Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Talk Your Way To USA – 1986 – Anyone Around?

1986. Air India organised a speech competition for school children in Tamil Nadu. Captioned “Talk Your Way To USA”, competitors were supposed to talk extempore about Travel and Tourism. The winner got a return ticket from Chennai to the US for self, one parent and a teacher. Number two earned a return ticket to the US for self and a teacher. The third prize winner got a return ticket from Chennai to New Delhi for self, one parent and a teacher. There were three consolation prizes after that – return tickets from Chennai to Mumbai for the winner and a teacher. I came fourth and travelled by air - for the first time! The highlight of the final ceremony held on 14 November 1986 (Children’s Day) was the presence of the then Chief Minister MGR who graciously gave five thousand rupees each to all six finalists! Thanks to MGR’s presence, the final prize giving ceremony was shown as a News clipping at various movie theatres in Tamil Nadu. Needless to say, I was a hero at school for the rest of that year.

1986 was the first time Air India held this competition. It was repeated a few times after that. The next year, the competition was held in Tamil and I didn’t get past the district level.

I haven’t kept in touch with any of the other finalists or semi-finalists for that matter from 1986. It would be grand if I could. Please email me if you were there.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Commonwealth Games Mess: Whose Fault Is It?

China could do it. India wanted to do it, but has made a hash of it (so far). Why? Why? Why?

India’s upper classes dreamt of holding an international sports event in a manner that would make India shine brighter and make India an even more attractive investment destination. I doubt if this dream belonged half as much to the lower classes. In any event, no effort was made to sell this dream to India’s lower middle-classes and the poor. It would have been a hard sell anyway. Why bother when all they get out of it is an eviction if they happen to live in a place earmarked for the Games? In a democracy like India, this can be fatal. If India’s poor don’t care about the Commonwealth Games, they won’t care if the organisers mess it up. When its election time again, India’s poor who make up the bulk of India’s voting population, will not punish those in power who failed to deliver. The politicians know this. On the other hand, the politician(s) who made money out of this extravaganza will have the money to splash out on his election campaign. In all probability, such politician(s) will be back in power.

I used to have a great deal of respect for Sheila Dixit, the Chief Minister of Delhi, until recently considered to be one of India’s best Chief Ministers. I had started liking Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent to the leadership of the Congress Party and Prime Minister in-waiting. Rahul had seemingly thrown off his playboy image and appeared to be a serious politician, one who could connect with India’s youth. However, all of this has happened right under Rahul Gandhi’s and Sheila Dixit’s noses. More importantly, everyone knew that the Games’ preparations were behind schedule. In all probability, in the time honoured Indian way, the Big People in Delhi knew that their minions were making money out of the construction work and the preparations. In all probability, they were receiving a cut – how else would they have money for the next elections? If everyone in power in Delhi had taken a cut from the Games’ budget, how could they crack down on the organising committee even after it became apparent that things were not going to plan?

Before I say anything more, let me confess that I do not have a ring-side view of what’s happening in Delhi. I am not even in India and my only sources are newspapers and the television. It’s obvious from the reports I read and see that if the work had been finished a few weeks earlier, before the advance teams landed up in Delhi, the dirt and grime and shit that has been repeatedly shown on TV would have been cleaned up. The only mistake the organisers made was to run behind schedule. There was never a serious attempt to not use child labour or to provide a decent living wage and accommodation to the labourers who did the work. I doubt if the organisers even thought of setting up portable toilets for the workers. Most probably, China didn’t do any of these either, but then they managed to finish the work in time and clean up their act before the international press or the advance teams landed up. China also most probably managed to keep its labourers disciplined enough to not to shit in the loos or spit into the sparkling wash basins they installed. Anyone who broke the rules most probably had a week’s wages docked. India couldn’t/ can’t do all that. It is a democracy.

China’s communist party leadership cares about China’s image in the rest of the world. In India, the only ones who care about India’s image are its upper classes. Even the top politicians don’t care about it beyond a point since getting elected every five years is much more important. If something similar had happened in China, a few heads would have rolled. Literally. In India, the corrupt can’t be punished even if the government wants to punish them since the judicial system is not efficient and has too many loopholes. A few months after the Games are over, India would have moved on. I doubt if even a single politician or bureaucrat will go to jail on account of this fiasco.

