Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Commentary: Why India-Iran Chabahar agreement is a landmark

The Indian Prime Minister was not exaggerating at all when he called the recent India-Iran-Afghanistan agreement a ‘historic’ one, an epithet otherwise thrown rather cheaply at international meets. He may as well have used the word ‘monumental’ to underline the long-lasting and game changing pact. The core of the pact is of course the Chabahar, the sea port which India had undertaken to develop in 2002. A quick look at the location of Chabahar on the map will explain the geopolitical significance of the pact in an instance. Located in south-eastern Iran, at the Gulf of Oman, it happens to be the only Iranian port with direct access to the ocean. Further, this deep seaport has a good potential to connect India with a number of strategically important countries including Afghanistan, Oman, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, all of which signed the Ashgabat agreement, a transit pact in 2011. This transit corridor aims at facilitating transportation of goods between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. All of this implies that India has now successfully opened a corridor connecting it to the sea routes and the transport passages throughout the Central Asian countries with no need to depend on the ever sulking neighbour Pakistan. This article presents a good summary of the highlights and the proceedings before and after the agreement was signed recently in Teheran between India and  Iran but also includes Afghanistan.  

Although the concerned countries in their indirect references to Pakistan tried to give reassuring messages implying that the agreement is not against any other country, repeated mention of terrorism across borders seemed to point at our neighbour. The fact remains that once Pakistan gets over its inhibitions, it may join the group and benefit greatly from the opportunities that will follow immediately. The agreement opens up possibilities of further cooperation among all the countries involved as the transport expenses will reduce drastically as soon as the port and the connecting railway lines become operative.   
    


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Making Sense of Trump Rise and Hillary's Task

The world is perplexed about the rise of Trump in American Politics but the reasons are not intractable. Republican party has been selling prosperity to masses while castigating Barack Obama as the villain for years. Either GOP forgot or Tea Party voters failed to understand basics of our constitution - that winning both chambers of Congress does not nullify Presidency. As far as the promised prosperity goes, when there is no inclination to support any of Obama Administration's fiscal initiatives to spend more for Americans; we are going to be stuck in the 'secular stagnation'. Republican Bush Administration maintained the GOP orthodoxy of tax cuts for rich and open embrace of globalization with scant regard for loosing jobs in America resulting in perennial neglect of common Americans. Such a 'rich serving' policy of GOP never had any possibility of improving lives of common Americans.

That is the same orthodoxy with no track record of helping commons (but only rich) which was available for 'sale' in Republican Primary; least enticing for Republican primary voters. With zero credibility in nullifying Obama reign and no policy results to show; Republican Primary voters rejected the entire crowded field. Trump rode in and won the primarily on this background of 'credibility crisis'. In equal measure inability of GOP establishment to coalesce around one single candidate to fight Trump early on helped. Party Mandarins failed basic politics 101 - fight your enemy, in this case Trump, unitedly. Greed, ego, ambitions of many of the GOP candidates and incompetence of GOP Party bosses; all equally contributed for Trump to usurp GOP nomination. Then do we say that the dislike of all other GOP candidates and a visceral desire to 'teach a lesson' to party bosses; all led Republican Primary voters to ignore how faulty Trump candidacy is? It seems so, given that Trump is essentially a 'fraud'. 

To start with, Trump's claim for Oval Office rests on his business achievements. Those achievements are nothing very sterling. Sure, Trump did not loose what he inherited from his rich dad and in his own clumsy way built his current empire on top of that foundation. But his journey to Billionaire club went through multiple bankruptcy stops for his various businesses. Heart of the bankruptcy is an inability to fulfill financial promises to your creditors. A rare bankruptcy due to extreme external conditions, one can understand that. But when you have multiple of such and active boasting by Trump that he is master at negotiating debt down, which he stupidly wanted to apply to American Debt; it is clear that 'financial promises' to his creditors is not an obligation Trump takes seriously. What to make off then his promises to American voters that he will make America great? Any such claims simply do not look credible, worthy of a vote. Add to this his reluctance to release his taxes and in essence refusal to bring the necessary transparency to his financial dealings. How are Americans supposed to know that Trump Presidency would avoid any corrupting influences in decision making which will help his financial empire? His history shows that he is capable of undertaking any means to enrich his businesses. Why would he not do the same via Oval Office occupancy? Further, would we want our President as someone who has done financial frauds? Because in absence of his tax returns, there is no reason to believe otherwise; given the history of Trump companies. 

