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Archive | April, 2010

India’s do-nothing culture

What is the Defense Minister defending?

Defense Minister AK Antony presented the following in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha about abandoned IAF airfields:

There are 29 abandoned airfields of the Indian Air Force (IAF) spread across eleven states in the country. Review of abandoned airfields for revival is a continuous, ongoing process and is based on the operational assessment / requirement of the IAF.

No funds have been allocated nor utilized during 2008-09 and 2009-10 for maintenance and revival of abandoned airfields. [PIB]

Twenty-nine abandoned airfields is a telling statistic and is a reflection of the deeper malaise affecting the armed forces.  But what more could be expected when the IAF is operating 8.5 squadrons below its sanctioned strength of 39 squadrons? And what good are aircraft anyway, when there is a shortage of about 400 pilots in the IAF.  Such staggering levels of non-performance would have led to summary dismissals in the corporate world; but not in government.  Because, after all, AK Antony is an honorable man.

Two weeks before 26/11, MoD announced ambitious plans to modernize 39 IAF airfields across the country.  Two years on, that project has been stalled by MoD’s Vigilance Department. On grounds of “unfair practices” in the bidding process.  After all, the raksha mantri is an honorable man.

To address the need to replace aging aircraft and plug shortages, IAF projected a requirement for 126 multi-role combat aircraft in 2001 — which eventually led to the Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender — worth $10 billion, attracting tenders from six international aerospace corporations.  Nine years on, and a year and a half into conducting trials of the combat aircraft, MoD failed to arrive at a decision by the deadline that it stipulated and has since asked manufacturers to resubmit offers for an additional year.  Because the Defense Minister is trying to assure a “squeaky clean” image in the decision making process.

This begs the question: what is the Defense Minister defending? India’s territorial integrity or his image in the history books?  UPA 2.0 has bred a noxious culture that punishes errors of commission but not errors of omission.  Indeed, not doing anything at all if there is the slightest possibility of questions being raised is keenly encouraged.

Meanwhile, IAF still operates 400 MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft that were obsolete two decades ago, a significant number of its airfields lie in rot, it is several squadron short of the minimum number of front-line combat aircraft required to secure the country, and in any case, hasn’t recruited or trained enough pilots, even if those 126 combat aircraft were hypothetically ready to be inducted tomorrow. Is there a Defense Minister who would do his country’s bidding?

UPA 2.0 is replete with honorable men.  So are they all; all honorable men.

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Rein in the BCCI

What is an undemocratic institution doing representing the Republic of India?

The Shashi Tharoor vs. Lalit Modi fracas raises several questions on the turpitude, excesses and indiscretions rampant in the governance of an organization claiming to represent India to the outside world. Mr. Tharoor ultimately paid the price, and rightly so, for errors in judgment; however, the disproportionate pressure exerted by some sections of India’s news media on the government was both distasteful and inappropriate.

Insofar as Mr. Modi and the BCCI are concerned, the Tehelka exposé presents a grim picture of the muddled madness that is the business of cricket in India.  Commercial successes and unquestioned adoration of the game and its stars have essentially given the BCCI a carte blanche in how the organization conducts its affairs, even as it “represents” India on the world stage of cricket, which it largely dominates.  Greater transparency and accountability are, of course, important and must be demanded, but cannot be realistically expected in the absence of structural reform.

It is here that the fundamental questions of the role and composition of the BCCI need to be answered.  Structurally, the BCCI is incorporated as a private charitable society under the Tamil Nadu Registered Societies Act, 1975, but for almost all other intents and purposes, makes representation on behalf of the Government of India.  It uses government-owned stadiums (for which it pays a very nominal amount) and receives tax concessions as a charitable society promoting cricket in the country.  Powerful politicians such as Madhavrao Scindia and Sharad Pawar have held the position of President, BCCI, during their tenure as union cabinet ministers.  Operating as a charitable society, the BCCI is not required to disclose its balance sheet to the public.

The ambiguity, convenient as it may be for some,  must end — either the BCCI is government-owned and operated, or it is a private organization sanctioned to oversee cricket affairs in the country.  If it is a government-owned entity, it must fall under the ambit of the Right to Information Act (RTI) and the Comptroller Auditor General (CAG).

If it is a private organization like Cricket Australia (CA), or the English Cricket Board (ECB), and charged with overseeing cricket affairs in the country, then structural reform is necessary to remove any ambiguity — politicians holding public office have no business heading the organization.  Both CA and ECB are incorporated as companies limited by guarantee. If this ambiguity is to be removed, the BCCI must be restructured along similar lines, as provided for by the Companies Act, 1956 (Table C, Schedule 1).  Regardless of whether it is a government-owned entity or a private corporation, its books must be open for public scrutiny.

