Saturday, May 30, 2009

India-US : Hazardous Days Ahead from May 28,2009

A strange polarisation is taking place in India. Whenever President Obama [ Images ] says or does something prejudicial to India's interests, the anti-US lobby attacks the UPA government for misreading the Americans.

Instead of giving Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [ Images ] credit for gaining ground for India by skillful diplomacy during the Bush administration, they blame him for not anticipating the reversal of trends during the next presidency.

This happened when a State Department official restated the position that India should sign the NPT and when President Obama opposed outsourcing. Why did India reach agreements with the US when it was possible that a future government in the US would disown them?

If this is indeed the case, no agreements should be reached with any country. In the case of the US, the new administration is now constrained to work around the existing agreements even if it has to distance itself from the commitments made by President Bush.

The fact is that President Obama himself was taken by surprise by the kind of issues he faced in his first hundred days. 'Keep your hands washed; cover your mouth when you cough!' President Obama would never have thought that he would have to utter these words at his press conference to mark his first hundred days in office.

Nothing would surprise him any more as he has seen many issues he had not thought of coming to him all at once. He has also learnt not only that change in Washington comes slowly, but also that posturing is par for the course there. He has not taken long to know that the state is an ocean liner and not a speed boat and it cannot change course in a desperate hurry. His responses in this bewildering situation has to be necessarily tentative and subject to adjustments in the future.

The world misunderstood President Obama when he promised change. He has begun to say since his inauguration that many things that he wants to change cannot be done in a single term, a single presidency or in a single lifetime.

The time horizon he has in mind is much longer than the rest of the world had imagined. He can only start the journey and it may end only with a different president or a different generation. Continuity is part of the change.

The global economic crisis played a role in Obama's election, but he had not anticipated it when he initially offered his candidature. Iraq was the issue then and the economy had appeared robust. But he found that the economy was built on shifting sand. He lost no time in taking the bull by the horns, but the surprise was that he did not get bipartisan support, which was expected at a time of national and global crisis.

The world was aghast that business was as usual on the Hill when the stimulus package was being piloted there. President Obama is proud of his accomplishments in the economy, but not content.

In foreign policy, the shift from Iraq to Afghanistan and then to Pakistan was warranted by the threat from Taliban [ Images ], which diminished even the importance of capturing Osama bin Laden [ Images ]. The war on terror returned to the theatre of terror, but a weakened and resource starved civilian government in Pakistan did not seem willing even to provide a front line for the war.

President Zardari had no qualms about signing an agreement with the Taliban to introduce Shariat law in Swat. Though the Taliban was nothing but a foreign force, the Pakistan army [ Images ] had to be forced into action by the United States. The very creation of an Afpak region for special attention and the designation of Richard Holbrooke as the special representative signaled the importance in US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The likelihood of a takeover by the Taliban and fall of Pakistan nuclear weapons in the hands of the militants was used as a cover to enhance assistance to Pakistan.

President Obama has, at the same time, allayed fears about Pakistan's nuclear assets by saying that the military to military cooperation between the two countries will guarantee the protection of nuclear command and control mechanism. He has indirectly confirmed that the United States has a say in the management of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

This was instituted when the A Q Khan scandal broke out and it came to be known that Khan had hurt non-proliferation more than Saddam Hussein [ Images ] had done. If A Q Khan and Pakistan had to be let off, they had to pay a price.

President Obama has not been very innovative in his Afpak policy. The three way summit in Washington was an instant success in the sense that Prime Minister Gilani declared an all out war on the Taliban even before the summit ended. President Zardari was handsomely rewarded with an aid package, which should convey a message that he still has the support of the Americans.

India was an unseen presence at the summit as Pakistan's world view could not be divorced from its paranoia with India.

Depending on Pakistani rulers and the army and pandering to their military and financial needs is an old American habit. If Pakistan has to fight the Taliban, it needs training in guerrilla warfare, not F-16s and warships. But the US Congress is again on the old track of handing over cash to Pakistan.