Meanwhile, it is not a case that Trump is advocating any credible, coherent, practical and innovative policy agenda to bring economic prosperity to America. The naivety he showed while talking about America's debt or his complete incoherence about tax policy or his tendency to talk global trade within an outdated mercantilism framework; all these are clear enough signs that the 'guy' does not know anything at all about how to strengthen American economy further. His vendetta driven approach to Yellen Fed would hardly assure global capital markets while his completely ignorant and partisan utterances about Dodd-Frank regulations deprive protections for common American in one fell swoop. As if all this is not enough, his white ento-nationalism, despicable utterances against Hispanics and Muslims around the world; would only unleash a chaos least acceptable to global capital markets. Trump famously predicted that a massive recession is coming. As he climbs in polls and people view glimpses of possibility of a Trump Presidency; 'fits to Capital Markets' are quite possible. In other words Trump himself, and all his ugly utterances, will be the chief cause for producing a recession![1] It also fits very well with the narrative of 'Trump as the seer who sees what is coming' and as a leader he will take us to the promised land. Predicting 'hard times' to claim the sole rights of 'savior of masses'; that is an old trope in politics.

It is on this background Hillary Clinton has to fight the 2016 election. Donald Trump and wounded Republican Party, which is trying to come around Trump[2]; would have every political incentive to talk down 'American Economy'. Barack Obama is doing his bit - telling rightfully Americans that Americans should not be excessively negative for our state of affairs; but it is the Hillary Campaign which will have to clear the fog.[3] The best way to achieve this will be:
- to challenge credibility of Trump (which is actually required given his utterly stupids pronouncements so far); and
- to continue to demonstrate the folly of Republican Proposals i.e. American Economy grew during a Democratic presidency when taxes on rich were high while recession happened when a Republican presidency provided tax cuts for rich, financed via deficits.

Make taxes and economic policy as one of the main campaign issues of 2016. On GOP side that cannot happen, but Hillary Clinton can and should raise those issues.

***

When it comes to foreign policy, one can argue that Republican predicament after Bush years and complete nonsensical utterances by Trump; it all makes easy to see the wrongness of GOP foreign policy prescriptions. Failed foreign adventures of George Bush humbled Republicans, at least Republican voters who started to doubt aggressive interventionist policy of GOP establishment. But foolishly, most of the Republican Primary field maintained 'rote recitation' of corroded GOP orthodoxy with no innovation. Trump cleverly side stepped this trap and famously attacked Jeb Bush for his brothers failed foreign policy.

But ducking orthodoxy is not same as advocating 'anarchy' which Trump seems to be doing subsequently. In Trump Presidency, Donald will start by insulting a close allay like UK; proceeding further to rip apart NATO. Next stop Moscow, to kiss a pal Vladimir Putin where two might cook a up plan or two to kick around Ukraine and to make co-habitation of Assad with Dayesh in Syria. For Iranians, he will rip out Iran Nuke Accord essentially letting Iran back on the 'nuke path' while President Trump would not mind at all Saudis pursuing their own atomic bomb to counter Ayatollah's of Tehran. Oh, for sure there will be a 'chick visit' to Jerusalem now that Sheldon Adelson has endorsed Trump; all vouching how much Donald 'loves and cares Jews'. Will Israelis be hood winked by that 'sweet talk' while ignoring how Donald would trigger atom bomb race in their own backyard? 

Before heading Asia, Donald will probably stop in India to thank those fellow Hindu Nationalists who prayed for Donald's win. It fits perfectly with Putin style Donald authoritarianism as he sides with extreme anti-Muslim sentiments of India and with RSS backed BJP Modi government in wihch Donald will find ample company. By the time Donald sets his foot in Japan and S. Korea; the message would have reached already. Beijing might not like it, but with a strong encouragement from President Trump; Tokyo and Seoul will join the nuclear arms race too.

If it were a cartoonish trip, we may get some levity. But by inflaming such a nuclear carnage globally; Trump retrenchment of America's global role will set the stage for preponderance of nukes all over the world increasing chances of extremists like Dayesh and Al-Qeda getting a handle on one of these weapons to create a mayhem. That danger is real. How will America be Great when Trump Presidency would have ignited 'weapons of mass destruction race' all over the globe while simultaneously triggering a trade war with China? Do Americans not see what will happen with Trump Presidency then? We are talking Daisy Ad baby here.

That is the task in front of Hillary Campaign. Addressing the issue of American Political System not taking care of workers who lose jobs because of Globalization and new Trade Pact is a genuine requirement for the next president. But that does not translate into a reckless foreign policy which will be blowing off international consensus achieved after decades of efforts. That is what Donald Trump is talking to do and that should be a simple case for Hillary to argue against. Doubts about whether Hillary campaign is up to the task are fair. But Hillary has withstood decades of Republican political attacks which should give her strength to undertake deconstruction of Trump. It may not be a 'sexy' campaignbut what matters is whether America avoids non-sense of Trump politics. 

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[1] When Sen. McCain overreacted to financial happenings in 2008, it hardly raised any confidence to financial markets; rather making capital markets nervous.

