Sunday, June 30, 2013

Too early to drop one’s guard

India must work closely with the newly-elected Nawaz Sharif Government in Pakistan. But, while it must explore enhancing relations in areas of trade, New Delhi must remain vigilant all the time.

Mr Nawaz Sharif’s return to power and his exuberant shower of constructive announcements offer hope, both to the Pakistani people as well to those in India wanting to improve relations with Pakistan. But India has had a mixed experience dealing with democratic regimes in Islamabad — at the start, things appear to be promising but suddenly the relationship turns sour. This was the case with Mr Sharif’s previous stint as Prime Minister, when friendly summits and goodwill trips to Pakistan by the NDA leadership were reciprocated with heavy infiltration in Kashmir.

Also, Mr Sharif, groomed under the cunning shadow of former President Zia-ul-Haq initially had little problem with limited military-political interface within the Pakistani establishment. His perception changed, however, after his Army chief Pervez Musharraf’s coup d'état in the post-Kargil days. While in exile, Mr Sharif has supposedly become more gentle, practical and reliable. So, he exudes hope to the crowds in Pakistan as well as to the Congress-led UPA regime in New Delhi, which has no strategic foreign policy for the South Asian neighbourhood.

But let us not forget that the root cause of pessimism in Pakistan lies in the fact that this country knows not how to live with rational actions. Today, Pakistan exists somewhere between the grim world of Saadat Hasan Manto and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

These two literary greats had witnessed the making of Pakistan, and knew the country better than others and much before it was overrun by fundamentalists. A country created on religious lines, and also a product of the tussle between the elitist leaders of the Muslim League and those of the Congress, Pakistan has never been able to outgrow the complexes attached to its birth.

The history of democracy in Pakistan is blurry and replete with instances of continuous military interference, which till date distort political processes. Sixty-three years after its birth, Pakistan is far from how its founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, an astute politician, had envisioned it. And even though a small segment of progressive Pakistanis may like to hold on to Jinnah’s vision, it is, for all practical purposes, now lost.

Its international borders notwithstanding, Pakistan’s alliances with China and the US have already compromised its sovereignty. Driven by their imperial compulsions, these countries use Pakistan to maintain their grip on the South Asian region. And this is obvious to Pakistani leaders, civil society activists and journalists.

The other factor that defines Pakistan’s geo-strategic policies is Afghanistan. The ground realities from that country plague Pakistan on a real time basis even as one powerful class of Pakistanis reap the benefits of instability. This class knows how important it is to keep stirring the pot — as, in a political order that is driven by force rather than constitutional values, it is troubled times that offer better strategic dividend than peace times.

India has the burden of history to bear when it comes to its foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan. However, New Delhi has often failed miserably to carry the load. This maybe in part due to the inadequacies of those who have sought to shape India’s policy towards Pakistan in recent years. Many of these so-called ‘Pakistan experts’ in New Delhi have practically no on-ground exposure to that country and only limited understanding of the historical linkages between India and Pakistan. They look upon Pakistan as a project that they need to handle. This impedes any deep and long-term study of the Pakistani problem in India.

Even New Delhi’s diplomatic corps, from the IIC to the Gymkhana generation, has failed to make its mark when it comes to strategic thinking with respect to Pakistan. Yet, India cannot afford to remain indifferent to this neighbour. As for now, India should keep playing safe with Pakistan. New Delhi may allow for an enhanced trade engagement with Pakistan, for instance. More importantly, it should support Mr Sharif so as to keep hardliners at bay in Islamabad. A fresh round of goodwill summits may also be encouraging for bilateral relations.

But through it all, India must remain vigilant. It must not be caught off-guard like it was in the 1990s when the then Prime Minister was indeed working to make a long-lasting improvement in India’s relations with Pakistan. Of course, both countries are in a different state now — this is especially true in Pakistan where the people have chosen the ballot over the bullet. Hopefully, Mr Sharif too will stay democratic and the Pakistani military will be cut to size by him. At this juncture, New Delhi should work closely with Islamabad for a positive turn in bilateral ties but while keeping its border security mechanism firmly in place.

-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Pioneer on June18,2013)

Beyond borders

Many multilateral cooperation platforms have eluded smaller nations, contradicting their own rationale for existence. Nepal is no exception to this phenomenon and has badly missed out on chances to carve out a position to deal with major bilateral issues in South Asia and beyond. The country’s long democratic transition has made its standing even more precarious.

Before 2001, Asia had two distinct royalties—Nepal and Bhutan. With the unnatural ending of the partially feudal legal throne in Nepal, the country ushered in a complex web of mismanaged political arrangements. Later, the prominent advent of the Maoists and Madhes-based political parties were in the right spirit of the times but later developments have shown their inefficiency in dealing with the cores of polity and diplomacy.

