Monday, October 29, 2012

As egos clashed in India, China won. The untold story is told again

Who were the guilty men of India’s China war? This year, for the first time, the Defence Ministry paid homage to the soldiers who perished in that horror 50 years ago.  But official reluctance to face facts  continues. The Henderson-Brooks inquiry report is still deemed secret although it leaked to Neville Maxwell, the Englishman who wrote the most anti-India account of the war. Even China has declassified its documents till 1965.

Generals who took part in the action like D.K.Palit (War in the Himalayas) and especially J.P.Dalvi (Himalayan Blunder) provided valuable perspectives. There were studies by western scholars as well. A real surprise however is a new book, Dividing Lines: Contours of India-China Conflict.  Surprise not only because the writer examines the colonial background with the authority of a historian, the politics of the conflict with the expertise of an academic and the nitty-gritty of military manoeuvres  with the mastery of a field commander  -  and yet author K.N.Raghavan is neither a historian, nor a professor, nor a military man; he is  Commissioner of Customs who doubles as a cricket umpire for BCCI. The book is surprising also for its dispassionate tone. While not hiding his sympathy for India and admiration for  Jawaharlal Nehru, he has no hesitation in dissecting Delhi’s blunderers, including Nehru.

Raghavan exposes officials who mistook their egos for the national interest, politicians nursing personal enmities and army leaders who were now incompetent, now irresponsible. Two men top the list, though Raghavan does not say it in so many words. B.N.Mullick, chief of intelligence, interpreted Nehru’s instructions to suit his own line of thinking and sent armed patrols to challenge the Chinese. At one point, he sent policemen on patrol. They were wiped out.

No less provocative was the bravado of B.M.Kaul who, despite zero combat experience, was put in charge of the war.  He quickly developed mountain sickness and spent the days of action in bed in Delhi. After the initial defeats, Kaul was relieved of his command, only to be reappointed soon;  Nehru wanted him to have an opportunity to redeem his reputation. The man blundered again. Disgraced, he wrote The Untold Story which took his story from the ridiculous to the absurd. Nehru still wanted to rehabilitate
him with a political post, but gave up when informed about people’s anger against Kaul.

Mullick and Kaul got away with unforgivable mistakes because they were favourites Nehru encouraged. Doesn’t that make Nehru just as culpable?  And when Nehru is guilty, can Krishna Menon be far behind? Menon backed the blundering Kaul because Nehru backed him. Menon’s strong likes and dislikes had a disruptive effect on the army brass. “Brusque and impertinent behaviour” and “cavalier manner” and “brazen” are terms applied to Menon  in this book.

Raghavan’s criticism of Menon is severe. Some related factors he mentions should have softened the attack. India had never taken Defence seriously, giving the Ministry to lightweights like Baldev Singh. When Kailasnath Katju was transferred from Home to Defence, he took it as a demotion. At another level, Finance Minister Morarji Desai denied to  Defence every rupee he could just because he detested Krishna Menon.  At the same time, opposition leaders like Acharya Kripalani disapproved of military spending by nonviolent India which, he said, “would disturb the soul of the Father of the Nation.” The generals in China must have noted all these details and rejoiced.

So, what happened in the Himalayas in 1962 stands clear. On the one side were quarrelling politicians and quarrelling generals under a prime minister blind to his blue-eyed boys and a defence minister who delighted in making enemies. On the other side were a recognized military genius like Mao Zedong and a prime minister like Chou Enlai, perhaps the finest strategist of his generation, with no parliamentary or media pressure to divert their attention. It was a textbook war of the prepared out-generalling the unprepared. The real tragedy is that 50 years later, the quarrelling and the unprepared still remain quarrelling and unprepared.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The right to privacy does not mean the right to do wrong in private

The bad news is that there seems to be no end to the plundering of India.  Sign any deal, there is kickback. Auction any resource, there is quid pro quo.  Spot any stretch of land, there is hanky-panky. Worse, where  there is hanky-panky, there are namby-pamby ministers grovelling to justify it.  Two gems came up last week. As scandals swirled around the nation's son-in-law, Salman Khurshid said : “Sonia is my leader and I would defend her till my last breath”. Jayanti Natarajan said: “Sonia is our president and we are ready to give up our lives for her”. We knew that life was cheap in India. But this cheap?