[2] Way back J Chait predicted that all this talk about Republicans splitting or contested GOP convention due to rise of Trump and his trampling of GOP establishment; is non-sense. Once the nominee, Republicans will eventually unite around Trump; and for sure that is what is happening.

[3] I would not argue lightly that Trump and Republicans will be actively sabotaging American Economy to gain a political advantage. It is a kind of treason charge. But having seen the politics of Obama years when:
- the single most important goal a powerful Republican Senator within months of Obama election of 2009 sets is to make Obama one term, or 
- consistent disregard of Republicans to undertake any fiscal spending to alleviate pains of American economy; or 
- the near constant fear mongering of deficits in times of recessions - precisely a wrong concern; 
it is hard to trust Republicans for our economic future. Just because your economic aspirations not fully met during a Democratic Presidency does not mean Americans should simply be accepting the non-sense of 'rich serving' GOP economic agenda with a view that 'what more bad can happen'. Because with Trump at the helm and GOP dominance in Congress; indeed lot worse can happen.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Assembly poll results - a mixed bag

The results of the assembly elections in five states (Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, Bengal) are out. What do the results portent?
For interpreting the results, one will have to look at the past, the present and the percentage vote-share.
Let’s look at Kerala. The state dutifully followed the tradition that it has created since the 80’s – not giving a second chance to incumbent government. But what is noteworthy is the difference. Though UDF (United Democratic Front, led by Congress) won the last elections, the seats split was 73 for UDF and 67 for LDF (Left Democratic Front). Now the UDF is around 45 and LDF is 85. That is a wide gap. BJP opened its account, and 9 seats went to smaller ‘Others’. For all the bravado that Oomen Chandy showed, this is a humiliating defeat. The percentage vote-share opens another window to the future. Against CPM’s 26.5%, Congress’ vote-share is 23.7%. But against CPI’s 8.1%, BJP is 10.5%. Of course, the beauty of the ‘first past the post’ is such that CPI got 19 seats against BJP’s 1. But ignoring BJP in Kerala in the coming decade will be a folly. 92 year old Achyutanandan has strengthened his claim for the CM’s post, which is sad. Howsoever ‘fit and healthy’ a person, there is no younger substitute in a ‘progressive’ state like Kerala is a tragedy of Indian Politics in general.
In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha bucked the ‘tradition’ that Tamil Nadu too followed for the last three decades. And though ADMK’s seats have come down, the number is still enough for simple majority. DMDK’s Vijayakanth, who was nursing ambitions of becoming CM, has to contend with 2.4% vote-share. To put this in perspective, BJP’s vote-share in Tamil Nadu is 2.9%. At 40.8%, ADMK leads comfortably. And DMK with 31.5% comes a distant second. Congress, even after tying up with DMK, is at 6.5%. Congress will have to seriously weigh its options. These results mean adios for wheel-chair bound Karunanidhi. And it is about time. It would be interesting to see how the family deals with the running feud between two sons – Stalin and Alagiri.
Puducherry was a squabble among petty local parties. And the DMK-Congress combination cleared the mark with 17 seats out of 30 and 39.5% vote-share. ADMK could muster only 16.8%, against the local NR Congress’ 28.1%. BJP didn’t win a seat, but 2.4% vote-share means it does have some chances.
West Bengal is quite a surprise. Not that TMC won, but the difference in the number of seats. Against 184 seats last time, with all allegations of corruption and ministers in jail, TMC scored 211 seats with 44.9% vote-share. The left was decimated, coming down from 53 to 32 and gathered 25.6% vote-share. Congress, after tying up with the left, benefitted the most in terms of number of seats, bagging 44 and becoming the second largest party. Though BJP could muster only three seats, its vote-share 10.2% is quite comparable to that of Congress 12.3%. So if Mamata decides to go for a soft-alignment with BJP, the next five years would be most interesting.
Assam has given Modi-Shah duo some reason to celebrate. With some carefully crafted alliances, NDA got 85 seats against 25 of Congress. And contrary to popular expectations, the regional party AIUDF could get only 13. Vote-share wise, Congress still leads the chart at 31%, followed by BJP at 29.5%. AGP’s 8.1% came in handy for BJP. Point to note is AGP, at one point of time, was the ruling party in the state.
So can the BJP really go out and celebrate? If Modi-Shah duo is wise, they will desist. Though by-elections are not really a mirror of the larger picture, SP won the two by-elections by scoring 50% votes. BJP is at 41.5%. And this is in a state that goes to poll in a few months, a state that gave 72 out of 80 seats to BJP in Lok Sabha. Nitish and Lalu have already started making rounds of the neighboring state. Mulayam is humming and hawing, but he won’t have too many options either. This is evident from the warm welcome accorded to Amar Singh and Beni Prasad Verma and hastily sending them to Rajya Sabha. Mulayam needs Amar’s wheeling-dealing and Beni Prasad Verma’s Kurmi vote-bank (Nitish claims that bank in Bihar).

