a version of this was published by rediff and india abroad at http://news.rediff.com/column/2009/dec/29/a-year-beset-by-problems-for-india.htm

india abroad requested i write this, and gave me a deadline of dec 17th; therefore i was not able to cover things that happened later (eg. copenhagen and the delicious nd tiwari story).

The year in review: 2009
Rajeev Srinivasan considers how India fared in this past year
This was a crucial year for India. On the one hand its economy is doing fairly well, but, on the other hand, its continues to suffer from a non-existent long-term agenda. The latter may well result in India seizing defeat from the jaws of victory: despite the ‘demographic dividend’, the lack of a compelling ‘idea of India’ may well cause it to flounder aimlessly, if not disintegrate into a million pointless mutinies. Events in 2009 would have sown the seeds of either success or failure.
On the world stage, India suffered the ignominy of a re-hyphenation with Pakistan and a downgrading of its alleged ‘special relationship’ with the US. On climate change, India, apparently isolated and specifically targeted, may well end up in a constrained situation similar to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, wherein it is especially victimized.
While everyone talks about the G2 (the US and China) dominating world affairs, India is never  mentioned in the same breath. The arrival of the Obama administration in the US has led to a severe de-prioritization of India. The Bush administration was eager to sell the nuclear deal to India, and to engage it as a counterbalance to China. The Democrats – many of them cold warriors and non-proliferation ayatollahs – would rather kowtow to China while paying lip service to India.
The UPA government built a foreign policy around the wishful thinking of a permanent alignment of US and Indian interests. It is now virtually certain that the US views Asia as China’s sphere of influence – it said so in so many words while inviting China to take a role in ‘South Asia’ to mediate between India and Pakistan. And China has struck a muscular pose, interfering in Arunachal Pradesh, building 27 airstrips in Tibet, and damming the Brahmaputra. India has few bargaining chips, as it gave them away for nothing.
Internally, national elections produced what appeared to be a stronger mandate for the Congress party; however, by year-end, its blundering over a separate Telengana State made it look amateurish. Serious doubts were raised about its ability to deter China or Pakistan, because the thermonuclear explosion in Pokhran in 1998 now appears to have been a damp squib, and the armed forces are increasingly demoralized.
Public health and nutrition continue to be issues. A lasting image was that of green surgical-mask-clad city-dwellers attempting to elude the swine flu, and the inevitable hoarding and black-marketing of the appropriate small-aperture masks. India has been accused for some time of poor health practices, especially related to poor nutrition, poor access to clean water and sanitation, etc.
In 2009, raging inflation – official figures admit that the price of essential food staples have shot up by close to 20% – implies that more people are going hungry. At the World Summit on Food Security, the FAO reported that, in a shocking reversal of previous trends, 100 million people worldwide have joined the ranks of the hungry between 2001 and 2009. A large number of these must be Indians. Child hunger, in particular, persists, which is a national shame.
India’s apparently quick recovery from the global financial meltdown – it is now believed that GDP may grow by as much as 7-8% in 2009 – has been attributed to a thriving rural economy, and India’s isolation from world markets (a reflection of India’s poor export performance). The rural land-owner has become the target of advertising for anything from cars to washing machines to LCD TVs. However, there are still hundreds of farmers committing suicide because of crop failure, and as a result of the giant subsidies given to their farmers by developed nations, which allows their products to be priced below actual production cost.
Unfortunately, the way the UPA government has responded to the crisis in rural areas is to create a socialist make-work scheme, the NREGS, which is rife with opportunities for fraud. Despite some anecdotal evidence, the increasing burden of food-price inflation and the resultant hunger negate its impact. Besides, this scheme is now being viewed as an omnibus solution to all the problems of the rural poor, not the band-aid that it is.
The price tag for the NREGA, and for other populist schemes such as the massive giveaway to bureaucrats (which carefully avoided the military, leading to significant anger there) will be macroeconomic disaster down the road. The bills add up: Rs. 30,000 crore for the bureaucrats, Rs. 70,000 crore for the NREGA, and another Rs. 70,000 crore for a farm-loan forgiveness scheme. All this will add to inflationary pressures, and siphon off funds from investment.
Politics in India was, as usual, chaotic. The Congress party appeared to win national elections, although there were allegations of tampering with electronic voting machines, which are not exactly fool-proof. The opposition, led by the BJP, had been expected to do quite well because of anti-incumbency, but did not. In the aftermath of the elections, the BJP has appeared to implode, with calls for the resignation of its old guard.
The politics of balkanization came to the fore towards the year-end with the revival of a long-simmering demand for a separate State of Telengana, to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh. In a reflection of  centrifugal identity politics, there were copycat calls for other States to be created.
But the most worrisome short-term issue continues to be the appalling internal security situation. The interrogation of a suspect in the various blasts around the country, T Nazeer, suggests that Kerala has become the new hub of terrorism. The revelations in the ongoing saga of David Chapman Headley suggests that the ISI can strike at will anywhere in India with virtually no risk of detection. It appears another 11/26 – the Mumbai siege of last year – can happen any day, anywhere, in the country.
Thus, India is beset by problems – both internal and external – caused by lack of strategic thinking, and by being a soft State. One can only hope 2010 will be better.
1000 words, 17 Dec 2009
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a version of this was published by rediff.com at http://movies.rediff.com/report/2009/dec/16/international-film-festival-of-kerala-2009-opens.htm