Additionally, what is a “charitable organization” doing running a $2.4 billion (2009) private cricket league? There is a conflict of interest between being a organization charged with governing India’s cricket affairs and running a multi-billion dollar competition of private clubs. Simply put, this cannot go on.  The IPL, if it is to continue, must be spun-off and incorporated like other sports leagues around the world.  Its private clubs can then enjoy the benefits of private enterprise as well as assume all its risks, including the prospect of bankruptcy. The IPL then would function as an association — much like the NFL or NHL in the U.S. — where each franchisee operates as an independent business unit, but functions under shared revenue generated from broadcasting, merchandising, ad sales, etc.

In 2006, the BCCI announced that it would constitute a Constitutional Reforms Committee to examine the structure and functioning of the BCCI. Was this ever operationalized? Where is the committee’s manifest? Were any reports published? What were its recommendations?  These questions can only be answered if Indian cricket fans and news media put them across to the BCCI and more importantly, to the government.  In the absence of this, the BCCI will continue to operate a plutocratic shadow-organization in the good name of the Republic of India and the IPL will continue to remain the Commonwealth’s largest annual sleaze-fest, again as a representative of India’s citizenry.

Now, will those media persons who feigned mock outrage at Shashi Tharoor, demand accountability from the BCCI and the Government of India?

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Battle of Paani-pat

Where is the need for such magnanimity?

John Briscoe’s piece entitled “War or Peace on the Indus” was published on The News a couple of weeks ago, but only came to my attention via The Interpreter.  Prof. Briscoe contends the following with regard to what he believes is an issue of perception (emphasis added):

Living in Delhi and working in both India and Pakistan, I was struck by a paradox. One country was a vigorous democracy, the other a military regime. But whereas an important part of the Pakistani press regularly reported India’s views on the water issue in an objective way, the Indian press never did the same.

I never saw a report which gave Indian readers a factual description of the enormous vulnerability of Pakistan, of the way in which India had socked it to Pakistan when filling Baglihar. How could this be, I asked? Because, a journalist colleague in Delhi told me, “when it comes to Kashmir – and the Indus Treaty is considered an integral part of Kashmir — the ministry of external affairs instructs newspapers on what they can and cannot say, and often tells them explicitly what it is they are to say.

This apparently remains the case. In the context of the recent talks between India and Pakistan I read, in Boston, the electronic reports on the disagreement about “the water issue” in The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Indian Express and The Economic Times. Taken together, these reports make astounding reading. Not only was the message the same in each case (“no real issue, just Pakistani shenanigans”), but the arguments were the same, the numbers were the same and the phrases were the same. And in all cases the source was “analysts” and “experts” — in not one case was the reader informed that this was reporting an official position of the Government of India.

Equally depressing is my repeated experience – most recently at a major international meeting of strategic security institutions in Delhi – that even the most liberal and enlightened of Indian analysts (many of whom are friends who I greatly respect) seem constitutionally incapable of seeing the great vulnerability and legitimate concern of Pakistan (which is obvious and objective to an outsider). [The News]

My INI co-blogger at Polaris has a clinical, comprehensive rebuttal of some to the claims made by Prof. Briscoe.  There are a couple of points that I’d like to make, however.

Primarily, with regard to the notion that India’s news media has been coerced by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) into presenting a largely “Indian slant” on the issue, “substantiated” by Prof. Briscoe’s claim that data presented by several media houses in India were the same.   Certainly, the numbers were the same.  But only because they were based on factual data, and not on David Copperfield type concoctions disseminated to the world by folks in Pakistan.

The Indus Waters Treaty provided for an arbitration clause in the event of dispute.  Pakistan exercised that right during the Baglihar Dam controversy (and may likely do the same in opposition to the Kishen-Ganga project).  The Neutral Expert upheld some minor Pakistani objections (whereby poundage capacity was reduced by about 14%, and the height of the dam was reduced by 1.5 meters) but Pakistan’s claims on the height and gated control of spillway were emphatically rejected.

The very same Pakistani press, which Prof. Briscoe lauded as having reported “India’s views on the water issue in an objective way,” spun the results of the arbitration and led the Pakistani awam to believe that the World Bank had ruled in favor of Pakistan.  Objective, indeed.