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Madhesi grievances continue to simmer in Nepal

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Although it is customary to look at foreign countries entirely through the lens of national interest, it helps to look at a given country’s self-interests to begin with. In the case of Nepal, its attitude towards the Madhesi populations is becoming puzzling by the day. Madhesis who constitute above 50 per cent of the population have been seen as close to India as they continue to have what is called ‘roti-beti’ relations as they marry across the borders and freely traverse them. Even culturally, the hill people from Kathmandu despise the ‘uncouth’ plainsmen. All this goes on not just at an informal level but is now hardened into the new constitution promulgated in Nepal last year. The Madhesis want a greater say in the nation and want proportionate representation as well as a more federal structure based on ethnic territorial divisions, while the hill aristocracy whether communists or otherwise, have thus far only indulged in brazen gerrymandering. For some reason, possibly reassurance from china, they feel they can altogether ignore their 50 per cent population which also happens to be the most productive economically. The current Prime Minister K P Oli despite his assurances to the Madhesi agitators made earlier in the year has failed to keep his word and has indicated that the Madhesi grievances have been addressed adequately. All this can turn into a dangerous game as the Madhesi agitations are based on genuine hurt and not an outcome of interferences from India.

If India has however acted heavy-handedly throughout this phase, this cannot be a reason for the Oli government to cold-shoulder its own populace. India indeed has played the role of an irritant in the recent past, using the terai [plains] population as its catspaw, thereby adding substance to the common perception in Kathmandu that the Madhesi are more loyal to India than their own country. All these identity issues are doing no good for the Nepali identity which is now riven between the pro-China and pro-India faces of Nepal rather than a more self-assured Nepali identity. So much so that making anti-India noises is considered as the politically correct thing to do in Kathmandu. The Indian government only added to the hostile perception recently through what are seen as covert moves to topple the Oli government in Nepal. As a result the Nepali president’s visit to India was cancelled recently and PM Modi’s trip to Lumbini was called off.  On the whole, it seems to be a common assumption that the Madhesi agitation will not escalate beyond a point and that Nepal will continue at a simmer forever. This is a dangerous assumption as reports from the ground during the last phase of the agitation indicated the rise of some extreme voices and factions.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Modi Gov. Let Go Mallya

The litigation against Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Mallya has been going on for a while in Indian Courts. Modi Gov. should have been aware of the possibility that Vijay Mallya would flee from India as his financial woes had been mounting for months. Clearly Modi Gov. has failed in anticipating who it 'needs to stop'. All the lip service to make everyone pay back to nationalized banks is pointless. In essence Modi Gov's acquiescence in letting 'big fish' free does not square with its rhetoric.

If Mallaya claims that he has been on the UK voter roll since 1992; how was he allowed to become and remain member of Rajya Sabha so long; given that India laws do not allow any dual citizenship? Article 9 of Indian Constitution is pretty strongClearly successive Indian Governments have been lax in enforcing no foreign citizenship on 'powerful' folks. That is a disgrace given that India has one of the strongest requirements to retain her citizenship. There was no reason to relax those requirements in the case of a looter like Vijay Mallya.

In the end Modi Gov. has to make the extradition request to UK Gov which should be easy given the crimes he has committed. For UK, which entertains to live without EU after Brexit, the access to Billion Plus people market will hinge on not hiding folks like Mallya. 

Thursday, May 05, 2016

MBA – Management By Accident?

Till some thirty years ago, MBA wasn’t a very common degree to find in India. Very few institutes offered the degree. There were down-graded versions (DBM and suchlike), which were also popular in small circles. In fact, Management Education was considered more with ridicule, thanks to the family-owned structure of Indian businesses till then. Sharu Rangnekar regaled a bevy of readers with his books, which were further augmented by R. K. Laxman’s cartoons. 

With a big round of privatization of education that happened in the beginning of ‘80s, ‘professional’ degrees (engineering, architecture, medical and legal) became more accessible and affordable. The number of institutes offering management degrees and diplomas grew by leaps and bounds. 

Of the ‘professional’ degrees, engineering degrees were de-glamorized as a result of supply crossing the demand. In Maharashtra today, out of some 150,000 engineering seats today (as per Directorate of Technical Education), more than 50,000 are vacant. So getting an admission to engineering college is not simple, it is now trivial. 