President Obama has thrown in an assertion that Pakistans obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan is misguided. But there is no insistence that no assistance that could be used against India would be supplied to Pakistan.

Even excluding India from Holbrooke's mandate was only to accommodate Indian sensitivity. Holbrooke routinely halts in Delhi [ Images ] and gives gentle hints to India. India was conspicuously absent from Hillary Clinton's [ Images ] Asian itinerary. President Obama thinks that India can be satisfied by pious warm words about India and its prime minister.

The Prague speech outlined President Obama's new vision on nuclear disarmament, but there was hardly any change there. The commitment to move towards nuclear disarmament is nothing but a reaffirmation of the grand bargain in the NPT and the further steps he has suggested are old wine in new bottle.

He has no quarrel with the India-US nuclear deal, but he is in no mood to make it a part of the new dispensation. By treating the deal as a one time exception will not guarantee its faithful implementation. The appointment of the new czar of nonproliferation in the State Department does not augur well for the deal.

As far as India is concerned, the nuclear deal has already had its benefits in terms of the NSG exemption, leading to the agreements with France [ Images ] and Russia [ Images ].

China, rather than India is President Obama's focus in Asia. The old Bush view of India as a balancing factor in Asia is a thing of the past. The talk of a G-2 to run the world is getting more frequent in the light of the economic crisis. This is a gigantic mistake the US is making.

The US and China cannot partition the world between themselves as the victors of the World War II did in 1945. President Obama appears oblivious of Chinese perfidy and ambition to dominate the world. Walking into a Chinese embrace will endanger the US itself in the long term.

Say no to Bangalore, yes to Buffalo is the new slogan President Obama has coined in the context of outsourcing. He must know that business will go wherever there is profit and there is little that the government can do except in terms of denying tax benefits.

The president has to create jobs in Buffalo, but to suggest that Bangalore is taboo is to hurt globalisation, which has brought immense benefits to the United States.

President Obama has reappointed veteran negotiator, George Mitchell, for the Middle East, but he is yet to make his agenda clear. If he allows domestic politics and Israeli influence determine his Middle East policy, justice will be denied to Palestine again.

Getting close to Turkey may be a great idea, but the key to winning the hearts of the Muslim world lies in establishing the Palestine state and insisting that Israel should abide by international law.

In the rest of his foreign policy postures and pronouncements, President Obama has demonstrated candour and vision. Gestures to Iran and Cuba, new signals to Russia and Europe and a smile and hand shake for Venezuelas Hugo Chavez mark a change in style, if not substance.

He has neither overreacted nor made concessions to DPRK's nuclear and missile antics. It may be true that he has not yet moved from campaign mode to governing mode, but the directions are clear and consistent with his promise of change.

India has much to be apprehensive about President Obama's Afpak policy, nuclear agenda and outsourcing. Part of the reason for this could be the feeling in the new Administration that India got away with too many diplomatic victories during the Bush era.

India's diplomatic efforts should be directed towards getting those victories consolidated in the days to come. We should build on our accomplishments rather than undermine the gains of the last five years. The hazards ahead are formidable, but not insurmountable.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Visiting Fellow at Brookings Institution

I joined the Brookings Institution as a Visiting Fellow on May 21,2009. In a welcome message, Mr. Strobe Talbott,President of Brookings said: "Your tenure here reflects Brookings serious commitment to work on South Asia.....We greatly value your association with Brookings." I expect to do research for my book on the India-US Nuclear Agreement and other nuclear matters till end July.

I have an office at the Brookings (Room 524) a telephone (202-797-6294)and an email ID (

I shall be working with Mr. Carlos Pascaul, Director of Foreign Policy and Prof. Stephen Cohen, Senior Fellow.

The Fellowship has been made possible by generous contributions made to Brookings by Mr. Sreedhar Menon and Mr.Tushar Kothari.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Slumdog: Exploiting India

Slumdog Millionaire? I hate that film!" said a much decorated, liberal and well-travelled former submariner.

