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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Delhi Journal

George Bush, Indian Hero

At a recent event in the Taj Palace Hotel in New Delhi, I found myself with my arm around his waist and his arm around my shoulder, posed for a photo opportunity. George W Bush, the much reviled former President of the United States, was in an expansive mood that evening. Aside of his “base” in America, this was fawning that had to be seen to be believed. He is the unquestioned hero of India’s elite. A senior member of the ruling Congress party said he would recommend him for the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award.

In his early sixties, Bush is sprightly and amazingly friendly. He mingled with guests and stayed on to have what I consider the Taj’s most fabulous spread. Bush has been a divisive item in my immediate family and my friends in America. They hate him for the "shock and awe" bombing of Iraq; his assent for the atrocities in Guantanamo. It is truly terrible. For me though, those are American problems. Why should I get worked up about it?

Having worked closely with the US mission in Delhi and the Prime Minister to steer the Indo-US civil nuclear deal to its completion, I was proud to shake hands with him, be photographed with him. Bush, for India, has been the best ever US President. Bill Clinton, whom the Indian establishment still admires, set the trend. Bush accomplished what seems to have not occurred to Clinton. He brought India into the global mainstream. If Richard Nixon is held in esteem for opening China, Bush should be acclaimed for his outreach to India.

“President Bush, thank you for your support,” I said to him. Hated, reviled and caricatured among my liberal intellectual and activist friends in the US, Bush to me has been an icon; he overcame the traditional US highbrow establishment’s “attitude” about India. Between my friends in the US embassy in Delhi and in the Prime Minister’s office, we worked to see the deal through. It wouldn’t have happened without the unflagging support of Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

With the Prime Minister committed to the deal, the diplomats in the US Embassy in Delhi led from the front. They overcame bureaucratic hurdles on both sides to push the deal. We always knew there would be opposition. For one thing, there was the Left, a key supporter of the Congress-led UPA government. It was also not very clear that the Congress Party was enthusiastic about the deal. Once assured of US support, the Prime Minister put his government on the line and the Congress Party fell in line thanks to Sonia Gandhi’s enlightened world view.

In the event, much drama happened. There was a vote in Parliament and the deal was sealed. Of course, Dr Singh is the hero and Sonia Gandhi, who backed him. Nobody can, however, deny that Bush’s enamored view of India was the driving force. Not to forget, the Congress managed to win another term in 2009.

That’s why I was thrilled to meet him, never mind that my friends in America won’t talk to me. They may have questions about Bush; for India, he is the greatest US President ever. It showed that evening.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ahmedabad Journal

The Butterfly City

Late on a moonlit night, Ashish and his wife Nicole, my niece, drove me along the newly-built embankment on Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati River. Flowing north to south, the river roughly divides the old city with its rich tradition and heritage architecture and the modern suburban development on its west side. As we drove along the river’s edge, I marveled at the sheer beauty of the waterway in full flow. I lived in the city for three years in the 1960s and my parents made their home there. So I have a proprietary hometown interest.

When I lived in Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati held no water. Its banks were slum-ridden. In the middle, you had these wonderful sights of people drying their colorful clothes and donkeys laden with sand to fuel the furious building activity on the west side of the river. Every now and then, the river would become flooded as the barrages upstream released water in the monsoon. By and large though, the river ran dry and the many bridges across it seemed pointless.

All that changed in May 1997. The Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation was set up under the stewardship of then chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela to develop a plan for the riverfront. Twelve years later, Vaghela’s dream is taking shape. The river is full now, fed by the water of the Narmada Dam. When the project is completed, Ahmedabad will join Goa’s capital city Panjim as the only other riverside city in India to develop its waterfront.

The riverfront development in Ahmedabad is a huge and sophisticated urban renewal project. When it is complete, it will transform this city that is already fond of the good life. Traditionally known for its parsimonious ways, Ahmedabad has changed over the years to become possibly the most global city in India; not because of multinational firms as in Gurgaon but mostly because it has a huge connection to the US, where many of its denizens reside. This least Western city in India is curiously its most American city.

As such, Ahmedabad is truly egalitarian. On a recent flight from Bombay, I bumped into my friend Sanjay Lalbhai, scion of the city’s illustrious Lalbhai family and the head of Arvind Mills, traveling with me on an all-cattle-class Jet Konnect flight. His family is, among other things, a benefactor of the city’s famed Indian Institute of Management and the renowned CEPT University.

In an India of new and in-your-face wealth, Sanjay remains an icon of understated old wealth: unassuming and courteous, wedded to larger development causes such as higher education. He does this not as part of some PR-driven corporate social responsibility program; he is convinced, like his forebears, that a publicly-traded corporation has a duty to the community.

People like Sanjay and a relatively enlightened bureaucracy have transformed Ahmedabad from a moffusil place into India’s most dynamic city: its new Bus Rapid Transit System makes its Delhi counterpart look like a third-world system; the city’s airport, roads and its smooth power supply make it closer to global standards than any other city in India.

Historically, the laughing stock of India’s western provinces, Ahmedabad today is the face of new India. Never mind Bombay, people commended even Surat, Baroda and Poona over Ahmedabad. But the city will have the last laugh. It is set to emerge, with its mixture of schlock and exquisite architecture, superb infrastructure and thriving consumerism, as India’s premier city in the 21st century.

This does not mean that Ahmedabad is suddenly a pretty city; far from it. Flat, featureless and dusty, it grew privately. Builders from the north transformed this once genteel city into a treeless monstrosity of ugly multistory buildings. Over the years, conscientious civic authorities decided to take the city back. So you have this unusual combination of ugly private buildings, superb public architecture and now, sophisticated public spaces with a well-designed bus rapid transit corridor and a cleverly designed ring road with flyovers that work.

The expressway that links Ahmedabad to Baroda is a marvelous piece of road engineering that makes the Delhi-Gurgaon highway look like a country road in Burkina Faso. It runs about 100 kilometers, a distance that can be traversed in 55 minutes. The city’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel airport makes the new terminal in Delhi look like a provincial airport in some remote African country. The city is abuzz with new and lasting solutions to urban problems. They have no power cuts, a brand new water supply and sewerage system and piped cooking gas.

On the other hand, Ahmedabad remains among the most polluted cities in India. There is no getting away from the ugly commercial and private buildings. Its climate has to rank among the worst in India, thanks largely to the absence of trees and greenery.

Already, though, with water in the river, you can feel the climate is changing for the better. The vastly improved and well thought out infrastructure is bringing pride back to the city. As such, this maggot of a city is about to be transformed into a butterfly, albeit with ugly wings.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009