Of the students who pass out of these colleges, the ones who are eligible to get a job, get a job. A majority of the unemployed are lured by a dream of doing MBA and getting a ‘better’ job. Sadly enough, students who do a four year ‘professional’ course, and their parents are lured by this mirage. One look at coaching classes for CAT (entrance test for IIMs) in any urban city would tell you the story. The number of applicants is over ten times the capacity of IIMs and the remainder, still chasing the mirage, is sucked up by institutes of B-grade and below. 

Plagued by the consistent low quality of the so called ‘management graduates’, ASSOCHAM (Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India) did a study of the B-schools. The results are shocking. Only 7% of the output is actually employable. 

Sadly enough, no concerned party is willing to pay attention. The students are more interested in posturing left or right. The institute owners consider that their responsibility ends when the students pay their fees. Whether they get a job after getting out of the institute or not is not really a concern. As long as students keep walking in without considering what exactly is the value add that the degree will do, why should the institute owners bother? The industry has given up. Almost each of these 5500 B-schools runs a program called ‘Industry Institute Interaction’ at least once a year. Some has-been from the industry puts on a tie and a jacket, and delivers a lecture to the captive masochist audience. And government never considers increasing the quality of education as its responsibility. The HRD minister is keener to include ‘Sanskrit’ in IITs than such meaningless stuff. Increasing the quality of education will not get her brownie points from RSS. 

So one becomes cynical and accepts the full-form of MBA – Management By Accident!

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

RIP - Cruz Candidacy for 2016 Nomination

Though a bigger dreadful scenario of Donald Trump as the GOP nominee in November 2016 is still on the horizon, America at least avoided one another nightmare - Sen. Ted Cruz as the GOP nominee of 2016. He would have had difficult race against Hillary, actually every other candidate including Trump will have a hard time against Hillary. But still America is spared today from an ultra-ambitious, selfish, blindly ideological candidate; the candidate who considers his political ambitions higher than what is good for the country.

To start with Sen. Ted Cruz, as like all of other Republican candidates, maintained with a straight face the voodoo economic policy -  deficit inducing tax cuts for rich in the name of growth stimulus. He may be Harvard educated, but his blind adherence to GOP ideology never allowed him to see the rational, factual information about tax cuts - Bill Clinton did not give tax cuts, but had good economic growth; Bush gave the tax cuts but did not get the growth and finally Obama increased taxes and still got the growth. All this evidence of last 3 presidents is what GOP ignores; Sen. Ted Cruz never found any courage to face this evidence and reality. Just like every other GOP candidate, he doubled down on this nonsensical policy for ideological reasons. 

What would President Cruz do if a Democrat controlled Congress shutdowns Federal Government for abortion rights; all along damaging people's economic well being? Would he have praised those Democrats because they followed his tactics? No. But Sen. Ted Cruz never showed regard to the office of presidency when in Congress and played with economic well being of people of the sake of unrealistic political goals of repealing ObamaCare and de-funding Planned Parenthood. In the process he never bothered about what his collegues in Senate had to say; nor did he show any respect to them. He is such a tactless senator who calls his own majority leader as liar on the Senate floor while he himself lied about how Goldman Sachs loaned his Texax Senator campaign. Donald Trump is right - Ted Cruz is one big, low life liar.

Sen. Ted Cruz never bothered about the political obligation of articulating an alternative to ObamaCare while opposing to it at extreme. He has never shown humility to acknowledge the success attained by ObamaCare nor any willingness to improve it further. Health benefits of million poor Americans - he gave 'damn' about it and with impunity maintained utter irresponsibility of scrapping ObamaCare without a viable replacement. Sen. Cruz never saw the folly of allowing health insurances across states and complete inadequacy of any such proposal to substitute ObamaCare.

Sen. Cruz's foreign policy knowledge, or rather lack of it, only flashed in moments - like when he uttered that 'we will find out whether sand can glow in the night' as his prescription to carpet bomb IS in deserts of Iraq and Syria. Simply stated, he would have continued the reckless foreign policy in the spirit of Dick Cheney. 

Today, America is saved from a completely self-absorbed presidential candidate who went for the fetish of declaring his VP mate even without getting the nomination; all for some petty tactical, desperate considerations. His choice of Carly Fiorina was fitting though - equally ideological, 'damn to people' type mentality elitist person. Carly hardly has won any election nor does she bring any break from dark sides of Wall Street. Neither Cruz could find any better VP candidate nor Carly had decency to reject a VP candidacy literally for a week. What a combination!

All in all Americans would breathe a sigh of relief today that she dodged a bullet by ending the crazy candidacy of Cruz. It is fitting that equally bad ass Donald Trump shows Ted Cruz and Carly the door. Thank you Donald, thank you.(*)

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(*) - We will write Donald's presidential obituary on November 8th, 2016. 