"It is poverty porn at its worst. The Mumbai [Images] marauders are supposed to have done their deed to hurt India, to challenge its success, to expose its soft underbelly. But this movie has done the job better"

He did not say it, but suggested that the movie was cinematic terror against India. But he had not seen the movie or read the novel. "What kind of diplomat is he, who does the job of a drain inspector? Isn't he supposed to project India in a positive light?" he said of my former colleague, Vikas Swarup.

I teased my friend, "You are like the Soviet citizens of yore, who used to say they hated Dr Zhivago though they had never read the novel." We were both in Moscow [Images] in the seventies.

I too had not seen the movie or read the novel, Q&A, now christened Slumdog Millionaire [Images] with an eye on the bestseller list, and I too had heard horrible things about the shit pit, the blinding of children with acid and such other horrors of Dharavi slum that the movie presents graphically.

I had also heard that the movie was nominated for the Oscars and A R Rahman had already won the Golden Globe [Images]. But I said I would read the novel, see the movie and judge whether the artistic excellence of the film absolves it of its obscenity.

Having read the novel and seen the film, I cannot say that it has done more good than harm to India. This is not a matter of my wanting to shove the reality under the carpet. Vikas Swarup, or any other diplomat, cannot lie abroad for his country anymore.

But the film is exploitation of the novel, of Dharavi, of poverty, of Rahman, of India itself to titillate foreign audiences. It is the exploitation of the new curiosity about India's success. The curiosity today is not about maharajas and snake charmers, magic or rope trick, but about the market and the malls, the computers and the cell phones.

The question is whether India is a boom or a bubble. It seeks to reassure the world, as Jamal says to an American tourist couple, when he rolls on the ground after a brutal beating by the police, 'You want to see the real India? Here it is!'

Vikas Swarup can explain his novel away, as he has done, by saying that he merely held up a mirror to nature and made a hero of a boy from the slums in celebration of his keen eye and keener brain. Even the word 'slumdog' was not his creation. He found a clever story line and wrote a readable novel, though replete with horrible scenes and unpalatable descriptions of his country.

His book would have raised some eyebrows, but passed to obscurity, like some other creations of diplomatic wordsmiths. But he walked into a trap and sold his rights, without caring to insist that the movie should at least be faithful to his novel. The screenplay has very little to do with the novel itself, except the theme of a millionaire rising from a slum to win a fortune by sheer luck.

Even the questions in the book are different from those in the movie. So are the events that helped Jamal (not Ram Mohammad Thomas) to win his millions. Vikas Swarup, the Indian diplomat, became a willing instrument in the hands of his exploiters. 'I am not a millionaire as yet,' lamented Swarup in an interview!

Take the opening scenes of torture. An idiotic policeman carries out the orders of his cleverer and sympathetic boss in the expectation that Jamal would confess to even graver crimes at the end of it. But Jamal did not cheat. The reason he won was that 'it was written.'

Torture is internationally banned and the director of the film knew that India had not joined the global consensus against torture. He also knew that India is obsessed with Amnesty International raising issues of human rights when they hear about torture. The police officer mentions Amnesty as the disaster, not the possible death of the victim of torture. The police man appears to enjoy torturing and even insulting the victim. He provokes Jamal by referring to Latika as the 'bitch of the slum.' The torture scenes do not add much to the story, but denigrates India even more than the slums do.

As though the depiction of squalor, crime and cruelty is not enough, the film challenges India's success. In a relatively harmless scene, in which Jamal and Salim look with pride at the skyscrapers, which had come up where their slums flourished during their younger days, Salim says: 'Today India is in the centre of the world.'

As I heave a sigh of relief that there is at least one line in praise of India, he goes on to say: 'And I am in the centre of it.' He then goes on to say that he is with a gangster. Well, the movie was taken before the revelations about Satyam [Get Quote]. Who then are the gangsters in the centre of India as it emerges as the centre of the world?

