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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Indo US Ties Nosedive

Obama Has No Time for India

US President Barack Obama has sent a huge message to India. He visited every major country in Asia: Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, China, and South Korea but could not find time to include India in his itinerary. In Beijing, he acquiesced in a joint communiqué that covered a lot of ground. What struck home in India were media reports focused on a passing reference that urged China to ensure peace and stability in South Asia. It is probably true that what Obama meant was to tell the Chinese to refrain from arming Pakistan.

Nevertheless, the statement was a measure of Obama’s inexperience in dealing with India’s prickly sensibilities, especially with regard to China. India has never forgotten the humiliating backstab in 1962 when the Chinese army attacked India; nor has it come to terms with China’s dubious role at the International Atomic Energy Agency conference to approve the all-important waiver that was necessary for the fruition of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. Plus India treads warily of the Chinese fifth column, the CPM, which did all it could to scupper the deal; every thinking Indian believes that Prakash Karat and company were acting at Beijing’s behest. More recent, the Indian government has had to deal with Beijing’s aggressive stance on Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern state that it calls southern Tibet.

It is becoming clear to those of us who champion Indo-US relations that Obama really has no time for India. He’s from Chicago, where I lived for the best part of the 1970s and 1980s. And India is not big in the Chicago political mindset. As such, India is not in his list of priorities.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to visit Washington later this month. In a patronizing way, the White House has billed it as the first state visit of any world leader. But that’s meaningless. Every major leader has visited the US and met Obama. The “state visit” business is a piece of diplomatic fluff. It is very clear India is very low in the Obama scheme of things.

Nobody is more pained about the Obama administration’s cavalier attitude to India than those of us who have fought for all these years for a closer Indo-US relationship. Manmohan Singh put his government on the line for the civilian nuclear deal. Not just that, the Indian electorate voted his government back to office with an increased majority.

The Obama administration’s Asia policy puts the Singh government in jeopardy; it fought long-held anti-American mindsets to align with America. This is further underlined by the changed Indian positions on world trade and global warming that are now more in line with Washington’s thinking. As a huge supporter of better and more intense Indo-US relations, I am troubled by this president’s neglect of India; it feeds into the knee-jerk anti-US mindset of the establishment.

As such we are headed for a period of rocky relations with the US government. It happened under Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. It was a different India then. Today it is among the world’s fastest growing economies that is raising millions of people out of poverty. Obama does not seem to realize that. I am now not sure Obama is good for India, even though to many Americans and Europeans, he is Jesus Christ resurrected.

Those of us who support a strategic alliance with the US, including the Prime Minister, feel badly let down. The joint communiqué in Beijing apart, Obama has made protectionist noises about the outsourcing business. Little wonder then that the Indian foreign ministry with its deeply-rooted anti-American mindset issued a truculent statement in response to the communiqué.

Obama’s unthinking approach to relations with India will only embarrass and weaken the growing tribe of opinion leaders who support a strategic alignment with America. Willy nilly, it will strengthen the knee-jerk anti-Americanism that is always at play in India’s foreign policy. “I told you so,” is a refrain that is increasingly louder in Delhi. After the romance with Bill Clinton and George W Bush, pro-American opinion is silenced, not knowing what to expect from Obama and his slick PR machine.

The Prime Minister’s upcoming visit to Washington promises to be just a ceremonial exercise. In the event, it will be all style and no substance. There will be a banquet, many speeches, including a stirring one by Obama. Then it will be over. What does the Indian prime minister have to say to Obama in any case?

To begin with, he could take a firm line on the emergent market for nuclear power plants in India. Given Obama’s faux pas, the Indian government could take the view that American firms that do business with China are not welcome in the nuclear power industry for reasons of national security. After all, China has jut asserted that the northeastern state, Arunachal Pradesh, is part of China. It could do the same with other security-related sectors such as the purchase of aircraft and other military hardware. It could disengage from Afghanistan, where it supports the American development effort. Plus, the Indian delegation could take a hard line on Obama’s view on outsourcing.

Time to play hardball.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

Seeing Through the Potemkin State

Perhaps it is about getting older. Or that the excitement has waned. Increasingly the prospect of arrival in India fills us with apprehension as the cab winds its inevitable way to JFK or Chicago’s O’Hare. For me, America is a cultural home: the food, the music, the clothes, the humor, the aesthetics, the very idiom of language is all comfortingly familiar. Driving is a pleasure; walking the streets a delight and everywhere smiles and hellos…well, maybe not that many in New York City! But it’s less about extolling America than dreading what lies in wait at Delhi or any other port of entry to India.