Living under an unjustified ‘big brother syndrome’ and making impractical moves for trilateral initiatives have broken down Nepal’s conventional edge vis-à-vis its relation with India. Prachanda’s latest visit to New Delhi was primarily seeking Indian confidence for the Chinese presence back home. This was a sort of blunder, though it was surprisingly overlooked by the Indian side.

Nepal’s external policy should be directed by its own self-interest instead of excuses. The political establishment in Kathmandu should reckon that the diplomatic engagements of two almost equals—India and China—do not happen on a single front but on many counts. Among them, the most formidable is economic ties. Li Keqiang’s first foreign trip as prime minister to India was aimed at settling the border dispute and boosting economic ties. Straight after India, he flew to Pakistan, and total results of his visit have proved abysmal.

China cannot simply throw off the burden of its past. It has a few allies to date and Nepal should not have irrational expectations from China. In the lexicon of Nepal’s political economy, trade should be given extra attention. Trade and diplomacy must be the mainstays of external policy. There is no reason why Nepal should distract from this fundamental understanding. The hyped ploy of breaking conventions has given little positive outcome so far. The lack of any political stalwart is another cause
of concern; the country is missing a pacifier like Girija Prasad Koirala like never before.

New efforts are being made to hold Constituent Assembly elections in November, which will be a great test of the political parties en masse as there is great disenchantment among the populace for their false promises. People’s representatives need to come to terms with the fact that the masses are only concerned with leading the country out of the present mess. The internal atmosphere will shape Nepal’s external policy; so clarity over this would do well for the country’s future course.

In South Asia, Nepal is situated strategically to carry forward its independent stature. Despite the gloom and doom over the last two decades, Nepalis in general have endorsed democracy. This is a sort of accomplishment, as modern ideas and aspirations are routed through such welcome changes. If there is balance on the political home turf, it will be much easier for Nepal to claim its deserved position in the world.

There is no tailor-made solution for a firm footing in external matters except for being internally strong while chasing difficult targets externally. Relying less on theoretical paradigms and taking a more practical approach would make foreign policy maneuvering a more informed exercise. As a sovereign state, the boldness of Nepal’s action should display its sovereignty. Unlike China or India, it has never earned the ire of cunning colonial motives. This is a reality and not bound to be changed.Thus, it allows Nepalis to take pride in its non-interfering nationalistic pedigree.

In the present ideal-deficient time, bilateralism is the order of the day for nations. Hence, Nepal too should define its priorities accordingly. Among the most important changes, it should learn to look beyond India and China as the world is much bigger. With a changed mindset and a mature leadership, Nepal has the capacity to draw resources from beyond.

However, India will stay its closest ally, even when Nepal expands its presence across the globe. China has a different angle on seeing the world but it is a very formidable force in itself, which India has learnt since 1947. Nepal, for a while, can learn from India’s follies in the 1962 war. It is time for a course correction in Nepal.
Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on July05,2013)

For making growth agenda sustainable!

Book Review: Non-fiction/ An Agenda for India's Growth: Essays in Honour of P. Chidambaram bySameer Kochhar(Edited), Academic Foundation/SKOCH Group, 267 pp; Rs1095 (Hardback)
The year 1991 brought reforms at the center-stage of India’s economy. Then it routed more as compulsion than a policy choice, for immediate handling of the grave balance-of-payment crisis and other sagging economic fundamentals of that uncertain era. But in further course, it shaped up in delicate natural progression and that with overarching effects on India’s macroeconomic scenario.

There were five catalysts in action for making it happen. In political circles, one of the most notable advocates of that epoch-making change was P Chidambaram (then the Union Commerce Minister). His advocacy was next only to the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh.

Two others in the core policy team—C Rangarajan and Montek Singh Ahulwalia— equally championed the cause through making economic planning truly forward-looking and compatible with the demand of new condition, which India did configured recently.

The book under review is a compilation of 14 essays by accomplished experts of their respective spheres. They recall the reform saga with honouring the contribution made by Chidambaram behind those historic shifts in policy outlook. Even the bitterest critics of economic reforms — and who have little to offer by way of a workable model for growth with equity—feel not shy in acknowledging this man’s success in changing the course of Indian economy.

In recent times, Indian leaders have been steadfast in their belief that economic freedom is linked not just to higher growth and incomes, but has greater bearing on socioeconomic empowerment and good governance. The wind of change came with few young leaders in the 1980swho thought beyond the over-formalism in vogue then. Chidambaram was one among them.

An eloquent advocate of economic freedom, he spearheaded the reform processes by clearing the fog of implementation on many crucial junctures.From bringing reforms in the UPSC, drafting the revolutionary trade policy document that liberalised India’s export and import policy, presenting the ‘Dream Budget’ in United Front government, steering the Indian economy clear of the impact the global financial crisis generated, solving internal security gaps post 26/11 and now in commanding the difficult task of keeping the economy growth-oriented: in all these tasks, he remained unrelentingly tireless as a policymaker.

