which allowed private corporations like Monsanto to directly control farm research activities in India.

The net result of these agreements is obvious: American MNCs are in a position to dominate India’s food industry from research to production to marketing. This may fit in with Sharad Pawar’s notion of food security, but whose food security? It cannot be India’s when decisions are primarily meant to ensure a market for Wal-Mart, Monsanto and their Indian collaborators.

During the days of the Shah of Iran, America signed a treaty with him to guarantee legal immunity to US troops in Iran. Americans called it the Status of Forces Agreement. Iranians called it the Capitulation Treaty. Ayatollah Khomenei put it best when he said: “ If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted. If an American cook runs over the Shah of Iran, no one will have the right to touch him”.

It’s worth a sociological-psychological-political study how the US manages to get such treaties even from sovereign republics supervised by parliament, judiciary, vigilance commissioners and investigation agencies. Circumventing these checks and balances must be part of the genius that operates behind the scenes.

When the GE Approvals Committee (GEAC) cleared Bt. brinjal cultivation, Sharad Pawar rushed into print with a statement that this was now final. Why the eagerness? Jairam Ramesh demolished Pawar’s contention. But Pawar would not give up, hence his epistle to the PM. Why this zeal? The PM has now ruled that the moratorium on Bt. brinjal approval should not be indefinite. In other words, give in to the MNCs sooner or later.

Add a mystery element to all this. News reports in November said the Central Vigilance Commission was investigating whether a crucial report to GEAC was rigged by interested parties. At least four named persons associated with an Expert Committee (EC-II) set up by GEAC are said to be under investigation. News agencies said the chairman of EC-II was called by “the Agriculture Minister, GEAC and industries” to ensure that Bt. brinjal was cleared.

In all probability we won’t hear about that investigation again. Who said the Shah of Iran is dead.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why Pakistan gains, and India doesn’t

The terrorist wins when he does not lose. Security forces lose when they do not win. This universal law gives small bands of insurgents an edge over large Government formations. In a country as vast and diverse as India, it is impossible to keep track of every man with a backpack in Aurangabad and Puri, Anantapur and Mandya. Rather often, our security men seize caches of explosives or detain people with strange interests, like recording, from the privacy of their hotel rooms, airline pilots’ conversations with the control tower. Each such capture is another terror strike averted. Yet some slip through the net and we pay a bloody prize.

That’s not the only cost of being an open society. In diplomatic and strategic matters too we seem to be not as effective as we ought to be. Not even in comparison with
Pakistan. In fact the India-Pakistan scene presents a supreme irony – a “failed state” holding its own and, in some critical areas, doing better than an “emerging super power.”

The political leadership of
Pakistan is a disabled leadership with no authority over key segments of the establishment. The military does not have control over significant regions of the country. The ISI intelligence organization is for all practical purposes a sovereign agency answerable only to its ring leaders. And various jihadi groups practise self-propulsion. Yet, when it comes to handling Indian affairs, from terrorism to diplomacy, Pakistan manages to function as a coherent power knowing what it wants and how to get it.

By comparison
India is a fully functional state with a defined political centre that has control over its armed forces, its diplomatic establishment and its security agencies. Despite this intrinsic strength, however, India handles crucial regional matters like a fragile, unfocussed and ineffective power. In recent months this weakness led to India getting isolated in the “great game” of Afghanistan even as Pakistan gained significant international support.

The game-changer in Afghanistan was America’s decision to win over the “good Taliban.” That was Pakistan’s favourite line. Pakistan had nurtured the Taliban and protected it even when it pretended, under American pressure, to be fighting it. In Istanbul and then in London international conferences endorsed the Pakistan line, proclaiming that no peace would be possible in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s active collaboration. India was relegated to an insignificant position, despite its massive investments in Afghanistan and the rapport it is said to enjoy with important segments of the Afghan population.

The main reason for
India’s setback is its wrong reading of American intentions. Under Man Mohan Singh’s initiative, India has followed the single-point diplomacy of courting America. A case in point is the resolution America sponsored against Iran in the IAEA meeting last November. Pakistan voted against the resolution despite its dependence on America. But India stood on the side of America ignoring its shared geographical interests with Iran. America does not have the same fidelity towards India. Accepting the so-called moderate elements in Taliban will help consolidate the hardliners in Pakistan, give them virtual control over Afghanistan and prepare the ground for renewed jihadi campaigns against India and in Muslim areas of Western China and Southern Russia. That doesn’t bother America which is only concerned about putting a stop to American casualties in Afghanistan.

India’s big diplomatic failure is that it has put all its eggs in the American basket. This is a one-way street. America’s secret service could come to India at their pleasure and question Kasab in jail. India’s investigators who went to the US to question Hedley were denied permission. America does what is good for it. India also does what is good for America. Who is going to do what is good for India?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The philosopher of economics

Early in his career Amartya Sen resigned from his post at Jadhavpur University to join the Delhi School of Economics. Simple-minded well-wishers in Kolkata were outraged. “Leaving a university and joining a school! Are you mad?” they asked.

The man who enticed the future Nobel laureate to a mere school was K.N.Raj. V.K.R.V.Rao had founded the DSE but it was Raj who built it into an institution of world renown. He did it by attracting the very best talents to join him. Alongside Amartya Sen were Manmohan Singh, Jagdish Bhagwati, Sukhumoy Chakravarty, M.N.Srinivas. It was never an issue with Raj whether a colleague had more star value and could outshine him. The good of the school was all that mattered.

Raj had acquired his own star value with his first assignments in India as a young Ph.D from London. Working at the Reserve Bank and then in the Planning Commission, he quickly became noticed for his out-of-the-box thinking and his ability to see into the future. Raj was astonishingly innovative. He drew up schemes and worked out formulas that were to become part of the new India’s economic foundations.