There has been a lot of handwringing amongst India’s upper classes as a result of all this negative publicity. India’s nice people want action. They want the necks of those in the organising committee. However, there is no demand that the government should clamp down on child labour throughout India or that all labourers working on construction sites should have portable toilets or that they should all be paid a living wage and not have to live in unhygienic conditions. From the outset, the Games has been an attempt to clean up a very small part of India and show it to the rest of the world. To use an example, it is akin to a rich man with new money inviting the richest and nicest people in town to a party. His poor relations have been roped in to do the cooking and cleaning and washing up. However, they are not a part of the party and are meant to leave before the party starts. The party would still turn out fine if it is properly planned and everything is done in time. However, if the cooking or other preparations aren’t completed in time, the poor relations can’t be hidden in time when the guests arrive. No, the guests will see them cooking and cleaning when they arrive. No, it won’t look very nice and it will sort of spoil the image. And it has in Delhi.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Book Review: A Journey by Tony Blair

The Journey

It was meant to be “The Journey”, but a last minute editorial change made it “A Journey”. We’ll never know the reason why. Most probably, it was a case of eleventh-hour nerves and a desire to avoid the charge of being pompous. A Journey is a political memoir but Blair does dwell on various aspects of his personal life very often, telling us how became reliant on alcohol at one point. However, many chunks from Blair’s personal life are carefully avoided, such as his recent conversion to Catholicism, though towards the end of the book, Blair says that he has always been more interested in religion than in politics.

What Makes A Politician?

Politics is not for the faint hearted. What is it that makes a man or a woman pursue capricious voters (who are usually interested only in their personal welfare) and make a career out of it? A successful politician has to be someone who enjoys being in the limelight, is willing to be subjected to scrutiny and is good at communicating with the public. A good politician is someone who wants to make a difference. Blair is a successful politician and a good one. Blair wants to make a difference. More importantly, Blair, like any other politician wants the entire credit for what he does. Blair takes his journey very seriously. For him, it is The Journey. Blair believes that he is a man of destiny, a man meant to make a difference to millions of people not only in the UK but also in the rest of the world.

The Ends Justify The Means

In his 700-odd page tome, Blair devotes a fair amount of space to explain how the son of a self-made barrister and Tory politician became interested in politics and joined Labour. Blair is not in politics for power alone. Yes, he is interested in power. The detailed descriptions of his tug of war with Gordon Brown make that amply clear (see the last paragraph). But Blair also believes that he is the best man for the job. When Blair indulges in politicking, he is doing it not just for himself, but for the good of everyone – no sarcasm intended here.

Book Layout

Though this book traces Blair’s political life from his childhood till the time he quit as Prime Minister, it is written thematically, rather than chronologically. For example, there are chapters devoted to the Iraq War, Princess Diana and to the intervention in Kosovo. I should confess that my main motive for reading A Journey was to understand Blair’s rationale for the invasion of Saddam’s Iraq.

Iraq War

Blair makes a special mention of the fact that in February 2003, over a million Britons marched in London against the Iraq war. The million-man march is mentioned more than once. Does this faze Blair? No. To quote Blair, “there had never been a larger demonstration, reminding me of my isolation and the responsibility of the decision I was about to take”. Blair takes responsibility for the decision he took. Does he regret his decision? Would he have done differently with the benefit of hindsight? The answer to both questions is a hesitant No. Blair says that his objective in talking about Iraq is not to persuade his readers of the rightness of the cause, but to merely persuade that such a cause can be made out and that his decision may have been right. Blair takes a great deal of pain to delve into Saddam’s human rights record and the fact that Iraq had a programme for production of chemical weapons. True, they did seriously believe that Iraq still had them – why else would Saddam obstruct UN inspections? However, if Saddam had not been removed from power, Blair believes that Iraq would have once again reverted to its old game and recommenced production of weapons of mass destruction. Many Iraqi children died as a result of malnourishment and lack of medicines during the era of UN sanctions. Whose fault was it? Saddam’s of course, for choosing to not buy food and medicines and wanting to show the world that UN Sanctions were causing deaths. I agree with this bit of Blair’s assessment and analysis, but on the whole, Blair leaves so many questions unanswered. Weren’t their other regimes which had a worse human rights record than Saddam’s Iraq? What about North Korea? Iran anyone?