The essays of this volume and a thorough introduction by the editor are written with higher expertise, and not in flat polemical order. They cover with meticulous analyses a wide-range of issues: fiscal and monetary policies, strengthening financial inclusion, revitalising agriculture, buoying stock markets, policy on natural resources, external trade reforms, urban infrastructure renewal and security aspects to growth. Moreover, they forward a growth-oriented, inclusive agenda for the country's future leaderships.

Through their anecdotal accounts of the reform story, C. Rangarajan and Montek Singh Ahluwalia try to recast and reorient the challenges and opportunities the whole architecture of economic reforms presents. They also recollect the memories of working with P Chidambaram in various capacities at different times.Their narratives are naturally significant on the delineated theme.

On the other side, essays of Vijay L. Kelkar, M. Govinda Rao,Parthasarathi Shome, N.K. Singh U.K. Sinha,Duvvuri Subbarao, Y.S.P. Thorat,Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Tarun Das and Ashok Jha streamline the memories of the initial days of reforms to the challenges country is facing today on multiple fronts. However, they all articulate their emphatic impression and opinion about P Chidambaram of being a firm and steady hand in government.

This festschrift has two other remarkable pieces.Sameer Kochhar’s Banking for the Last Mile and his jointly written piece with a strategic expert Gursharan Dhanjal,Security: What Chidambaram Changed,expand the opinionated horizons of the book.

In Individual capacity and through Skoch Group, Kochhar is known for his formidable works to make India—socially, financially and digitally inclusive. His earlier piece affirms it, while second one touches the status of internal security through sharp insights—with taking into account the precedents and what had changed since Chidambaram took charge of Home Ministry after the terror attack in Mumbai in 2008.

The book is about India’s good and odd experiences surfaced since 1991—that year, a generation of change agents in Indian Parliament had seen the merit in French romantic poet, Victor Hugo’s visionary line: “A day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas”. They reckoned it and given greater legitimacy to Manmohan Singh, when he finally pronounced that: “No one can resist an idea (that was the beginning of reform) whose time has come”.

Later the economic goals were squinted and found a less-travelled path to follow-on. With all hues and cries in its opposition—economic reforms succeeded in India. It is true—its outcomes are not reciprocating the resurgent needs at absolute level—but few can doubt that the New Economic Policies have given an unprecedented confidence to the Indian economy. Nevertheless, much is required to be done, where the growth and equity can actively transcends each other—the book has overt concentration on this.

It is a complex phase of history, where the ideological shackles, built in 18th century alone wouldn’t work for solving the issues of present time. India especially is a unique case with civilisational status but young as a nation—so, our policies should see the merit of both the prominent economic models: Socialism and Capitalism. Embracing good spirits from all the camps, will give nation a hope, hitherto never seen in recent decades.

This book is a rattling good read and infuses new energy with lots of inspiring tales, which can make the ground of policymaking much more enthused and accountable. The spectre of gloom cannot fix India’s growth story, until the command of economy is in hands of duty bound intelligent leader.

The world should see the ‘writings on wall’ that is favouring India’s medium and long term prospects—even in the short phase, this appears not less promising than the saturated terrains of developed world and other instable developing economies, from different subcontinents!
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in Rising Kashmir,on 15July2013)

Bhutan: The kingdom of hope

Book Review: Non-fiction/ The Kingdom at the Centre of the World by Omair Ahmad, Aleph, 231p; R 495(Hardback)
I have been aware about Omair’s project on Bhutan since it was in ideation state but once I read it, I am better suitable to say he has written the political history of a tiny and insignificant nation with a pathbreaking articulation.

When the mad rush of the mainstream world is increasingly lured by misnomer like—‘things should be constructed too big to fall’,

Bhutan —the subject of this book opposes it with its indifference with popular notions of development and attached essential degradation. So, it’s not growing in general terms—and that is for good sake. With mastership over narration and facts —Omair is probably the best enthusiast on this small, sparsely populated kingdom at the eastern end of the Himalayas.

The book comes out in good spirit under the influence of same strong fundamentals and his incorrigible optimism directed in efforts. It justifies, in light vein too — the sense for history can flow very easily.

Omair’s The Kingdom at the Centre of the World speaks much with its name —even if not set asiding the subtle variation. It refers Bhutan has been a part of epoch-making transformations in Asia. Nevertheless it was never shown with degree of temptations to get aligned with the political-cultural conviction of the power mongers.

The book begins in a sort of travel writing format, and later goes deep inside the events of modern history without biases or contempt about the historical truths. It begins with an informed commentary over Padmasmbhava’s epic work, written to establish Buddhism in this unusual hilly kingdom.

