The curse of obsequiousness

December 13, 2010

A version of the following was published by DNA on 14th dec 2010 at under the title” Why we are the world’s worst bunch of kowtowers”.

The curse of endemic obsequiousness


Rajeev Srinivasan wonders whether Indian officials’ refusal to grow a backbone is an unfortunate national trait


The incident in Mississippi was startling: the Indian Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, clad in a sari, was pulled out of the security line at an airport and subjected to a humiliating pat-down, apparently because of Transportation Safety Administration guidelines about ‘voluminous clothes’.


This, despite the fact that the ambassador produced her diplomatic papers. I suppose one could argue that the Mississippi officers were just doing their job, although it is possible that a little xenophobia, if not a little racism, was thrown in. Somehow I can’t imagine them patting down a white woman in a voluminous bridal dress.


But worse, the Indian Embassy tried to hush this incident up. It turns out this is not the first time it has happened to Meera Shankar. The embassy would have done nothing this time too if a local paper hadn’t carried shocked observations by the ambassador’s hosts, who felt she had been humiliated by the pat-down in full public view.


It appears, sadly, that the first instinct of Indian officialdom is to swallow insults and to, if possible, insist on not having any semblance of a backbone.


Consider that other countries do not ‘go gentle into that good night’, but they ‘rage, rage’. When China felt that the Nobel Peace Prize was an affront to them, they simply instituted a competing Confucius Peace Prize, laughable though it may be. When the US introduced intrusive fingerprinting rules for visitors, Brazil retaliated in kind. When the US creates non-tariff barriers, others retaliate.


But India, oh, that’s a different matter. There seems to be a built-in level of obsequiousness. Are Indian diplomats eyeing post-retirement sinecures in the World Bank etc.? But why are diplomats from other countries willing to stand up for their national interests?


Perhaps it is because India has never explicitly stated what those national interests are. The late C K Prahalad once wrote an essay on ‘strategic intent’ – that is, a long-range plan with a stretch goal: difficult at the moment, but not impossible if one worked assiduously at it. It is now accepted in business circles that firms that do not have a ‘strategic intent’ are more likely to fail, because there’s nothing like a worthy goal to rally the troops.


The Americans have strategic intent: it was paraphrased some years ago as something to the effect of “having 8% of the world’s population, and enjoying 50% of its resources”. China similarly has a strategic intent: they want to be Numero Uno in everything: wealth, military power, soft power. And what is India’s strategic intent? To be a toady to some great power? Can’t India see that it can be more than a banana republic, it can be a great power itself? It can be the bride, not only the bridesmaid.


On the contrary, I find a supreme lack of self-confidence. I understand that when the Chinese once sent a demarche to the Indian Embassy past midnight – in diplomatic terms a gross insult – instead of waiting till the next day, the woman ambassador showed up at the Chinese Foreign Office at 2 am! The Chinese would have considered that to be kowtowing.


But when a rude Chinese diplomat claimed in Mumbai that India had no business in Arunachal Pradesh, India did not immediately declare him persona non grata and give him 24 hours to clear out of the country. Instead, he was allowed to hang around and make more offensive statements!


A Chinese strongman is due to visit India shortly – and some suggested that India should refrain from the Nobel ceremony in case it would jeopardize the Wen Jiaobao visit! Why this walking on eggshells? The gent is not visiting for India’s benefit. If he doesn’t come, it will make no difference – they will continue the dam on the Brahmaputra, their army’s incursions over the LOC, and proliferation to Pakistan.


There is no consequence to them for misbehaving with India. We should ensure there some pain to China, and others, for insulting India. That gains respect.


Is there a genetic problem among Indians? Are we so used to obsequiousness that it has become the way we think? Perhaps. Going back to the airport security issue, maybe you have seen the lists in Indian airports of those exempt from security checks: the President, the Chief Justice Supreme Court, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, and so on…, and, Robert Vadhera!


Yes, this person who holds no public office is the only one specified by name as being exempt from frisking. In all fairness to this gent, I am told he didn’t ask for it, and it was the work of overzealous flunkeys. If that groveling is the prevailing pattern in India, then perhaps it is only fair that Meera Shankar was patted-down.


Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant.


823 words, 11 Dec 2010





A version of this was published by on 2nd Dec 2010 at

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

Rajeev Srinivasan wonders about India’s quest for Olympic glory


The most vivid moment for me at the Asiad was on the first day of the track-and-field events, when unheralded Preeja Sreedharan and Kavita Raut delivered a magnificent 1-2 finish in the grueling 10,000 meters, taking gold and silver with personal best timings. They followed up later with silver and bronze in the 5000 meter run.


As I scoured the news for the next few days, it was a pleasant surprise that there were a number of golds in track events: Sudha Singh won the 3,000 meters steeplechase, Ashwini Akkunji and Joseph Abraham won the women’s and men’s 400 meters hurdles in an unprecedented sweep; and the women’s team in the 4×400 meter sprint, defending champions from 2002 and 2006, won again.


I remember the agony and ecstasy of the wins and losses of P T Usha a generation ago, and I have been a fan of track events since then. There is something inherently thrilling about a race: it is the primal sporting event. It is electric, immediate, and direct: there is nothing but raw human talent out there on display. No devices, no second chance, nothing – it’s man-to-man, or woman-to-woman.


I wonder if it is a cliché to suggest that running perhaps brings out something primitive in us – the racial memory of trying to outrun a saber-toothed tiger or chase down a woolly mammoth. Incidentally, science suggests that long-distance running is a human specialty – we can keep going at a steady trot for hours because of our efficient cooling systems, whereas the sprint kings of the animal world overheat quickly: they have no stamina.


