A version of this appeared in Daily News & Analysis on June 29th. Here is the URL: http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/comment_losing-in-afghanistan_1402597

and the pdf of the page can be found here: http://epaper.dnaindia.com/epaperpdf/29062010/28main%20edition-pg12-0.pdf

Losing the new Great Game in Afghanistan

America has gotten itself into an unholy mess thanks to Pakistani duplicity

The news from Afghanistan is not good for the US, nor for India. US President Obama dismissed the commander of his troops in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, ostensibly because of rude comments he made in a magazine article, but in reality because a scapegoat was needed for the increasingly inept war efforts there. The same fate befell his predecessor too.

The facts on the ground indicate that Obama’s announced plan – surge, bribe, declare victory, and run like hell – is not working. The current thinking is no longer about winning, but about spinning a face-saving retreat. Says the Washington Post, “[the] administration is looking for a decent, negotiated exit. The Pakistani intelligence service would act as a surrogate (and guarantor) for the Taliban… The deal might leave the Taliban in control of large parts of Afghanistan…  ”

In other words, Obama is explicitly outsourcing the war to Pakistan’s ISI. This would be a questionable choice anyway. But given that the Taliban are basically ISI in baggy pants and beards, an instance of diplomatic theater (after all, it is astonishing that these alleged theology students suddenly started driving tanks and flying planes), the policy is suicidal. A recent report from the London School of Economics and Harvard University emphasized the links between Pakistan’s government, ISI and the Taliban.

This report, “The Sun in the Sky: The relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan insurgents”, indicts the ISI, which, it says, “orchestrates, supports and strongly influences” insurgents. It “provides huge support in training, funding, munitions and supplies”, which is “official ISI policy”, not the work of some rogue elements. Furthermore, it claims Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari promised to release jailed Taliban leaders if they kept quiet about it. This amounts to “collusion with the Taliban by an enemy state [Pakistan]”.

A New York Times report suggests further that “Pakistan is presenting itself as the new viable partner for Afghanistan to President Hamid Karzai, who has soured on the Americans. Pakistani officials say they can deliver the network of Sirajuddin Haqqani, an ally of Al Qaeda who runs a major part of the insurgency in Afghanistan, into a power-sharing arrangement.”

The Haqqani network and the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are among the ISI’s assets. Ironically, Hekmatyar, now a sworn enemy of the US, received over half of the billions that the CIA lavished on the war against the Soviets, thanks to his friends in the ISI.

It is remarkable that the ISI has hoodwinked the Americans to such an extent. ISI protégés are killing Americans, while the ISI and the Pakistani Army pretend to be fighting on the side of the Americans. In other words, the Americans are fighting people whom they are indirectly funding! It is as though, in Vietnam, they were funding not only the South Vietnam Army, but also the Viet Cong guerillas.

When the history of the Afghan war is written, historians may pinpoint the exact moment the Americans lost it. That was the siege of Kunduz in 2001. The rampaging Northern Alliance had much of the top brass of the Taliban corralled at the fort in Kunduz. Unbelievably, the CIA authorized an airlift by the Pakistanis (now called “Airlift of Evil”). At least a thousand of the Taliban were spirited away – and the open secret is that they were mostly midlevel Pakistani Army and ISI officers in turbans. That singular event sealed the fate of the entire campaign.

It is high time that America recognized that the problem is not Afghanistan, but Pakistan’s scheming Army and ISI.

The ISI has also put about an interesting theory, that Afghanistan is per se not conquerable. That is not quite true: Greeks, Persians, Mongols, et al, did conquer. Yes, the British were routed. That was because, despite propaganda, the British were poor warriors: they were able to win victories in India only because of a disastrous Indian habit of betrayal. There are Mir Jafars aplenty in India; but Afghans do not betray their own to foreigners.

When properly handled, Afghanistan can be conquered and held, as Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Sikh Empire demonstrated not too long ago. The reason most conquerors left Afghanistan is that it is stark, inhospitable territory with no apparent value: the returns were not worth the cost of holding it. Of course, that may change now that they say the country holds trillions of dollars worth of strategic minerals: that may encourage Americans to hold on.