The many meanings of the novel ‘Ghachar Ghochar’

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Ghachar  Ghochar
Vivek Shanbhag
Harper Perennial, NOIDA, UP,India
Price Rs 399, pp 115

The question I have been asking all these years is not when the great Indian novel/s will arrive, but rather will I have the eyes to spot it when faced with one. Over the years, thanks to the literary critics in India from a variety of schools, cliques and denominations, my brain like many others’ is a clutter, accustomed to filtering a hundred opinions and readings before arriving at my own in its purity. Purity in some relative sense of the term of course! The pretentiousness that goes with high art and literature was bad enough but we now have this additional hindrance that comes in the shape of exaggerated regard for the popular. At least my own language Hindi is passing through a phase of alleged revival through a series of youthful writings, remarkable with some exceptions for their coy mannerisms and a form of nostalgia-soaked cuteness, which makes me want to label them as part of a ‘cutist’ movement. And yet I am unable to rise above the prevalent sense of satisfaction derived from the new-found popularity that these works of fiction have brought to Hindi. Linguistic patriotism is probably the most intimate, the most helpless and for those reasons the most forgivable form of patriotism. At times such an attitude can lead to a very patronizing attitude when you fail to apply the same touchstone to your own languages as you would do in other cases, in the case of languages with far superior literary achievements. You may end up protecting your own literature from the harsh glare that you expose others too, in the process telling some very pleasing but blatant lies about the current state of affairs. Such are the convoluted sentiments I carry about Hindi and maybe I should leave these emotional tangles behind and talk about what seems to me to be fairly apparent and unambiguous.   

Over the years I have been trying to build my own personal Lego chain of great Indian novels. I feel I am on a firmer ground talking about them as I am willing to defend my claims of greatness all the way to the end of the earth. Though I am afraid my chain of novels is rather modest – it includes Shrilal Shukla’s ‘Rag Darbari’, Prabha Khaitan’s ‘Pili Andhi’, Abdul Bismillah's 'Jhini Jhini Bini Chadariya', and Bhagwandas Morwal’s ‘Ret’, and then dot dot dot! Meaning I hope to continue to make further additions to them and each time that happens I will have something to write about. There are several other Hindi and Indian novels in general that I admire of course but I would hesitate to place them on the pedestal of greatness. Well, I now have another novel ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ to add to the list, and thus this article.

The drawback I face while writing on ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ is I know no Kannada and have just read an English translation, albeit a very decent one in that it is reader friendly and yet it does ring a Kannada bell repeatedly, although I may just be imagining that to feel at home in the Kannada milieu. First of all, let me explain the title which everyone finds puzzling despite the vague onomatopoeic associations. The word was invented by the children of the family in focus in the novel and means ‘things gone awry’, as in ‘everything is ghachar ghochar these days’, to give an example. The word never made it to the dictionaries because it remained confined to the children and the parents, bouncing against the walls of the supremely claustrophobic hearth forever without escaping into the outside world. ‘Ghachar Ghochar’, the phrase also carries the seminal key for the portraiture of the Indian family you find in the novel. It is a closed world, a smug universe dearly protected by a family on the rise. It is the novel of the aspirational India that bombards you day in and day out through TV ads and political promises of development. But   ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ is not about the cool shimmering India constructed through packaged holidays and online sales fests. The beauty of ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ lies in the most casual possible exposure of the underbelly of the family success story. It breaks the news of a fatal accident while stirring a teacup. It is indeed like a murder proposed and planned at a routine family dinner, in the very literal sense, as you will discover at the end of the novel. As for me just as I thought that the protagonist of the novel, a spineless but likeable cad with a fairly developed sense of introspection will finally just learn to continue his uneventful and feckless life with a slow-burning angst without exploding into a thunder ball or ripping away like a character from Sartre or Camus, the family dynamics takes a crazy turn, at a kind of tangent that leaves you reeling under its impact. I am being deliberately vague here so as not to reveal the ending of what seemed like a tame family saga. On the other hand how can I not reveal some things if I have to discuss a novel intelligibly? I will admit here I was aghast going through the last paragraphs of the novel and felt a wide abyss opening up within me.

The entire novel is about the characters from the small family – father, mother, father’s younger brother, a divorced sister who has worked hard to terminate her marriage and the protagonist who seems forever suspended in a state of restless idleness. The family has managed to extricate itself from a mean lower class mire mainly through a gung-ho uncle, a man dedicated to the cause of an ever ascending family. This leaves very little for everyone else to do except the bleak chore of parasitical consumption which they find acceptable to various extents. The protagonist does not seem terribly agonized over his plight and yet his prosaic uselessness bothers him like an unrelenting itch. ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ has no place for deep-seated angst but just a fidgety itch in the soul causing a sort of restiveness born of purposelessness and a sense of wandering rather than seeking. The one and only character outside the family happens to be a hotel waiter, who carries the aura of a psychic and makes occasional remarks that pass off as pearls of wisdom. And thus life goes on till the protagonist gets married to a woman who likes to point at facts with a candour and firmness of character that the family is incapable of enduring. The crisis builds up further bordering on a second divorce in a family that seems to have no place for an outsider – it is just a normal, blameless, cosy, well-knit family till things go ‘Ghachar Ghochar’. The protagonist’s wife turns rebellious and unwilling to merge her individuality in the common pool of the family. The consequences of such assertion can be grave as the reader discovers through a shocking dining table conversation that hints in the most indirect way possible at a murder plot, a murder proposal placed in front of the protagonist through distant signals and broken syllables, all of which lead to the grim game under way.