Facilitating that process was the trust he earned from Jawaharlal Nehru. Two names were recommended to Nehru by Harold Laski, the legendary Director of the London School of Economics. Nehru grabbed both. One was K.R. Narayanan who was pressed into the foreign service. The other was K.N. Raj who became the architect of the first Five Year Plan. Narayanan and Raj were lifelong buddies.

Like Narayanan, Raj too could have ascended ministerial heights and the pinnacles of power. But his love was academia. He believed that his newly independent country was going to need economists and sociologists and planners in their hundreds. So he dedicated his life to building up his country’s intellectual infrastructure. After Delhi, he founded the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum. It too attracted world attention and became an annual pilgrimage centre for wellknown economists from Japan, Hungary, Denmark, Germany, Britain.

Only once did he make an exception to his rule of not taking employment abroad. He worked in the West for two years. The intention was to arrange treatment for his second son who had suffered meningitis and developed comprehension problems. The treatment was only marginally helpful and Raj and his wife accepted the reality with exemplary grace. They doted on the boy.

For all his devotion to family and his gentle manners, Raj was a man of unshakable beliefs. He detested communalism, and academics who supported it. In a Delhi speech once he cited Prof. Raychaudhuri of Oxford University to highlight “the vital differences between the ideas of Swamy Vivekananda and the ideas of the Hindutva movement that have recently been flourishing in our country under the intellectual leadership of Dr Murali Manohar Joshi.” He was contemptuous of the caste system (he belonged to a family that campaigned for Ezhava emancipation in Kerala). A Professor once teased him by saying “You are a great economist, Raj, but why are you so modest?” Raj replied instantly: “Ah, don’t you know I’m a toddy-tapper?”

Political interference was anathema to him. When the Steel Authority of India buckled under government pressure during the Emergency, he resigned from its Board of Directors. When campus politics disrupted academic work too often, he quit Delhi University’s Vice-chancellorship. Recalling “the only attempt at interference” in 27 years of CDS in Trivandrum, he referred to Chief Minister Karunakaran by name and said: “Of him the less said the better for him and for everyone else”.

Raj represented an age that combined brilliance with integrity and patriotism. If only to commemorate that age, his beloved CDS should now be renamed the K.N.Raj Centre for Development Studies. We cannot afford to forget a man who, as Bimal Jalan put it, “constantly addressed the philosophy of economics, not just the science of it”.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The man who made us fly

We know that the IT industry, to take one example, flowered in India without government help. In fact, people like N.R.Narayana Murthy were forced to spend much time and energy knocking at inhospitable doors in Delhi for permission to buy a badly needed equipment from abroad. Once IT became a national showpiece, ministers and bureaucrats were of course eager to claim credit. “Seven cities contend for Homer Dead/Through which the Living Homer begged his bread”.

Many living Homers must have knocked at the same doors and failed. Most of our netas and babus are unmindful of what’s good for the country. They equate their personal interest with the national interest. How frustrating officialdom can get – and how great ideas can almost get destroyed in the process – is brought out poignantly in Simply Fly, Captain G.R.Gopinath’s account of how the miracle of Air Deccan happened. He got those doors opened with his guts and his perseverance. Business schools will do well to study the Air Deccan saga as a clash of civilisations -- between those who hold that rules are made for people and those who believe that people are made for rules.

Simply Fly is many other things too – a portrait of rural India, a celebration of farming, a tribute to the author’s forty-rupees-a-month school teacher father, a personal account of the horrors of the Bangladesh war. (The inspirational figure of the Captain’s father looms so large in the book that it’s a pity there is no photograph of him in the 12-page picture portfolio that adds value to the volume).

Gopinath is the kind of guy who joined the Sainik School when all he knew about the military was that it was something non-vegetarian associated with “military hotel”. But he had an outstanding character trait: The ability to immerse himself completely in the task on hand. The way he cared for coconuts in his farm, we would think that he was specifically created by Brahma to care for coconuts. A few years later he looked like he was specifically created to sell Bullet motorbikes. In the end we saw why Brahma really and truly created Gopinath: To enable simple people simply fly.

His gripping cliff-hanger story – licences not arriving when only minutes are left for an inaugural flight, documents never moving, files getting stuck, bribes being suggested – is interspersed with memorable character portraits. They range from Manje Gowda, a neighbour he knew only slightly but who stood guarantee for a bank loan, to John Gray, author of Men are from Mars.. who swore that he got a boost from Oprah Winfrey because Swami Kaleshwar willed it so.

The best portrait is that of Vijay Mallya, the man who finally swallowed Air Deccan. Just a few staccato sentences and Mallya emerges, jewels and all, as the colourful workaholic that he is. They struck a 1000-crore deal, Mallya talking from his yacht in Monte Carlo to Gopinath in Bangalore. The way they haggled over prices is hilarious. (“200 crore deposit”. “100”. “Won’t do”. “Let’s agree on 150”. “Fine”. Gopinath wanted 160 per share. Mallya beat it down to 155). Gopinath presents Mallya as “extremely shrewd, razor sharp and a brilliant marketeer”. But he also cautioned the Kingfisher king that he had sycophants around him. The contrast between Mallya’s viswaroopa and Gopinath’s earthiness is delightful.

Ultimately, alas, Air Deccan vanished from the skies. But Simply Fly leaves us with a distinct feel-good factor. How can it be otherwise when the author says: “ I began life with nothing, I established my farm with nothing, I launched a helicopter company with nothing, I set up an airline without resources. Now that I have resources, I cannot sit back”.

All aboard for Deccan 360, the logistics cargo carrier, another new idea.