Consider a question that Jamal could not answer. The quiz master asks what is written below the Ashoka lions on the Indian national crest. Is it truth alone triumphs or lies alone triumph? You don't need to be a rocket scientist to know that this is an insult, particularly as Jamal does not seem to know the answer.

The champions of the film, including my own sons, one, a journalism professor at Columbia University in New York and the other, a young manager and a music and movie enthusiast, say that Slumdog is a cinematographic wonder with excellent acting, soulful music, perfect direction and amazing photography.

'Exuberant, exciting, gaudy, and gritty in a way that can only be called Dickensian, Slumdog Millionaire brings contemporary Mumbai to life from the seamy side up, and it does so with compassion and all-around cinematic excellence,' exults Shashi Tharoor.

Many say that the film will do India proud if Rahman picks up three Oscars. In fact, the music is a redeeming feature of the movie. Even the redlight district scene comes to life with the melody of the anklets on dancing feet. But the celebrated song at the end of the movie sounds like a parody of the national anthem with the use of the phrase, Jai ho!

It was not necessary to rake up the dirt in India to create a film to bring Oscars to India. India rejoiced at the Gandhi Oscars, but Slumdog Oscars, if any, will only highlight how India became a victim of exploitation.

Eminent writer Chitra Banerjee Divakurni claims that the movie is, after all, fiction and it should not hurt anyone. Could this not be dealt with by an inscription that any similarity with reality is pure coincidence? But the makers of the film took special care to shoot on location and document every detail. The purpose was obviously to make the movie as authentic as possible and make an impact. The adverse reaction to the movie in India is precisely because of its authenticity.

The fact remains, however, that the novelist and the makers of the movie have brought to light the horrors of Dharavi. If the passion it has aroused could be directed towards a mass movement to combat the evils of the slum and to eliminate the slums altogether in stages, that would be an appropriate response to the movie.

If those involved in the movie would offer their profits from the film to that movement, they would elevate themselves from exploiters to benefactors.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna [Images], and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. He is currently the Director General, Kerala [Images] International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram and a Member of the National Security Advisory Board.
Shashi Tharoor creates history

Shashi Tharoor has created history by winning the Lok Sabha seat from the Kerala capital, Thiruvanathapuram, by an unprecedented margin. Never before has any one not born in Kerala or not educated here or not proficient in Malayalam registered an electoral victory in the state.

V K Krishna Menon and K R Narayanan claimed victories on the basis of their accomplishments abroad, but they had their places of birth and educational institutions in Kerala to speak of and they spoke reasonable Malayalam.

More significantly, Tharoor has never worked for India or represented India at any international forum. He came, he saw, he conquered.

I was not surprised when Shashi told me more than a year ago that he intended to seek the Congress ticket for Thiruvanathapuram. I knew from his various moves since his leaving the United Nations that he would seek political fortunes in India in one way or another.

He visited Kerala many times, held meetings with political leaders, set up an academy of communications and was generally seen and heard. He had said long ago that India always mattered to him and that he hoped that one day he would matter to India.

But I had many doubts as to whether his quest for a political role would be successful. I told him that he had to overcome several hurdles, which had been built by vested interests in the political system to prevent new entrants.

Dynasty, party hierarchy and money power were powerful deterrents, I said. I told him that it would be an uphill task even to get nominated by the Congress party and the fact remained also that no Congress candidate had won in Thiruvanathapuram for several years.

Shashi had no ready answers, but he seemed well aware of those challenges and determined to meet them as they came. He had a sense of mission and nothing would stop him.

In the days that followed, I saw closely how he tackled each issue and overcame his many opponents. Several Congress leaders were sceptical about his chances of success on account of his lack of experience and past record of disapproval of Congress icons.

Efforts were made to get him to contest in a Communist stronghold, Palakkad, which eventually went to the Left Front. At one stage, Shashi himself seemed to be reconciled to contesting from his ancestral constituency.