Later, the book travels long to recall how Bhutan has emerged as an independent Buddhist nation in the 17th century under Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The coverage of Jigme Namgyal makes this book a perfect guide to know difficult tussle was between Bhutan and British empire —and the nasty motives of empire were crushed by a very humble nation.

The Wangchuk monarchs and their accomplishments are placed safely inside the pages by the author. These kings, with different royal outlook have ruled Bhutan for close to a century. In separate contexts, the book in great deal looks back on the past events, mattered heavily for this undersized but sovereign nation.

The prominent among them are —the ups and down of Tibet-Mongol and British Empire—the complicated spread of Nepali-origin people across South Asia—Sikkim’s dramatic loss of sovereignty and its convergence with India, and the highly conflicting territorial ambitions of India and China.

With the sufficient background of details, the book ventures out to inform—Bhutan alone promises high for an alternative way of inclusive governance and moderate progress. In a terrible uniform world—Bhutan opts Gross National Happiness (GNH) over Gross National Product (GNP). This gives hope for a world away from frantic compulsions.

Bhutan faces the challenge of unsettled issues of refuges on its land —also it is coping to track a mean path while retaining its cultural distinctiveness along with the ideals of ceremonial democracy. But the good thing is—with or without money, Bhutanese are the happiest human species in the world.

It inspires to see the beauty of small but sustainable happiness, which cannot be marginalised with sudden influx or downward spiral of global economic order. The happiness matters, this book tells it and with it, offers the suffice food for thought for freethinkers and also to the official polemics.

With few books to recall on Bhutan—this one deserves to be called remarkable and its author should be known for it, by the reference. It’s a terrific entry in this years’ non-fiction category and exudes the elegance, for that Aleph is much appreciated and known.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in Rising Kashmir on June16,2013)

The show between power and play

Book Review: Fiction/ Power Play by Parinda Joshi, Fingerprint, 292p; Rs 250(Paperback)
Parinda Joshi exudes hope for the standard popular fiction and streamlines it with the wider spectrum of readers through her unwavering lucidness in narration. She is distinct among the writers of her generation, with gifted command to present the spontaneous development in her novel—through rare ease and versatility.

Earlier Live from London and now Power Play: The game is on, leads her writing for permanent high acclaim, which she unquestionably deserves. Parinda is a writer with effortless wit and sensibility—Power Play reveals it emphatically.

This book rests around the back-kicks’ nefarious world—posed in professional mould. At the center stage is IGL—though reader can easily read it as IPL—a maligned territory for what Ashish Nandy has to write something strikingly different from his earlier classic-The Tao of Cricket, where memorably he termed cricket as an Indian game, accidentally discovered in England.

But in the changed time—it could be paraphrased, as the disastrous version of cricket/IPL was accidentally born in India with having all the nonsense commercial attributes of American club sports. Theoretical exercises could go on indefinitely—as the cricket is a real business now. But that real business is so ugly, it makes cricket lovers feel cheated by icons.

For revealing the wider truths—this novel delivers a lot. The incomprehensible role of consulting firms to cheer leaders—it is very difficult to draw a parallel line. The IPL game has jerked too harshly on the collective interest for cricket—once it was indeed a game, and amazingly closer to the masses.

Parinda sets a good picture through the characters of her novel—how fumbling morale, spares no stakeholders. So, one can read over the pages—how love, lust and tussle make the rule of unethical way of gaming and business streamlined. If the IPL (here IGL) has weakened the spirit of cricket, it has also left the business morale scratched.

This book indirectly and in light narrative refers on those happenings. So the intervention is well timed, even if it merely comes like knee-jerk. The fiction has its own territory—where beauty of expression hano bounds, but not always maintaining forthrightness is simple here too. Parinda wins over such hurdles, and like a master narrator successfully weaves the complete picture of backdoor drama from 20/20 world.

This game is not an evening entertainment session, where every sort of grouping can be rejoiced. The oft repeated term—innovation—is swiftly losing its real meaning, since it was wrongly dragged as mask for IPL. The spell of cheap money is too high and it is a life time opportunity to stakeholders in making the game—corrupt and hence terribly productive.

Few years back—we could not imagine a sensible fictional work on this particular subject. Parinda, has edge of knowing the sports culture as an insider (she played chess religiously and rose to the national level before finding her new pastime in writing)—and also as a business professional. With fundamental strengths, she has succeeded to write a lively account of seriously wrong IPL (here IGL) phenomenon.

Power Play deserves good readership —those from disenchanted class and also from the believers of new cricket, which is hardly a game. But certainly, it is a high end business, with no underlying moral restrictions. This book has greater leaning on this side, rather going too deep towards the impending consequences that would unprecedentedly affect the game.

Power Play is a remarkable entry of this year—and going to be in memory for long. With rational interface of sports and business—this novel starts a new trend in popular fiction writing, which is constructive and full with vision to see the changes around.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in Rising Kashmir on June23,2013)