The good news is that The First  Family (sic) is being directly named and charged. This was overdue. It was anomalous that a family enjoyed powers to take decisions  affecting the lives and fortunes of the people and yet a conspiracy of silence was built around it.  The otherwise unstoppable television channels asked no questions. Even the BJP, ever alert to attacking the Congress, turned deferential before The Family.

The Congress justified everything in the name of privacy. But those who exercise  power have their right to privacy limited by the imperatives of democracy. Today A. B. Vajpayee has full  right to privacy;   his physical condition must be bad, but that is not the public's business. However, when Vajpayee as Prime Minister had to undergo knee surgery, his right to privacy was superceded by the people's  right to know how  he would take the strain while still heading the Government. Vajpayee and his Government respected the people's right and information was provided including details about the surgeon attending on him.

By contrast, the people do not know to this day what exactly is Sonia Gandhi's illness, what treatment she underwent and what the medical prognosis is. People do not know when she is in India and when she is not. Privacy considerations can in no way cover these issues as long as she wields power exceeding the power of the prime minister.

The right to privacy completely vanishes when it is used to do what ordinary citizens cannot do under law. Ordinary citizens who are not natives of Himachal Pradesh cannot buy land in that state. Priyanka Gandhi broke that law with assistance from both Congress and BJP governments; see how enemies unite to serve The Family. Ordinary companies with a paid-up capital of Rs 1 lakh cannot get an overdraft of Rs 7.9 crore from a nationalised bank. Robert Vadra  got that and several other facilities  for his companies. The Government has no responsibility to look into these matters? The people have no right to know the truth?

A surprised nation learned that Robert Vadra enjoyed  exemption  from checking at the country's airports. An official explained – whether truthfully or not,  we do not know –  that the exemption applied only when he was accompanied by a person entitled  to Black Cat security, no doubt a reference to his wife. No one objects to the lady having all the protection she needs. But why was no such consideration extended to Lt. Gen. K. S. Brar despite seven assassination attempts on him for his services to the country? (The London attempt was the eighth).
 It's obvious: The Family's members are more equal than all others. The belief is widespread that they enjoy prerogatives not compatible with democracy, and that these prerogatives are often used for self-aggrandisement. Congress leaders make it worse by saying that Vadra is a private individual and therefore his business activities do not call for any inquiry. That is like saying that suspicious  transactions are beyond the purview of the state as long as they are carried out by private citizens. Then why was Hasan Ali Khan investigated?

In a democracy perception is more important than legality. The  Chidambarams and Digvijay Singhs only add to  the negative perceptions of the Congress by trying to justify what are obvious irregularities. The Congress will go down in  history  as a  party that was destroyed by loyalty.

Monday, October 15, 2012

As religious hardliners gain ground, civilisations have cause to worry

The clash-of-civilisations theory basically said that religion would be the cause of conflicts in the modern world. Liberal intellectuals disagreed. They wanted to believe that the multiplicity of cultures and the human instinct for decencies would disallow religious wars of the mediaeval kind.

Can that optimism survive the resurgence of religious fervour we see right before our eyes? Hardline Islamists and hardline  Christian groups in America have been gaining political ground. And these are the two combatants the clash theorists had in mind. (We should see American Christianity as separate from European Christianity in this context. European Christianity and civilisation matured through a long period of wars, internal upheavals and  intellectual revolutions such as the Reformation. By contrast, the dominant trend in American Christianity has been an emotional approach to faith).

Samuel Huntington identified half a dozen reasons for the clash he saw coming. Among the most important was the fact that differences between the civilisations were too basic. He also argued that developments like economic modernisation  led to a loss of traditional local identities and people turned to religious identities as a substitute.

The gist of it all is that fundamentalism has grown in all religions making believers in one intolerant of believers in another. That certainly is a primary influence in the Arab region and in America’s Republican half. That is also the reason why current political trends in those areas are somewhat disturbing.

The Arab Spring, a spontaneous rebellion by ordinary people against dictators, struck the world as a victory for the spirit of democracy. But democracy necessarily leads to  elections and election in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen led to Salafis gaining the upper hand. This newly popularised  term has a soft sound, like Sufis.  But if Sufism was philosophical and intellectual, Salafism is fundamentalist and anti-intellectual.

