Friday, April 29, 2011

Of QEII, Long Serving Rulers & the Lust for Power....

Today, the world witnessed the Royal Wedding - the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
India was not to be left behind in that grand show of pomp and regalia. People waited here for the wedding to begin with a certain anxiousness that is normally observed before an emotional cricket match, something like an India-Pakistan World Cup encounter.
Televisions in offices, which are normally reserved for business news channels like CNBC, had BBC on, for a change with people huddled around excitedly waiting for a glimpse of their favourite royal. Those who had critical work that day, logged on to websites streaming the wedding live. And I thought whether I was in British India or an independent India?
I found it odd that an event of this nature would get work to a standstill, especially since the Royal Wedding does not impact India directly or indirectly, by any stretch of imagination.
As people around me experienced the vicarious thrills of seeing the wedding, I could not help but realise that the Queen, Elizabeth II, was nearly 85 years. She has been wearing the Kohinoor on her Crown for over 56 years now.
It is also a fact that she had refused to abdicate when the British Royalty faced a existential crisis prior to and after Lady Diana's tragic death. And she continues to hold on to her Crown and throne, despite her heir, Crown Prince Charles, crossing in to the 60s, well past the normal retirement age in most countries.
Modern royalty does have examples of monarchs stepping down in favour of younger and more dynamic princes and princesses. Wikipedia lists down monarchs of Netherlands, Luxembourg, Cambodia, Bhutan and Liechtenstein who have actually stepped down, in the recent past. The same source even says abdication is considered normal and even expected in the Netherlands.
But the Queen still sticks on to her throne stubbornly it seems! Long live the Queen!
Now the Queen's 56 years on the throne beats the likes of Muammar al-Gaddafi, of Libya, who ruled for 41 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, of Yemen, who has ruled for over 30 years, Fidel Castro of Cuba, who ruled for nearly 49 years or even Robert Mugabe who still clings on to his position with brute force after 31 years of virtual dictatorship.
Would the Queen be proud to be a part of this dubious club? I doubt that.
But then it is power, which is the elixir of life for many of these people. They live, eat, drink and sleep on power, they thrive on power, power flows through their veins, makes their heart beat.
We have seen that in India as well, with the ever increasing number of geriatric politicians who desperately cling on power despite being old, paralysed and being hardly in control of their senses - prime examples were or are the likes of Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari, Sitaram Kesari, Sharad Pawar, Karunanidhi, etc.
Now the question I have is if these people are not in control of their faculties, do they have the right or the capability to govern a nation of over 1.2 billion? Now, assume for a moment that I am wrong and that these are indeed capable individuals, they why does the Indian government have a retirement age of 58 or 60 for its personnel? Would these geriatric politicians ever get recruited into an Indian government job, if they were not politicians?
The bottomline is that rules are for the ruled and are not for the rulers, who rule, virtually rule-free.
It takes strength of character to nurture the next line of leadership and give up one's position for new blood well in time. The Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela have shown the way on this. The world will continue to respect them for this. That's why I respect them the most.
I wonder what has shaped their character? Was it the 27 years in jail for the Madiba or an exile for the spiritual leader that shaped their respective characters?
But then not every leader or a statesman is a Dalai Lama or a Nelson Mandela.... that's the sad part!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

MMRCA Deal -- To Buy Or Not To Buy - Was That Ever The Question?