here is the website of the festival: http://iffk.in/index.php?page=movies

International Film Festival of Kerala 2009: Days 1, 2 and 3

Rajeev Srinivasan samples the fare at the IFFK’s 14th edition

It apparently has become a staple of the season in Trivandrum – a little winter fog, a much-hyped Grand Kerala Shopping Festival (as though the wall-to-wall, year-round ads on TV for gold and womens’ clothes were not enough), large numbers of black-clad Ayyappa pilgrims, and now armies of cineastes armed with the signature black bags of the International Film Festival. This year I too joined the quasi-pilgrimage to my own home-town, and so far I have been pleasantly surprised by the festival’s logistics and films.

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a version of this was published by rediff at http://news.rediff.com/column/2009/dec/08/column-rajeev-srinivasan-on-obamas-af-pak-plan.htm

Obama’s Af-Pak speech: America will declare victory and leave soon

Rajeev Srinivasan concludes the winners are China and Pakistan; India loses again

There is no doubt the US President Barack Obama had a difficult task to perform in making his long-awaited Afghanistan speech on Tuesday. There has been a clamor of different voices urging him to take every position from digging in for the long term all the way to an immediate withdrawal, and the only option Obama really had was to take a median position that would certainly disappoint large sections of his voters.

In a sense, the speech turned out to be a bit of a damp squib: it must be extremely unsatisfying to officer cadets at West Point to be told that their nation was effectively in a war it could not win. And that the only thing to do was to find a face-saving exit. Besides, it really didn’t say anything new other than the laying out of a time-frame for the exit. It was common knowledge all along that the Obama Af-Pak plan was simple: “surge, bribe, declare victory and run like hell”.

The bribery plan has taken more concrete steps now. Hillary Clinton announced that there were ‘non-violent Taliban’ (isn’t that a contradiction in terms?), and therefore one has to presume the Americans are busy figuring out which are the ‘good Taliban’ (hint: those not attacking the Pakistani Army). These are the ones to bribe before the part about declaring victory loudly and heading for the exit.

One has to sympathize with Obama, who is in a bit of a spot. Two unwinnable wars are draining his treasury. The financial meltdown and related fallout has hit his economy hard. His hard-core supporters are wondering when he will deliver on his campaign rhetoric of change and hope, because so far there has been little change and not much hope. The fence-sitters are beginning to desert him, as the results of mid-term elections and opinion polls suggest. For someone who is in permanent campaign mode, this is altogether disturbing. The timing of the pullout from Afghanistan, naturally, is intended to give Obama sound-bites for the elections in 2012.

