30 October 2006

"The Shawshank redemption" directed by Frank Darabont

I had the DVD with me for a while but did not see the movie because the title and the blurb were not helpful in understanding what this movie was about. Got curious last year when a nephew's blog proclaimed his interest in the movie. The curiosity was not enough to vault over the mental stumbling blocks.

Yesterday I got lucky. Saw the movie.

Wow. Wow. Whew.

No wonder this 1994 Morgan Freeman/Tim Robbins movie is voted as Number 2 in the 250 all time best movies by participants in the "Internet Movie Database".

The story is about an innocent banker being sentenced to life imprisonment in the Shawshank prison system; his journey through the sentence; the "hope" he carefully nurtures against all forces in the prison; the protection of "something inside him" that he does not allow others to touch; and his clever adaptation into and manipulation of the system.

I bet this movie would "touch" you in a way you dont expect it to; and would leave you with a faint smile.

I plan to see this movie again. And again.

Funny the movie, an adaptation of Stephen King's novel, did not do that well in the box office (thanks to Pulp Fiction and Speed); but had a dream run in the home video market.

If you have not seen it so far, you are lucky. You could enjoy seeing it for the first time!

28 October 2006

"A Call to Honour: in service of emergent India" by Jaswant Singh

Jaswant Singh is a solider turned Statesman inspired by another soldier turned Statesman: Charles de Gaulle. No wonder the book’s title mimics de Gaulle’s war memoir “The call to honour”.

The first paragraph is erudite; scholastic and a put off. After that the book gets very warm, inviting and enjoyable.

Early days in Jasol and Khuri are described in a vivid Arundathi Roy style. The sense of freedom and joy a young bride (Jaswant's mother) feels when traveling from her in law’s place to her parent’s place; the mild anxiety of a grandfather to get his weekly fix of opium; the anguish of a grandfather whose peace and prosperity is challenged by a mindless partition in 1947 are all conveyed in a style that would win attention.

Jaswant Singh does not waste your time. He moves fast forward from his younger days in Jasol and Khuri to becoming a Minister in Vajpayee’s cabinet.

The reader gets a first person’s account of

(a) India’s explosion of nuclear devices; the philosophy behind the bomb; and the management of the impact the explosion had in India’s relationship with US, G8, China and Pakistan
(b) Blow hot blow cold relationship with Pakistan where people are courteous to each other in person and vitriolic in their public postures
(c) The Kargil war in 1999 and the Military stand off with Pakistan in 2001
(d) The Kandahar hijack incident
(e) Building a relationship with US that is independent of US relationship with Pakistan and
(f) Building a relationship with China.

One gets the comfort that politics is not all that bad in New Delhi:

(a) R Venkatraman, Minister of Defence in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, takes into confidence Jaswant Singh in the Opposition benches of the cabinet’s decision to explode nuclear devices in 1980 (though the explosion was cancelled in the last minute by Indira Gandhi)

(b) Prime Minister Narasimha Rao while transitioning Government to Prime Minister Vajpayee says “I wanted to explode these devices but could not. Now it is up to you”.

Both incidents point to a deep respect for other players in politics and a willingness to put India ahead of competitive advantage in politics.

Jaswant Singh too displays this maturity. He has strong criticisms against Congress party and Jawaharlal Nehru. However these criticisms seem to stem from anguish and not hatred; does not reduce the respect a reader may have for Congress or Nehru.

The book has some disappointments. Jaswant Singh does not talk about Ayodhya incident or Godhra incident in great detail. He does not talk about divisive politics between Vajpayee and Advani. Or the Tehelka scandal and how his party tried to stifle an investigative reporter. They too were part of India’s history when Jaswant Singh was in the ring and the reader would have had a more balanced understanding of Jaswant’s time.

All said, an outstanding book by an outstanding son of India who served his country well.

His grandfather who told him to “Go to Delhi and tell them that this (partition of India and Pakistan) was wrong” would be very proud of Jaswant Singh.

26 October 2006

"Kargil: from surprise to victory" by General V P Malik

The head of Indian army is one of the best persons to provide a first person’s account of the Kargil war. If he happens to be an engaging writer, even better. If he has the intellectual honesty to be truthful, it would be a delight.

General V P Malik has done an exceptional job in this book.

He is quite honest, without being critical, about the flawed intelligence; flawed reporting from the frontline; a few failures; and lack of sufficient equipment. However, the story of how the armed forces mobilized its response; how every point was captured back reads well.

Malik gives due credit to the political leadership in India for having the courage to increase the intensity of response without the fear of a nuclear backlash; but is frustrated with the moral high ground of not letting the army cross the line of control into Pakistan.