But the sprint events in particular are the glamour events of the games. Even the field events don’t quite come close, because there is the delay – for instance, in the jumps, each individual does their thing, then comes back for another try. Somehow, the foot-race is far more thrilling. The spectator’s adrenaline is pumping: and you are jumping up and down and screaming like an idiot, cheering like there is no tomorrow for your countryman or woman. This is what makes for true fan-dom.


And there’s nothing to beat the sprints for high drama. Did anybody watch the women’s 4x400m relay at the Commonwealth Games? It was thrilling, with the first two legs going neck and neck, but then Ashwini Akkunji put on a fine spell of acceleration to blow past a surging Nigerian runner, and anchor Mandeep Kaur made no mistake. Even though I watched the video after I knew the result, I was on my feet, cheering. That was the first athletics gold for India in the Commonwealth after Milkha Singh’s 440 yard win in 1958 – a long wait indeed.


I believe the Asiad saw a repeat of the same modus operandi, with the tall Ashwini reprising her heroics in the third leg. I have not yet been able to find a video, but I heard Ashwini powered ahead of the Kazakh runner Margarita (the 800 meters gold medallist), giving Mandeep a cushion to fend off the Kazakh anchor, Olga, the 400 meters gold medallist.


For my money, that makes Ashwini Chidananda Akkunji from Udupi, Karnataka, the best athlete of the games: two golds, and excellent teamwork. There is only one other double gold winner for India, Somdev Devvarman in tennis singles and doubles. And Preeja Sreedharan missed a long-distance double gold by a whisker, ending up with one gold and one silver.


But how come these athletes are not household names? Why are they not lionized, and how come they do not earn millions appearing in advertisements? I had barely heard of Preeja even in the Malayalam media. These are truly unheralded, unsung heroes. Preeja, I found, works for the Indian Railways. Joseph Abraham is in the Army.


Why is that only the Railways and the Armed Forces (they have an Operation Olympics, which is beginning to pay dividends) are the only sponsors of anything other than cricket? Why this disproportionate support for cricketers, who make a thousand times what a track-and-field medallist makes? There is no question this national obsession with cricket is strangling the growth of all other sports. Money talks, and if a gold medal brings in Rs. 1 crore, that will motivate athletes all the more.


There was the sad story of a Kerala girl, a nationally ranked rower, committing suicide last year because she could not afford to train. There is also the story of P T Usha’s sports school, which is languishing from lack of monetary support. My good friend Rajan, once on a photography tour through Kerala, just dropped in on the former star athlete, and although she was a gracious hostess, he could tell that she was worried about the school ( ). One of Usha’s protégés, Tintu Luka, did win a bronze at the Asiad, although more was expected of her. They are now looking at the 2012 Olympics.


There is nothing inherently wrong with Indian youth in its sports potential that money and attention will not fix. Communist countries – from East Germany to China – have shown how this will work wonders. The trick is to catch them young, and also to concentrate on events wherein India might have a competitive advantage. For instance, train strapping lads and lasses for boxing, wrestling and weight-lifting: and we already have clusters of excellence in these events.


Chess – even though the Asiad finish of just two bronzes was greatly disappointing – is something that India should excel in (after all, we invented it). And let it be said that a lot of the credit for popularizing chess in India goes to just one person – Viswanathan Anand. Other heroes, other sports – for instance Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza are inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.


There are a few events in which brute strength and bulk may go against Indians, who may be smaller and lighter than competitors: this was seen in field hockey when rule changes and new surfaces made the Europeans more competitive. But the young generation of Indian athletes, especially if identified early and trained, may not be physically inferior specimens.


And it is true that junior Indian teams do quite well in almost all events around the world. But they do not live up to their promise. I remember years ago when there was talk in the tennis world of the “ABC Powers”: Amritraj, Borg and Connors. The latter went on to great heights, but Vijay Amritraj just faded away.


That might be because of an even bigger hurdle: mental toughness and the killer instinct. I have always been astonished by this bromide casually thrown around in India: “The important thing is not to win, but to participate.” This is so utterly ludicrous that I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry when I hear this. Wake up, folks, you are the only people in the world who believe this! Everyone else goes to the Olympics strictly to win.


Somehow this dumb socialist idea has taken firm root in India, perhaps India has been so mediocre in everything that we could simply not believe Indians could be world-beaters. In particular, it has been a failure of leadership. India’s leaders have aspired to make India “one among the top ten” or whatever, never to make India Number One. But being Numero Uno is the only goal worth pursuing! Sure enough, since we aspired to too little, was are number ten. Isn’t it shameful that India is only sixth in the Asiad?


I don’t think Preeja Sreedharan and Kavita Raut and Vijender Singh went to the Asiad just to participate. They went to win, and more power to them! That’s the attitude that needs to be cultivated, or else our long-distance runners – and others – are going to be lonely indeed: no fans, no cheers, no guts, no glory.


The title of this column comes from an excellent short story by the British author Alan Sillitoe. The protagonist, who speaks in the first person if I remember right, is a rebellious teenager who is put in prison school (borstal). There his talent at running attracts attention, and that is his ticket to freedom. But on the day of the big race, when he is far ahead, he deliberately stops just short of the finish line, in a declaration of contempt for the entire system.


Fortunately, India’s athletes are not so alienated. Not yet. But they will be, if they continue to be ignored and abused by an uncaring system. They do have a way out: they can, and they will, emigrate to more welcoming lands.