But a comprehensive American defeat in Afghanistan would be strategically bad for India too. It would encourage triumphalist fundamentalists, who could now reasonably claim to have defeated both the Soviets and the Americans. Worse, it would mean that China, through its proxies, has defeated the Americans yet again: this would be number three in a row, after Korea and Vietnam. Imagine their hubris!

825 words, Jun 26, 2010

A version of this appeared on rediff.com on Jun 21st at http://news.rediff.com/column/2010/jun/21/rajeev-srinivasan-on-americas-afghan-plans.htm

A U-turn on Afghanistan?

Rajeev Srinivasan wonders whether the US is making a mid-course correction on Afghanistan

These are not good times for US president Obama. Hailed as a savior if not a messiah just eighteen months ago, he is now reeling from several crises. The BP oil spell has left him looking incompetent and uncaring. The $1 trillion stimulus package may have avoided a Great Depression, but unemployment hovers near 10%. His big achievement, healthcare reform, has left a sour taste with almost all sections of society.

But most of all, the Afghanistan quagmire is getting worse. Just this week, seven US soldiers were killed in a single day; the public is getting tired of body bags and elusive promises of success. Maybe there’s a re-think. A series of unexpected events took place recently that, if put together, may signal a mid-course correction by the US:

  1. A report from the London School of Economics and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University that emphasized the very high level of co-operation between Pakistan’s government, ISI and the Taliban
  2. A major story in the New York Times about the discovery of large mineral deposits in Afghanistan
  3. Severe ethnic riots, resulting in a breakdown of normal activity, in the republic of Kyrgyzstan, where an important US air force supply base in Manas is used to support the war effort
  4. The resignations of Afghanistan’s interior minister and security chief, among other things, taking responsibility for an attack on a loya jirga, but also suggesting a hardening of ethnic differences
  5. Reports that the Afghan President Karzai has lost faith in the ability of the NATO forces to actually win the war
  6. Reports that the much-anticipated counter-insurgency surge in Marjah, which was hailed at the time as momentous, has bogged down and that the rebels are gaining strength

All these have to be seen in the context of Obama’s policy of increasing the number of soldiers on the ground first, and then beginning to wind down the US war effort and withdrawing troops in 2011, just in time to declare victory and use the halo effect to effortlessly win the 2012 presidential elections.

That dream is, to put it mildly, in some jeopardy now. The Obama plan was to surge, bribe, declare victory and run like hell. They have done the surge part, and are in the process of bribing (usually the ISI and its pals), but it’s not going well. The bribees are not acting as expected – Afghans seem to be taking the bribes and merrily continuing what they were doing anyway.

The US’s intent to declare victory and leave requires someone to be the ‘keeper’, as it were, of Afghanistan. The ISI has volunteered itself for this role. This is why it is intriguing that the LSE/Kennedy School report has come out at this time. The Kennedy School is close to the US government, and so it is a fair conjecture that the US administration wants to put the screws on someone.

At first glance, if you read the litany of things in this report, “The Sun in the Sky: The relationship between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan insurgents”, it sounds like a damning indictment of the ISI which is quite transparently the prime motivator, financier, and provider of cover to the Taliban and related groups.

The ISI, says the report, “orchestrates, supports and strongly influences” them. It “provides huge support in training, funding, munitions and supplies”, which is “official ISI policy”, not the work of some rogue elements. Furthermore, it is not just the ISI, it claims that Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari promised to release jailed Taliban leaders if they kept quiet about it. This amounts to “collusion with the Taliban by an enemy state [Pakistan]”, the bracket in the original. Interesting that an American is calling Pakistan an enemy state, not the trademarked “major ally in the war on terror”.

Unfortunately, the author, Matt Waldman, has the standard simplistic solution to all this: the way to end the ISI’s cooperation with the Taliban “is to address the fundamental causes of Pakistan’s insecurity, especially its latent and enduring conflict with India”. Of course, if only India were to give Kashmir to Pakistan, the ISI would stop arming the Taliban, and Americans can go home. Simple! QED.

The answer, therefore, is for India to give more: which might explain the Indian PM’s offer to ‘walk the extra mile’ and the latest euphemism, ‘creative solutions’ to the Kashmir problem. India must give up territory so that Americans can exit Afghanistan, in return for… exactly what? Eternal love and fellowship? Just like India sacrificed Tibet and got eternal love and friendship?