Within seconds of landing, the harsh reality hits you between the eyes. The airport is shoddy, grimy and smelly. To exit is to confront a menacing crowd of people, straining at the barricades: vast numbers of drivers pushing and shoving; swarms of noisy families come to receive their near and dear ones; and various other categories teeming around the crumbling arrival terminal. True, such crowds gather at arrival terminals everywhere in the world but at Indian airports it adds another dimension to the chaos that reigns supreme.

Step outside and it is quickly evident there is no system to smooth the way for arriving passengers. You are left on your own to dodge honking and swerving cars torturing the driveway; and everywhere, smoke and fumes and rubble.

However, if you are an anointed “VIP,” as India’s public servants are called, you are whisked away through a plush private terminal to a private parking lot and into your car, all within minutes. Public servants don’t even wait for their bags; there are flunkies to retrieve them and deliver them to your house along the VIP route into Lutyens Delhi of the smooth, wide, tree-lined boulevards with flowering rotaries, manicured parks and expansive villas.

In stark contrast, the taxpaying citizen has to endure subhuman conditions in the terminal and bump along cratered tracks that pass for roads and deal with seriously demented drivers who whiz through the non-VIP parts of the capital as if possessed by demons. It is apparent that you have landed in one of the world’s least developed countries: Incredible India!

You get angry at the rank disparity. In America, things work smoothly for ordinary citizens. Yes, the economy is flagging and people are finding it tough to get or hold on to jobs. But the cities and communities are pleasant and there is a heady rush of egalitarianism in the very air. The entire political and bureaucratic setup in America is geared single-mindedly to the welfare of citizens. The accent on public service is pronounced and evident.

In India, you can have a top job or a fortune as a businessman but unless you are in the VIP zone of the cities and towns, you may not have reliable electric power, adequate water supply and any sanitation at all. Those who can afford it make their private arrangements; the rest suffer. Just in recent days, when it rained consecutively for two days, the capital was submerged. Questioned, a VIP dismissed the water logging and the traffic jams as an act of nature, a result of the heavy rains; he seemed criminally unaware of the problems people faced getting around the city. In his Lutyens Delhi, there is no flooding, light traffic and your workplace is but a pleasant drive of a few minutes.

This disparate order makes the chaos of India not just irksome but menacing. It is as though the system milks the ordinary individual who has a job or business to provide for the VIP. The random but deadly civil disturbances that plague India are spontaneous expressions of civic anger against the system that barely makes room for the middle class, leave alone marginal groups.

In huge swathes of India, the most deprived people have fallen sway to Maoist ideology and have taken to violence. No political party, not the hydra-headed government agencies, not the self-righteous NGOs can control them. Such civil violence will increase in frequency and scope as more and more citizens begin to see the disparity: not just the gap between rich and poor but between the privileged and the rest.

In the past few years, the elite have bought into the notion that India is set to emerge as a world power. Nothing belies the claim so comprehensively than the question mark that hangs over the staging of the Commonwealth Games next year. The controversy has shown up the Potemkin state, a cheap cardboard cutout fashioned by bureaucrats and politicians to fool themselves into believing the world power fantasy.

You don’t have to look too hard to see beyond the Potemkin mirage: dysfunctional highways and airports; garbage strewn cities and hapless villages; deadly traffic and pervasive pollution; the poverty of civic values and the sheer indignity of the human condition.

The slogan “Incredible India!” cuts both ways: one, the Potemkin way that the government intended; two, it is incredible that a modern 21st century democracy with one of the fastest growing economies in the world is in such a shambles.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Times of India, November 16, 2009.

copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Seminal Revolution

A New Dawn for Education

You get to hear bits and scraps about the government’s education policy in the newspapers . But the media are largely clueless about the fundamental reforms underway in the sector. One senior official of the HRD ministry called them "as significant as the economic reforms of 1991. They could change the face of India in the next decade. As follows:

In 1992, I was appointed adviser to the UNICEF chief in India. Eimi Watanabe told me that the primary education system was a problem. She said the issue was enrolment as well as dropouts. Our advocacy campaign for universal primary education reached far and wide. We looked at ways of influencing politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and businessmen with a plan to push free and compulsory primary education. Our argument was simple: India boasts that its technical and scientific prowess is recognized the world over and yet it harbors among the world’s largest number of illiterates.

