A version of the following was published by DNA on Oct 19th at: http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/column_it-s-time-for-india-to-exit-the-british-commonwealth_1454635

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 rediff.com 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



A version of the following was published in DNA on 21 sept at: http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/main-article_the-roma-are-the-unsung-victims-of-european-racism_1440809

Gypsy or Roma: unwept, unsung victims of European racism

Rajeev Srinivasan questions why the oppression of Roma for centuries does not excite the human-rights-wallahs

A number of events recently point to a massive backlash building against immigrants in Europe. Some of this is predictable – in times of economic trouble, rich white countries look for scapegoats, and immigrants usually fit the bill, especially if they are non-white, as we see in the fierce battles in the US over illegal immigration from Mexico.

There is also the little-expressed European fear of being swamped by culturally alien, demographically fearsome, and demonstratively religious Muslim populations that have burgeoned on their continent. There is a fear of Eurabia — white Europeans, with their comfortable welfare states, their decadent lifestyles, their disdain for their church, worry about being overwhelmed by what they imagine as Muslim hordes imposing their muscular cultural mores.

This has led to the controversy over the French ban on the female veil or hijab, the Swiss ban on minarets, and perhaps more subtly the recent success of Geert Wilders’ determinedly anti-Muslim party in the laid-back Netherlands, and, in a surprise just this weekend, in the entry of a far-right party into the Swedish parliament, with the possibility of them offering key support to a minority government in a hung parliament.

The far-right in Europe has gained a new legitimacy, far removed from the earlier antics of the likes of Enoch Powell in Britain and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, both of whom were considered gadflies with no particular chance of influencing the government. Today’s right-wing, anti-immigrant parties are serious contenders for power. The tide is apparently turning, and Europe, which has a nasty history of intolerance, is reverting to norm: racism, religious animosity, and strife.

The obvious target of all this anger is the increasing numbers of Muslims especially in ghettos like the inflammable banlieus of France. On the other hand, European are also quite conscious that Muslims are not to be messed with: the lessons of 9/11, the British subway bombings, and the uproar over the Danish cartoons have all convinced Europeans that it is best to treat Muslims with kid gloves.

Therefore, they have chosen the usual suspects to victimize: the Gypsy or Roma. There is no fear of retaliation because the Roma are powerless. The other favorite victims in Europe, Jews, have now acquired their own State, and will not tolerate abuse.

So the Roma are left to take the brunt of the hatred. They have been the chosen victims of racism and large-scale oppression for centuries. Ironically, they have been victimized over and over again. The Roma are not originally from Egypt – which mistaken impression is whence the name ‘gypsy’ came about – but from India. It is clear that they are the remnants of formerly Hindu Indian migrant groups, some of which were enslaved and sold by Muslims invaders such as Mahmud of Gazni. There are similarities – both genetic and cultural – with some itinerant tribal populations in India.

Thus the Roma have been doubly unfortunate: enslaved and/or uprooted first, then dispersed as marginal, despised populations throughout much of Europe (the typical adjective used for them is ‘thieving’; also remember the gypsy girl Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame: she did not have too many rights). Later, they were among the groups targeted for genocide by the Nazis, and large numbers of them perished in death camps and gas chambers.

There have been continuous pogroms against Roma for centuries. There was Roma slavery in Romania until 1855. Ten thousand Roma were rounded up in Spain in 1749. In the 18th century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire banned Roma marriages and forcibly took away Roma children. Fascists in Italy in 1926 ordered the expulsion of all Roma. 19,300 Roma were killed in Auschwitz, and 90% of the Roma in areas such as Lithunia that Nazis took over.

The contemporary situation for Roma is none too good. There was a recent act by the French State, which decreed that it was deporting many Roma to Romania (despite the similarity, the words are not related, it just so happens that these particular people were indeed immigrants from Romania). This has brought out a lot of concerns, condemnations, and charges of discrimination everywhere.

There is a feeling of déjà vu in all this. We in India have heard about how poorly Harijans are treated in India. Loudmouthed vested interests equate casteism with racism, and condemn Hindu society. Much of this is instigated by conversion-focused churches. But  when Christians in Europe who belong to these very same churches are brutalizing Roma, where are the voices of righteous indignation? This just goes to show the extent of hypocrisy among Europeans and churchmen. They, as it is said, “see the mote in their brother’s eye, but not the beam in their own”. NIMBY, right, not in my back yard? Amnesty International, anyone?