The post-Cold War strategic realignments saw India and the United States move closer. That closeness culminated in a bear hug when the two countries concluded the nuclear deal.
In that context, for most observers, it was a foregone conclusion that the Indian Air Force's order for procuring 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) at an estimated cost of a whopping US$ 9 billion would go to the Americans - either Lockheed Martin's F-16s or Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornets.
These suspicions were further strengthened when Obama visited India. There was all that talk about creation of jobs in the United States (read: India awarding massive defence contracts to the United States and keeping the assembly lines in the United States moving).
We all suspected that that there was a quid-pro-quo - Obama would back India's bid for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council in return for creating the jobs that Obama has been talking about ad nauseaum!
But there was a problem, Washington. The F-16s have been in operation since the mid-1970s. The Indian Air Force needed fighters to replace the aging MiGs. But should we be so desperate for a replacement at any cost, that we end up replacing one aging fighter with another one, which is reaching the tail of its design life. The F-16s would not have served the Indian Air Force's strategic unstated objective of staying ahead of the curve vis-a-vis regional powers. Another big factor that went against the F-16s was probably that the Pakistanis have flown the F-16s already for over 20-odd years, they would be ahead of us on the F-16's learning curve, they would know the limitations and flaws of the F-16s already. Should we be naive and play into the Pakistani hands by buying the F-16s?
So why not the F/A-18 Super Hornets then, which are considerably newer machines? Dealing with the United States is not easy. We signed the nuclear deal with the United States nearly 2 years back, but we are no where close to implementing the deal with them. So would the United States actually support India when needed, when faced with a belligerent situation, with critical spares and support? Who would want to bet on that?
That left the Russians and Europeans in the contention for the Indian Air Force's MMRCA.
The Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier armtwisting episode has left India seething with anger and extreme distrust of the Russians. Surely there is a big difference between the Soviet regime and the Russian regime of today. Would we want to risk grounding the entire Indian Air Force fleet, if Russia were to armtwist us again? Another deciding factor could have been that the MiG-35s are an incremental improvement on the MiG-29s, which are already operated by the Indian Air Force.
With the Europeans, it is a different matter. Time and again, we have seen that it is much much easier to deal with the Europeans. They surely do move with speed and are far more pragmatic. They do not seem bogged down by strategic millstones around their necks. The French proved that when they concluded the Areva nuclear reactor deal with us.
Putting all strategic eggs in one basket, as far as defence supplies go, is a foolish thing to do in light of our geopolitical and economical interests. Having denied the MMRCA opportunity to the United States does not mean that they do not figure in India's geopolitical radar. So the Indian Air Force would do well with a blended fleet of the Sukhoi 30 MKIs, the LCA and the MMRCA -- the Eurofighter Typhoon or Dassault Rafale.
But as a growing power, we need the strategic lift capability in our region of economic interest as well as a capability to launch a stealth assault.
When it comes to strategic lift capability, no one beats the Americans with the C-17A Globemaster III. Let us remember, the Europeans failed at military freighters, with the Airbus A400M freighter not doing too well - the South African Air Force even cancelled its orders for the A400M. While procurement for the C-17A s gets worked out, the Indian Air Force needs to expedite the induction of the C-130J Super Hercules.
Stealth airpower has come on our northern skies already, with the Chinese having developed and test flying the Chengdu J-20, in January this year (that Robert Gates was in Beijing then was no coincidence!). While India already has an understanding with the Russians for jointly developing a fifth generation fighter - HAL and Sukhoi are to collaborate on it, we should not wait for another twenty years. We can build a stealth capability by giving the Americans a juicy order for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. And we will give them jobs too!
To buy or not to buy the American MMRCAs, that was the question, that the Indian Air Force has answered well. Now is the time to sit with the Americans and close orders for freighters and fifth generation fighters!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How Weird Can Our Planners Get?

A few months back, we in Bombay's commercial business district of Bandra Kurla Complex, saw that the sides of the roads were being cordoned off. We were told that these were to be cycle tracks. The photograph alongside shows the tracks in green.
Great idea in general! A greener way of transportation.
But then the next question is how many people come to Bandra Kurla Complex on bicycles? Are habitations close by that riding a bicycle to the this business hub would be a fruitful proposition?
Having worked in Bandra Kurla Complex for over 5 years now, I am convinced that the answer is a big NO.
In these 5 years in Bandra Kurla Complex, I have hardly seen any one come to work on bicycle.
Now the question is how did this project get approved? Was any study or survey to support this investment? Did anyone stand to benefit from this wasteful investment?
This kind of faulty planning ails the metros of India today.
It could not get weirder than this....