‘Ghachar Ghochar’ is thus a 115-page story of tight family intimacy that takes a demonic turn when threatened and does so with a frightening casualness. Clearly, the family is endowed with everything it wants to have. The list includes an uncle willing to slave away for the sake of his kin with no desire to marry and make his own family, except the casual but cruel flings he has on the side. The protagonist’s sister has set the supreme example of rejection of the outsider by systematically hammering away at a very workable marriage. What remains unsaid is the delicate balance is kept by an uncle unwilling to marry and perfectly willing to maintain a brood of absolute idlers who grant him the status of the alpha.

I hate reducing literature to sociology and will readily admit indulging in the near criminal act here. But the reason I wish to place ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ on the pedestal of a classic is for two reasons that are difficult to discuss unless I talk some sociology. First, at least in Hindi it is deemed more relevant and urgent to dwell on the travails of making a living and the tough circumstances of life get romanticized while the raw human energy that goes into the fight for survival remains underplayed in what might seem a celebration of human passivity and helplessness. Such literature remains confined to a narrow morality of the day that looks at the world through the prism of its own sense of justice rather than an empathy with the struggle and the struggler, themes eternal to humanity. ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ gives no elaborate account of how the family in question rose to its present wealth, glossing over the transition in a hurry. Instead, it dwells over what happens after the painful struggle comes to an end and the family is already wallowing in a sense of surplus security. This is the aspirational India that is increasingly becoming as typical as the helpless farmer in the countryside who commits suicide to save his self-respect. This India too I believe deserves the attention of our storytellers!

Second, it is not just the sociology but the quiet, unhysterical tone and style of the novel and its prose that struck me as unusual. In general I feel that Indians often belabour the obvious, using endless embellishments to create a literary impact, as something distinct from common conversation. This trait of excessiveness is often the bane of good literature whether poetry or prose. I loved the 115-page economy of a novel that expects to find itself under the gaze of an intelligent reader rather than an obtuse mind incapable of registering nuances. In this sense ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ is a very modern and urbane novel completely rid of mushy sentimentality that continues to plague the best of Indian works. I believe the best among the Hindi writers in particular and perhaps even Bangla storytellers are unable to escape this temptation. ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ thus manages to remain truly Indian not by sharing the common Indian weaknesses but by immersing itself in the kitchens and living rooms of the Indian middle classes, looking for the most vital clues.  

Lastly, even as I wind up it occurs to me that the story of the Indian middle class is best told by catching it in motion while it is forming and consolidating. In its memories of recent escape from precarious life and its aspirations for the future, you manage to catch a tale that is mushrooming all over the country. I strongly recommend the novel to the likely readers without imposing on them the extravagant claim of ‘greatness’ since the purpose here is to simply share my excitement over a novel that is certainly one of my greats and part of my tiny Lego chain of great oeuvres of Indian literature.

Monday, May 02, 2016

America's Iraq Problem

As political instability grows in Iraq, there are 3 major concerns from an American Perspective:
- difficulty in clobbering together a credible Iraqi force to defeat Islamic State (IS),
- continued increase of Iranian influence in Iraqi matters and
- loss of global leverage for America's reach in foreign lands.

The first concern is obvious. Obama Administration and Pentagon have been hoping to eject IS from Mosul for last few months. That is not going to happen if Iraqi politics is unstable and as a result her forces are ill-prepared. Americans for right reasons do not want defeat of IS in Mosul entirely as the Kurdish victory story. Ethnic composition of Mosul is such that non-Kurdish Sunni needs to be in the mix of post IS rule in Mosul. That cannot happen as long as the Baghdad government is weak and incapable of putting together necessary resources on the ground.

