Sunday, 2 January 2011

"I don't give a damn what the rankings say!"

Does power come from status or does status come from power? The question might seem tricky, but when it comes to the UN, its answer is very simple. In the United Nations, status does not matter, all that counts is simply power. It is therefore not so ironic that when it comes to India's bid for a permanent seat in the UNSC, the only country not fully backing the bid is also the country that least respects the status that comes along with it. 

Even the self styled guardian of the UN doesn’t bother to listen to its voice when it knows it will hear something it doesn’t want to. Consider this: In March 2003 the United States government announced that "diplomacy has failed" and that it would proceed with a "coalition of the willing" to rid Iraq under Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction the U.S. insisted it possessed. The 2003 invasion of Iraq began a few days later. This happened despite several permanent members of the UNSC vetoing the resolution.

On September 16, 2004 Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, speaking on the invasion, said, "I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN Charter. From our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal." The US government, by this one act, effectively undermined the credibility and the legitimacy of the UNSC. 

Now there are a lot of people in India making a big hue and cry for a permanent seat in the UNSC. Ever since Barrack Obama publicly endorsed US support for India’s candidature, this lobby has only gotten louder. The lobby’s cause is just, but the energy spent is disproportionate. The reason is simple. As India grows stronger, more countries will need India than India will need them. This will create situations where countries will be weary to do anything that upsets India. 

It must be noted that when old world orders become redundant, new ones automatically spring up. What happened to the League of Nations? Or for that matter to the Non Aligned Movement? It is no secret that the G-8 has really become secondary to the G-20. The backdoor entry of India into the NSG is a perfect example. India remains the only NSG member to NOT have signed the CTBT.

If you still do not understand, just Google the list of absentees from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony last year at Oslo. You should get the message.

The fact is that the world cannot stop India's rise just as it cannot stop China's. When a billion people wake up from slumber and join the world's workforce, it is bound to create more than a ripple. My favourite analogy comes from Thomas L Freidman. He says "Pick up a bottle of Champagne and start shaking it. Now keep shaking it for a hundred years. Now uncork the bottle. That's what India feels like today." You wouldn’t want to come in the way of that bottle!

There’s an interesting story from the 1980 Winter Olympics. The American Ice Hockey team at that time were a group of untested college and amateur players in a culture that was hardly hockey-centric, and they entered the 1980 Games as the seventh seed amongst 12 teams. The Soviets, meanwhile, were essentially full-time hockey players who had played together for years, and they were representing a country which had produced eight of the last nine gold medallists in the sport. The odds were against the Americans in so many ways. 

When the legendary coach of the US Ice Hockey Team, Herb Brooks was asked about America’s chances going into the 1980 Winter Olympics Ice Hockey finals, he snapped, “I don’t give a damn what the rankings say! The team that plays better will win.”

Can you guess who won? 

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

From Prime Minister to Peace Minister

It is evidently apparent that the Prime Minister wishes for a peace plan with Pakistan. It is a tricky business, (both these words being used after careful deliberation) for peace cannot always be planned, but proper planning can lead to peace. Whether or not the Prime Minister wants this to be his legacy is not clear as yet, but this much is certain: that he is willing to walk more than halfway if Pakistan is willing to show up on the bridge.

To some this attitude appears compromising but there is a method to the Prime Minister’s seeming madness. If the phrase, ‘looks can decieve’ were a hypothesis, Manmohan Singh would be the proof. Beneath the calm demeanour that appears to some as indifferent, incompetent and as the BJP loved to call ‘weak’ before getting hammered in the elections, lies an astute, competent and capable mind that can only be taken lightly at one’s own risk. People often forget that he is the Prime Minister of the country, an office you do not get appointed to for not having any qualities (It is an altogether different case that being indifferent and incompetent can sometimes be remarkable qualities in the circus that is Indian Politics)

So why is the PM willing to bend his back more than is necessary, and as some seem to think, to a point that can lead backache? The logic is simple. India is at a critical juncture in its short but tumultuous life. Thanks to consistent and rapid economic progress, for the first time, the future seems brighter than the past. It is as though the ‘tryst with destiny’ will be fulfilled after all. India and China are being touted as the next great superpowers and this century is being referred to as the Asian Century. The World Bank estimates that by 2050, India will become the world’s second biggest economy, behind China and ahead of the US. This assumption is made on the estimate that India grows at a conservative 7% every year leading upto 2050. And this is the same statistic that has caught the Prime Minister’s eye, for it says something very profound – that India will have to grow at atleast 7% every year, or as a corollary, if India gets its economic progress halted, it cannot reach that elite status. So if you were the PM, you would naturally ask yourself: What is it that could halt my country’s progress? If you were blessed with common sense, and that’s a big if among our politicians, the first thing that would come to your mind would be war. As a general axiom, it is accepted that a major war can cause devastating damage to a country’s economy, setting it back by years. Therefore, to come to the point, if India goes to war with Pakistan tomorrow, India loses out while the rest of the world advances ahead. India at such a point cannot afford to lag behind in the global race, for it is at the threshold of something great.