In the end, it was the strong position taken by the Congress high command that clinched the Congress seat for him. Once he got the Congress ticket, his transformation was complete and he became a professional politician with gusto. He dressed himself in the Congress uniform of white khadi, merged into the Congress mainstream and conducted himself as a traditional Congress candidate, including hugging babies and throwing garlands to the crowds.

He followed the directives of the local Congress leadership, even though he was aware of the murmurs of protest among them and went about charming the electorate. Not many knew who he was or what his achievements were, but even in the poorest localities, he was welcomed like a new messiah, untainted by corruption or nepotism.

He turned his lack of proficiency in Malayalam into an advantage by using a few words with electrifying effect. "If you elect me, I shall work for you wholeheartedly. I shall try and turn Thiruvanathapuram into a city of international standards," was his refrain. He did not have to say more and his transparency and sincerity of purpose won him an army of admirers, among them many young people, who were attracted by his pleasing personality.

The Left Front strategy was to discredit Shashi in every possible way rather than counter his message of change in Indian politics and his vision for his constituency and his country.

A former diplomat, currently a leftist commentator on international affairs, was brought in to hatch one theory after another to paint him as pro-US, pro-Israel and anti-Muslim. Shashi's writings over the years were dissected to demolish his image. A 700-word article about Israel, in which Shashi had argued that India could not emulate Israel in dealing with Pakistan, was shown as evidence of his love for Israel.

Of course, the article was not publicised, but its many interpretations were given by ministers and 'intellectuals.' At the same time, Shashi's admiration for M F Husain was projected as anti-Hindu.

Shashi was not shaken by any of these; he simply brought out the facts of his position without disowning what he wrote in the past. He had his record at the United Nations and his many articles on contemporary events to show his objectivity and convictions. His campaign team merely had to invite attention to those to prove the Left Front wrong.

Perhaps, Thiruvanathapuram was the only constituency in India where the nuclear deal and policy towards the US were made into election issues. I was amused that I had to debate foreign policy with a former colleague on a Thiruvanathapuram beach with bewildered fishermen watching us!

Shashi, having declared his wealth, did not seek campaign contributions from the public and found the money for the campaign himself. This made a remarkable impression on the public mind and assured them that he will not serve the rich campaign contributors. He had his supporters around the globe, some of whom camped in Kerala to work quietly for him. They kept away from the party campaign, but worked away on their laptops through night and day to spread the word around in favour of Shashi Tharoor.

The NRI excitement over Shashi's candidature resulted in their relatives back home extending support to him. The cyber space was agog with campaign slogans. Facebook, Orkut, Twitter and other modern means of communications among young people must have helped him in various ways.

Shashi Tharoor and the Congress party coming together was a recipe for success. If Shashi had chosen to contest on his own on the basis of his personal accomplishments, he could have presented an agenda for change and made a splash, but like some of the other Independent stars, he would have made a point, but not gone any further.

But once he made the necessary changes in his perspectives to come to terms with the Congress ideology, the way was clear for him to claim victory. In the ultimate analysis, he can take the credit for taking the right decisions at the right moments in the last few months.

No one has played a more decisive role in his victory than himself.

In giving a massive mandate to Shashi, Thiruvanathapuram has not only elected a Member of Parliament, but also a minister. There is a clear expectation that his talents in foreign affairs and his contacts around the globe will be put to productive use by the prime minister.

The fact that the Congress will not have too many pressures on Cabinet formation in the present scenario has raised these hopes further. But whether this happens or not, Shashi is sure to make an impact in New Delhi.

Shashi did not overplay the 'change' card as Barrack Obama did, because he was seeking to get elected on the ticket of the grand old party of India. But he does represent the urge for change -- change from an old generation to the new, from corruption to cleanliness in politics and from inefficiency to effective action.

He has already created history; he should now proceed to prove that change is possible.