Monday, October 28, 2013

India-Russia bhai bhai was working well. Is our US-leaning PM risking it?

Manmohan Singh, considered ineffective and unassertive, was noticeably effective and assertive on one issue: India moving closer to the United States. He succeeded so well that today India is seen as a strategic partner of the US in the Asia-Pacific theatre. This gives useful leverage to the US. What does it give to India? Certainly no leverage vis a vis Pakistan; the US has just re-started its massive economic aid to the country and continues to lend an attentive ear to renewed Pakistani pleas that it should mediate in Kashmir.

More worrying is the shadow India's newfound closeness to the US casts on its relationship with Russia, a long-time partner, and China, an ambitious hegemonic power with which India must necessarily have healthy working relations. Manmohan Singh, a much-travelled Prime Minister, has just completed a trip that took in both Russia and China in one go. The ceremonials were impeccable. But the hard facts remained: Russia now has reasons to wonder about India's directions while China will see India as part of America's policy of strategically encircling it. As for America, it only wants more from India (trade-wise, for example). We are losers at all ends.

If we lose what Manmohan Singh himself called our "privileged strategic relationship" with Russia, the consequences can be grave. That Russia has been our largest defence equipment supplier since independence is an interesting fact. Neither Britain as the retiring colonial master nor the US as the most powerful democracy of the time seemed all that interested in the new country's needs. But Stalinist Soviet Union considered it worthwhile to help India build its basic muscles.

The qualitative nature of the relationship that developed was more significant than its quantitative dimensions. Russia was always willing to share strategic military technology with India. With arrangements for joint research and development, the two countries are engaged in building fifth generation fighter aircraft and multirole transport jets. Already the Brahmos cruise missile, the T-90 tank and the Sukhoi fighter planes exist as living symbols of this cooperation. This was happening when the US opposed technology transfer and refused help even with cryogenic engines for India's space programme. It's a different matter that India's space technology advanced far enough to make it a leader in the field.

There were of course irritants along the way. The Gorshkov-Vikramaditya's delays extended from 2004 to 2013, the costs escalating from $ 974 million to $ 2.34 billion. India's insistence on civil liability clauses prevented a deal on Kudamkulam's third and fourth reactors even on Manmohan Singh's latest visit. But these are nothing compared to the way Russia stood by India on critical issues. When military defence had become impossible without satellite navigation system and it was clear that the US would never help in the event of an India-Pakistan showdown, Russia provided access to its Glonass system in 2011. India's military facilities in Tajikstan bordering Afghanistan would have been impossible without facilitation by Russia. Such are the advantages that are put at risk by Manmohan Singh's one-dimensional approach to global strategising.

China presents a study in contrast. With its ambitions to become the world's leading superpower, China would like to keep India tied up in local disputes. Its military buildup along the Himalayas, its all-out collaboration with Pakistan and its economic bridge-building with states like Sri Lanka have achieved this goal to some extent. However, China's ambitions are a cause for concern for Russia, too, especially with the increasing flow of Chinese migrants to Russia's far-flung eastern Siberian province. A politically savvy India would have used this factor to its advantage by forging new ties with Russia and Japan. Instead, we see China militarily strategising with Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and through joint military ties with Central Asian countries. New Big Games are afoot -- and the signals coming out of Delhi suggest that it is unable to cope. It's a long way from the days when India led the non-aligned group that altered the way the world saw itself. When will we get a leadership we deserve?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Amid warped priorities and false Gods, the most political of all Presidents

This much is true: But for the media's competitive derring-do we wouldn't know how our politicians are plundering the country. But that blessing is accompanied by a curse. The media trivialises half the news and sensationalises the other half. The result is mayhem. People at home mistake the selfish for heroes. People abroad think India is immature when it is not belligerent.

Issues that impinge on the quality of life and the fortunes of the country get little attention from the print media and virtually none from television. For example, there ought to be more than passing mention of the seriousness of the economic setback under UPA-2 and the governmental ineptitude that caused it; even as they talk about reducing expenses, they increase wasteful spending on VIP security, funding of legislators, privileges provided to civil servants and so on. The spirit in which Raja Ram Mohan Roy helped eradicate cruel social traditions seems to have died with him; today Haryana's elected chief minister justifies the illegal Khap panchayat punishments while sectarian politicians instigate caste riots in places like Dharmapuri. Protecting minority rights has come to mean allowing Saudi Arabia, a "friendly" ally of India, to promote Muslim radicalism. Fundamentalist churches in America, another ally, fund Christian evangelism especially among vulnerable sections. Meanwhile, minority educational institutions function as a law unto themselves. On these issues, the media, like the Government, plays safe. Safe for whom?