1400 words, 30 Nov 2010





A version of the following was published on Nov 30th by DNA at:

America is bamboozled by China’s proxies, North Korea and Pakistan


Rajeev Srinivasan contends that instead of throwing in its lot with a declining America, it should aspire to be one of the G3 great powers


There is a fin-de-siecle feeling in the air, of a change of guard. America’s self-confidence is at a low, and its strategists and policymakers are conceding the world stage to China. Caught in two nasty and difficult-to-win wars, it suffers from imperial overstretch, and there are parallels between the rapid decline of Britain in the 20th century and a likely diminution of American power in the 21st.


Several incidents in the recent past suggest that American power may diminish even more precipitously than British power. Consider America versus the insurgent, China.


In three major wars since 1950, Chinese proxies have faced Americans. In Korea, Chinese allies fought the Americans to a standstill; the North Vietnamese (then friends of China) defeated the Americans; in Afghanistan, Chinese ally Pakistan is humiliating the Americans after getting $25 billion in largesse from them. In other words, score: China 3, America 0.


It is clear that China uses Pakistan and North Korea as force-multipliers. It is a safe first-cut assumption to believe that everything these two rogue nations do is intended to advance Chinese interests, as they are virtually on Chinese military and diplomatic life-support.


Take the recent North Korean artillery barrage against a South Korean island. This is not an isolated incident, nor is China an innocent bystander by Zbigniew Brzezinski (“America and China’s First Test”, Financial Times, Nov 23) claims. Cold Warriors are still fighting the last war in Europe against the Soviets: they labor under the misconception that China is benign.


On the contrary, chances are that North Korean belligerence is an indirect Chinese response to US President Obama’s recent Asia swing, wherein he appeared to be building a coalition – India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea – to thwart China’s soaring ambitions.


China has been a consistent proliferator of missiles to North Korea, and nuclear weapons to Pakistan; the two swap technologies as well, with plausible deniability for China. Via the AQ Khan nuclear Wal-mart, these weapons were hawked to rogue regimes everywhere.


A while ago, saber-rattling North Korea launched long-range ballistic missiles to threaten Japan. So it is not surprising that a couple of weeks ago, North Korea amazed visiting American scientists by demonstrating its advanced weapons-grade uranium enrichment program. The Pakistan model, whereby China supplies screwdriver-ready nuke components, may well be at work here too.


Then there was the North Korean torpedo sinking a South Korean ship a few months ago; the sudden shelling of the South Korean island is part of marking out a zone of Chinese influence in the Yellow Sea. This fits into their recent aggressive behavior, bullying neighbors and declaring in effect that the South China Sea is a Chinese lake.


The most recent Pakistani incident is even more intriguing. It has been obvious for some time that the CIA is entirely clueless in the region, and is being led by the nose by the ISI – which surely receives advice and materiel from China. In 2001, the siege of Kunduz demonstrated how the ISI bamboozled the CIA into letting them airlift a thousand alleged Taliban officers (in reality Pakistani Army/ISI brass) besieged by the Northern Alliance.


A few months ago, seven CIA officers including their station chief in Afghanistan were blown up when a Jordanian double agent, presented as a senior al Qaeda insider, detonated explosives hidden in a suicide vest.


Now it turns out that an alleged top-level Taliban leader, who the Americans and Afghans were negotiating with, was a total impostor: he was in it for the big bucks from the gullible Americans. This demonstrates painful realities: the Americans lack decent intelligence on the ground, and being desperate to withdraw, they will clutch at straws. The clever ISI will, accordingly, manufacture various straws on demand and extract more billions from the CIA.


This latest Pakistani exploit reminds me of Graham Greene’s wickedly funny “Our Man in Havana” where an underpaid spy (and sometime vacuum cleaner salesman) sends fanciful details of an advanced Cuban/Soviet doomsday machine back to his bosses who are awed; only these were photos of the insides of a vacuum cleaner!


If this is the level of the competence of the almighty CIA, then I fear for America. And I fear even more for India, which seems to have a drop-dead, unerring instinct for allying with countries that are in terminal decline: first it was the Soviets, now it is the Americans.


Unfortunately, the idea that it need not ‘align’ with anybody does not even occur to India’s mandarins, as a result of an institutionalized inferiority complex. India, with its Hanuman Syndrome of not recognize its own strength, does not, alas, aspire to the creation of a G3: India, China, America, in that order.


Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant


825 words, Nov 26th

A version of the following was published by on Nov 11th at

After the Kool-Aid: Notes from the Obama visit


Rajeev Srinivasan asks where the substance is in the just-concluded jamboree


A casual observer, the proverbial Martian, would have concluded from the breathless media coverage during the Barack Obama love-fest that this was a visit of the King-Emperor of India’s colonial master. The pageantry and pomp and circumstance hid the sad fact that the emperor had no clothes, that is to say, there was precious little of substance in evidence. Lots of style, though: an Obama trademark.


But then Indians love a good party, and this was like a Big Fat Punjabi Wedding: plenty of dancing, much drinking, and everyone nursing a hangover the next day. Naturally, nobody wanted to bring up anything serious or embarrassing. As usual, Indians were taken in by flattery and vague words about “global power” and “rightful place in the world”.


There was one major meta-theme: Obama was in India hat in hand, beginning his re-election campaign. After the self-confessed ‘shellacking’ he received in the mid-term elections, and given that anyway he is more comfortable campaigning than governing, this should not be much of a surprise. The 2012 presidential elections are not that far off; the Republicans may contrive to shoot themselves in the foot; and so the grim prospect of “four more years” of Obama cannot be underestimated.