Well, be that as it may, it is also possible that finally the US is recognizing the obvious: the ISI has been running with the hares and hunting with the hounds from day one. Maybe the judicious leak is a way of putting the ISI on notice that it had better ratchet things down to some extent. Maybe the Obamistas are actually planning to stay for a while.

Such an eventuality would explain why the NY Times, also known to the close to the US government, made such breathless noises about newly-discovered minerals in Afghanistan (“1 trillion worth!” “Might fundamentally change the war!”). Perhaps Obama has decided that it is not such a good idea to exit in 2011, possibly handing the terrorists a morale-boosting victory.

This story about minerals is not new – months ago, I heard about this from the intrepid foreign policy analyst who goes by the name Pundita. She suggested this meant Americans would stay on: there was no way they would leave all this loot to the Chinese, who have already snapped up a giant copper mine. Perhaps the NYT minerals story is a red herring to divert attention away from the real issue of American failure in Afghanistan.

That failure is evident in the subdued talk about Marjah now; instead of the cocky self-assurance then, there is grim talk now of the difficulty in clearing the area and keeping in clear. No wonder it appears Karzai has lost faith in American staying power – and even in their military tactics; and he is also probably tired of being painted as the villain and blamed for the failure of American plans.

In this context, the resignations of the interior minister Hanif Atmar and the security chief Amrullah Saleh sent ominous signals. In particular, Saleh, an ex-aide of the assassinated military genius and commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, appears to have been one of the most competent ministers. And as an ethnic Tajik, his departure may signal increasing ethnic fractures in the Afghan government.

It is easy to underestimate the impact of ethnic divisions in Central Asia. There are differences of opinion between the Pashtuns (Karzai is one and so are the Taliban) and the smaller Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara minorities. Sometimes these break into open warfare – the Taliban, for instance, massacred Hazaras, and that was partly because the latter were Shia, so the Shia-Sunni religious divide can also be potent.

A case in point about ethnic divisions is the sudden outburst of rioting and killing in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where the Kyrgyz are apparently killing Uzbeks (which may be normal in Central Asia where majorities severely oppress minorities). This has an impact on the US – if Manas air support base becomes less available for operations, it increases the US’s dependence on Karachi and the ISI that much more.

Thus, nothing seems to be going according to plan, and a gloomy headline in the NY Times suggesting that “Setbacks cloud US plans to get out of Afghanistan”. No kidding. The Americans may have to accept they are in it for the long term: Afghanistan may not be another Vietnam, but a tar baby. They simply cannot cut and run. They have to clean up this unholy mess of their own making.

It is time that America recognized that the problem is not Afghanistan, but the chimera Pakistan, an imaginary homeland. The very existence of Pakistan – a state with no raison d’etre, is the root cause. The random Durand Line, that slices the Pashtun nation into Afghan and Pakistani areas, was never taken seriously by Pashtuns, and the British-brokered treaty that created it expired in 1993. Until a united Pashtun nation is created including the appropriate areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, this problem is going to fester: tribal loyalties run supreme in those mountains.

The Americans may be thinking of contracting the running of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth to the ISI, much as the latter have been exploiting the mineral wealth of Baluchistan while severely oppressing, and occasionally massacring, native Baluch. It is not clear that this tactic will work with the Afghans.

Instead of giving the ISI the ‘strategic depth’ they crave by allowing them run rampant in Afghanistan, the answer would be to create a Pashtun nation, a Baluch nation (part of it is in Iran), a Sindhi nation, leaving the rump of Pakistani Punjab too small to do too much damage to anybody but themselves.

If this has finally dawned on the Americans, the $300 billion that they have already poured down the endless money-pit of this war can be chalked up to experience. Otherwise, they would, in Talleyrand’s memorable indictment of the French monarchy, have “learned nothing and forgotten nothing”. Unfortunately, the most likely outcome is that they will press India to give in to the ISI, or, equally disastrously, ask for Indian troops to join them in Afghanistan.

