Monday, June 29, 2009

India's Babus, why officials rule India: Nilekani and Azhagiri

When Nandan Nilekani was appointed to oversee India's mammoth project of assigning ID's to a billion+ population, akin to US' Social Security numbers, there was all round applause. While I too applaud the larger idea and the appropriateness of Nilekani I find it distasteful that he is appointed with the rank of a Cabinet Minister, he is in charge if millions of dollars and is not "directly" answerable to the parliament. This is clear subversion of the spirit of the Constitution. In the least he should have been brought in via the Rajya Sabha which has legitimate rationale for a person like him. The Rajya Sabha was created exactly for people like him and Manmohan Singh. Those whose services and expertise is needed but could not survive in the rumble tumble world of populist politics are to be elected via Rajya Sabha. Why has no one objected to the nature of the appointment? Why is India, at least the white collar section, rejoicing at this appointments? A relevant question to ask is why do unelected officials wield the "real" power in India? Why do we still need IAS? Why is the officialdom, the Babu's, so powerful in India?

I was recently watching Chris Dodd, Connecticut Senator, ranking member of Senate Finance committee grill Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of treasury, live on TV. Let us put aside the finer aspects of Chris Dodd's role in the banking crisis, put aside quibbles on Geithner's mis-steps on the stimulus etc. Step away and consider the whole scenario a senator was grilling the Treasury Secretary in such detail showing deep knowledge of the subject matter. Geithner himself, very young 40-ish, has an accomplished resume. The intellectual standing of the questioner prods the secretary to be respectful. The secretary's stellar resume prods the senator to be mindful. How many ministers in the Indian cabinet, out of 74, can field such questions? How many MP's can question with knowledge of the subject matter? Can Azhagiri any day hold forth on the drug policy of India, does he have an iota of idea on what pressing International policy issues face India's drug policies, can he on his own develop any framework to address threats from world bodies on Intellectual property rights?

That a 24+ girl gets nominated to a cabinet post is a gross injustice to the taxpayer. It is easy to make fun of America today thanks to the financial crises but let us not lose sight that even today the dollar is seen as a refuge, even today America IS the engine of growth. This has not happened by accident, this did not happen outside of the portals of public policy. Barack Obama is the third consecutive Ivy League alumnus to rule US. Bill Clinton, his peccadilloes aside, can stun world leaders with his grasp of policy. Listening to Bill Clinton talk of health care crises is a treat by itself, no notes on hand he can cite figures, drill down to the real issues, frame the discussion intelligible to the lay audience. At the height of the Cuban missile crises JFK reaches to the lesson he gleaned from Barbara Tuchman's "Gun's of August". The intellectual gravitas of American policymakers is really a pretty high bar compared to Indian policymakers, save Nehru.

Nehru, while suffering from the ideological bent of his era, when it came to Science and Technology rose to the occasion. The IIT's and IIM's are a testimony to his vision. A vision that would be impossible to match in any successor because none had the intellectual ability to see the need for such institutions and none could even remotely appreciate the need for such graduates. Again I cannot see Homi Bhaba answering to Deve Gowda or presenting any idea. Karunanidhi famously wrote a poem decrying the value of education practically suggesting that the educated achieve nothing. Its an intellectual travesty of the worst order.

With policy makers who have no idea of subject matter and no intellectual abilities the IAS officer steps in. Enter the babu. There are 5 IAS officers in Tamil Nadu Health ministry, . Only three medical professionals at the director level. The bureaucrat outnumbers subject expert by 2:1, not including the minister. Going back to Azhagiri who lacks any quality education, reads nothing beyond the party newspaper, has almost zero intellectual ability one wonders what would be his input on any policy, one wonders how he would decide when two opposing ideas are presented.

That Shatrughan Sinha was India's minister of health is a crime. A country of billion people, highest number malnourished, high infant mortality, ranked at the bottom in Human development Index by UN, has health care challenges that can bewilder the keenest of minds, that such a department was given to an actor who treated politics as a sideshow and had no inkling on policy making is nothing short of a crime.

India has had as education ministers those who had not progressed beyond school education. Kamaraj, is often cited as an example of an illiterate but commendable achiever. Kamaraj's policies on education took Tamil Nadu way ahead but let us understand that Kamaraj lacked opportunities not the desire to study also the heady days of freedom struggle took him in. Aware of his own limitations when he was within striking distance of Prime Ministership Kamaraj stepped aside. When somebody like R.M.Veerappan becomes an education minister it is a sad day for education.

Not appointing ministers with intellectual gravitas is bad and appointing as ministers those who "devalue" intellectual substance, is the worst one can do.

Appointing vermins like S.S.Chandran and Sarath Kumar to Rajya Sabha was a practical sabotage of the spirit behind the creation of Rajya Sabha. When Phoolan Devi, as MP, decides how every Indian must pay taxes, educate his/her child, live his life, that is when the parliament becomes a puppet in the hands of the ever thriving official.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Berlin Wall, The Chinese firewall and Iran's high tech Wall

"Man is born free and he is in chains everywhere", attributed to Rousseau, is truer in the modern world than it was in the days of 1700's. The Berlin Wall was unique, not in concept, but in brazenness. Soviet Russia had indeed put many restrictions on its citizenry from interacting with the wider world, emigration, visas, travel, radio, TV, news papers, were all heavily curtailed and censored. For the first time a country erected walls, not to keep out invaders but to keep its citizenry inside. Houses have walls. Prisons have walls. The crucial difference is that in homes walls prevent outsiders bearing ill will from entering in wheras prison walls prevent those inside from escaping. East Germany was a prison.