If you take the election issues out, the Obama visit was much like the visit of British Prime Minister Cameron a few weeks prior (and he’s doing the same in China now). Cameron was disarmingly candid – he was a salesman, doing a hard-sell of his wares. India clearly has “buyer power” –  as per strategy guru Michael Porter – that is, India, being a major purchaser of all sorts of goods, has influence over sellers.


Obama did his selling more subtly, partly because he could get a lot of mileage out of his black-man-inspired-by-Gandhi-and-King trope – Indians are suckers for this sort of sentimental pabulum, although in reality 99% of American blacks have never heard of Gandhi, and have no particular sympathy for Indians as fellow-sufferers from white oppression; if anything, they may view Indians in the US as benefiting unfairly from the affirmative action programs they won with their blood, sweat, and tears.


Was the visit a success? Perhaps it was, from the American point of view. Obama did sell $15 billion worth of goods and generate 54,000 American jobs. And he didn’t give away the store, or anything at all. Incidentally, there is a meme among hostile Americans about how Dubya Bush “gave away the store” to India – the New York Times in particular harps on this theme often – in relation to the so-called ‘nuclear deal’.  On the contrary, it is India that gave away the store by giving up its – pitiful though it might be – nuclear deterrent capability.


Surely Obama didn’t give much away. He got misplaced, but thunderous, applause from Indian parliamentarians when he talked about welcoming India into the UN Security Council – they did not realize he was talking about the non-permanent membership that India has just won. The prospect of a full veto-wielding permanent membership is, alas, just as far as it always has been, thanks to the supreme folly in refusing it when offered in 1955 – in favor, of all countries, China! Go figure!


Obama’s rhetorical flourishes about the Security Council membership were full of fine phrases, but there was the distinct absence of an action verb: such as ‘support’, ‘commit’, or ‘endorse’. I am reminded of a Doonesbury cartoon about Ted Kennedy, wherein the orator makes fine, emphatic statements, which, sadly, all consist of nouns, and the commentator says, “A verb, Senator, we need a verb!”


All President Obama said was the following, verbatim: “In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed UNSC that includes India as a permanent member”. What he did not say was that his country strongly supported the idea and that it would throw its weight behind India’s candidacy, as it has for Japan. Without a time-bound statement of intent, it was mere fluff, a pious platitude. In any case, Obama knows full well that China will veto Japan’s, and India’s, aspirations.


Furthermore, Obama immediately imposed conditions – that India should toe the US line on Iran, human rights and nuclear non-proliferation. All of these are suspect – not that I am a big fan of Iran, but India has regional interests that suggest it engage Iran, for instance for access to Afghanistan, and for hydrocarbons. In fact, it would be a good idea for India to lecture the US that the latter should ally with Iran so that it is not dependent on Pakistan’s ISI for transit of its war materiel to Afghanistan.


By carping on human rights (code for Kashmir) and non-proliferation (code for India signing the NPT), Obama was addressing his pals in the ISI and in the non-proliferation-ayatollah-dom that permeates the Democratic ranks in the US. What about extensive proliferation and human rights violations by Pakistan and China, Mr. US President? How come you have no fine words to say to those allies of yours? What about the human rights of Afghans, so trampled on by the ISI?


All in all, whatever the ELM spin-doctors say, Obama gave much less than a ringing endorsement of India’s aspirations for the Security Council. It is clear that the P5 are not going to dilute their stranglehold on the UNSC, or on nuclear weapons – if India ever gets on the UNSC, it will be as a non-veto-holding member, and it would have signed the NPT. This is no different from the way things were two weeks ago, so I ask: “Where’s the beef?”


Naturally, unfriendly pundits from the New York Times and others passed it off as “Countering China, Obama Backs India for UN Council”. No, Virginia, read his lips. That’s not what he said. The LA Times correctly identified it as “only a step” in that direction. The Wall Street Journal quoted William Burns, an official, who refused to say whether the US would support a veto-bearing status for India. Bingo!


But Obama demonstrated that he does know how to use verbs when he spoke about Aghanistan. He said, “We will not abandon the Afghan people”. Fine words, but it is hard to reconcile this with his actions, in particular his insistence on pulling out troops in 2011, which has emboldened all the warlords into a waiting game.


Furthermore, the official Obama Administration stand on Afghanistan is predicated on India making sacrifices to appease Pakistan. The standard line was articulated in a particularly inane op-ed in the Washington Post on Nov 8th by one David Pollack, in an article headlined “Our Indian Problem in Afghanistan”, which could have been written by the ISI, so well did it articulate their position.


No, David, the issue is not India’s presence in Afghanistan, which goes back centuries, and is mostly humanitarian. Let us also remember that Afghanistan was the nation that opposed Pakistan’s entry into the UN – they had good reason to do so, because half of the natural territory of Afghanistan is occupied by Pakistan.


The problem is the Durand Line. The Afghans have never recognized the Durand Line, an artificial boundary that was imposed by force on them in 1893 by the British; in any case that treaty expired in 1993. The Pathans on either side of the line are unnaturally divided by the line.


This human rights issue – the oppression of the Pathans since 1947 by the largely Punjabi Pakistani Army and the ISI – is the root cause of the Afghan problem. There is a simple geographic solution to the Afghan problem – let the Pathans merge southern Afghanistan and the western part of Pakistan into a Pashtunistan, their long-standing demand.


