Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Catch-22 for US in Pakistan?

America seems to be in a Catch-22 situation in Pakistan. The catch in the novel Catch-22 was bureaucratic nonsense and that has been replaced by amateurish decision making by Bush in the War of Terror. The number of bad decisions have gotten to such a high level that the catches now need to be codified with numbers. There is no stopping the mistakes even though this war effort is the biggest war US has ever waged against terrorists.

US is once again facing an awkward situation in Pakistan as the opposition parties, confident from the election results, finalize their plans to form a new government. Should Bush continue supporting Musharraf which is like going down a tunnel that has no end and hence no light, or build strong relations with the incoming government so that the War of Terror remains on track? Well, the writing on the wall wasn't too clear to start with but Bush didn't take any efforts to try to read the mood of the voters. It was widely reported that the political party supporting Musharraf would win a comfortable majority and form a government, which would be aligned to Musharraf's and hence America's goals. And hence Bush kept supporting Musharraf through the elections. But the election results were pretty disappointing sending Bush's Pakistan strategy back to the drawing boards.

This serious failure could have been completely avoided. US could have used it's machinery in Pakistan to conduct a survey before the elections. That would have helped Bush stop the 'Musharraf is our strongest ally and we stand by only him' rhetoric and US could have taken a neutral stand on the elections. That would have lightly exonerated US from its previous crimes in the eyes of Pakistanis and the public and the then opposition parties would have warmed up to Bush and US much earlier.

Now the new government has enough problems to solve at home rather than serve America's goals in their country. It will be a hard-sell for US to convince a coalition government formed from parties that won elections based on anti-Musharraf strategy, to continue supporting US in its war against terror.

On second thoughts, it may be a boon in disguise for America if it can get rid of Musharraf fast enough. The current war against terror is not going any where. It has not achieved much over last couple of years. And the new government may be as keen as US to get rid of the fundamentalists that are a big threat to Pakistan's internal security and economical stability. All US needs now is a nice way to get rid of Musharraf and get cozy with the new government.

India must be watching the current events in Pakistan with optimism. Musharraf, who attacked Kargil in Kashmir and who unequivocally supported the Kashmir terrorists, was not popular with India. He was much smarter in PR and he used every occasion with the international media to his or Pakistan's advantage. Musharraf was so convincing in his job that even today, Kashmiri terrorists are mentioned as Kashmiri separatists by international media. He was in an envious position where he was a strong ally of US in the War of Terror, even though he was a part of the reason why the war was being waged. Surprisingly India didn't say much and everybody including US conveniently looked the other way.

India will be happy to see Pakistan get rid of the frustrating Musharraf and will look forward to building good relationships with the new government. After seeing their economies grow at a healthy rate during the last 10 years, India and Pakistan both want to see their GDPs grow at the same rate in the future. The situation is very different this time and both the governments should agree that the best option for them is to solve the Kashmir problem through discussion and increase the trade between the two countries.

What would be interesting to see now as events unfold is how US will handle Musharraf (or rather how it will dump him), and how they will start working with the new government.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Stop being animals

The other day I saw a shuddering video on YouTube. An antelope was battling a fierce crocodile which had its gory teeth thrusted into the antelope's neck. The antelope didn't have much space to maneuver but it was still trying to snatch its skin from the crocodile's clutches, bit by bit every second. The crocodile was trying hard to firm up its grip and the scene was getting bloodier. If only it was accompanied with drums beating in the background, this amazing fight for survival would have got me at the edge of my seat.

I wonder if the policemen watching a man being lynched by a mob in Hajipur were thinking the same. If only there was music...

Yesterday in Hajipur, a mob dragged a murder accused out of a hospital, where he was being treated in police custody, and then kicked, boxed and thrashed him. It stopped only when the man was nearly dead. There were several policemen present there, watching the whole event but not doing anything to stop it. It seemed like they may be enjoying that man's fight for survival against an angry mob. I caught that on BBC and believe me, it was one of the most brutal and the most animalistic behavior I have ever seen. The man was not as lucky as the antelope, who did save itself from the almost lethal attack of the crocodile. That angry mob was more fierceful than that hungry animal.