Emboldened by what they read of Gorbachev, students in their naivete beseeched a visiting Gorbochev to impress upon Chinese government to democratise. Gorbachev, no Reagan, just passed by. 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of Tianenmen. It is ironical that this year the autobiography of Zhao Ziyang was smuggled to the west and published. That a country's Premier was deposed and placed in house arrest in 1989 tells us something of the age we live in. Zhao then, in typical fashion common to deposed leaders in Communist countries, composed his biography in great secrecy. The biography exposed the myths around Deng Xio Ping and portrayed how the men at the helm decided to unleash a massacre. I need to record an anomaly here. I had many Chinese colleagues, who, without exception were still patriotic towards China to the extent that they dismissed any pro-democracy voice as "pro-America", also they considered the policies of censorship etc as "not a big deal".

Today Wall Street Journal published a report about Iran and China using technology in denying freedoms to their citizenry. China is now stipulating PC makers to install monitoring software in PC's sold in China. Dell, HP and the rest are demurring and working through advocacy groups to pressurise Chinese government to give up this heinous demand. Chinese refer to their government's rules on internet access as "the great chinese firewall".Let it be noted that Obama administration's stated policy on human rights in China, is that it does not matter. Earlier administrations while doing so atleast did not have the gumption to say so.

Iran is now in the news. Twitter and facebook are seen as tools that have enabled a population to circumvent government clampdown. WSJ today laid bare how Iran, while railing against corrupt Western imperialism, uses technology from a consortium of Nokia and Siemens to monitor everything on their network. The technology used is pervasive to reach into every "data packet" that is transmitted, each packet is parsed for images and keywords that are analysed for inimical content and then blocked or is used to track down the user for punishments.

Whether its Chechnya or Iran or Sri Lanka or China, the shameful strategy, of denying access to world press and suppressing any information, is adopted without exception.

It would not be out of place to reminisce the failed uprising in Prague in 1968. Why do I get the feeling that Oscar Wilde is smiling in his grave?

Obama, the pontificator, decried US involvement in Iran in Cairo speech. Today an Iranian protester, on CNN, pleaded for US to get involved. Damned if you do and damned if you do not.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

D-Day and the "Last Great Good War myth"

Every year June 6th is celebrated in Europe and US as "D-Day" in memory of the day when Allied forces landed in the beaches of Normandy beginning the invasion of Europe. World War II is often referred as the "Last great good war" meaning that forces of good and evil, clearly demarcated, faced of against each other and in an idyllic manner good triumphed over evil. It is no doubt a triumph over murderous ideologies of Nazism and Fascism. However the conflict did not start as a righteous reaction to that, every nation state was drawn into the conflict for their own strategic reasons and the results of the war spawned its own horrors in the form of equally murderous Communism and Cold War conflict.

Churchill was the biggest hypocrite of all. The Bull Dog warrior growled incessantly about protecting liberty all the while philosophically convinced about the "right" to rule over India and other colonies. He famously thundered "I've not become his majesty's first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire".

France's role in Algiers and Africa is more shameful and more repressive. Post-War French repression in Indochina sowed the seeds for Vietnam war. The word "Vietnam" only conjures up images of America's greatest military defeat but little is known widely of its origins in French tyranny. The same France which piously opposes American unilateralism today.

The worst duplicitous actor in war was Stalin. Seeing Chamberlain and the Western world capitulate to Hitler, Stalin and Molotov hurried to sign pacts of "non-aggression" with Germany. Having bought time Stalin consolidated his hold on many nation states around Russia. Then of course when Hitler's Operation Barbarossa hit home Stalin lost no time in defending "liberty". The height of his hypocrisy was when the Red Army sat across the Vistula while Nazi's slaughtered Poles in Warsaw. Stalin's logic was simple "why fight the Nazis today when they are killing people who we would have to kill anyway later".

FDR who understood the necessity of US joining the war was hamstrung by the Congress which wanted to keep US out of "the European conflict". Pearl Harbor changed it. Even then 2 congressmen voted against going to war. The least hypocritical of all nations was US. One could pick beef with US involvement in Philippines.

Much is made of US dropping atomic bombs wiping out hundreds of thousands. As a technology of warfare it was frightening. Mankind was at cross roads with the technology which had immense power to do good or evil depending on the mind which used it. Let me remind the peaceniks that dropping the bomb was a simple decision for Truman. The war in Europe had concluded, Hitler committed suicide, Mussolini was hung, yet Japan remained belligerent refusing to yield. The battle of Iwo Jima had proved that Japan would not hesitate to lose millions to continue fighting. The question before Truman was should he, as US president, prolong the war losing American lives or end it by demonstrating to Japan that he could kill thousands of theirs without losing much. As a good President he chose the latter course. It had the desired effect.

Two more points worth noting are what Japan did in China and the post-war reconstruction of Japan BY USA. Japanese forces unleashed unspeakable horrors in China wiping out entire villages, women were raped and killed by the tens of thousands. Iris Chang in her "Rape of Nanking" superbly documented it. Reading it haunted me for a week. US unlike how Europe treated Germany after World War I decided to rebuild Japan. That Japan became an economic powerhouse is a testimony to not just the Japanese people but also to American magnanimity.

Every nation, god bless the brave millions who died, got involved to defend their own strategic interests and bargained for their own interests post-war. Nothing wrong with that except that lets not pretend it was for some unselfish greater good. Like John Nash showed, we human beings, do what is in our own individual best interest AND the larger group.