1550 words, June 15, 2010

Versions of the following appeared on rediff.com and India Abroad. The rediff.com version from June 16th is at http://news.rediff.com/column/2010/jun/16/rajeev-srinivasan-on-indias-relationship-with-america.htm

India needs a relationship of equals, and the US will not offer that

Rajeev Srinivasan on the poor prospects of an Indo-US rapprochement

The just-concluded ‘Strategic Dialog’ between India and the US certainly sounds important. The big question is whether there is any substance behind the rhetoric. Going by past history, it is likely that this will be yet another false dawn in Indo-US relations. An incisive analyst, Brahma Chellaney, summed up Indian skepticism in a tweet:

“The US has realized the simple way to keep Indians happy: An occasional ego-massage. After Obama’s eulogy, Indians will stay content for a while.“

It is true that the oratory emanating from Obama administration, both from under-secretary William Burns and from president Obama himself, has been honeyed, but then pretty speechifying is Obama’s forte. However, there isn’t any steak behind the sizzle: just two weeks ago the US silently acquiesced to the Chinese giving Pakistan, with no strings attached, a nuclear deal which is as good as the ‘deal’ India got at great strategic cost to itself.

Furthermore, Indians have not forgotten that India’s prime minister was not in the list of twenty world leaders Obama telephoned after his accession to the presidency; there was the plan to make Richard Holbrooke a mediator on Kashmir; the appointment of Ellen Tauscher, arch-non-proliferation-ayatollah and harsh critic of India, as under-secretary for arms control; and most of all, the hard-to-defend hedging on letting Indian officials interrogate David Coleman Headley, suspect in Mumbai’s 11/26.

There are plenty of large reasons why the hurrahs about an alleged Indo-US rapprochement are premature. First, even the Bush-era friendship was narrowly-focused – Indian leaders, for unknown reasons, plumped for a hard-to-justify nuclear-based energy future. Indian eagerness was exploited by Americans to strait-jacket India into non-proliferation regimes that severely constrain its strategic options.

Second, the other Bush objective, to build India up as a counterweight to a rampant China, fell by the wayside with the Obamistas’ clear preference for a G2, suggesting that a China-US duopoly is inevitable, and conceding to China the role of hegemon in Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific Ocean, and explicitly in the Indian subcontinent.

Third, Obama has stated unequivocally that he intends to cut and run from Afghanistan. He believes he needs a Pakistani fig-leaf to claim victory in the face of a humiliating defeat and a head-long retreat like Saigon in 1975. Therefore, he leans on India to give ‘concessions’ to Pakistan: it costs him nothing.

Fourth, there is a history of American duplicity. American promises of eternal, undying love are pure theatrics. Bitter experiences with reneging on treaty obligations for fuel for Tarapur, a slew of nuclear treaties such as NPT, CTBT, FMCT, etc., all aimed at India in particular, and the decades-old acceptance of Chinese nuclear proliferation to Pakistan, suggest American bad faith.

Fifth, the fundamental premise behind an Indo-US relationship is flawed. There is an underlying assumption that the world will remain unipolar and American-dominated, with at best China being a secondary, less appealing second pole, and that therefore it is incumbent on India to align with the US lest it be left out in the cold.

The facts on the ground do not support this assumption. America is waning. Yes, it will continue to be the biggest world power for a while yet, but the US in 2050 will be much less dominant than in 1950. In 1950, America bestrode the world like a colossus, intact in a World-War II-ravaged world. In 2050, China and India will be nipping at its heels.

India can never ally with imperialist China, which seeks to dominate Asia, if not the world. They leave no room for a rival, and systematically undermine all potential competitors. It appears that, after a series of reverses, it has dawned on the US that the alleged G2 – although favored by unreconstructed cold-warriors like Zbigneiw Brezezinski and apologists for empire like Niall Ferguson – is of greater advantage to China than to itself.

This may explain the sudden interest in India by the Obamistas. The Democrats’ natural instinct is intensely anti-India. This is standard ‘liberal’ hypocrisy, wherein they pay lip service to democracy and freedom and other motherhood, but secretly admire fascist thugs, despots and dictators – such as those in China, Pakistan and Iran, all the targets of Obamista overtures.