Afghanistan is, alas, looking more and more like Vietnam; even the blame game, where suddenly the Americans seem to have discovered that their hand-picked man, Hamid Karzai, is the fount of all corruption, is like Vietnam. The generals in Afghanistan are not filing enthusiastic and breathless forecasts like Westmoreland did in Vietnam, however: they are, perhaps because of  more widespread information, less optimistic and probably more realistic about what can be achieved.

The root cause of the problem in Afghanistan, unlike in Iraq, is simple: the Americans are laboring mightily to ignore the elephant in the living room, Pakistan’s agenda. It is as clear as daylight to the casual observer that Pakistan has no interest whatsoever in bringing stability to Afghanistan, in preventing the Taliban from coming back to power there, or in capturing Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda operatives: and these are the alleged reasons why the Americans are in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has clearly articulated its pursuit of strategic depth which, for instance, involves having a Plan B even if its major cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi, close to the Indian border, are obliterated in a possible Indian nuclear second strike (after Pakistan has wiped out Delhi and Mumbai in a first strike). They want to regroup from Afghanistan and continue their jihad against India from there.

The Taliban, of course, are Pakistani Army and ISI soldiers dressed in baggy pants and beards for the occasion. The fact that alleged seminary students (who the Taliban are supposed to be) suddenly started driving tanks and flying planes is indirect evidence that they were trained soldiers. Therefore, Taliban rule in Kabul means Pakistan has achieved it strategic depth. Clearly, they have no desire to fight or eliminate the Taliban, despite the fact that some factions (such as the one from the Mehsud tribe) have begun to inconvenience Pakistan through a campaign of suicide bombings. Dead Pakistani civilians are considered acceptable collateral damage by the ISI, but their attacks on the military apparatus is a big no-no. They are clearly ‘bad Taliban’, and will not get any share of the spoils.

The fact that the Americans condone Pakistani support for the Taliban was made most evident during the siege of Kunduz some years ago: see my old column: “What happened in Kunduz?” at http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/nov/30rajeev.htm It was evident to observers then that the massive airlift of besieged Taliban – allegedly hundreds of senior officers were rescued from the advancing Northern Alliance with the full knowledge of the CIA – was an effort to hide the evidence about ISI involvement with the Taliban. They allowed the alleged Taliban to escape to Islamabad and resume their day jobs as brigadiers and colonels in the Pakistani Army and the ISI. If the Northern Alliance, then in full cry, had been able to capture or liquidate these officers, it would have broken the backbone of the Taliban war effort.

A recent report from the US Senate accused the then-leaders of the war effort, Donald Rumsfeld and General Petraeus, of a signal failure in late 2001: apparently the Senate has found that it would have been entirely possible to capture Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains then, if only a large force of American troops had been deployed in search operations, instead of the few hundreds.

All this brings into sharp focus the nexus between the CIA and the ISI. (The more recent story of Daood Gilani alias David Chapman Headley, who may have done the reconnaissance in Mumbai for 11/26, also suggestions unholy connections between the two). There are some seriously opaque things going on between the Americans and the Pakistanis, and the billions paid by the Bush and Obama administration have vanished without a trace. (With their friend Robin Raphel now in charge of disbursing funds, the ISI must be breaking out the champagne – such incredible good luck!)

So long as the Americans are willing to subscribe to the fiction that Pakistanis are serious about fighting terrorism, there is no way that Pakistan can lose. As a result, the planned departure of the Americans in 2011 should be welcome news for Indians. Presumably, once they leave, as they did after the Soviet debacle in the 1980s, Americans will lose interest in Pakistan and cease to write them blank checks (which usually end up killing Indians).

However, as General McChrystal suggested recently, chances are that the US is going to lean on India to ‘make concessions on Kashmir’, to stop its humanitarian operations in Afghanistan and to close its consulates there. Pakistan has alleged that Indians are interfering in Baluchistan – which I hope they are, but it is unlikely: a former Prime Minister, in a burst of misplaced enthusiasm, gutted the RAW counter-intelligence operations there. The first sign of this pressure is already evident in the UPA government’s announcement of large troop withdrawals from J&K, leaving it to the local police, whose sympathies are not necessarily with the Indian nation.