That would immediately solve the Afghan problem, and Obama can take his boys home. Leaving the Pathans in charge of their own destiny will prevent the Pakistanis from abusing them by proxy – it is Pakistani ISI and Army personnel who put on baggy pants and grow beards and call themselves the Taliban. And consort with Al Qaeda.


Northern Afghanistan, dominated by Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, and base of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, could be administered as a peaceful nation, protected by NATO forces. Even today, the Panjshir Valley (home of national hero and military genius Ahmed Shah Massoud, assassinated by the Taliban a day before 9/11), Mazar-e-Sharif, etc. are not so troubled. Why, they even have a tourist agency in Bamiyan which, I am told, brought 800 tourists this year to the site of the magnificent Buddha statues that the Taliban blew up.


Selig Harrison, writing in the LA Times on 8th November, in a piece titled “Pakistan divides US and India”, got the facts right – the problem is the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani army, which in effect has colonized the Baluchi, Sindhi, and Pathan populations of Pakistan, all of which are restive. The dissolution of Pakistan is the only answer to the problem. And this is the one thing that Obama is unwilling to countenance. Therefore he is not serious about solving the Afghan problem, he merely wants a face-saving way of exiting Afghanistan.


Given that these are life-and-death issues for India, and that other major issues, such as agriculture and education, got short shrift, from an Indian point of view, it is fair to say that the Obama visit was not a success. The most positive thing I can say is that the feared ‘November surprise’, a signing-over of Kashmir to the ISI, did not happen. At least, it did not happen in public.


Otherwise, stripped of all the glad-handing and the huzzahs, the Obama visit to India was a major non-event. India got practically nothing out of it. But then, India’s leaders do not know what their goals are, so avoiding utter disaster, I suppose, is a victory. Of sorts.


1600 words, Nov 9th, 2010


A version of the following was published by DNA on Nov 16th at and the pdf is at

Greater India: The Indian Ocean Rim is a natural cultural hinterland


Rajeev Srinivasan on why “look East” should be more than a slogan


While the Obama visit occupied the entire mind-space of the Indian media, it seems life did not exactly come to a grinding halt elsewhere. Indians didn’t hear much about the volcano in Indonesia that blew up, for instance, but they should pay a lot more attention to Indonesia and its region.


Southern Java’s Yogyakarata, the old cultural capital of Indonesia, is close to the remarkable monuments at Borobudur and Prambanan. Yogya has an ominous presence in the background – just 30 kilometers away lies the dangerous Mount Merapi (‘meru’ + ‘api’ – mount of fire).


Indeed, Merapi’s most recent eruptions in late October and early November created a death of toll of several hundred people, some buried in fine volcanic ash –with scenes reminiscent of Pompeii – and others killed by fast-moving pyroclastic flows. They had to shut down the airports in Yogya and nearby Solo.


Merapi is within 40 kilometers of both Borobudur and Prambanan. Borobudur, the massive Buddhist monument from the 9th century CE, is the largest man-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere: a giant stupa, a sculptured hill covered with hundreds of seated Buddhas with enigmatic smiles and mudras of blessings. The structure represents various levels of the Buddhist universe.


Prambanan, less well-known, is the Hindu equivalent of Borobudur, and from roughly the same time period. They are stylistically polar opposites: Borobudur is powerful and muscular, whereas Prambanan (a suggested etymology is ‘brahma-vana’) is tall, slender and ethereal. Indeed, another name for Prambanan is ‘slender maiden’. It consists of three temples, one each to Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. The Siva temple is the tallest and the best preserved. In an earthquake in 2006, Prambanan was severely damaged. A big eruption of Merapi may altogether doom it.


Indonesia shows the power of Indic ideas – as Tagore remarked, wherever you go in the country, you are reminded of India, because of familiar cultural signals. Even the languages – old Javanese and Balinese – look much like Indian scripts, and children still chant “a, aa, e, ee”. A large number of cultural memes in Indonesia are imported from India, including in traditional dance, puppetry, music, even in the name of the national airline, ‘Garuda’.


In the middle of a large square in Jakarta, there is a giant sculpture of the Gitopadesa. On a full moon night, I have watched Javanese Muslim dancers perform the Ramayana Ballet outside Prambanan . There is the Hindu island of Bali, where the Hindus fled when a Javanese king of the Majapahit dynasty converted to Islam.


Hindu and Buddhist ideas from India made their way to the Indonesian archipelago around the second to fourth century; they thrived for a thousand years, not through conquest but because the ideas themselves were useful and good.


There was in fact an Indian military invasion – although that was later. Circa 1017, Rajendra Chola sent a huge expeditionary force clear across the ocean to defeat the Srivijaya Empire in Sumatra. It was possibly the largest naval fleet ever assembled before the advent of steamships in the 19th century, quite likely bigger, and certainly more successful, than the Spanish Armada.


Unfortunately, unlike the big claims the Chinese are making – and these grow with every retelling – of their Admiral Zheng He and his alleged naval adventures, India has been noticeably reticent about the glorious maritime exploits of the Cholas. This needs to change, purely out of necessity: India needs to provide a counterweight to China.


An intriguing article in the New York Times of November 12th by Robert Kaplan (“Obama takes Asia by sea”) applies Spykman’s ideas about “rimland” and “heartland”, suggesting that rimland India and Indonesia will influence the strategic future of Asia, whereas the interior powers of Russia and China are handicapped by being landlocked. The Great Game was about Russia’s desired access to warm-water ports, and now China, with its ‘string of pearls’ is trying to build a network of friendly naval bases.