Malik gives an insight into the strategic thinking in India. Pakistan has the advantage of surprise in a low intensity conflict. Pakistan has parity (thanks to its bomb) in a high intensity conflict. However, India has the advantage in a medium intensity conflict due to a much larger armed forces. (India is a $ 3,800 billion economy while Pakistan is a $ 374 billion economy; in the end, sheer budgetary support would differentiate the two armies in a conventional war).

Pakistan’s thinking was that its nuclear capability would prevent India from escalating the war from low intensity. The political leadership and military leadership in India surprised Pakistan by escalating the response and engaging in a medium intensity conflict without being worried about nuclear responses.

Malik excels at the anecdotal level too. There are heroic stories about how individual peaks and points were captured back. The photographs of the terrain show how difficult the job was.

Reading this book along with Musharraf’s book “In the line of fire” would provide a contrast between India and Pakistan.

One, Malik appears proud of working under his political leadership and seems happy with their support though there are a few disappointments. Musharraf thinks all his political masters were useless.

Two, Malik does not describe Pakistan as an enemy in a passionate way. Malik sounds like a person who would not have minded a vacation in Pakistan if the two nations were friendly. Musharraf whips up passion in Pakistan by painting India as an arch enemy.

Three, Malik is happy to vanish into the wall paper in the political process. The highest level of interference Malik was willing to do was to call the Election Commissioner and complain that it would have been convenient for the army if the EC fixed the election dates after the war was over! Malik and his colleagues are apolitical professionals. Musharraf has emerged as a military dictator.

Four, Malik is quite critical of his country, his army and his political bosses – because he wants his successor to have a better probability of protecting his country. Musharraf cannot find one fault with Pakistan army.

Good book. Reads well.

24 October 2006

"Ghost wars" by Steve Coll

One of the best books written about the emergence of religion based terrorism directed against several causes and several societies. Steve Coll provides a balanced dispassionate analysis and profound insight into the new menace that is powerful enough to challenge peace everywhere.

United States has two kinds of friendships in world politics:

(a) Friendships founded on shared values
(b) Friendships founded on shared interests

Friendships founded on shared values (such as those with UK, Canada, Australia, Germany and Japan) last forever. These friendships do not leave a trail of destruction behind. Friendships founded on shared interests (such as those with Iran under the Shah, Philippines under Marcos, Pakistan under Zia, Saudi Arabia above oil) last short periods of time but leave a trail of destruction somewhere.

US friendship with two such shared interests (Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) has created a monster that is likely to be a greater challenge to peace and security everywhere than anything humanity has seen so far.

Saudi Arabia has been funding radical Islamic groups around the world to appease its domestic constituency of religious right. Saudi donations helped create radical Islamic groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan to attract, train and equip youth who are willing to kill and willing to die.

Pakistan provided an intelligence service that could orchestrate insurgency against a conventional army; provided a limitless supply of youth willing to die for holy causes; and an efficient supply chain of high tech arms.

United States used this friendship to create a "jehad" against Soviet expansionism. The mission was successful. But there were unfortunate side effects.

The Jihadists, assembled against Soviet Union, did not go home to become investment bankers and stock brokers. They stayed and sought new causes. Fight for Palestine. Fight against America. Fight against the House of Saud. Fight for Islamic rule in Afghanistan. Fight for liberation of Kashmir.

Pakistan had a field day. The ISI could use the jihadists for its favourite causes: Hekmatyar, Taliban, Kashmir. State sponsored terrorism was born. Funding was available from Saudi Arabia and from narcotics trade. State sponsored terrorism gave way to a multinational radical Islamic terrorism when Pakistan tainted every political objective with a religious colour (a lesson learnt from the jihad against Soviets). It is now possible for a Mullah in a village in Pakistan to issue a fatwah by fax that could motivate a young British Muslim to enroll in an ISI sponsored terrorism training center in Pakistan and undertake a mission to destroy social fabric in a nation that is probably busy with a super bowl.

A foreign policy shaped by shared interests is probably not that good an idea.

This book provides a well researched insight into the rise of radical Islamic terrorism.

The best on the subject. Easy to read. Disturbing to think about.

Shall look forward to the next book from Steve Coll.

21 October 2006

"DC Confidential" Christopher Meyer

Christopher Meyer was UK's ambassador to USA during the run up the Iraq war.

You would have thought this is likely to provide an insight into the alignment of views between the two leading democracies of the World, right?

Forget it. This book is boring.