825 words, 20 September 2010

Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant.


A version of the following was published in the DNA on sep 7th: http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/main-article_election-commission-flunks-the-openness-test-on-evms_1434122

Are Electronic Voting Machines reliable?

Rajeev Srinivasan wonders whether EVMs as they are today are a fundamental threat to India’s democracy

I am doubtful about electronic voting machines based on a healthy engineering skepticism. The touching faith we repose in computers is misplaced, because they are vulnerable to errors and tampering. It is a good idea to have a low-tech backup mechanisms for embedded systems, which run devices such as refrigerators, microwaves, ATMs, etc. For instance, braking problems that led to Toyota’s massive recalls are almost certainly due to software-based systems. This is the reason why critical systems like nuclear power plants often have electro-mechanical controls, not computer controls.

As embedded systems, Electronic Voting Machines are inherently risky. Admittedly, they have advantages: for one, it is not possible to do physical ‘booth-capturing’. Besides, votes are converted into digital impulses so that counting can be lightning-fast; and statistical data collection, analysis, etc. are much easier.

Unfortunately, that strength is also, ironically, the Achilles heel of EVMs. Since there is no physical audit trail of the vote, once you have cast your vote, you cannot verify that it is honored. It is a relatively minor task for a software-savvy criminal to fix an election. A paper trail – much like an ATM – is sorely needed to prevent this and provide validation.

There are two major aspects to making such systems more secure – human factors and processes. We have evolved fail-safe mechanisms that require co-operation of several individuals believed to be highly reliable. These people are vetted via security clearances. And processes need to be put in place that can prevent intentional or accidental errors.

The technical systems, human factors, and process issues need to work in perfect synchronicity for a complex system to work correctly. However, in several cases around the world, EVMs have been found wanting, and this has led to bans in, among others the US, Germany, and the Netherlands. The Germans found that EVMs violated their constitution, because the system is obliged to prove to the voter that his vote is registered as per his intent, and EVMs cannot guarantee that.

It is in this context that we need to see the recent arrest of an Indian EVM researcher, Hari Prasad.  The Election Commission of India (ECI) has claimed that their EVMs are “foolproof”, “perfect” etc. But Hari and fellow-researchers put together a proof-of-concept and demonstrated a hack on some other hardware. The EC pointed out, fairly, that this was not on one of the Indian EVMs. But when the researchers requested that the EC provide them with an actual EVM, it appears the EC refused access.


The EC has also emphasized how secure their processes are, how the machines are sealed in high-security currency-quality paper with wax and secured in warehouses in the custody of reliable officials. Alas, a system based on string and sealing wax sounds positively primitive.


Sure enough, the researchers acquired an EVM from one of the EC’s warehouses, and demonstrated several ways of tampering with it, including the use of radio-aware chips that would enable a Bluetooth-based cellphone outside a booth to manipulate the machines. The vaunted process of the EC was, however, not even aware of the missing machine for several months!


Computer security experts are not convinced, either. I listened carefully to the podcast of a session at the recent USENIX conference recently wherein this was debated, with representatives from both sides making their case. I was disappointed to heat that the foolproof measures that the EC is so proud of boil down ‘security by obscurity’ – that is, a complex process that is expected to be hard to break into – and faith in a small number of software people at firms the EC did not identify.


Instead of lauding Hari Prasad as a well-intentioned white-hat researcher whose suggestions for improvement should have been welcomed, the EC sought to demonize him and terrorize him. This is counter-productive.


Thus, on several counts, including constitutionality, the reaction to whistleblowers, and the implications for Indian democracy, this is a fascinating case, and the EC did not cover itself with glory.


Distressingly, another other pillar of society did not distinguish itself. It is the media. So far as I can tell, the entire English-language media chose to bury this story, although a few stray op-eds have been written. This is a dereliction of the media’s duty as the watchdog of society. If an election is fixed, it is a bloodless constitutional coup. The fact that the media is not asking awkward questions and forcing the government to respond raises questions about its integrity and ethics.


Thus, two of the independent institutions in India that should impose checks and balances on the executive branch have abdicated their responsibility. This is a cause for extreme concern; this is a sign of a State whose machinery is breaking down. And that is the crux of the matter in l’affaire EVM.


825 words, 3 Sept 2010