The traditional Islamist movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, was considered extremist enough to be suppressed during the Mubarak dictatorship. The present Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsy, is a Brotherhood candidate. He in turn is trying to figure out how to keep the Salafis under control. Governments in many Muslim countries are scared of Salafis’s  ability to whip up mass emotions.  Behind the multination violence against the recent US-made movie on the Prophet were Salafis.  In the forefront of the war in Syria are Salafis; they hope to be in a controlling position should the Assad regime fall. Add to this the financial backing the Salafis receive from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and we have a real problem on hand.

Christian groups in America gained ground during the George Bush years;  he publicly claimed that he listened to a “higher authority” when confronted by war situations.  Umbrella organisations  flourished: The Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council. They were powerful platforms openly calling for a war to defeat secular  society, and for constitutional changes to turn American democracy into a theocracy.

It is against this background that  we should see a hitherto unknown Mitt Romney running neck to neck in the US presidential race with a still popular Barack Obama. Romney is an activist of the Mormon church  which wants all Americans to conform to “the laws of the God of this land who is Jesus Christ”. Mormons believe that Christ’s second coming will be in Jackson City, Missouri.  Their tradition is to marry and multiply because the church needs more members.  Mitt Romney’s  granduncle George Romney Sr.  had 35 children from three wives. The Mormon practice persuaded Abraham Lincoln to ban polygamy in 1862.

Mormons and George Bush’s Born Again evangelicals  dream of a world that will adhere to their line of faith, with no exceptions. The Salafis and the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia see even other Muslims as heretics and want a world that will have only one faith – theirs. The Christian Right wants the Ten Commandments as the law of the world. The Salafis want Shariat as the law of the world. We will need a miracle from God to avoid a clash between such civilisations.

Monday, October 8, 2012

We honour Gandhi only with tokenism, but his cult status keeps growing

 It has become quite easy to celebrate Gandhi Jayanti. Order nationwide newspaper advertisements, sport a white cap for a photo op or two, then go home and enjoy the holiday. When ritual replaces duty, life becomes simple. It becomes simpler still when celebrating Rajiv Gandhi is more rewarding than remembering the real Gandhi. Notice the way advertisements increase in size, number and effusiveness when the dynastic hero's birthday falls due.

The contrast is natural. Rajiv Gandhi is alive because praising him is an investment that yields dividends. The Mahatma is dead and singing hallelujas to him will not fetch even a panchayat membership.  One symbolises  today's kind of politics and privileges. The other stands for yesterday's  kind of values. One stands for taking, the other for giving.  Godse only killed Gandhi the man. The rest of us killed Gandhi the idea. In the India of coal blocks and 2G spectrums, one will have to be either  foolish or incompetent to follow Gandhi's idea of frugality and service.

But in the wider world, Gandhi lives. At the time  of independence, Gandhi was a defeated man, seeing his country divided and his people killing one another in the name of religion. Dejected, he kept away from Delhi's celebratory limelight and spent his days  fighting communalism and leading group prayers. By contrast Jawaharlal Nehru ascended the pinnacles of power and glory, his glamorous  figure winning international prestige for himself and for India.

How ephemeral that glamour  turned out to be. Even before the China war reduced him to a pitiable figure, Nehru's wisdom had come under a cloud. The main reason was his succumbing to the advice of Mountbatten and his wife on Kashmir even though it was clear that they were promoting Britain's interests and not India's. Then came Indira's   dynastic concept and the Emergency, two blows to the very root of Nehru's legacy of democracy.

Bookshelves today tell an instructive story. Nehru is hardly a subject of study for modern scholars and historians. His own books are of the classic kind because of their scholarship and the elegance of language. But he does not inspire writers, film-makers and the like the way Gandhi does. Stuff coming out on Gandhi is amazing.

