Beer Party of Barack Obama

obamaThe US president’s casual remark against the local police officer over the arrest of a black academic and subsequent beer party among the three had kindled a lot of interest in beer. It is the usual American style to utter casual remarks, get into casual problem and end it casually. The President’s below standard remark against the law enforcing officer is unwanted controversy. This cannot be replicated in non-western countries when there is a strict hierarchy and apathy to sorting out problems with the lower rung amicably.

The Times of India writes (3 August 2009)

Over beer and peanuts they talked about race. US president Barack Obama hosted this innovative peace summit to cool down tempers after Sergeant
James Crowly, a white policeman, arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Ges who is black as well as an iconic public intellectual for disorderly conduct a week ago. The arrest had sparked off charges of racial profiling and threatened to upset delicate race ties in the US.

There is a lesson here for our political class. What if Mayawati and Rita Bahuguna-Joshi were to meet over tea and biscuits to discuss their differences? Days after Joshi made her controversial remarks about rape of Dalit women in the state, BSP and Congress leaders have kept the pot boiling. Joshi was arrested and her house set on fire while political leaders traded rhetoric and threats. Politics in UP, a state desperate for some governance and enlightened politics, has since revolved around this issue without serving any purpose. Politicians seem to believe that political capital can be made only by adopting aggressive postures to exaggerate differences.

The lesson from Washington is that there are better ways to debate an issue, resolve a dispute, and even make some political capital. The beer summit was not merely a photo op. The participants were not silent about their differences. Instead they agreed to disagree and continue their dialogue. To an animated public, it sent the message that dialogue is the best way to resolve tensions that are rooted in complex historical conditions. Gates and Crowly continue to differ in their views about race and social prejudices that influence policing in the US. These are not easily resolved and may take many crates of beer before people can settle for common ground. The conversation, however, has to go on.

Caste has a tortuous history in India, similar to that of race in the US. The wounds run deep. Years of political struggles, social and legal reforms have improved matters, but a lot more needs to be done. However, violence verbal and physical is unlikely to help while a patient dialogue among various stakeholders in the society could. Can Maya and Joshi agree to talk over, say, a glass of lassi or nimbu-paani?


Rescuing the Indian Foreign Service

foreing serviceThe Indian Foreign Service (IFS is a critical component of the nation’s governance. Unfortunately for decades it is getting rotten due to the political interference and mediocre people in managing the system. The talented people who want to serve the country through IFS are getting frustrated due to the petty politicking. It is high time to rescue the important state arm from the clutches of bad governing people.

Saira Karup writes in The Times of India (2 August 2009)

The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) has been the focus of much attention and criticism in recent years. The latest to take a potshot is Daniel Markey, 
fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations in the US. In an article last month, Markey pinpointed the IFS’s four main weaknesses — it was too small; shared its selection process shared with the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and other central services; offered inadequate mid-career training and was reluctant to utilize outside expertise.

Markey’s observations have left many livid. Former deputy national security adviser Satish Chandra says, “Who is Markey to say this? He should be looking at the diplomatic service in the US, which is partly responsible for it being one of the most hated countries.”

But even Chandra agrees the IFS has failings, not least its lack of specialization. “IFS is run like the IAS, with diplomats getting transferred, say from Latin America to South Pacific, to the Arab world. There’s no specialization. In many countries, diplomats are posted to a particular region to specialize about that region,” says strategic analyst and former civil servant K Subrahmanyam.

Then, there is the question of inadequate training. “The situation is better now because there’s a Foreign Services Institute. But we have a long way to go,” says Salman Haider, former foreign secretary. The lack of mid-career training hampers talent development because the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has too few diplomats to spare. “In many countries, diplomats are allowed to go back to university after working for 10-15 years,” points out Subrahmanyam.

This could be tackled by drawing on lateral talent. Haider says the option of short-term recruitment of qualified people from outside the Service, as happens in the UK, France and the US, is worth inspecting. “But to do that, we should have lateral resources available. There aren’t enough talented people in our universities. The number of think-tanks in India is inadequate and there’s a paucity of talent there too,” says Subrahmanyam.