All caution is abandoned when the media sees opportunities to whip up easy excitement. The perennial favourites, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, were joined lately by Sachin Tendulkar. It is a sad commentary on our culture that the mere mention of Tendulkar's name is enough to send sections of the people into raptures. Otherwise intelligent men write treatises and books on the man. Otherwise great newspapers write editorials on him. And who is he? He wanted his countrymen to pay the tax on his imported Ferrari which he later sold. He never paid even token respect to his Rajya Sabha seat. He did not put the weight of his prestige on the side of propriety when improprieties shook Indian cricket. He did not even retire when fading form and dimming lustre told him to; he clung on to score some personal points of glory. Tendulkar is a man who puts Tendulkar above the rest. By comparison Rahul Dravid conducted himself honourably.

Tendulkar symbolises the tragedy that marketing brought to cricket. England which invented it and Australia which exalted it did not lose their balance over cricket because they treated it as a sport. India turned it into a business. A lethal combination of politicians and business tycoons tickled cricketeers with easy money and converted the game into a profiteering racket. Cricket became an industry in India, a corrupt one. It was the media that made this possible. The cheer girls did not work the magic for Lalit Modi. Television did.

Amid this unbecoming melee, a sober note was introduced by the appearance of Pranab Mukherjee's name in some newspaper articles. (The channels were too shallow to do even that in any meaningful way). It appears that in some recent political developments Pranab was an active, if unseen, presence. He is of course the most political President in Indian history, having held every key portfolio in the Government. It is now a witticism that he was the best Prime Minister India did not have.

India did not have him because Sonia Gandhi did not want him. Sonia Gandhi did not want him because he was not a yes-man, although he ruffled no feathers as cabinet minister. Sonia Gandhi is used to implicit devotion. So she preferred Manmohan Singh and nonentities like Pratibha Patil. She tried to do another Patil job, but Pranab Mukherjee neutralised her by winning the support of non-Congress parties. Sonia was forced to suffer Pranab as President. Pranab is too seasoned a politician to seek vengeance. But he will be nothing like a rubber stamp if a hung Parliament emerges. What Prime Minister Pranab Mukherjee could not do, perhaps President Pranab Mukherjee might.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The General who won classic victories with barefoot soldiers and bicycles

Great military commanders have an aura unattainable by others. The last World War threw up a clutch of names that still reverberate in the halls of history -- Patton, Montgomery, Rommel (The Desert Fox), Eisenhower, MacArthur, even Tojo, Yamamoto, Yamashita. The Cariappa name glittered in the Indian sky because he was the first commander-in-chief. In glamour value, Thimmayya and Maneckshaw were the heroes. While acknowledging the grandeur of these legendary generals, we need to recognise that the grandest of them all was General Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam's most revered idol after Ho Chi Minh and a military genius who led his country to victory in both the Indochina War of the 1940s and the Vietnam War of the 1960s. He died last week, aged 102.

How easy it is to say that he led his country to victory. We have to remember what the country was and who the enemy was to realise the monumental nature of Giap's achievement. Vietnam was among the most deprived countries of Southeast Asia, suppressed as a Chinese colony for a thousand years, then invaded by Chinese dynasties for another thousand years, then colonised by the French in the 1850s. During these centuries the country produced great heroes and heroines who resisted the invaders not only with courage but with imagination. The methods they used and the traditions they set were all that the Ho Chi Minh generation had to build on. Small wonder that American writers called the Vietnamese fighting forces the barefoot army.

And who were the enemies the barefoot soldiers confronted? The French, the Japanese, then the French again and finally the mighty American war machine. The Japanese disappeared when they lost the war. The French gave up only when they were humiliatingly defeated at Dien Bien Phu by the barefoot army that famously carried heavy artillery to hill tops on bicycles.

For the Americans the Vietnam war was the longest they ever fought. It was also the only one they lost. It was a war in which America used inhuman weapons like napalm bomb and Agent Orange, the chemical that destroyed forests and caused genetic defects among people. American decision makers like President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were convinced that the Vietnamese did not stand a chance. The American approach to war and Vietnam was crystallised in the personality of a Lieutenant Colonel named John Paul Vann, the central figure in a book on Vietnam by Neil Sheehan. "To Vann," writes Sheehan, "other peoples were lesser peoples: it was the natural order of things that they accept American leadership. He assumed that America's cause was always just... To him all communists were enemies of America and thus enemies of order and progress".