The US is now exhorting India to no longer just “look east”, but become a presence in East Asia. With China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea, in Tibet and Kashmir, it is necessary to ‘contain’ China with a web of relationships, such as with Vietnam and Japan.


India has so far fumbled its connections with Southeast Asia, which was traditionally known as Greater India. Invited to join ASEAN at its founding, India haughtily declined to: yet another Himalayan blunder. The cultural legacy is a link that India should use to engage with increasingly SE Asia. Going by the rapid rise of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, this region is where the future is. It may yet be the century not of the Pacific, but of the Indian Ocean. A Pax Indica or an Indian Ocean Rim Community is a possible dream.


820 words, 12 November 2010


A version of the following was published by DNA on Oct 19th at:

India should exit the Commonwealth altogether

Rajeev Srinivasan looks at the lessons to take away from the games

The Commonwealth games – admittedly not the world’s most exciting sporting contest – are finally over, and they should have put paid to any vanities that India had about holding the Olympics any time soon. The Olympics were a coming-out party for Japan in 1964, South Korea in 1988, China in 2008; but it would be unwise for India to rashly attempt to emulate them.

I must admit that there were moments of epiphany: for instance, the brilliant running of Ashwini Akkunji in the third leg of the 4x400m womens’ relay – she caught up with a surging Nigerian, and enabled anchor Mandeep Kaur to pull away to an unexpected, and well-deserved, win. This was a moment when I, too, held my breath, cynical as I am, and despite the fact that I watched the video later on youtube after I knew India had won.

But such sublime moments were few and far between. The persistent images that remain are the collapse of the foot overbridge just days before the event started, and the muddy pawprints of a dog on the mattress in the athletes’ village. The question is, how long do you actually expect these structures – built at such great expense – to survive? The answer: not very long.

There are several questions: why was India able to hold the 1982 Asian Games – a much bigger and more significant event – with less fuss and more competence? That was at a time when India was sort of hermit-like, insulated from the world, yet it wasn’t a fiasco. Why was it so much worse in this globalized era?

Speaking of the Asian Games, the Chinese, who are going to run the next edition in Guangzhou, have already handed over the entire infrastructure to the games committee some three months ahead of the actual start of the games. Whereas in Delhi, they were still repairing things the day of the opening ceremony.

It is not the case that emerging nations cannot, or should not, run large sporting events. South Africa, by many measures worse off than India, did a splendid job with the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Brazil will host both the soccer World Cup 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. I expect all of these to be done much more professionally than Delhi 2010.

Is there tangible economic value to hosting such major events? The Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 did much for Spain’s economy; but Los Angeles in 1984 just about broke even, and it is believed the Athens in 2004 almost caused Greece’s subsequent near-bankruptcy. These games are risky: no wonder there are only three bidders for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

In Delhi’s case, estimates are that Rs. 70,000 crore (about $15 billion) were spent, and the official claim is that the games will have an ‘impact’ of $5 billion. Note, it is ‘impact’, not ‘profit’. In other words, $10 billion vanished! That’s the difference between the 1982 Asiad and the 2010 C’wealth Games: the professionalization of theft.

Furthermore, given past experience, it is likely that the construction has been so shoddy (materials and techniques would have been much below specifications, and corrupt officials would have siphoned off the money) that the chances of these facilities being re-usable are fairly slim. It is money simply stolen and wasted.

And it is money that this country could ill afford to waste. The new Global Hunger Index suggests that India – 67th in the list – is worse off than eight of the poorest African nations, including Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. How many schools, universities, and kilometers of road could Rs. 70,000 crore have built? Where is the government’s touching concern for the alleged aam admi?

In a sense, the absurdity of India’s so-called ‘hybrid economy’ is in full view: the uneasy synthesis of capitalism and socialism that the usual suspects laud as revolutionary. It is no such thing, and in fact it combines the worst elements of both – crony capitalism and the dead hand of central planning, with neither the exuberant vigor of the one or the discipline of the other.

There is more: a combination of large-scale corruption and incompetence. This is the true downside of the ‘mixed economy’, that wonderful brainchild of the left. People will tolerate corruption if there is competence – for instance, China is very corrupt, but they do get things done. India is unique in being extremely corrupt, and extremely inefficient at the same time.

The inefficiency and incompetence have become systematized in the celebration of things like ‘jugaad’, that is ingenuity in the face of obstacles. But this is not innovation, because it comes with a guarantee of inefficiency and lack of scale, repeatability, institutionalizability and measurability – all the things that have made Toyota’s manufacturing advances so formidable.

In fact, jugaad is the enemy of progress, because it lulls you into a false sense of complacency. It is the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter on the eve of the exam, while the more organized student would have systematically finished their studies earlier and got a good night’s sleep. Yes, the all-nighter person may get good grades, but that is still a big risk – what if, as is often the case, the power fails?

The last-minute heroics may make for good copy, but it is an efficient use of resources, and will lead to burnout. I have seen this in the Indian IT industry, where not only do people try to do superhuman things at the eleventh hour, they don’t tell others about problems early on – on the day the delivery, they confess that the work is three months late. This the customer cannot deal with: if you had told them three months prior, when you knew it, they could have dealt with it much easier.

The inability to plan is endemic in India. It is a clear result of the one notable lacuna in India: the lack of leadership. And it leads to panic and non-optimal outcomes. For instance, the government for years ignored the serious problem of the lack of energy security. Then, one fine day they woke up to find that China had locked up energy supplies all over the world.