There are serious research studies like Jinnah vs. Gandhi, The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence and Gandhi's  Religion. There are serious yet unconventional studies, like Joseph Lelyweld's Great Soul. There are compendiums from Gandhi without tears to Epigrams from Gandhiji and from The Bhagwat Gita According to Gandhi to The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi.
 There are many movies from Gandhi and The Making of the Mahatma to Hey Ram  and Mein Gandhi Ko Nahi Mara. Munnabhai contributed a new word – Gandhigiri. The Mahatma also figures in pop culture garbs – as a tap dancer in Cartoon Network, a stand-up comedian in a TV series, as an element in a video game. There was a poster competition in Cairo: Gandhi in Tahrir Square.  This Gandhi Jayanti day, vandals put a garland of glass bottles on a Gandhi statue in Simla. That too was a kind of recognition.
Gandhi's appeal has become universal.  By influencing the thought and actions of people like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, he influenced  the course of world history. Ultimately it was the originality  and daring of Gandhi's mind that made him a world force.  Just think of the concept of non-violence, or the technique of civil disobedience . We take these for granted today,  but Gandhi invented them out of nothing. It took time for the world to grasp the significance  of what he had done. Once it sank it, the world stood stunned at the vastness of his imagination.

Gandhi of course had numerous weaknesses. Perhaps the most paradoxical one was that  he was an unkind father who once wrote: “Men may be good, not necessarily their children”. But the negative side of his personality has simply added spice to his cult status. Our sarcar will never succeed in containing him in annual advertisements.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Manmohan & Co.'s subservience to US is what makes FDI such a bad word

Opposition to the  FDI-in-retail idea is  genuine and widespread. The main reason is people's distrust of politicians including, in this case, Manmohan Singh. The Prime Minister is seen as an American camp-follower. Remember his telling the very unpopular George Bush that the people of India loved him. When he and “experts” like the World-Bank-branded Ahluwalia say that FDI in retail will do no harm, people just don't trust them.

It now stands revealed that America in fact had a major role in Delhi's recent reform package. When Time magazine put Manmohan Singh on the cover with the title “Underachiever,” India was shaken. We have a colonial mentality towards western criticism/praise. When an arbitrary list of “most influential” people is put out by an American publication, we treat it like an event of great significance. In fact, it is just routine commercial tricks by market-savvy publications, but because it comes from the west, we stand up and salaam.

Then came the Washington Post report calling the Prime Minister a tragic figure. That saw India going crazy. The Prime Minister's Office issued frantic statements, apologies were demanded, the Post's correspondent in Delhi was cursed and loud TV anchors held loud discussions on the topic. Can we imagine the White House moving a little finger if all the newspapers and magazines in India splashed Obama's picture and called him an Underachiever which he certainly is? Can we imagine China caring a damn if the Washington Post described Hu Jintao as a tragic figure? Can we imagine the Post daring to do that in the first place?

Reports now say that the Time and Post stories were part of a concerted American campaign to force the hands of the Indian Government. The US Chamber of Commerce claimed some time ago that its pressure tactics had made the Indian Government take some key policy decisions.  A specific example cited was the raising of FDI in single-brand retail from 51 percent to 100 percent. What Time and the Post did  this time was the American equivalent of “Paid News”, the money part of it perhaps waived because it was patriotic service for the American Flag.

Our country  is easy for foreign  lobbies  to conquer. Look at the zeal with which Sharad Pawar is fighting for endosulfan  even after it is banned in the US.  FDI in retail has become suspect  because people do not like  America arm-twisting the Indian Government. This is a pity because, in itself, the idea has merit. An alert Government focussed on the benefits of the local economy and the local people can take advantage of it. This is what China did. Even Walmart became a tool in the hands of the Chinese authorities instead of the other way round.

China rejected the FDI-in-retail concept until its economy reached a certain stage of development. Even then it moved cautiously, putting a cap of 26 percent initially, raising it to 49 percent later and finally to 100 percent in 2004, that is, 25 years after its economic reforms began. By then China had achieved phenomenal progress in the manufacturing sector and in transportation infrastructure. Big-ticket retailers who came in found that in their own interest they must participate in the local economy. Walmart with more than 350 supermarkets in the country has 15,000 Chinese suppliers. More than 90 percent of the merchandise it sells in China are Chinese products. Export of these products to the US has risen too.
 The gradual opening of the retail sector gave time to Chinese small and big retailers time to adapt. Walmart and Carrefour may be the giants in other countries. But in China the retail giants are Chinese companies like Bailian, Suning and Gome. China of course had some advantages, not being the riotous democracy India is. But this is one case where democracy is not the villain. The villain is a Government – and a culture – that is scared by American press criticism. We can hear Walmart laughing.