Blair says that so many people told him that the Shia Iranians would never forge an alliance with Sunni groups in the middle-east. But they did, for short-term tactical reasons. In a way, he makes it clear that the USA and UK could have done better with their predictions for the post invasion scenario. They should have expected the long-oppressed Shia majority to reassert itself and possibly align with Iran. They should have expected Iran to intervene in Iraq so as to build a sphere of influence for itself in Iraq. They should have expected the Al Qaeda to enter Iraq.

Towards the end, Blair gives a clue to the main drivers behind the Iraqi invasion. He says, “the region needed a fundamental change. And this change was to be of a different character. In the 1980s we had armed Saddam as we had the mujahideen in Afghanistan, so as to thwart Iran in the one case and the Soviet Union in the other. It was a tactical move, but a strategic mistake, This time we would bring democracy and freedom. We would hand power to the people. We would help them build a better future. We would bring, not a different set of masters, but the chance to be the masters, as our people are of us. And hadn’t we shown that such idealism was indeed achievable? In Afghanistan they were preparing for their first election, and the Taliban at that time was seemingly banished. In my first term we had toppled Milosevic and changed the face of the Balkans. In Sierra Leone, we had saved and then secured democracy after the ravages of the diamond wars. We had the military might of America, not to say that of Britain and others. There was no way that Saddam could resist….”

In other words, Iraq was do-able. The belief in the existence of weapons of mass destruction created the grounds to do it. In any event, Iran or North Korea or Cuba were not do-able.

UK-USA Special Relationship

Blair takes the special relationship with the US for granted. In any event, he does not take up much space in justifying it. Instead, he says that the British like their leaders to stand tall internationally. Do they? I am not too sure. Blair says “Brits would want to know that in Toulouse people would recognise me. Our leaders should stand out, and if not cut a dash, at least make an impact. The problem is, as time has gone on and the world has changed, and Britain’s relative size and weight have shifted, it becomes harder to do so. Not less desirable, just harder.” One is left with no doubt that Blair wanted to stand tall internationally. “Those who thought that our closeness to America was a problem in the rest of the world, could not have been further from the mark. On the contrary, it gave us immediate purchase. There was no greater nonsense that that our alliance with the US lost us standing in the world. The opposite is the case.” Blair cites the example of Harold Wilson who did not support the US on Vietnam and still lost the 1970 general election.

First Names Please

Blair ranks George Bush very high not only in terms of integrity, but also intelligence. Making a convincing case, Blair says only a very intelligent person could have ended up as the President of the United States of America. Blair refers to George Bush as ‘George’ throughout the book. However, Bill Clinton, who Blair is says he was just as close to and who is ‘progressive’ (while George Bush is admittedly ‘conservative’) is referred to as ‘Bill Clinton’ or ‘President Clinton’ throughout, except when Blair talks of the Monica Lewinsky incident and in a very few others instances. I wonder why. Blair screws up his courage and actually refers to Vladimir Putin as 'Vladimir' a few times. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall and listened to a real conversation between Blair and Putin. ‘Vladimir,..’ Blair begins and holds out his hand with a warm and open smile. ‘Anthony…,’ Putin responds and clasps Blair’s hand, and they start talking earnestly. Was it ever like that, I wonder?

Hilary Clinton

There are very few references to Hilary Clinton, too few I thought, though Hilary assumed office more than a year after Blair resigned as Prime Minister. Blair mentions Hilary’s visit to the UK as the US representative at the time of Princess Diana’s death. And then Blair tells us how Hilary stood by Bill Clinton when the Monica Lewinsky incident broke. Does Blair think Bill and Hilary remain married for political convenience? Do read this book to find out.