In their panic and new-found enthusiasm, they decided, non-optimally, that the answer would be nuclear energy. Hence the whole sorry saga of the so-called ‘nuclear deal’ with the US, which has turned out to be the worst-case nightmare scenario: nothing useful has come out of it, nor will it ever; and India has surrendered its puny nuclear deterrent – no wonder China is running rampant all over the region, and extending its tentacles into Kashmir.

This is what comes of not having a systematic planning process, combined with a  clear set of objectives or strategic intent. Unfortunately, the strategic intent displayed by many is their own personal enrichment, with the resultant accumulation of wealth in numbered Swiss and other offshore accounts. Observe the noticeable reluctance on the part of the government to pursue holders of these numbered, secret accounts, even when the Swiss have in fact said they have no objection.

This is at the core of the issue: British imperial rule has been replaced by the rule of brown sahibs who are as adept at looting India as the whites were. India, as always, continues to be a cash-generating machine, thanks to its hard-working and dirt-poor people and its highly productive land. As invaders have always noted, expropriating this surplus is highly profitable for them. This is why it makes a weird sort sense for India to continue in the British Commonwealth: the empire continues, except that the dramatis personae have changed.

Otherwise, there is a good question as to whether India should be in the Commonwealth at all. It is, after all, a club that celebrates perhaps the most brutal empire the world has ever seen: it is astonishing how callously the British caused 30 million famine deaths in the 1890’s (see Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World by Mike Davis) or several million famine deaths in the 1940’s (see Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II by Madhusree Mukherjee).

Why on earth would India want to be part of this club, when we were victimized the most by this empire? India, which used to account for 25% of the world’s GDP just before the Battle of Plassey brought British inroads, ended up accounting for perhaps 0.5% of the world’s GDP by 1940 (see The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective by Angus Maddison). By being part of the Commonwealth we are accepting this massive loot. Intriguingly, almost all of Britain’s ‘wealth’ is the loot from India – they otherwise produce almost nothing the world wants to buy, other than Scotch whisky and plummy British accents, along with some supercilious journalism.

Why does India need this club at all? India has other connections with many of the major countries there. Britain, after World War II, counts for increasingly little: it is a non-entity. Canada is important for its mineral wealth, so is Australia, but let us note that both are refusing to provide uranium for India’s misbegotten nuclear plans.

South Africa is a potential great power, but India is already engaged with them in the South-South palavers. Then, going by the medals table at the CWG, there’s Nigeria, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, Scotland, Samoa. Surprisingly, no New Zealand? Anyway, several of these are already engaged with in the Group of 77. It is not necessary to have the Commonwealth to be friends with them.

There is a school of thought that India needs to ally itself with other Anglophone nations (well, India is sort of Anglophone). This makes better sense than associating with the assorted banana republics of the late lamented Non-Aligned Movement: that much I admit. On the other hand, does India need these Commonwealth countries, or do they need India more?

In any case, the major white countries in the Commonwealth have a different relationship with Britain – genes and blood ties. They are populated largely by people of British origin, and right there, India cannot help being an outsider. Besides, given India’s bewildering complexity, India is unlike any other country – there has to be a recognition of Indian exceptionalism: it is truly a unique country.

Woody Allen quoted Groucho Marx once: “I would not wish to be a member of any club that would have me.” India has clearly outgrown the Commonwealth; the only club that India needs to belong to is the G3: the US, China and India. Which eventually India needs to turn into, in order of GDP: India, China and the US.

Even the UN Security Council is not all that desirable. Many Indians are ecstatic that India has been elected to a non-permanent, rotation slot by a massive margin of 187/191 votes. But one could argue that these 187 countries are giving India a big message – that they only view India as deserving of the non-permanent seat. How many of them would vote for India to get a permanent seat? Not many, I fear. Or it would be for a diluted type of seat, a permanent seat with no veto. Some years ago, when the seat was offered, India, in a fit of misguided generosity, suggested that it be given to China! Which it was, with disastrous consequences for India.

However, I have to give credit to the Financial Times, which, some time ago, suggested that the British seat be given to India, and the French seat be given to the European Union, to better reflect realities – the British and the French are increasingly marginal.

All in all, the very idea of India willingly embracing an empire which treated it most brutally is abhorrent. It is time to exit the Commonwealth: India gains little from it. Moreover, it is time the government stopped wasting taxpayers’ money on quixotic projects that end up merely fattening the offshore accounts of the well-connected. It is time to demand accountability and performance, not mere slogans, from the government.

2000 words, 15th oct 2010

The November surprise

October 30, 2010

A version of the following column was published on at:

They made some copy-editing changes to the original which did not necessarily add value.


The November Surprise


Rajeev Srinivasan on why the Obama visit is likely to be a disaster for India


Bitter experience has convinced me to be wary of dignitaries’ state visits – usually no good comes of them. I was terrified that Manmohan Singh’s so-called First State Visit  would culminate in something negative. Fortunately nothing much happened. Now I am extremely worried that Barack Obama’s visit to India in November is likely to end up in a major setback for India’s national interests.


There is a tradition of ‘October surprises’ in the US: just before the biennial November elections, one of the parties (usually the incumbent) is accused of coming up with some ruse – often a crisis – that enables it to come out smelling of roses, thus swaying public opinion in its favor, and thereby winning the elections.


This year, indications are that Obama and the Democrats will lose their majority in the House of Representatives (the lower house) and possibly in the Senate (the upper house) as well. It appears there is no ‘October surprise’ this time. Just in time for his India visit, Obama will be seen as a lame-duck with little chance of getting his agenda through a hostile US Congress (the parliament).