All you get to read are:
(a) Britain's embassy in Washington DC; and next house neighbour Al Gore's copter disturbing peace in the neighbourhood
(b) Meyer's tracking of Presidential polls in USA to find out who is likely to win
(c) Political infighting between PM's office and Foreign ministry occasionally denying Meyer presence in high level parleys
(d) Germany's insensitivity in helping Her Majesty's Ambassador's wife winning a custody battle in German courts

Anglo American relationship is an important force in world polity. We shall await a book from Tony Blair or Dubya Bush to get insight into that.

As to this book, let it remain confidential.

20 October 2006

"In the line of Fire" by Pervez Musharraf

A memoir by a ruling Head of State of Pakistan! Without the measured expression by seasoned diplomacy! This is an exciting opportunity to discover what is ahead for Pakistan, mankind's fight against terrorism and for neighbour India.

Written in a racy style that keeps the reader engaged, the book does not disappoint.

Pervez Musharraf is quite outspoken about Pakistan. A few examples:

"Bhutto was the worst thing that happened to Pakistan. He did more damage to the country than anyone else, damage from which we have still not fully recovered"

"President Zia, in the 1980s, completed what Bhutto had started in the dying phase of his regime - the total appeasement of the religious lobby". "Zia found it convenient to align himself with the religious right and create a supportive constituency for himself".

"The four changes of prime minister involved two cycles of alteration between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Never in the history of Pakistan had we seen such a combination of the worst kind of governance - or rather, a nearly total lack of governance - along with corruption and the plunder of national wealth".

"We stood at the brink of being declared a failed state, a defaulted state, or even a terrorist state".

In four short quotes he disapproves the governance of Pakistan from 1971 to 1999.

Musharraf does admire one ruler of Pakistan however: Pervez Musharraf. He does make moderate claims to qualities of head and heart as a leader - to the extent one can expect in an autobiography. Every dictator or despot nurtures an ambition to claim legitimacy by seeking backing from his/her constituency. Musharraf claims his by bringing in the right mixture of national interests, a poor "state of the union", army support, a referendum and a convenient quote from Abraham Lincoln!

However, what surprises this Indian reader, is an antipathy toward India supported by misrepresentations and deceit:

Musharraf claims that India attacked Pakistan first in 1965 and was given a "bloody nose". Some might say that Pakistan sent its 2nd tank regiment into Jammu first. India halted it and advanced just miles short of Lahore and Sialkot when a UN brokered ceasefire stopped the war.

Musharraf also claims that India, with USSR alliance, invaded Pakistan in 1971 at a time when Pakistan was dealing with mass public uprising in the East. Musharraf ignores the millions of refugees that poured into India thanks to severe threats to normal life from Pakistan's Army. He claims India had an alliance of war with USSR and Pakistan's ally US was not supportive. Truth is different. The only super power to enter the war theater was the US. However, the Indian Army took complete control over the war theater for the US 7th fleet to play any active role and US backed off in the absence of achievable objectives.

Musharraf's recollection of Kargil is at best funny. He claims that "local freedom fighters" occupied Kargil in a maneuver that was "flawless tactical marvel of military professionalism" and Nawaz Sharif lost it in a truce brokered by US. Fact: It was Pakistan's army (Northern Light Infantry) that occupied Kargil. It was a tactical win at a Captain's level and a strategic failure at a General's level. The Indian Army discovered this late (and was criticized in India for this); but the Indian Army fought back and re-occupied all strategic heights. The US brokered truce happened after the re-occupation.

Musharraf stakes a final claim: That the Indian nuclear program used Dr AQ's design. This is a bit mixed up. India exploded its device in 1974. Dr AQ was at that time a young and brilliant metallurgy engineer in Delft in the Netherlands; it would take him another fifteen years to get a dirty bomb for Pakistan.

Musharraf, as a loyal Commander in Chief, tries to paint a larger than life size image for his Army. That is understandable. However, he does not worry about its impact on those who look to him for peace in the neighbourhood and elsewhere. That is worrying.

The leader of Paksitan is quite an important person for humanity's future. Because he can make a big difference on two major issues affecting humanity:

One, Pakistan is the biggest supplier of terrorists today. This supply chain misuses a great religion to provide motivation, drug trade to raise capital, and a vast accumulation of equipments from the cold war era for ammunition.

Two, Pakistan has the power to destroy. This power will have to be carefully handled. By wise, stable and mature hands. One would have thought Musharraf is the best person to control Pakistan's bomb. This book reduces that comfort.

Everyone would agree with one thing Musharraf says in his book. When one sees young Shahid Afridi hit sixers in a cricket match at will, one does feel like jumping with joy like a child. That, at least, is unquestionably true.