In a sense Saudi drive to pull down global oil price as a way to contain post nuke accord Iran is costing Iraqi PM Abadi mighty. As a rentier state, Baghdad gets most of its money by selling Oil. As Abadi is not able to get enough petro-dollars; his writ gets challenged. I guess part of the solution for Obama Administration will be simply 'wait out' hoping climbing Oil prices will help Abadi. Sure, NeoCons are all going to blame Obama no matter what. [1] But America simply does not have the choice of putting American soldiers back in Iraq. There is no way American soldiers are going to fight battles of differing factions of Iraq while leaving aside IS. If at all, the only service President Obama can do is to set 'expectations of those Americans who expect America to solve every police problem of the world'. Luckily for the President most Americans are least concerned with stability of Iraq; what with already isolationist policy expressed by Trump. So long as the fight against IS continues and the danger of domestic terrorism does not increase; Americans are unlikely to support any substantive foreign intervention. Impeding collapse of PM Abadi in Iraq may be bad, but in the end those problems will have to be solved by Iraqi themselves - and that may take decades.

As for the second concern of Iranian influence in Iraq, Moktada al-Sadr whose supporters ransacked Iraqi Parliament, is not disposed well towards to Iran. What it means the immediate danger of increase in Iranian influence is not the case here. Iran is likely to put maximum premium on getting foreign investment and foreign exchange in months to come. Obama Administration can utilize those leverages well to keep Iran engaged and stay away from more mischief in Iraq.

Finally, yes all over the world, folks are going to blame America that it could not get Iraqi government right even after decade long efforts. That blot on America's credibility is unlikely go away soon. Regardless of chatter of neo-cons, both Americans and American political class will need to simply start taking such a criticism in stride. Life has to move on. America's national interests are no longer tied to geopolitical 'oil' considerations. Middle East is unlikely to be stable for years to come. If the global economy indeed moves beyond fossil oil, Saudi Arabia and neighboring regimes might even collapse despite bold attempts to move beyond oil. Iraqi slow train wreck is the preview of that show. But none of these problems can be solved by America's interventions alone. Those will have to be solved by those very people, their neighbors and global action. China, Russia, Europe are more near to unstable Middle East than America and as a result needs to have more stake in those affairs. Donald Trump is already setting that tone. For Hillary, she will have to be careful in avoiding America getting entangled.[2] But all in all, the direction is clear. False pretense to prestige is not going to help America nor further her interests.

In other words, Obama Administration will suck up with what is happening in Baghdad and will simply have to be patient. Same will be the case for new administration next year. 

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[1] - WSJ thinks Obama should have kept more American soldiers in Iraq since 2009. It reminds readers that in Vietnam war, both Democratic and Republican Administrations continued this path of slow and steady increase of force application with disastrous results. If WSJ implies that there had been an point in the Vietnam campaign where 'sufficient forces' of USA would have made the difference; that is doubtful. Similarly, having more American soldiers in Iraq would have simply increased American casualties, sapping up any support for American intervention in Iraq. Big part of Iraq's problem is purely political, internal and all to do with it's corrupt political system. Those issues cannot be addressed by American soldiers alone.

[2] - Donald Trump would not have any credibility in criticizing Hillary Clinton for her aggressive policy in Libya which did not result well. But Clinton essentially 'shoot first and then thought later' in case of Libya; the classic way in which NeoCons of this country react. Libya should work as a perennial lesson to Hillary as and when she occupies Oval Office. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Commentary: Refusal to grow

Some people inherit power (if you are born in the right family), some people earn it through assiduous work (including wheeling-dealing and back-stabbing) and a select few have power bestowed on them. Manohar Lal Khattar became the chief minister of Haryana more as a shock therapy by Modi-Shah duo. In his initial days, he played the parrot very seriously, as is clear in this interview, commented in this post. 

Much water has flown down the Yamuna, but Mr. Khattar steadfastly refuses to grow. His recent interview amply showcases that. As is the style of journalists these days, Mr. Khattar was questioned in the best kid-glove fashion. But he still shines with his gems. Consider this – the skewed sex-ratio, one of the biggest blots on the state, started changing rather drastically once the BJP came to power. The ratio was 827 on 22nd January 2015. By December 2015, it crossed 900. By March 2016, it inched to 907. Now Mr. Khattar’s goal is to take it to 950 by the end of his tenure in 2019. An impressive increase of about 9% in the first year. And then the target dwindles to 5% in the next four years. Are the journalists so severely affected by Arithmophobia? 

Then Mr. Khattar goes on to claim that for ‘foreigners’, pronouncing Gurugram is easier than Gurgaon. First question is how did he find that out, and the next question is, so what? But the journalists change track and go on asking about Vadra. The answer to that is lackluster, to say the least, but the questioning changes track again. It is frustrating. 

What comes out of this interview is, Mr. Khattar has still a lot of growing to do. In content as well as confidence. Just to contrast, look at Kerala CM’s interview. This is not to state that Chandy is the benchmark or hallmark, but the way he handles much more troublesome questions is what is expected from a full-time politician. Mr. Khattar is probably aware that he got the CM’s chair solely at the whim and fancy of Modi-Shah duo and the chair can go any time. Only that would explain his utterings….