Obama’s record has been less than stellar, belying certain great expectations in the first flush of an amazing love-fest. In domestic matters, his handling of the financial crisis has been pedestrian, and there is severe job-loss and economic pain; his one victory, in healthcare, may yet be Pyrrhic. The ‘change’ and ‘hope’ and all that simply haven’t come to anything.


In foreign affairs, too, there’s nothing of great import. The Americans have declared victory in Iraq and begun their pull-out; but the picture on the ground, especially in light of the dramatic WikiLeaks data that came out recently, is that the place is a mess, and that it is not a job well-completed. Instead of a thriving, peaceful democracy, it is a broken country; the Americans are simply running for their lives.


The same, or worse, is true in Afghanistan. The recent spectacle of the closure of Pakistani border crossings, the arson on NATO supply trucks, and the abject apology by the Americans for their killing of some Pakistani troops – this points to a hapless America that has been bamboozled by Pakistan’s army and its spy agency, the ISI. The ISI is running with the hares and hunting with the hounds most successfully.


Obama has been clear from day one about Afghanistan – his plan has always been simple: surge, bribe, declare victory and run like hell. The surge has happened, but it has apparently had no impact, as in places like Marjah. Now Obama is running up against his ill-advised 2011 deadline for pulling out troops.


The only option Obama has on hand is to bribe – that is, to bribe the ISI. Even the Afghan government has concluded that the Americans will flee, leaving them to the tender mercies of the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other warlords. So Obama has been showering largesse on the ISI, a billion here and another billion there, and surely more as per their latest Strategic Dialog last week.


But money doesn’t seem to be doing it – the $25 billion that America has poured into Pakistan since 9/11 has sated the general’s greed for the moment. They want a bigger prize – their strategic intent – the dismemberment of India and the creation of their pet fantasy, Mughalistan, an emirate controlling the Indian subcontinent.


And that is the carrot that Obama is likely to offer them as part of his India trip. That will be the ‘November surprise’ for India. It is highly likely that when Obama is in India, Manmohan Singh will announce a new ‘package’ which would, shorn of marketing verbiage, hand over either all of J&K or just the Vale of Kashmir to the stone-throwers and other separatists who are fifth-columnists of the ISI.


The stage has been set for this for some time. Witness how American military men like General Petraeus, as well as assorted grandees from the European Union have been stressing that Pakistan would be much more helpful if only they were ‘not worried about India’. In other words, India should sacrifice its territorial integrity for the benefit of the Americans, with no benefit to itself. Sounds fair, doesn’t it?


Obama has demonstrated categorically that he is no friend of India, despite pious pronouncements by many Indians and Indian-Americans. In addition to everything else, the Obama administration’s attitude is evident from recent disclosures about David Headley (aka Daood Gilani) and the likelihood that the US authorities may have had prior warnings about 11/26 that they did not share with the Indians.


The exertions of the Americans (and the Chinese, too) on behalf of the alleged rights of Kashmiris to secede would play a lot better if they had tolerated separatism in their country. Some might remember that the Americans actually went to war (it is called the Civil War) to keep their country from fragmenting. And we also have seen the tenderness exhibited by the Chinese towards ‘splittist’ Tibetans and Uighurs.


But then, the Indian government has implied in many fora that it is willing to accept Pakistani demands – witness astonishing statements in Sharm-al-Sheikh, Havana, Thimphu. More recently, its hand-picked interlocutors to the separatists are talking openly about ‘azadi’ and about amending the constitution to accommodate them. The possibility that this will encourage other separatists, and that hate-mongering ethnic-cleansers and terrorists are being rewarded for crimes against humanity, do not seem to unduly worry these worthies.


Ominously, Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani declared on October 16th (as reported in The Economic Times) that “there will be good news about Kashmir soon”. What else could Gilani possibly mean other than Obama’s November surprise?


And in the middle of all this comes the nihilistic histrionics of famous one-horse novelist Susan Arundhati Roy. This is someone who can always be relied upon to support any cause that is anti-India. This reminds me of the possibly apocryphal story about how the US application for citizenship once used to ask people if they would advocate the overthrow of the US by violence or sedition. It seems most people chose ‘sedition’! If Roy were given that choice regarding India, I suspect she would insist on answering, “Both”.


Roy reminds me of the novel “The Man Without a Country”, about an American who renounced his country during a treason trial and declared that he hated it so much he never wished to see it or hear the word again. The Americans obliged, and put him on a naval brig, whereon he spent the rest of his life out at sea. If India were a normal country, its leaders would offer Roy the choice of fine accommodation on a naval brig in international waters, or domicile in her favorite nations, Pakistan or China. There is just one small problem with the latter – in a few short days, Messrs Kayani or Hu Jintao will offer to surrender to India on a single condition: that India take the shrill Susan Arundhati back.


Be that as it may, Roy is merely a side-show. The real danger is that the Americans – who demonstrate daily that they have no leverage over Pakistan – seem to have some kind of a hold over India’s leaders, and the stage has been set for a grand bargain wherein India exists J&K. Obama will then be able to declare victory in Afghanistan and take his boys home.


In the feverish minds of many, this is considered a good outcome, and it will be sold as such to the Indian public, thanks to the known ability of the Indian media to manufacture consent. A fait accompli is in the works, which naturally will solve nothing. The ISI will then demand Assam, Malabar, and Hyderabad.



1300 words, 28th October 2010