What is particularly intriguing is the size of the service. India, with over one billion people, had just 669 diplomats in 2006-07 across 119 resident missions and 49 consulates around the world; Singapore, a city-state, had 487, the UK 3,600 and the US 19,667. “The service is too small. Even medium-sized countries have a larger service,” admits Haider.

There’s no question the IFS needs to expand — and fast. “The commercial work is increasing in missions, a lot more Indians are traveling abroad, adding to consular work; India’s political role in the word is rising,” says Subrahmanyam. Work may be piling up but the staff numbers are not. Former ambassador Kishan S Rana, who has constantly pointed out lacunae within the IFS, wrote in a 2002 article that the cadre should be at least 1,000-strong. He suggested reducing the numbers of support and logistical staff strength, which currently outnumbers the professional diplomats by a huge margin.

But the situation remains as bad as in 2002. That’s probably because increasing IFS numbers is not easy. “The foreign service is no longer an attractive career. In earlier years, only the top ranks in the civil service exam joined the IFS. Now, they don’t. People still associate the IAS with prestige, power and clout, though that’s diminishing. Even income tax and customs services are preferred more. The IFS batch comes from the lower ranks,” says Subrahmanyam.

There have been many good workable ideas to improve the IFS, but little action. In 2000, the then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh wanted to create a foreign service inspectorate, which would visit missions and suggest improvements. “It’s a good idea. There used to be one much earlier but it was discontinued,” says Haider. Singh’s plan didn’t take off after he swapped jobs with finance minister Yashwant Sinha later that year.

So far, so disappointing. Is the IFS changing at all? Is it ever destined to change? Yes, say experts because there is belated realization that India’s rising global prominence requires an improved diplomatic corps. “The doubling of IFS’ current strength has been sanctioned, thanks to the efforts of the current foreign secretary,” says Subrahmanyam.

The upside is that the service has remained apolitical. But that may hardly be enough to deal with the rising tide of foreign policy challenges for an India surrounded by failing states, unstable governments and new economic and political forces.

Two Options for Indo Pak

indo pakThere are only two options for India and Pakistan – war and peace. War is deadly and it can destroy both the countries without any trace of its identities. Peace is time taking and it requires enormous patience. If both these nations want war, they can go ahead and destroy themselves. If they are interested in surviving then they must sit and solve the problem despite the terrorists stopping them by bombing the innocent lives. Blaming each other must stop and long vision must be set in to solve the subcontinental crisis which is testing the world for the past seven decades.

Kanwal Sibal gives his view in The Times of India (31 July 2009)

Peace with Pakistan is desirable but our policies have to be based on Pakistan’s conduct, not our expectations. A larger vision of our relationship
with Pakistan cannot ignore manifest realities. If we must recognise the compulsions of neighbourhood, so should Pakistan. If it is vital for us to try and make peace with Pakistan, and if we have an obligation to do so, Pakistan should have reciprocal convictions.

Pakistan is not a normal adversary. It came into existence by its rejection of India; embracing us may threaten its survival. Peace with India would threaten entrenched interests as it would alter Pakistan’s internal power equations, release the military’s grip on politics, reduce the salience of Islamic groups and allow the growth of democracy there. Our ‘entrenched’ interests gain from peace with Pakistan, as our commitment to secularism, internal communal harmony, policies of inclusiveness as well as our economic growth and external influence get consolidated.

Pakistan’s decades-old confrontation with India has artificially raised its external profile as others bracket us, especially on core political and strategic issues, casting equal responsibility for peace and security on democratic, pluralist and law-abiding India and an extremism-disfigured and terrorism-infected failing state like Pakistan. Adversaries like China exploit the situation to buttress Pakistan economically and militarily, including providing it nuclear muscle, to contain India. Normalisation will enhance India’s status, but will deflate Pakistan’s utility to others. That is why its policies towards India will remain strategically hostile, even if for short-term tactical reasons it pretends otherwise.