A second point revolved not around the terms of the treaty, but on its spirit, whereby it was contended that India, big brother and upper riparian, show magnanimity towards the smaller, more fragile state. Prof. Briscoe asserts that Indians did not see the great vulnerability and legitimate concern of Pakistan. Had this been the case, India could have, within its right, tapped all 33 million acre feet (MAF) of the eastern rivers and stored 3.6 MAFs of western rivers — it has done neither, allowing Pakistan access to, at the very minimum, 3 MAF not required by the Treaty.  Even the compensation that India is entitled to, per the terms of the treaty hasn’t been sought from Pakistan. Magnanimous enough?

To be sure, both India and Pakistan do need to work out aspects of current dynamics not explicitly addressed by the Treaty, such as water sharing in periods of shortage.  No one denies that Pakistan faces a severe crisis on the water issue.  The solution to this is for Pakistan to try and optimize design and efficiency of existing dams and develop more efficient solutions for water management by partnering with those willing to offer assistance, such as the U.S., via the Signature Energy Program and initiatives provided for by the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation.

While Prof. Briscoe may be an expert on water management issues, Pakistan’s accusations have to be considered within the ambit of its antipathy towards India that is, ultimately, its raison d’être.

Numbers and intricacies  can confuse the brightest intellect — simply painting India as the hydra-headed monster stealing water from the honest Pakistani  is a simpler, more direct sales pitch to the awam already reeling from the effects of decades of water mismanagement by its own rulers.

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The “unscrupulous” Mr. Karzai

When the solid matter hits the air circulating equipment, everyone looks out for their own interests. Are we?

“For it is dangerous to attach one’s self to the crowd in front, and so long as each one of us is more willing to trust another than to judge for himself…

Seneca the Younger, On The Happy Life

Groupthink is a dangerous thing. And while they may disagree about everything else under the sun, Washington-types have unanimously directed their ire at Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  An apparent quote from an unattributable source about Mr. Karzai threatening to join the Taliban, if international pressure on him did not cease, made the rounds in international media.  Ex-UN envoy to Afghanistan Peter Galbraith questioned Mr. Karzai’s mental condition and suggested that the president may have a drug use problem.

Steve Coll’s blogpost followed suit, with a detailed account of the pervasive corruption that the Karzai administration had fostered.  Fred Kaplan on The Slate asked whether a successful COIN operation could in fact be carried out in Afghanistan, given the manner in which Mr. Karzai is running things in Afghanistan.  Former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, Bing West, rather plainly called Mr. Karzai an “obstacle to progress” in his op-ed in The New York Times.

Washington’s foremost thinkers and analysts, singing together in perfect harmony. Mr. Kaplan sums up the groupthink perfectly — the US is of the opinion that Mr. Karzai believes he (and by extension, Afghanistan) is too big to fail, and with the stakes being as high as they are, the US is left with no option but to continue to pour resources — monetary and military, to sustain the Karzai government.

But a closer inspection at events unfolding in the region presents a clearer picture of Mr. Karzai’s intentions and US angst. Hamid Karzai began his second  term in office by stepping up engagement with China.  Mr. Karzai then invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who proceeded to chastise the Americans in the presence of his host.

Therein lies the US’s angst — Hamid Karzai appears eager to consolidate power and dilute US influence in Afghanistan.  To accomplish this, he needs the assistance of other regional powers — hence, the dialog with China, the invitation to Iran and the visit to Islamabad. He sees the benefits in ensuring an extended US stay in Afghanistan (the Americans are, after all, his primary financiers), but no longer desires to see the US as  the absolute dominant power in the country.

This is effectively the source of frustration in Washington.

As China, Pakistan and Iran prepare to step up engagement with Afghanistan, there are question marks about where the recent developments leave India.  While the Karzai government has in the past pressed New Delhi to play a larger role in the country, India has restricted its involvement in Afghanistan to providing humanitarian and  economic assistance. Frustrated, the Karzai regime now looks to hedge its bets elsewhere.

This puts India in a precarious position.  The prospects of a reemergence of a Russia-India-Iran order in Afghanistan aren’t great, given that Indo-Iranian relations are at a low.  But we’re still very far away from throwing in the towel.  There are significant caveats and complications in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran relationship for it to become an order.

Both India and Iran share mutual interests in Afghanistan, and it is therefore imperative that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government make amends for its folly at the IAEA. India’s attempts at revitalizing its relationship with Russia is a positive step — it is important that this relationship extend itself to securing both nations’ mutual interests in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, it is in India’s best interests that no one order — be it the US and its Western allies, or the Pakistan-Saudi-China triumvirate — dominate Afghanistan’s landscape.  This landscape will include the “unscrupulous” Mr. Karzai, and increasingly, warlords (affiliated as well as adversarial) and Taliban remnants.  India must therefore work with regional powers and political players to ensure that its interests in Afghanistan are protected, at a time when power equations in the war-torn nation are rapidly changing.

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