We highlighted this paradox to promote universal primary education. We showed the contrast between the lack of enrolment and the high dropout rates at the primary level and the huge demand for higher education. A powerful argument in our campaign was that the paradox of Indian education has created and seeks to perpetuate a class divide with educated elite on one side and a vast illiterate underclass on the other. Primary education is a powerful equalizer, we said. In addition, the UNICEF advocacy campaign sought to demolish several arguments offered by policy experts, including the pernicious one about children of the rural poor being needed to help out in the farm.

Nearly three years of dogged advocacy paid off when on November 14, 1994 (Children’s Day), Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and his senior cabinet colleagues made a public commitment to provide “education for all” by the year 2000 at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan. Nothing happened as India got roiled in political controversy, which saw an uncertain period of a shaky BJP alliance that was eventually defeated ten years later.

Fifteen years later, in August 2009, Parliament passed the landmark Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2008. My good friend Kapil Sibal, who, as HRD minister, piloted the bill, described it as the “harbinger of a new era.” For me, it was a vindication. In 1992, we faced severe opposition. But Eimi Watanabe, who is now a member of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel that seeks to ensure the Bank’s activities don’t harm people, is the unsung heroine. Without her commitment to free and compulsory primary education in India, this bill would never have come to pass.

It’s been just two months since the bill was ratified; its impact will be felt over the next decade. Free primary education provides access for the poorest; compulsory will generate a demand that will eventually overcome the bugbears of enrolment, dropouts, absentee teachers and irrelevant curriculums. Kapil Sibal is indebted to Eimi, who placed the issue on the national agenda.

On secondary education, Kapil has proposed a regime to reduce the stress on children in schools by opting for ongoing grades rather than a final exam. In doing this, he has won the support of the middle class parents, who live in dread of exam results. The notion of grading students on a term basis gives parents greater say in the advancement of their children. Teachers will be held accountable for the progress of their wards.

Above all, students will be relieved of the stress of make-or-break exams. Graduating from high school will no longer be a random exercise determined by nameless examiners. Pretty soon, parents will question teachers about their children’s prowess. As such, teachers will have to give up authoritarian ways and will have to work with parents to ensure that their children get the best from their educational experience.

In the event, creativity will triumph over conformism. Students will learn that asking questions is more important than rote learning. Already, the advent of Cambridge International Examination and International Baccalaureate curriculums proved to be a challenge to the moribund Indian school system. There’s been a steady migration of upper middle class students to these foreign certification schools.

Finally, in the higher education sector, the Foreign Educators Providers Bill is about to be passed in Parliament. The bill focuses on providing access by a nine-fold increase in the budget for the establishment of new institutions. It talks about equity without a dilution of standards. Plus it seeks to enhance quality by exposing India’s fossilized universities to foreign competition.

The bill faces a lot of opposition because higher education is totally politicized. Already, as a high level source in the HRD ministry said, there are complaints from vested interests , who seek a “level playing field;” much like the Bombay Club did when the government scrapped the license-permit raj in 1991. The proposed bill also seeks to attract foreign students in the hope it will generate a demand for more relevant curriculums and more funds.

In addition, the bill hopes to encourage private funding. “The key to autonomy is funding,” a senior official in the HRD ministry said. Already in Gujarat, this is happening. Many affiliated colleges have opted to join the newly formed Ahmedabad University. “They have done so in the hope that of a more conducive environment,” a respected Gujarati industrialist told me. His family funds many colleges affiliated to Gujarat University and they have shifted to the new university formed by his family.

Between the changes at the primary, secondary and higher education, a revolution is well and truly underway. It will change the face of India’s education system. It will be transformed from an elite selection process into a knowledge system. We should all cheer. Kapil Sibal champions this radical change. India will owe him a debt of gratitude for facilitating the transformation.

Some decades from now, we will have a Nobel Prize winner and this will continue through the century. We won’t have to put up with a curmudgeon like Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the newest Nobel laureate of Indian origin, who used the occasion to denigrate his roots. Sadly, Venky studied at the same universities in India and the US that I attended.

An edited version of this column appeared in Education World, November 2009.

copyright Rajiv Desai 2009