For this reason, India’s decision to not invade Pakistan in the aftermath of 26/11 should be applauded – for a war then would have served no purpose (Infact, it could have worked perfectly well for the jihadis, propping up more popular support for them) Ofcourse this does not imply that India should never attack Pakistan, for in the event of a major provocation and guarding its supreme national interests, India can and must take whatever action required. But if we can wait a little more, we must. Why? So that India becomes so strong, that fearing economic and military repercussions, Pakistan does not entertain even a single thought of confrontation. That would be a true deterrence. Take for example America’s case. General Pervez Musharraf, the then President of Pakistan, in his autobiography states that in the aftermath of 9/11, Pakistan did not want the US forces to use its territory in the war against Taliban – an ally of Pakistan. But for Pakistan it was a question of ‘with America or against America’. And in such a scenario, there was no choice for Pakistan other than to give in to America’s wishes. Musharraf states that Pakistan didn’t stand an iota of a chance if it were to confront America.

Our Prime Minister understands this all too well. Which is why he has made the transition from the Prime Minister to the Peace Minister. 

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Right Minister, Wrong Ministry

Performing Ministers are a rare breed. They are like an oasis in the middle of a desert. When you find water in a desert, you would be a fool to throw it away.

Back in the days prior to independence, politicians were looked up at and considered worthy role models. The politicians who fought for our independence were an educated lot. Not only did they have a clean image, but also the people’s admiration. But after nearly six decades of sleaze, their image has been damaged completely. So much so that unlike our judicial system where a person is innocent until proven guilty, our politicians are considered corrupt until proven honest. That is, if you enter politics you are labelled dishonest by default. APJ Abdul Kalam was asking a rhetorical question when he said, “Indian parents want their children to be doctors and engineers but not politicians. Why?”

This is why when you know you have got a performing minister in the cabinet, you ought to make the most of that person for the country’s development. And this is precisely what has not happened in the case of Jairam Ramesh.

IIT, Carnegie Melon and MIT educated, our Minister for Environment and Forests has attracted controversy like a flower attracts bees ever since he took office. Earlier, nobody used to take the Environment Ministry seriously. Since he has taken over he has added teeth to the ministry. But I say he has added more teeth than was necessary.

He started his tenure by rejecting the idea of the interlinking of rivers citing environmental noncompliance. This could have been a valid reason except for one little aberration – that Gujarat has already interlinked its rivers. Not only that, but it is also reaping the benefits without any facing any environmental catastrophe that Jairam Ramesh would have predicted. It is no coincidence that cotton farmers in Gujarat are competing with the Chinese products in the international market whereas just 400 kilometres down south, the cotton farmers in Vidarbha, Maharashtra are committing suicide.

Jairam Ramesh’s ministry has also issued an order suspending the ongoing work on the Maheshwar Dam on the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh. Again the reason given was environmental damage and rehabilitation inconsistencies. Not that these issues are unimportant, they are not – but the benefits of the project far outweigh the drawbacks. The MP Chief Minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan says, “Stoppage of the project at this juncture will result in loss of 7.2 lakhs units of power per day starting in 2010 “ This is something a power deficient state like MP can ill afford to do – if it is to progress and eliminate poverty.

Perhaps the most hearbreaking case is of the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company also known as Mahyco.  Having produced hybrids of cotton, sorghum, sunflower and wheat, it is currently researching improvements to more than 30 crops. The development of genetically modified eggplant, known locally as BtBrinjal, was the latest in this string of innovations. Mahyco's scientists toiled for years to figure out how to kill the pest, Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer, which wipes out 30% to 40% of India's annual crop. Mahyco conducted 25 environmental bio safety studies supervised by independent and government agencies to ensure that its product had the same nutritional value and is compositionally identical to regular eggplant; finally, it did rigorous field trials in collaboration with two Indian agricultural universities.

Yet on Feb. 9, Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh stopped the seed's introduction – again privileging environmental concerns and ignoring the government's own regulatory process, the committee of scientists who had approved Bt Brinjal after nine years of intensive trials.

Where Jairam Ramesh should have acted with toughness, he chose to be soft. On his only trip to Bhopal as minister, Ramesh uttered this quote on the situation in Bhopal, a remark that defies any limits on its sheer insensitivity, “I held the toxic waste in my hand. I am still alive and not coughing. It’s 25 years after the gas tragedy. Let us move ahead.” To say such a thing for a tragedy killing nearly 20,000 and maiming over a 100,000 more, the  repercussion of which are still felt by the people living in those slums is at best entirely inappropriate and at worst downright condescending.

There is also news coming in that Ramesh has rejected the coal ministry’s demand — backed by the PMO — to increase mining areas by 30 per cent, saying only five per cent is possible. Most of India’s power need are met by coal and till the time alternatives are found, India would need to produce as much power as it can from coal – and while India is the 3rd biggest producer of coal, it is also the 3rd biggest importer of coal – such is the demand supply gap.

While environmental concerns should be given a top priority, India cannot afford to lag behind in the Energy race. In a global scenario where the developed countries are the ones responsible for Global Warming and are failing to take complete responsibility (USA has still not signed the Kyoto Protocol), Jairam Ramesh’s headstrong leadership in the Environment Ministry can prove to be a handicap to India’s progress.

When a performing minister in a non performing government performs so well that a country’s progress suffers, you have an irony of ironies. Which is why Jairam Ramesh is the right minister in the wrong ministry.