The reality of American sentiment was demonstrated by Richard Holbrooke who held a cringing press conference to assure Pakistanis that there was no tilt towards India. Clearly in Afghan War 2.0, America is going to be ever more dependent on the tender mercies of the ISI. Obama concluded his speech with the mantra – regarding Pakistan – of “mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust.” The cynic in me thinks Obama better lock up the family silver, as he is deluding himself regarding Pakistan’s fundamentalist kleptocrats.

Besides, the exit timeline – even though it does not mean all troops leave then, and there has been a lot of ‘clarifications’ that even the date is not cast in stone – implies that the Americans have no stomach to fight on any longer in Afghanistan beyond 2011. This, in effect, means they have been defeated. The essence of military strategy is to demoralize the enemy by all means possible, and from that perspective Taliban psy-ops have won. This will be a significant morale-booster to the jihadis: they can legitimately claim to have defeated both the Soviets and the Americans. This will embolden their triumphalist attacks on US targets, and on India.

The Americans have a difficult choice, caught as they are with no really attractive options. Add to this Obama’s personal preferences, wherein his tendency is to be an internationalist, and to jaw-jaw where Bush may have gone for war-war. It is not clear that these are bad things per se, but it remains to be seen whether they are the right things for this war, or for the colder war against China. There is an element of ‘paralysis by analysis’, and some have begun to call Obama the ‘Great Ditherer’.

There is a worst case scenario: the possibility that, given the deadline of 18 months that Obama has outlined for the beginning of the exit, there will be a headlong and ignominious retreat from Kabul. I remember the photographs from Saigon in 1975 with the last helicopters taking off from the American embassy with people desperately hanging on. Vietnam scarred America’s soul, but Communism did not win, and the Domino Theory turned out to be wrong: communists are susceptible to the charms of the market.

The Afghan game is altogether different: it may crush America’s soul. If the jihadis gain sustenance from the American defeat there, there will be no respite: they will keep on attacking, as they are not easily distracted from their goal of global dominance, which they believe is within their grasp. Indeed they may be right, because there is a short window of opportunity when vast petro-dollars are at their disposal. The near-default of sovereign debt in Dubai shows that the petro-dollars may well be ephemeral, and that they had better strike when the iron is hot.

America is clearly suffering from imperial overreach. Not that America is a ruined country, but compared to the can-do and supremely confident nation it was a few years ago – the sole hyperpower proclaiming the end of history – it is suffering from serious self-doubt, and it is beginning to see the shadows of decline everywhere, even in its crowning glory, the civil engineering marvels that span the nation.

American’s involvement in Afghanistan, if it had been a whole-hearted war against the forces of terrorism, would have been positive for India. But given that it merely enriched the Pakistanis while retaining intact the entire infrastructure – both the ISI and the radicalized Army – the Afghan war has not really helped India. Indeed, the Northern Alliance – assuming that its tactical genius Ahmed Shah Massoud had not been assassinated – may well have driven the Taliban out or at least fought them to a standstill. In hindsight, the American intercession in Afghanistan has been a net negative for India.

As things stand, it now appears that it is better from India’s perspective for the Americans to leave. As usual, India is left to fight its own battles. Unfortunately, the two parties that will benefit the most from the American debacle in Afghanistan are India’s sworn enemies: China and Pakistan. China, because the loss is likely to turn America inward, and in any case they have now been convinced by Chinese bluster that there has to be a G-2. Pakistan, of course, is richer by some $25 billion some of which is in numbered accounts somewhere, and the rest in nuclear and other weapons pointed at India.

For China, the Vietnam analogy is apt again. There, a Chinese proxy defeated the Americans; in Afghanistan, another Chinese proxy, Pakistan, may defeat America. In Korea, China fought America to a standstill. Score: China – 2.5, America – 0.5. No doubt this, along with Obama’s kowtowing in Beijing, will embolden further Chinese adventurism. India is already seeing the beginning of this, as Chinese are building 27 airstrips in occupied Tibet, and just ordered Indians to stop building a road in J&K, explaining that it was their territory.