Our policymakers are unwilling to fully acknowledge the depth of our problems with Pakistan. We cling to the notion that, as we are the same people, estrangement can be overcome, and we can walk more than half the distance in bidding for reconciliation. Our own large Muslim population gives us a sense of obligation to find a modus vivendi with Pakistan. Moreover, with benefits of normalisation being so clear, and external pressures and an eye on history playing their part, our leaders of all hues feel the urge periodically to attempt a breakthrough with Pakistan.

Our quest for peace fails because the idea of peace with India does not stir Pakistani policymakers. Anxiety to engage Pakistan makes us commit serious mistakes in our negotiating strategy. The previous UPA government clung to the hope that by equating ourselves as a victim of terrorism with Pakistan, accepting that non-state actors there operate outside government control, declaring the dialogue process irreversible, politically absorbing periodic terrorist attacks against us, trusting Pakistani intentions enough to progress on the back channel, we would give the idea of peace a chance. The Mumbai attack’s enormity and Pakistani establishment’s subsequent conduct should have shattered our illusions.

But no, UPA-2 has repeated earlier mistakes and compounded them. The baffling Sharm el-Sheikh joint statement delinks the dialogue process from action on terror by Pakistan. It equates us again with it as a victim of terrorism. And it narrows Pakistan’s wide 2004 commitment not to allow terror directed at India from its territory, and our demand for dismantling its terrorist infrastructure, to prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s limited assurance that Pakistan will do “everything in its power” to bring those guilty of Mumbai to justice.
Inclusion of Pakistan’s concerns on threats to “Balochistan and other areas” officialises its accusations of state-sponsored terror against us, drags our consulates in Afghanistan into greater controversy and gives Pakistan’s concerns domestic and international legitimacy. “Other areas” such vagueness is unpardonable in a negotiated text enlarges the scope to lay at India’s door terrorist attacks anywhere within Pakistan. The agenda of terrorism has now become more ‘equal’ for Pakistan. All this reduces our future diplomatic margin of manoeuvre.

The defence of the joint statement in Parliament reinforces apprehensions about the course of our Pakistan policy based on hopes, prayers, reassuring words, good faith and good sense of Pakistan’s leaders. The mere presentation of Pakistan’s dossier on the Mumbai investigations is a thin basis for delinking terror and dialogue. To suggest that dialogue at the level of prime ministers, foreign ministers and foreign secretaries is tentative and insufficiently serious politically, and does not yield on principles, and that only the subordinate level composite dialogue should be the touchstone of the government’s zero tolerance of terror, is to draw a red herring.

If the dialogue process still depends on Pakistan acting on terror, the concerned text could have simply read: “Action on terror should not be contingent on the resumption of the composite dialogue process”. That we are an open book is a moral argument, not a diplomatic one. We have been put on the defensive in public; our defence will be behind doors. How we will satisfy Pakistan’s trumped up charges after three years of unsuccessful effort in the joint terror mechanism is unclear. The supposed muscular harangue to Pakistan on terrorism in private should have shown somewhere in the pectorals of the joint statement. The road to Sharm el-Sheikh was paved with egregious mistakes; the road ahead is likely to be marked with potholes of more inept handling of Pakistan.

Reinventing Islam

islamNo doubt that the Islamic civilization was vibrant,meaningful and constructive in the past. It contributed for the high growth of trade, architecture and culture around the world. In these testing times where it is under attack,the broadminded Islamic people should join hands and assert the positive side of the religion. Otherwise the negative Islamic people will continue to damage the image of the age-old good civilization. They undo the devastation contributed by the rich oil merchants in the Gulf in aiding and abetting the merchants of terror.