This is not an isolated incident in India. Recently in Bhagalpur an angry mob beat up a chain-snatcher in front of policemen and all the action was caught on TV camera. A politician was lynched few weeks back at a rally near Nagpur because people believed that he was behind the killing of a popular local politician. Fifty-year-old Ambadas Dharrao, an employee of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (a state owned enterprise), was killed in heavy stone pelting on company bus in Nasik by members of a political party who were angry at their leader being arrested by police in Mumbai, 200 kms away. This incident was different because Ambadas had nothing to do with that arrest. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. A professor in Ujjain was killed by a violent group of students belonging to Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad when he cancelled student elections on observing irregularities in the procedures.

Yes, this is the country of Mahatma Gandhi, the messiah of non-violence. These are examples where some wives have lost their husbands, some children have lost their fathers and some families have lost their futures. And there have been infinite occassions where angry groups have gone on a frenzy damaging public and private property, physically abusing and hurting people, displaying their animal side so proudly - making a travesty of the economic progress of India which is turning it into an important global player - not letting social progress to happen along with the economic progress. Political parties will strike at the drop of a hat and these strikes would become violent in 11 out of 10 cases. Clearly while some Indians are moving up the social ladder taking advantage of the economic boom, some are left behind and their frustrations are getting manifested in these senseless episodes. There is no logical explanation possible for such behavior that holds people, government and nation at ransom. Why would members of political parties destroy buses, trains, and public property rather than help the government build infrastructure!

What is very surprising to me and many Indians is the silence of our Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh! He has been a mute spectator aptly deserving the title of Meek Manmohan. Its hard to believe that the national government cannot force the state government to take action even though it does not have direct judiciary control over matters internal to the state. These issues affect the whole country and set back the social and economic progress, so very essential to the country. With increased international media coverage, such incidents don't remain hidden and are highlighted by every TV channel and newspaper around the world.

What India needs is a zero tolerance policy - zero tolerance towards brute display of public outrage - which has lead to loss of innocent lives and unnecessary damage to public properties. It can easily take cue from Malaysia or Singapore on how to contain such incidents. The governments in these countries have a high degree of respect for life and nation and the perpetrators of such heinous acts are meted out the highest punishment. Every citizen has the right to be secured so that they can focus on contributing towards the society rather than spend a lot of energy worrying about their and their family's security. The cost of such issues goes much beyond the physical damage. I just hope that the one replacing Manmohan will be strong and will take charge in such situations to set an example for people to not follow.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Poverty alleviation may remain a fantasy

On one hand, reducing poverty has become such an important priority for the developed nations. It has been a major issue in all of the recent World Economic Forum meetings. Global poverty is seen as a big threat to the economical, social and political stability of the wealthier nations. A staggering 4 billion out of total world population of 6 billion are below the poverty line. Poor are defined as those who do not have access to basic essentials of life - food, clothing, housing, clean drinking water, electricity etc.

On the other hand, the whole world is already experiencing a big environmental crisis and facing a question of survival, caused by the affluence of only 2 billion people (600 million rich defined as those earning more than US$20,000 and 1.4 billion medium rich defined as those earning between US$3,000 to US$20,000). Imagine what will happen when 4 billion people will come out of poverty as well?

One wonders if this world will ever be 100% free of poverty though. There are many people doing a lot of good work to achieve this goal. Millennium Development Goals (MDG) is the most important initiative of the UN and poverty alleviation is on topmost priority in that (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals). Corporates such as Cisco and Google have teamed up with UNDP to monitor the progress of MDG (http://www.mdgmonitor.org/). Bono from U2 is throwing his weight around to make rich countries give more to the poor African countries. Management gurus such as C K Prahalad are advocating market based approach that will focus on poor people as consumers and producers and on solutions that can make the Bottom Of the Pyramid (BOP) market more efficient, competitive and inclusive - so that people in BOP segment can benefit from them and move above the poverty line (http://www.nextbillion.net/).