Obama should learn from India’s experience: a vacillating, dithering and appeasing nation gets no respect from those who have a a clear long-term intent.

1720 words, Dec 2, 2009, updated Dec 4, 2009, 2050 words

India’s Energy Security

December 7, 2009

a version of this paper was published by ‘eternal india: the new perspectives monthly’ from the india first foundation in november 2009. another version was accepted by a conference at osmania university, hyderabad on india’s energy issues in march 2009.

energy security paper version 4

india’s mandarins sat on their behinds for decades; when they realized they had forsworn energy security, they made a mad scramble for nuclear fission, which is probably the worst solution for india, barring oil. the recent incident at the kaiga reactor where tritium was inserted into a water cooler was a graphic demonstration of the perils of terrorism and sabotage that loom large in india — chernobyl will be a cakewalk.

the omniscient mandarins like nuclear because there is opportunity for graft.

the best solution for india is likely to be solar; there should be a manhattan-project-like concentrated effort to induce innovation in this area. but there isn’t.

it is not clear what india is doing in copenhagen, but it is highly likely that the u-turns and volte-faces will end up in india accepting some position that is highly damaging to the country’s growth in return for vague promises of something or the other from others.

obama af-pak strategy 2.0

December 2, 2009

this is a small excerpt from what i wrote. the full article will be posted when it is published.
Obama’s Af-Pak speech: America will declare victory and leave soon
Rajeev Srinivasan concludes the winners are China and Pakistan; India loses again
There is no doubt the US President Barack Obama had a difficult task to perform in making his long-awaited
Afghanistan speech on Tuesday. There has been a clamor of different voices urging him to take
every position from digging in for the long term all the way to an immediate withdrawal, and the only
option Obama really had was to take a median position that would certainly disappoint large sections of
his voters.
In a sense, the speech turned out to be a bit of a damp squib: it must be extremely unsatisfying to
officer cadets at West Point to be told that their nation was effectively in a war it could not win. And
that the only thing to do was to find a face-saving exit. Besides, it really didn’t say anything new other
than the laying out of a time-frame for the exit. It was common knowledge all along that the Obama Af-
Pak plan was simple: “surge, bribe, declare victory and run like hell”.
There is the possibility that, given the deadline of 18 months that Obama has outlined for the exit, therewill be a headlong and ignominious retreat from Kabul. I remember the photographs from Saigon in1975 with the last helicopters taking off from the American embassy with people attemptingdesperately hanging on. Vietnam scarred America’s soul, but Communism did not win, and the DominoTheory turned out to be wrong: communists are susceptible to the charms of the market.
The Afghan game is altogether different: it may crush America’s soul altogether. If the jihadis gainsustenance from the American defeat there, there will be no respite: they will keep on attacking, as theyare not easily distracted from their goal of global dominance, which they believe is within their grasp.Indeed they may be right, because there is a short window of opportunity when vast petro-dollars are attheir disposal. The near-default of sovereign debt in Dubai shows that the petro-dollars may well beephemeral, and that they had better strike when the iron is hot.
… more

(Published on rediff at http://www.rediff.com/news/2002/nov/23chin.htm)

If I were to take the long view of history, I would contend that 1962 was a relatively minor skirmish in the long-term civilizational competition between India and China for the domination of the Asian ethos.

The only significant difference now as compared to centuries ago is that for the first time in history, the buffer state of Tibet has disappeared and Chinese troops are on India’s borders, and this means China can threaten India because it controls the headwaters of the Indus and the Brahmaputra, which arise in Tibet.

Yet, as far back as I can think, the two civilizations have been rivals in the grand scheme of events. There are distinct archetypes that drive the two. India has always been the realm of the abstract; and China that of the concrete. India is individualistic; China is collective. India is open and inclusive. China is closed and exclusive.

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