Barack Obama

Obama too does not occupy much space in Blair’s journey. Yes, Blair admires Obama’s communication skills and election campaign, but does he ideologically agree with this fellow progressive? For example, Blair praises Obama’s Cairo speech. “The speech was carefully calibrated. The hand of friendship would be offered, even to Syria and Iran. It was in part an apology, and taken as such. The implicit message was: We have been disrespectful and arrogant; we will now be, if not humble, deeply respectful. But join us, if you will.” “The trouble is: respectful of what, exactly? Respectful of the religion of Islam, President Obama would say, and that is obviously right; but that should not mean respectful of much of the underlying narrative, which many within Islam articulate in its politics today.” Mind you, on this issue, I am more with Blair than with Obama as I have explained in one of my earlier posts.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy (sometimes Nicolas Sarkozy, sometimes just Nicolas and sometimes just Sarkozy) on the other hand is spoken of with warm admiration. “He was fascinating company – engaging, energetic and with that captivating French bravado around women, life and laughter that I loved. I liked too the fact that he was a ‘my way or no way’ person. He had the spirit certainly to demand change, and to get it or go. And I was very sure that was the only way to get the necessary reforms fast. But, as ever, it is one thing to propose in theory; another to execute in practice. In that first flush of limitless possibility which characterises the new incumbent, I saw something of my own feeling ten years before. ‘It will get tougher,’ I warned him.

China and…. India

India finds a few mentions, usually in the same breath as China – “possibly we have not yet internalised the true significance of China’s rise (or indeed that of India)”; ”…and will not India and China, each with three times as many citizens as the whole of the EU put together, once their economies have developed sufficiently, as they will do, reconfigure entirely the geopolitics of the world and in our lifetime?

Israel and Palestine

With regard to Israel and Palestine, Blair says he understands the Palestinian position and finds Israel unreasonable in some respects, but on the whole, he feels that the Palestinians and their supporters are not trying hard enough to find a solution. I fully agree with Blair. During the Israel/Lebanon war of 2006, Blair refused to condemn Israel, though Israel’s actions caused a lot more damage to the Lebanese than Israel suffered on account of Hezbollah’s rockets. “Hezbollah were and are an urban guerrilla movement. They target civilians deliberately. Their weapons are poorer, so they kill relatively few. They assume the posture of the plucky underdogs. Israel is a government with a well-armed and well-trained army and air force. They do not target civilians. But their only weapon, in a civilian setting, where the guerrilla movement is located, is deterrence. Therefore, they use their force to try to deter further attacks. Inevitably, large numbers of civilians are killed. They quickly assume the mantle of oppressors.” I fully agree with Blair’s position and his analysis. I had taken a similar view with respect to Israel’s invasion and bombing of the Gaza strip in 2009.

Pakistan and Kashmir

Kashmir is mentioned a few times in the same breath as other hotspots such as Sri Lanka and Kosovo. Blair tells us of a conversation with Musharraf regarding the linkage between Pakistani nationalism and Islam (General Zia’s doing) which is rather interesting. “The connection between the two, Musharraf explained, had furthered radicalism in the country, heightened the issue of Kashmir and made reconciliation with India harder. ‘Surely’, I said, ‘economic development is the key challenge for Pakistan.’ Of course,’ he said, ‘but the reality is today Pakistani politics is about nuclear weapons and Kashmir.’ What can we do to help?’ I asked, expecting an answer to do with aid or India. ‘Do Palestine,’ he immediately shot back. ‘That would help.”

Gordon Brown

The tussle with Gordon Brown is dealt with at length, the initial friendship, the tussle to be leader of the Labour party as it came close to power in the mid-nineties, the unspoken promise to step down after two terms (was it ever made?), the friendship (almost like a married couple), the quarrels, Brown’s attempt to bully Blair into stepping down….. let me not say anymore. Blair writes very well, in limpid and functional prose which is a pleasure to read. Do read about Blair’s Journey and find out for yourself.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

A Mosque Near Ground Zero?

I know, it’s not a mosque – it’s an Islamic Cultural Centre, named the Cordoba House with a interfaith spiritual center, a monument to those who died on 9/11 and… a Muslim prayer area. Most importantly, it won’t be on top of Ground Zero. Rather, it will be two blocks away on top of what used to be a Burlington coat factory. A majority of Americans oppose the idea and I agree with them. Here’s why: America is the land of freedom, where one can practice the religion of one’s choice and say what one feels. Nevertheless, building a mosque (Islamic cultural centre if you insist) right next to the World Trade Centre site is in bad taste. If I were to draw a parallel, it would be akin to building a grand centre for German culture right next to Auschwitz. There is nothing wrong with German culture or its promotion, but a centre for Germanic culture right next to Auschwitz will rankle. Just as it is not right for Pastor Terry Jones to burn the Quran, though he has the legal right to do so in the US, it is not right for US Muslims to want to build a mosque (Islamic cultural centre if you will) so close to Ground Zero.

A mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero is very insensitive and it rankles.