There is also the pragmatic reason that India’s economy is growing rapidly. Much like the 19th-century British, Americans seek markets. China, the other large market, is difficult, and extracts its pound of flesh, as seen in Google’s troubles. Especially as India will invest in buying armaments, aircraft and other big-ticket items where the US still has a competitive edge, it is a tempting market. That’s good for the US.

But these are not reasons for India to ally itself with the US. In fact, there has been little improvement in scientific, technical or other ties. The Indian space effort remains cut off by law from much American technology. In other ways too, India is treated as a pariah by the US government, on par with dangerous, failing states. There is also the perennial litmus test – when will the US unambiguously endorse India for a veto-holding permanent seat in the UN Security Council?

No relationship can survive when the benefits are one-sided. Therefore, India will be better-off not tying itself to a waning power, at a time when it is itself on the rise. An America beset with financial problems, with receding self-confidence, and with the Gulf oil-spill as metaphor for its decline, is not worth allying with. At least, not unless India gets concrete, and massive, benefits in return. Time favors India.

There is no point in being a satellite to a sinking, unreliable America – instead, India should strive to establish itself as a pole in a multi-polar world consisting of, perhaps, a G3 or G4 – including itself and the EU. Better to live two days as a tiger than two hundred years as a sheep, a quote attributed to Tipu Sultan.

1000 words, 6 Jun 2010

A version of this appeared in DNA on Jun 15th at:


and here’s the pdf for the full page:


The parlous state of Hindu temples in India

Rajeev Srinivasan believes government has no business running temples into the ground

There was shocking news recently about the collapse of the raja-gopuram of the Sri Kalahasti temple near Tirupati. This is no ordinary temple – it hosts one of the five important Saivite jyotir-lingas, each associated with one of the elements (earth, wind, fire, air and ether). The gopuram was built by Krishnadeva Raya of Vijayanagar in 1516 CE, although the shrine itself is a millennium or two older. Most nations would treat such ancient monuments as a treasured part of its cultural heritage, but not India.

The 150-foot tower, a typical Southern-style vimana with intricate carvings, was damaged by lightning some years ago, yet absolutely nothing was done by the authorities. After the collapse, to add insult to injury, a report by a commission said the tower had “outlived its life”. Would this same logic apply to, say, the Taj Mahal – has that outlived its life? It is the business of the State to maintain its cultural heritage and artifacts. There are reports of similar damage to other temple towers, eg. at Srirangapatna near Mysore.

Then there was the news that the Kerala High Court lambasted the Travancore Devaswom Board for being corrupt and inefficient. The Court observed that Hindu temples are struggling“orphanages”, poorly maintained and falling apart; Hindus are orphans.

Furthermore, a Cochin Devaswom Board official got drunk and vomited within the temple precincts at the Siva temple at Vaikom, necessitating elaborate purification ceremonies. This is also no ordinary temple – a major Saivite shrine, it is also historically important. It was the Vaikom Satyagraha in 1924 that led the way to the dramatic Temple Entry Proclamation in Travancore in 1936. And the official’s ‘punishment’? He was promoted to Vigilance Officer!

All these events point to an abomination in the allegedly secular Indian State – there is no separation of Church (meaning religion) and State, as is the norm in modern nations. The State must be indifferent to religion, and it should not allow religious sentiments to color its actions — the true definition of the term ‘secularism’.

A Devaswom Board is an oxymoron. There should be no involvement of the State in religion, which should be left to individuals and religious groups. In fact, that is so with non-Hindu religions in India – they can run their own affairs with no interference from the government, except for largesse – such as Haj subsidies for Muslims, and Andhra’s own subsidies for Christians to travel to Palestine/Israel on pilgrimage.

On the other hand, Hindu temples are under the control of an interfering State, with disastrous results: they are being destroyed systematically by the rapine and pillage of the malign State. On the one hand, temple offerings are expropriated by the State; yet, the State does not even perform basic maintenance. The offerings, amounting to crores, from large shrines such as Tirupati or Sabarimala, are simply treated as general government revenue, and are not recycled to small, poor temples.

Traditionally, temples were the centers of the community, running cultural events, acting as a focal point for efforts such as water conservation, drought relief, famine avoidance, and so forth. This is in the racial memory of Hindus – and so we contribute whatever we can afford to the temple. The State has found it convenient to appropriate these funds. The pittance that a poor believer donates is grabbed and diverted by the Government!