Sunday, April 10, 2011

हज़ारों की ख्वाहिशें ऐसी -- Hazaaron Ki Khwaishein Aisi!

हज़ारों की ख्वाहिशें ऐसी!
Thousands of Indians yearn for this, for corruption to be weeded out. For transactions to be free from the facilitating आना (Anna).
I guess, that it was high time for a person like Anna Hazare to stand up for what the masses yearn for - हज़ारों की ख्वाहिशें!
It is indeed atrocious to hear about what all scams are being perpetrated by the people in positions of political and administrative authority.
In March 2010, India was horrified when Mayawati was garlanded with Rs. 1,000 notes. It was presumed that Rs. 200 crores were spent in that rally itself! I had then echoed Gordon Gekko's sentiment that for our leaders, Greed is Good!
But it did not stop at that.
Greed was even better when the 2G telecom scam deprived each poor Indian household of nearly Indian Rupee ₹20,000.
Then onions made us cry - the shortfall was apparently "created" and India was forced to import onions. And what not?
The problem is that shady deals that our politicians enter into through their cronies result in crores of Rupees being siphoned out of the system. And those figures are obscene. Here I quote from my blog post of March 2010, Greed is Good:
I came across two sources on the Net which referred to Swiss Banking Association reports of 2006 and 2008 which talk of deposits from India exceeding US$ 1.5 trillion, now that's an obscenely, astounding Rs. 65,25,000 crore.
Between then and now nothing would have changed the amounts would have only gone up and beyond my imagination.
The Indian people are frustrated today. Development has all but ceased. The government claims to start off developmental work, but not even a penny trickles down. This has created dangerous disparities between the "haves" and the "have-nots".
All this money stashed abroad can be put to good use - develop the education system, build infrastructure, overhaul the bureaucracy and what not.
The corrupt system is such that one things feeds the other. For instance, business houses have an interest in perpetrating corruption to speed up deals and to outwit competition, for which they pay bureaucrats and politicians -- Radiagate is case in point. Politicians thrive on bureaucrats to push the "dirty" deals and they need money from business houses to bank-roll election campaigns. And recently, there was some news on bad apples in the judicial system also! Neither is the Fourth Estate all that clean.
The bottomline -- everyone has a vested interest in seeing that the corrupt system not only survives but thrives - it's a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back" kind of environment.
Public response to corruption is also strange. We tolerate sophisticated corruption at the apex, yet make a big issue out of a traffic cop demanding a bribe.
I recall a recent incident, when Neeti and I were taking friends out for dinner. While taking a U-turn, we jumped lanes and were flagged down by a cop, who did not carry a receipt. We wanted to get away by giving him a Rs. 50 banknote, but this friend of ours literally threw names of top cops and terrified the young cop, insisting on a receipt which came an hour later!
Now if a minister can accept bribes that run into billions and launder the money away to British Virgin Islands, is a poor cop wrong when he accepts a bribe? Remember, the poor cop earns barely Rs. 5,000 a month, lives in a shabby slum, stands up against the weather to keep the traffic going. And is throwing names not corruption? When we stand up against corruption, we need to ask ourselves whether do this.
To weed out this self-sustaining system, it will take surely more than a Anna Hazare. How? Time will give us answers.
But for now, elements in the system would go all out against Anna Hazare and however cynical I may sound, the ख्वाहिशें or wishes would remain wishes....

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Future of Cricket?