There are many reasons though to believe that we may never arrive at that goal, unless we change our approach drastically. Natural resources are getting depleted much faster than ever before. One wonders if there are enough left to sustain poverty alleviation of 4 billion people. The price of bringing people out of poverty is going to increase with every billion. Naturally one wonders if the commitment of rich nations is going to remain the same. Will the commitment shake up in dire situations such as recession, low or no growth in their own countries, high inflation, and record high unemployment? The impending recession in US and gloomy forecast for global economy is driving prices up, further making commodities dearer and hence putting basic necessities out of reach of poor people. Will MDG sustain such testing times? Only time will tell.

To me, it seems like poverty alleviation will need a multi-pronged approach. Just generating employment or building innovative products for poor people or donating billions of dollars of charity may not be enough. A major part of the strategy will have to be reduction in consumption of non-essentials by the 2 billion people at the top. That’s what will help slow down the depletion of natural resources and keep enough for the remaining 4 billion people. Top 2 billion will have to go back to practices of their grandparents or great grandparents, when people knew how to lead life with just enough resources. People didn't have aluminum foils, plastic bags, packaged foods, big wardrobes, dozens of shoes, electronic gadgets. Excess will have to stop. In Singapore, some buildings are brought down in 20 years and rebuild to increase property gains. That seems like a lot of wastage in bringing down something that is in good condition and building from scratch a new one that is even bigger. Such wastage and excess will have to cease to exist.

Will this population that has been materialistically pampered over the last 50 years be ready to lower its standard of living, learn to accept that "less is ok" and sustain such testing times? It sounds impossible and hence makes achieving poverty alleviation of 4 billion people look like a fantasy. Only time will tell.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

India doesn't deserve a UNSC permanent seat

India's UNSC bid creates noise every time there is a UN session in progress. But sadly, it creates noise only in India. Thats the irony of this bid which needs 2/3rd of 192 countries around the world to vote for India. Nobody is talking about it and nobody cares. It is important to discuss whether India really deserves that seat.

Agreed that 1 out of every 6 people in this world live in India, agreed that India is the largest democracy, agreed that India is a major contributor to UN peace keeping missions, but is that enough to lay claim on permanent membership to UNSC? Just because you have been a loyal employee in a company and have worked honestly and diligently for it doesn't give you the right to lay claim to the Board of Directors. You should be in a strategic role to do that. You should have helped the company at a higher level to grow its business, to see through some crises situations, or to enter new relationships. You should have done something that was impactful to the whole company.

Also getting a UNSC membership is not just about national pride. Politicians, especially in the developing countries, have a habit of painting a Utopian picture for the general public, taking them on fantasy rides, one after the other. And low literacy levels and low awareness levels in these countries do not help the situation.

India has to prove its case to become a permanent member with veto power of such an influential body.

What is India's approach towards other countries, what drives India's global relationships, what are India's ideologies, what principles does India stand for, these are important questions that need to be answered. Nobody knows what is India's stand on important issues such as the situation in Darfur, the Palestine-Israel conflict, the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many other such issues. Indian government didn't consider them important enough to be commented upon. There are always more pressing domestic issues. And I haven't heard India's stand being discussed or covered by media for any major international conflict.

India fails to impress even in its neighborhood. It has remained silent on the Myanmar issue. It didn't take a lead in helping to solve important crises such as the Maoist rebellion in Nepal and LTTE issue in Sri Lanka. Even India's neighbors don't consider it their Big Brother, forget about other countries around the world.

India is unpredictable. Change in ruling party changes the way India engages with other countries. Who would have predicted that politics within the ruling party would derail the historic nuclear pact with US and in the process, deny energy-hungry India access to crucial nuclear technology, and send mixed signals to IAEA, France and Australia who were ready to help India build the nuclear plants.