It can be argued that this mentality was the cause of America's defeat in Vietnam, and of its continuing defeat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt. Gen. Giap never underestimated the enemy. Like Ho, he came from Vietnamese aristocracy, not the working class. And, like Ho, he started out as a nationalist, not a communist. Giap was a college teacher who loved to read and write. His 1975 book Unforgettable Days is a highly readable account of the 1945-46 period when the French and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist China competed to control Vietnam.

Giap's real success was that he built an army out of nothing. He had only 5000 guerillas to start with. In a little over one year he built a force of 100,000 men. He achieved a sort of miracle by training farmers in the countryside to function as soldiers when the need arose. The weaponry at Giap's disposal was an odd collection of left-overs from the French and the Japanese. He even devised ways to rummage the cargo holds of old Japanese ships lying at the bottom of the sea. It was ingenuity, tactics and above all the strength of will of an entire populace that helped Vietnam achieve the impossible. Vo Nguyen Giap faced heavier odds than the World War commanders did, so his triumph was greater than theirs. Giap will be remembered as the general of generals.

Monday, October 7, 2013

When the guilty do not see their guilt, dynasty culture and criminalities win

It has been staring us in the face and we never saw it. All the ills of our beloved country can be cured by simply reconstituting the top leadership structure. Something along the following lines. The Union Cabinet to consist of Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Robert Vadra. The party high command to comprise Sonia Gandhi, Robert Vadra, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. The Supreme Court to be made up of Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Robert Vadra. Television anchorship to be restricted to Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Newspaper columnists to be annihilated and replaced by Rahul Gandhi, Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. An India so reorganised will be sumangalam, subhadram, sushobhanam, helping us all to live happily ever after.

The great virtue of such a setup is that neither indiscretion nor even crimes will call for any regret. The whole country found fault with the manner in which Rahul Gandhi condemned the Cabinet-approved ordinance to protect convicted MPs. Was there any regret on his part? His only concession was to say that the words he used might not have been right. Was belittling the Prime Minister of the country right? That too when he was abroad? Was it right to make the Core Committee that approved the ordinance look like a bunch of fools? That too when his mother was in the committee? Clearly he did not face such questions, not because his wrong words expressed the right sentiments as his apologists pointed out, but because his parentage put him above common political decencies.

Indeed, we must ask whether he was at all identifying himself with the people's feelings against the ordinance. Or was he being part of an old Congress trick? In 1986 the Government announced, amid widespread public protests, a steep increase in petrol prices. Rajiv Gandhi presided over the Cabinet meeting that took the decision. Immediately after the announcement the same Rajiv Gandhi presided over a Congress Working Committee meeting which criticised the decision on petrol prices. It recommended reducing the price increase by half in order to "reduce the burden on the masses". There was some applause for the Government and the Congress.

Unfortunately what the increase-then-decrease petrol price trick could do in 1980s could not be repeated by the approve-then-withdraw ordinance trick in 2013. The days of innocence were gone thanks to a series of historic landmarks from Commonwealth Games to 2G spectrum to coal fields. That is why Rahul Gandhi who boldly aired public feelings over the ordinance will not air public feelings over the coal fields allocation files that went missing. He will not air popular feelings even on non-political irregularities like IAS-IPS officers getting the right to go abroad for medical treatment at tax-payers' expense.

Actually, the negativism of dynasty politics casts a shadow even on positive developments. In the normal course, the imprisonment of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Rasheed Masood should have been an occasion for rejoicing. For it reassured us that even high-profile leaders could be brought to justice long years after their crimes. But punishment has meaning only when the punished understand that there are things that cannot be legally done. That is not the case here. Masood said, " I am innocent, hundred percent innocent". Lalu also proclaimed innocence, his son saying that the family did not expect justice from the lower court and would now appeal.

These are men who descended to abominable levels of corruption. As Chief Minister Lalu Yadav plundered his own treasury with fake bills and fake allotment letters. Masood became Union Health Minister for a while and promptly proceeded to allot to his handpicked candidates MBBS seats meant for Tripura students. This is what they all do when they get a bit of power. And all of them -- from Suresh Kalmadi to A. Raja, Omprakash Chautala to Janardhan Reddy, Pawan Bansal to Ashwini Kumar -- they all say they are one hundred percent innocent. Asaram Bapu is also one hundred percent innocent. Presumably, only the people are one hundred percent guilty.