I must admit this that it was the first time I watched a match from the first to the last ball after that famous quarter final encounter between the Indian and the Pakistani side during the 1996 Wills World Cup!
After gorging on Kangaroo steaks and pulping the Pakistani greens into a spicy chutney, the Indian team was a worthy entrant into the finals. And before the match, I tweeted that India deserved a good cup of Ceylon tea after the match.
But we all were disappointed to see Sachin and Sehwag get out in the first few overs, courtesy, the killer blonde, Malinga. Isn't it true that our countrymen have created a major hype around these so called "stalwarts"? How is it that despite their calibre, they always fail to deliver when they are most expected to?
Had this scenario played out a decade ago, the whole team would then have fallen like a pack of cards, but leading from the front is what mattered this time. Captain Dhoni's unbeaten knock alongwith the stabilising partnership of Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli silenced the lion's roar.
The rest was history! The cup was ours!
Yes, I said "ours" and not Sachin's. This team played for India, under India's tricolour and not for Sachin, so was it fair for the to be termed as Sachin's cup (is Sachin bigger than India?), especially when his contribution was a big naught in the victory?
But full marks to Dhoni and Gary Kirsten. It was Dhoni's maturity to take all this crap about this being an individual's cup in his stride, obviously he knew the cup was India's.
Isn't it true that the IPL was a game changer for Indian cricket - exposure to international players in franchisee teams helped us learn from their techniques, strategies, training techniques, etc. making them more confident and less dependent on the so-called biggies? We cannot take away the credit that is due to Lalit Modi for this.
The celebrations that followed the cup victory were spontaneous and lusty. The streets in Bombay were clogged with revellers on bikes and cars, with vuvuzelas, waving the tricolour (I had never seen so many tricolours in one place), with bystanders enthusiastically cheering those on cars and bikes. The festivities went on till early in the morning.
The spontaneous outburst of joy erupted in Delhi too, with a crowd as big as the Holy Ganga that flowed in and around the India Gate. And that was a great opportunity for the "First Family" of Indian politics to attempt to wash off all the sins of this government -- corruption and inaction and lethargy in this flowing Ganga of humanity!!!!
This is the popularity of cricket in the Indian sub-continent, but it isn't the same elsewhere. Rugby is more popular in Australia, football is more popular than cricket in England.
For cricket to be an commercially viable game, internationally, it has to take on soccer - today it isn't. Television viewership proves this. The 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa had a viewership of 400 million per match, as against only 67 million for the finals of 2011 ICC World Cup. That speaks a lot about the global popularity of the game.
That is because cricket, internationally, is a game of the "bada sahebs" with only 10 nations entitled to play test matches (and world cups), despite having 105 members - the remaining 95 "minnows" have to compete amongst themselves to earn their right to participate! In the long run, this apartheid is not good for the commercial success of the game.
Let's not forget being a "minnow" does not mean that the teams are weak or don't have any potential, as ICC's apartheid makes it out to be. Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe were associate members or minnows once. Sri Lanka went on to win the cup in 1996, while despite the talent, cricket in Zimbabwe got messed up in the Mugabe tangle.
What gives these 10 nations the birthright to participate in World Cups and tests, despite some of them pathetically performing, like say Zimbabwe, in this World Cup? Even the minnow, Ireland, was better than Zimbabwe this time around.
Should cricket not evolve like football, where regional qualifiers would determine who goes into the world cup? That way the minnows would get exposed to the so called biggies and this would also boost the popularity of the game in the countries where cricket is still evolving.
So if, say, Brazil has to play a Suriname in the Latin American qualifiers to earn a berth in the FIFA World Cup, India could do well to play against say Singapore or Afghanistan, or say, even Australia compete with the minnows of the Pacific, Papua New Guinea or Fiji to earn their respective berths in the ICC World Cup. The future of cricket lies in making it an inclusive game.
We did win the cup, it was a joyous occasion, but cricket still remains the opium of the masses, the intoxicant that stops the nation in its tracks (some of India's biggest corporates had an unofficial half day on the day of the most emotional, India-Pakistan encounter). Is that not a waste of valuable resources?
But for now, let the feel good factor last, till the next scam breaks out! And let me enjoy my cup of Ceylon tea!
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