India has inward looking policies that put national interest before anything else. Policies related to other nations are driven by domestic policy makers who don't have an international outlook. One of the reasons why India developed diplomatic relationships with some countries was to serve the interests of Indians in those countries and these relationships haven't evolved beyond fulfilling the requirements of the local Indians.

India is just a big country that has existed in isolation for decades and has recently shown some economic growth and integration with the global society. But largely, India is still not influencing any country's foreign policy.

All is not lost though. Consistency is the mantra India will have to adopt to become a permanent member of UNSC. India has to show consistent behavior in all the things that it does that involves another nation. It has to show consistency in its stand towards foreign conflicts, in its economic policies that impact other countries and in its internal policies that are related to human rights, child labor etc. That is when nobody can oppose India's bid and India can proudly say that it deserves a permanent seat on UNSC!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Can the world afford a China?

America is looking for a China! Or rather the whole world is looking for a China. Economists are predicting that inflation will rise faster in the near future, thanks to mortgage subprime financial crisis for bursting the bubble, resulting into a recession if a China that can manufacture goods at the same costs as today's China, is not found soon. Consumers will cut down on spending, slowing down the economy further and speeding up the arrival of recession, if a China that can sell goods at the same price as today's China, is not found soon. Rising oil prices, sky rocketing raw material costs, and increasing salaries are indicating that Chinese goods will soon become expensive for Americans if a China like today's China is not found soon.

This is a real and immediate threat to America and the world, unlike the chemical weapons threat from Iraq. Ironically, the unreal threat from Iraq cost US couple of trillion dollars (Refer to the article Iraq war costs could top $2trillion); it diverted America's attention and kept it busy while the real threat started to appear closer. In Indian epic Ramayana, a story goes that when Lord Rama went after a golden deer in a forest, his wife Sita was in real danger but Lord Rama's focus was hunting the deer down. The deer was actually Maricha, an obedient subject of Ravana, the King of demons. Maricha took the form of unreal golden deer at Ravana's behest. And Lord Rama fell to mistaken identity; Sita got kidnapped by Ravana when Rama was away. The moral of the story is that in dire situations, real and unreal threats are difficult to differentiate and even kings can fail.

(On second thoughts, maybe Bush saw the real threat of inflation coming, thought of countering it by controlling more oil, found Iraq to be the most legitimate target and ended up attacking it since Saddam wasn't handing over the keys to the oil wells and maybe it wasn't a case of mistaken identity? That probably makes every American smirk; democrats because they don't believe that Bush can think that far and republicans because they think that they weren't wrong after all)

Coming back to the topic of this post, India is touted as the China the world is looking for. According to a global survey done among 340 companies, over 50% of the respondents intend to move part of their manufacturing to India. Refer to the article Manufacturing India to challenge China.

This is great news for a country like India where more than 70% of over a billion people live on less than US$2 per day. Proponents of idea that only job creation can eradicate poverty may see this as a golden opportunity since only manufacturing can create jobs at such a large scale.

But can today's world afford a China? Chinese and people all over the world are paying a very high price in terms of the damage done to the environment by the way China has progressed. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the EU. Although China holds fourth-largest freshwater resources in the world (after Brazil, Russia, and Canada), two-thirds of China's approximately 660 cities have less water than they need and 110 of them suffer severe shortages, all this because of overuse, and pollution. China’s cement factories use 45 percent more power than the world average, and its steel makers use about 20 percent more . The country consumed some 2.4 billion tons of coal in 2006 - more than the United States, Japan, and Britain combined and is the world's largest contributor of carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere. Can you imagine what will happen if India follows the same path! Knowing all the negative effects, would you still want India to become a China, for the sake of this world? Think again.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Incredible India!

India's silence on Myanmar's current event has left me appalled. "India, the largest democracy in the world." That is the favorite anecdote of any Indian politician. What happened to the largest democracy? Why is it not opposing the anti-democracy junta's use of force on God-fearing, non-violent, unarmed monks? "India, the upcoming super power." Another favorite anecdote of every Indian politician. Don't they know that super powership comes with responsibilities. They cannot just close their eyes at such an event and imagine that nobody is watching. What is amusing is that even the media is not giving it the front headlines that this news deserves.