The malice is obvious in Kerala where the State controls most of the temples through the Devaswom Boards, which, it is said, are infiltrated by atheists and anti-Hindus. It can be seen in the difference between Board temples and others. The latter, private temples belonging often a joint family, are thriving, while the Board-controlled temples are impoverished, falling apart, and finding their lands stolen.

I found this to my chagrin at my own family’s centuries-old temple, which we had handed over to the Travancore Devaswom Board about a hundred years ago. On my previous visit, about five years ago, the temple, while old, was thriving. Today, it is on the verge of being abandoned, thanks to indifference and possibly even malice on the part of the Board: an alleged renovation has been totally botched.

This is, amazingly, a continuation of a colonial-era crime – a British Resident named Munro, a missionary bigot, forced the Maharani of Travancore circa 1819 CE to commingle temple lands with government lands, with the result that a lot of those lands, essential to the income and running of temples, were alienated. Consequently, the 10,000+ temples in Travancore then have now been reduced to a mere 2,000.

Governments have no business interfering in religion. It is a crime against the people of India for the government to ruin these cultural treasures, a common heritage of this nation.

815 words, June 12, 2010

A version of this appeared on rediff.com on Jun 2nd at http://news.rediff.com/column/2010/jun/02/rajeev-srinivasan-on-why-india-is-not-taken-seriously.htm

The fine art of punching below one’s weight

Rajeev Srinivasan on how India has managed to make itself much smaller and less important in the world’s eyes than it really is

Several events in the recent past have been emblematic of the problems that India faces: on the one hand, India gets no respect from anybody. On the other hand, it may well not deserve any – any Rodney Dangerfield fans out there?

Pakistan’s Supreme Court found Hafiz Saeed, founder of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and suspected chief instigator of the 11/26 attacks on Mumbai, innocent of all charges. Startlingly, a few days later, India released 25 jailed terrorists (members of the LeT, Jaish-e-Mohamed and Hizbul Mujahideen) and returned them to Pakistan.

Second, some low-level official in Canada’s embassy in India has been, it turns out, telling Indian armed forces members that they are violent terrorists and therefore ineligible for a visa – this has been going on for two years.

Pakistan’s behavior in exonerating Hafiz Saeed – the Supreme Court must be influenced by their government’s, and army’s wishes – suggests that they do not take India seriously. All the fine warlike words uttered by the GoI after 11/26 (and after the every blast in the past six or seven years), that there would be a stiff price to pay for any further mischief and so on, turn out to be total bluster. India has metaphorically thrown in the garbage-bin the 200 or so victims of 11/26. It is safe to kill Indians, and there are no consequences whatsoever. (Communist terrorists and their sponsors are taking note, which explains the 150 ordinary, apolitical, normal Indians massacred due to rail sabotage in Bengal).

Pakistan has called India’s bluff. They have observed that the Indian establishment is laboring under the illusion that there are only two things that can happen between the two countries – “peace talks” [sic] or war. Pakistanis like the so-called peace talks because that means India will continuously make unilateral concessions to keep the alleged dialog going – after all, this is exactly what India has done for 28 years with China, with China escalating its demands on Indian territory all the time and never giving an inch in the discussions.

Pakistanis also believe that Indians are too cowardly to actually go to war, and that anyway sugar daddy American can always be called upon to put pressure on India. Astonishingly, Indian planners do not comprehend that there are shades of gray – it is not a binary affair between war and talks. There are other ways of imposing costs on a recalcitrant foe – it is not for nothing that the aphorism goes “diplomacy is the continuation of war by other means”.

There are other means India has at its disposal, for instance monkeying with water supplies to the lower riparian Pakistan (once again, the clever Chinese have shown how to do with downstream states for rivers originating in occupied Tibet by building dams and even using river-bombs such as those in the Sutlej when they suddenly release massive floods). Trade sanctions are also possible – instead of which India gives generous Most Favored Nation status to Pakistan with no reciprocity. Covert operations, including judicious interference, are also used by all nations as part of their strategy.