Raza Elahi writes in The Times of India (1 August 2009)

US president Barack Obama’s historic speech in Cairo, which called for a new beginning between the United States and Muslims, had references to
Islam’s contribution to civilisation. It is a befitting reply to Islam bashers, who have boxed Islamic culture, particularly Arab culture, into crude stereotypes. Post-9/11 Islam-bashing has almost become fashionable among western scholars. A whole bunch of intellectuals has sprung up in the West, linking Arab culture to violence, hate and fanaticism. Any violence committed by any group, or any unrest in Palestine or Iraq, is a specific response to a specific pathological, political circumstance, not an endemic variable of Arab culture as Samuel Huntingdon’s ”clash of civilisations” and other western theories describe such face-offs.

Since time immemorial the essence of Arab culture has been trade, not war or suicide bombings. The region gave birth to civilisations such as the Assyrian and Babylonian in Iraq, Phoenician and Canaan in Syria and the Pharaonic in Egypt. After the advent of Islam, each of these cities was a major capital of huge empires through various stages of history that presented the world with sciences, art, culture, philosophical thought and civilisations that form the basis of study in all major modern universities.

Islam was an extraordinary gift to the world of business with its pragmatic, tolerant, humane, logical and international ethos at a time when other cultures were busy burning witches and widows in other parts of the so-called civilised world. The evolution of market hubs such as Baghdad and Cairo, the emergence of Arabic as the business lingua franca from Spain to Sindh, the missionary activities of Arab merchants in South East Asia were all legacies of the advent of Islam.

Seven centuries ago, Baghdad and Damascus were world financial hubs. The Arab world, under the Abbasid caliphs, had trade relations with all major nations from China to Italy. The Assyrians mapped out a road network to enable them to transport African ivory, Caspian furs and Indian spices across their empire. Two millennia before the advent of the dollar and pound sterling, the gold coin, Persian daric, introduced by Darius the Great, was the currency of choice from Greece to the kingdoms of India. The financiers of Mecca and Damascus set up letters of credit, bills of exchange, foreign agencies, primitive contract laws and custom duties centuries before the bankers of Renaissance Florence and Tudor London.

Empires came and went, kingdoms were established and fell, but trade remains one of the institutions that truly defines Arab culture. The earliest civilisations of the Middle East evolved on the banks of the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Their trading links with Mohenjadaro on the Indus, Dilmun in the Arabian Gulf and the Hellenic ports of the Aegean islands demonstrate that international markets existed centuries before Christ.

The Silk Road to China, the Amber Route to the Baltic, the evolution of trade-linked cities such as Petra, Baghdad, Mecca, Sidon and Damascus were the centres of Arab power politics for centuries. From ancient times till modern days trade activities have always flourished in the region.

The modern example is the rapid progress of the ancient trading and pearling settlement of Dubai, which was on the trade route between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley civilisation. In 1830, it was taken over by a sect of the Bani Yas clan led by the Maktoum family that still rules Dubai. The elders of this family decided to build on the expertise of the inhabitants of Dubai and concentrate on trade. This policy powers the economic miracle of Dubai.

The ruling family recognised the value of international trade as an engine for wealth creation decades before the petrodollar era. When oil was discovered in 1960, the bulk of its revenue was invested in creating the world’s biggest man-made harbour in Dubai’s Jebal Ali. Today, some estimates peg Dubai’s non-oil revenues at over 90 per cent of its GDP, and the average per capita income in excess of $19,000.

Excellent infrastructure coupled with business acumen has helped the nationals to expand their trading horizons. Dubai encouraged Indian, Yemeni, Lebanese and Persian traders to settle. At a time when socialism and command economies were prevalent in other parts of the world, Dubai was unique in its preference for an open economy and regional trade. At no time, however, has the Dubai government forgotten its Islamic roots. It is the government’s endeavour to ensure that no Muslim will need to travel more than 500 metres to pray in a mosque. Dubai is certainly a winning mix of trade and religion.

Commentators who have concluded the Islamic world is a ‘failed and violent’ society are wrong as religion and trade walk hand in hand in Islamic culture. Obama’s approach to the Islamic world is a positive shift in official US policy, and some compensation for the hostile environment created by Islam bashers.