Are the oil and natural gas reserves in Myanmar the only reasons behind the silence? Then what is the difference between India and other super powers, who judiciously maintain silence when opposition leaders are being packed off into jails in a neighbouring country being run by a whimsical dictator? Or is it that India is shy from using its power since it doesn't know if its real or perceived power? Then I would say that Indian politicians should stop using another favorite anecdote, "India, awakening!".

India is losing a key opportunity to bring a long lasting change in its neighbouring country, which the local people will appreciate always. It will elevate India's image in the Western world. It will help India differentiate itself from China. And it will give the Indian politician another anecdote. "India, the harbinger of democracy."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

India - 60th birthday or 16th?

Confident, Empowered, Roaring Tiger were some of the adjectives used for India as it turned 60 on this 15th August. But what if India wouldn't have opened its economy 16 years back? How would this day be? The day would be similar to 15th Augusts before 1991. The day would have passed in the world media without anybody noticing it or at the most, somebody would have written a sorry article about how India is struggling even after 60 years of independence to grow at more than the Hindu rate of 2-3%. Inside the country, government employees would have forcibly shown up for the flag hoisting ceremony, so that they wouldn't have one less leave on their payroll. Students would have no choice but to show up in school and sit through long speeches that would have told them how India was a great country. And everybody would have wondered, "Where is the greatness!" There was no growth in the country, no new jobs, inflation was rising, corruption was rampant...in a nutshell, future had nothing to offer. This was the sorry state of India before 1991. Patriotism came with a sense of guilt. I remember how everybody used to talk that the need of the hour was a dictator or a magician who could solve India's miseries with one sleight of hand. Or maybe it was time for Lord Vishnu to come on earth in His next avatar to get rid of all of India's problems. I was too young to understand what was happening but all I was waiting for was Vishnu's reincarnation.

I guess that happened in 1991. Thats when India dissolved the license raj system, opened its economy, became dependent on global economy but still became independent in the true sense of today. Things are very different today. Every child is looking forward to becoming a youth and every youth is looking at ways to contribute to the growth. And this time they will also get real opportunities to do that. All this in 16 years is a commendable feat. This growth should not be of worry until one sees the rich becoming richer, and poor becoming poorer. Manmohan Singh doesn't miss any opportunity, be it speech at CII or Independence Day speech, to remind the business world of its social obligations. The business community probably realises that social unrest is not in its best interest and is taking needed steps to help the government. Sunil Mittal said that a major difference between India and China of today is that India lacks behind China in hard infrastructure but India is way ahead in terms of soft infrastructure. I think India's growth is being laid on strong foundations and the soft infrastructure will take it a long way.

Those who compare today's India with today's China and fashionably say that India will need decades to catch up with China, should look at the conditions in both the countries before the economies opened up. That would be fair comparison.

It wouldn't be surprising to find that India was worse off than China before the two economies opened up. India's leading foreign affairs expert C Raja Mohan termed the first five decades of closed economy and Non-Aligned approach of India as '50 wasted years'. You cannot disagree to that. Just after attaining freedom, Nehruvian policies started defining India's future. India opted to follow a path of Non-Alignment - an independent foreign policy framework vis-a-vis a bipolar world. India went behind closed doors and built high walls around it. Intentions of Nehru are not doubtful. But he didn't make sure that the governments after him understood his vision. All the sources of information or knowledge - newspapers, TV, Radio, school curriculum were full of rhetoric such as India is great, Indians are great, etc. Indians' brains got hard-wired to think that everything about India and Indians was great. And even if the country was great, they should have let them discover it and not force it down their throat. Anyway, successive governments used this as a means to manipulate the common people, to hide the governments' incapabilities or unwillingness to solve India's growing problems; the governments exploited it to a shameless level giving empty promises which they had no clues on how to deliver. India was in a very bad state before 1991.

That is why it was India's 16th birthday and not 60th.