Wednesday, December 31, 2008

With Friends Like These...

Looks like Joe Biden was on the money when he predicted a "major international crisis" early on in the Obama administration (okay, the timing was a bit off, we are still in 43's closing days, but no one takes him seriously any more). Operation Cast Lead didn't come from North Korea or Syria or Iraq or Russia or Cuba or Venezuela. Israel's air camapign on Hamas has retrained the world'd attention on what started it all in the middle-East: remember, Palestine v. Israel* is the real big top, even though the Iraq tent became more prominent in recent times. 

Obama should declare (at least) - and soon. How he handles this will have a greater impact the Arab world's perception of the "new" US than how he unwinds Iraq. People will forgive some slips there (W's mess etc) but on Palestine, he'll be judged by his own doing. If he is true to his "principled stand" claims, it is still possible that he'll come out in favor of Israel on this (or some other) tactical steps but it is also probable that he'll have a strategic emphasis that means a move away from their historic preferences. In any case, continuing to wait is a bad option - the default setting; given the reality, perception and propoganda of decades, is not one that makes the man on the street trust the US or its allies in the region

*Note: Like much of the problems around the middle-East (and some of the South Asian ones too) that the US is dealing with, even this is an inheritence. A classic understatement of this: "...the origins of the Arab-Israeli problem are too complicated for easy summary, but among the points normally overlooked by most of the British media is that the government of the United Kingdom bears a unique responsibility for the problem. It sold the same real estate twice. In the direst moments of the first world war Britain promised the same territory to the Jews and to the Arabs..."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Charity begins (not) at home!

One Indian name high up on the Clinton Foundation Donor List is a certain Amar Singh. He's second only to Laxmi Niwas Mittal among desi donors (and very much in the group that gave between $ 1mm - $ 5mm). 

What are the odds that it isn't the Hon' MP Mr. Amar Singh (Samajwadi Party, Rajya Sabha) but some other Amar Singh? I couldn't find the full list (which will have some more details than the NYT summary, I trust) on the Clinton Foundation website - there's a press release that says it has been put up.
Even in these depressed times, LNM's net worth is well into double-digit billions. But what about Mr. Singh? If it is the socialist socialite, a  report in Indian Express (7 Nov 08) says he has declared owning movable and immovable assets worth Rs. 37 crore (no mean sum, right, but the cash in hand and bank deposits within this are about Rs. 5.7 crore - for him and Mrs. Singh together). At these levels, it takes a large heart to give away $1mm (at least Rs. 4 crore). 

Of course, it's his money, he can do what he likes with it - but as a person in public life in India, it is a worthwhile question to ask how this compares to help he's provided charities closer home.

Maybe it wasn't charity at all - he could have just been buying a celebrity visitor.

Has someone else - any one of Mr. Singh's wealthy friends (wealthier, actually, he's not in the poor house himself) donated on his behalf? What sort of disclosure norms should we expect from our politicians? As a MP, he's already a public servant - and somewhat more influential than the average member, if one believes half of what is written

Enough. For more, tune into the main stream media, which should pick it up in due course. And then proceed to make a complete hash of the issue.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Stithi tanaavpurn magar niyantran mein hai...

Some form of “…situation is tense but under control…” will be the official version of Mumbai now. The first part is indeed true; the rest will become true soon – for the short run. 

Given the locus of these incidents, expect a lot more stridency in the voices that carry through popular and business press regarding the need for swift action, changes in laws and policing etc. Sadly, an examination of past reactions suggests that most of the talk will be misguided at best and dangerous, more likely.

“We need more stringent laws to deal with terrorist acts!” No we don’t. Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act (MCOCA) is already in force and some other states have similar specific laws to deal with such situations. Even without specific ‘terrorism related’ Acts; the absence of statutes is never an issue for investigation or prosecution – note how a much-maligned state has used the Arms Act to increase conviction rates.

We need a federal police to deal with major crimes such as terrorism” No we don’t. We need better police to deal with these or other crimes. And there’s no reason to believe that the central police will be better than the state police set-ups. The CBI suffers from the same ills that plague state police departments and the contagion will spread to any new agency that is set up.

“The rabid Hindu fundamentalists are behind this. It is a great threat to our secular fabric.” No, it isn’t. A bunch of criminals did this – well coordinated and effective, given the number of simultaneous acts they managed to execute in secrecy. And we need to solve that problem, not create another one by giving this unproven communal color.

“All muslims aren’t terrorists but all terrorists are muslims. Hindus are under threat because of the pseudo-secularists.” No, they aren’t. Terrorism is an instrument that fanatics among most religions use today – including the atheist naxals. And the random firing and bomb blasts do not discriminate by religion in their impact. All of us are under threat because of poor governance.

Which is what it’s all about – poor governance. Across party lines and in most states, self-serving leadership took charge of the legislative branch (similar demographics as the Founding Brothers but alas, not the same commitment to meritocracy and institutions) after independence and spawned, in the main, an avaricious next generation of leaders who collectively hollowed the polity during the 1970s and 1980s. Unsurprisingly, the current crop of leaders – from the Grand Old Party to the one with a difference through the various newly empowered classes – all are captives to the criminals in their midst. The real fix to our ills – at least on the law-and-order side of things – is to weed the criminal elements (the criminals, conspirators and their tacit supporters) out of our legislative wing.

A word of caution. Do not hold your breath. 

Shorter term fix – which may be equally difficult to get through – is to tackle the mix of intelligence, police, investigative aspects. 

Given the coordination needed for this attack, this is a significant intelligence failure. We have, among democratic nations, one of the most extensive internal intelligence setups in the world. Lets shake the deadwood out and focus them on things that matter. Police: separate the lathi wielding and the traffic police from the units needed for such situations. We need more and better equipped ATS and other special-weapons-and-tactics units. The supreme sacrifice of senior officers is a testimony to their individual courage even when in an under-funded and poorly organized part of the force. Investigation – again, we need specialists for the job – those who focus on solving the crime and not on media appearances. 

A mix of effective intelligence, police response and investigation will make future aspirants to such acts pause. 

We survive on such hope. And, as the newspapers and magazines will remind us in a few hours from now, on the incredible resilience of the Mumbaikers etc etc.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

May the tribe increase

Congratulations Abhinav. For someone whose first real Olympic memory is 0.01 seconds and Cristina Cojocaru, hearing the national anthem play in Beijing is a huge deal.
You are modest. This is refreshing but Gavaskar, who had a different take on self-promotion, put it well after reaching 10,000 runs in Test cricket "...others might reach the milestone too but everybody will remember who got there first, much as everybody remembers the first conquerors of Mt. Everest, Hillary and Norgay..."
Enjoy the rest of your time at the Olympics!