But the bottom line is that the original end — peace and cooperation in exchange for stopping terrorism – has fallen by the wayside. The means – the so-called peace talks – have become the end, and the UPA cannot see beyond them. Pakistan has realized that the UPA will appease them and give peace, cooperation and all the trade they want, and there is no penalty to them for continuing their terrorist attacks on India.

In Afghanistan as well, Pakistan has got its way. The world at large sees India as superfluous in Afghanistan, despite the highly-lauded humanitarian and infrastructure-building activity that Indians have pursued there at significant cost in blood and treasure. India was conspicuously excluded from talks on Afghanistan. Pakistan has convinced the world that India is a liability and a hindrance to Obama’s plans to declare victory and run like mad from Afghanistan.

The release of the 25 captured terrorists, in the very wake of Hafiz Saeed’s exoneration, sends a startling message. Orders came from the Home Ministry (See the Daily Excelsior, May 27th: “Let, HM ultras among 25 Pakistanis freed from 8 jails”) apparently as a peace offering prior to the Home Minister’s and External Affairs Ministers’ visits to Pakistan. How come no Indians in Pakistani prisons are being released in return? What about Sarabjit Singh, falsely accused, on death row, and continually harassed in Pakistan?

Why does Pakistan not feel the need for “goodwill measures”? Because it is India that is desperate to continue the charade of the “peace talks”. That confuses the impartial observer – it is Pakistan which needs that fig-leaf. So whose interests are being protected here? Pertinently, who is pulling the strings?

Second, the Canadian mess is a metaphor for the fact that India has no credibility. After all, Canada (like Australia and Britain) are generally mere appendages for the US. They tend to have little individual clout, but follow the US’s policies. For instance, it is Australia that has been the loudest in threatening India with bloody murder if it didn’t sign the NPT. It is not for nothing that the word ‘poodle’ is sometimes used in this context.

Now comes Canada with a sterling act of friendly diplomacy. The fact that this insulting of serving and retired Indian army and police officers has been going on for two years is simply astonishing. Why wasn’t the low-level flunkey accused of doing this declared persona non grata and given 24 hours to leave, bag and baggage? Why wasn’t the Canadian ambassador summoned and given a demarche? These are the things real countries do – let us remember how the noxious Chinese, in a gratuitous insult, woke up Indian ambassador Nirupama Rao at 2am to deliver a complaint.

It is particularly ironic coming from Canada. I wrote a few years ago in the Pioneer (“Justice denied: the Kanishka bombing of 1985”, May 22nd, 2007) about how Canada had been criminally negligent in ignoring warnings about the events that led to the bombing of Air India’s Kanishka aircraft, with the loss of 329 lives. Furthermore, their investigation – still incomplete after 25 years – shows racism, incompetence, callousness, dilatory tactics and virtual State compliance in terrorism.

Indians are afraid – of what I do not know – to give uppity foreigners a dressing-down. In fact, this would be highly salutary. If India had immediately expelled the obnoxious Chinese diplomat who said that Arunachal Pradesh was part of China, the Canadians would have been more circumspect.

In that vein, it appears US president Obama is going to make another totally empty gesture, which will give goose-bumps to the usual suspects. It seems he is going to ‘drop in’ on the External Affairs Minister’s discussions with Hillary Clinton. And why, pray, is this significant, unless he is actually bringing David Coleman Headley along (thanks, B, for that insight)? It’s style over substance – let us remember how the Indian PM was not among the world leaders that Obama telephoned when he first took charge, but there was the nonsense of the First State Visit ™ over which the Indian media and officialdom went ga-ga. Nothing whatsoever came of that, other than that a good time, and biriyani, were had by all.

The world has taken its measure of India, and found it to be a second-tier nation. Hence they will continue to insult it subtly and openly. There is no consequence. India does not realize that it is, at least as an economic entity, a desirable partner, and that when the world is in the depths of a financial crisis, the threat of withholding access to the Indian market would immediately encourage snooty Canadas and Australias and Britains to fold. We have seen how the British absolutely groveled a few years ago when Malaysia’s prickly Mahathir Mohammed cancelled orders with British companies when the British said something rude. I have never seen such kowtowing and mea culpas and brown-nosing.

India is a heavyweight acting like a featherweight. There may be a Hanuman Syndrome in effect here: a country not knowing its true worth. On the other hand, I am afraid it’s worse – the rulers do not pursue India’s national interests to the best of their ability, despite their solemn oath to do so.

1400 words, 31st May, 2010

A version of the following appeared in DNA on June 1 at the following URL:


Here is a PDF version of the same; DNA provided an absolutely fabulous photograph to go with it! inclusion of the rural poor jun 1

Financial inclusion for the rural poor: Rural Postal Life Insurance reaches out

Rajeev Srinivasan

Experts agree that bringing financial services to the rural masses is generally desirable. Significant value can be generated (both for individuals and for the nation) through providing services to the disadvantaged – for instance, the World Bank’s Christine Qiang estimates that national GDP grows by 0.8% for every 10 percentage-point increase in mobile telephony in emerging economies. Similarly financial services, such as micro-finance, can have a multiplicative effect on the unbanked.

The definition of ‘financial inclusion’ concerns the provision of financial services at an affordable cost. Both State-mandated interventions and market-driven efforts by the banks themselves have been tried. However, this has still left many strata of society under-served: a 2004 survey showed that there were only 59 deposit accounts for every 100 adults in the population. This also masks regional differences – from 17 in Manipur to 187 in Goa.

Most policymakers like some sort of dole – pensions, subsidies, etc., with the latest example being the NREGS scheme which guarantees 100 days-worth of wages to poor laborers. But these schemes are riddled with leakage. Subsidies are not sustainable in the long term, being most appropriate for short-term emergencies; they do not deal with underlying problems. Besides, the public sector has a reputation for callousness.

This is why it is all the more amazing that an innovative public sector initiative has had the effect of reaching many of the previously excluded in a short time. A conversation with the India Post Board member who dreamt up the program, Dr. Uday Balakrishnan, revealed two intriguing facts – one, the ability of the public sector to re-invent itself, and two, the willingness of poor cohorts to marshal their small savings and engage themselves in financial markets. It makes for a fine case study.

India Post is an underutilized player for financial inclusion, because it has reach and credibility. Given the 500,000 employees stationed in 155,000 outlets around the country, it is well placed as a distribution channel; it is the main payment conduit for 50 million NREGS participants. There is also trust in the institution, so that people are willing to incorporate it into their financial planning. As many as 200 million people hold Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) accounts.

It appears that India Post has been offering rural life insurance since 1995, but never emphasized it as a major line of business. When it began to focus on it recently, the results have been impressive: they empowered employees to think creatively and to innovate. A change management effort that also streamlined processes has enabled them to meet stiff targets. It is heartening that even staid government entities, with proper motivation, can be nimble.

Within a few months, some 12 million rural people have taken policies, with a majority of them opting for micro-insurance – for instance, life insurance policies that insure for up to Rs. 10,000, at a very affordable premium of one rupee a day. Larger policies are available for the price of a pack of beedis (Rs. 6) a day. The Post Office has become the largest player in this segment, covering more than twice as many people as all the other insurance companies put together, adding a million-plus new insurants a month.

Why have people opted to buy this level of insurance? Interviews suggest that the best reason is that the poor are aware of the opportunities that exist for their children, if only they could afford a decent education – in other words, there is an aspiration out there that the next generation must do better, and people are willing to sacrifice today’s consumption for children’s education tomorrow.

What is remarkable is that people are voluntarily spending their own tiny savings to buy this social security mechanism. Most of us think the great Indian public looks to the maa-baap government for everything, and that therefore doles, loan forgiveness, etc. are inevitable. It turns out the masses are willing to invest their small savings for the guarantee that a death in the family does not stunt their children’s future.

Once they hold this basic, fungible (if not liquid) financial asset (a life insurance policy), they use it as collateral to get loans from banks; that is, they are included in the system, and they become credit-worthy. In fact, the next thing they want is crop insurance, medical insurance, etc. – they are acting as rational economic players.

Furthermore, as a result of the law of unintended consequences, they are players in the broader financial market. Part of the premium (a prudent percentage, but still 1000s of crores)fs is invested in the market, and, over time, this should bring them better returns than those from the government-securities market.

The late C K Prahalad would be proud of them. The three billion at his ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ are at last clawing their way out of poverty.

816 words, May 26, 2010