09 July 2013

"The Dispensable Nation: American foreign policy in retreat" by Vali Nasr

There are two ways you can pursue the foreign policy of a country.  One is to do what is good for the country (strategic interests, shared values etc) and the other is to do what is good for the ruling administration (popularity, acceptance to legislature etc).

Vali Nasr, an insider in Hillary Clinton’s State department (and a scholar in US foreign policy from John Hopkins University) thinks Obama is prone to do what wins votes than what serves US interests.

An insider can provide an insight that a dispassionate outsider cannot.  To that extent, the book is a value-add.  However, an insider can suffer from bias.  To that extent, the book can disappoint.

At start, the bias comes through more often than analyses.  According to Nasr:
  1. Obama gets high mark on foreign policy because his decisions are popular; not strategic.
  2. The State department did not have a reasonable independence in shaping US foreign policy.  There was disproportionate influence from (a) Military and (b) a small cabal of inexperienced political advisers in White House,  
  3. Richard Holbrook had strong insight and experience; but Obama did not make best use of Holbrook.  Obama let Pentagon run Afghanistan and CIA run Pakistan.
There are some snippets that only a frustrated insider can provide:
  1. An Arab Minister told US that it would be far less costly to buy off Afghan warlords than wage a war to keep Al Qaeeda away.
  2. General Kayani of Pakistan predicted that US will fail and leave a half trained Afghan army that will break into militias and add to the lawlessness in the region.
  3. Obama passed an opportunity to deal with Iran because a deal would be difficult to sell within US and to Israel; sanctions on the other hand were very popular.
However, the tour d'horizon Nasr provides reflects the intellect and experience of this John Hopkins scholar:
  1. US engagement in Afghanistan suffered a mission creep.  What started as a fight against terrorism (with Al Qaeeda as the enemy) became an attempt at nation building (with Taliban as the enemy).    Fighting insurgency is a challenge.  The challenge is even tougher when the insurgency has a safe haven in a friendly population and finance/intelligence support from a government.   Pakistan was “Laos, Cambodia and China all rolled into one” in this modern day Vietnam that Afghanistan became.  The counterinsurgency strategy (of winning the local population) as a tool in an asymmetric engagement with terrorists required governance; and governance required government.  This was missing in Afghanistan.  US did not end the Afghan war in battlefield; or in negotiating table.  All it aspires is for a decent interval between its departure and the chaos that would follow so that US is not blamed for it.
  2. Pakistan had two objectives:  Keep India out of Afghanistan and prevent Pashtuns carving out a Pashtunistan from Pakistan.  An Islamic jihad helps in keeping Pashtuns in and India out.  US tacitly tolerated Pakistan’s duplicity and used aid alone as a leverage to shape Pakistani thinking. However, the aid was small and misdirected to have any meaningful impact.  US’s Pakistan policy did not achieve either the immediate security goals or the long run strategic interests.
  3. Iran is trying to gain leadership in Arab world by pursuing an anti Israel agenda.  However, the Sunni/Shia divide prevents Iran from emerging as such a leader.  Iran’s investment in defense is very tiny when compared with the defense spend of its Arab neighbors.  Iran sees nuclear capability as a poor man’s way of acquiring strategic parity.  US is pursuing “sanctions” as a tool to contain Iran.  This tool is blunt and suffers a questionable track record.  US paid a huge price to win Russian/Chinese support for sanctions against Iran.  US tolerated Russian invasion of friendly neighbors.  US facilitated the economic rise of China as a price for Chinese support of sanctions.  Was Iran that important? 
  4. The Arab Spring is not likely to result in liberal Arab order.  It is more likely to give rise to Islamist states that are adversarial to US and Israel.  However, shifting the focus from Middle East to South/East Asia (in the name of containing China) ostensibly because US is not likely to depend on Middle East for energy is a bad idea.  This would provide elbow room for China to spread its influence in the Middle East. 
Vali Nasr has one prescription for US to retain its leadership in global order: Fashion foreign policy based on shared values and shared interests; not just on military power.

09 January 2013

"Durbar" by Tavleen Singh

Quora had an interesting question: If Mahatma Gandhi were to come back to India today, what is the one thing that would be toughest to explain to him?  Abhishek Anand had the best answer: “Rahul Gandhi”.

MKG would be very surprised indeed at what could cause a dynasty in a democracy.  He would have quickly figured out it is the ability to win elections that requires 50% charisma and 50% spending power.  And, that his party has understood how to create charisma for someone who (to borrow a phrase from Beatles) “doesn't have a point of view, knows not where he's going to, isn't he a bit like you and me?”. And that his party has perfected the cycle of “collect, spend, win, govern, collect” to acquire money.

However, MKG would be even more surprised by Sonia Gandhi; a foreigner whose only credential to shadow leadership of his country is marriage to the reluctant elder son who was forced into politics to preserve power, and property.

Durbar is an apt title for the story of Nehru clan’s pseudo royalty play in Indian polity:  suspension of Constitutional rights by Indira Gandhi, insensitive and violent shadow government by Sanjay Gandhi, and a “pass-up on opportunities” administration by Rajiv Gandhi.

Tavleen Singh is a socialite with pretensions to journalism.  She moved in the elite circles of Delhi; attending the right parties; meeting the right people; and having the right connections.  She knew at a personal level several members of Nehru clan and several young men (Naveen Patnaik and Farooq Abdallah included) who went on to become political leaders in India.

She used her connections to arrange an interview for India Today with Sonia Gandhi.  India Today did not return the favor and wrote an article that was not exactly complimentary.  Sonia Gandhi dumped Tavleen Singh from the “inner circle”.  Tavleen conveniently wears the “journalist” hat and sneaks about the Nehru clan (and Sonia Gandhi in particular) in a way that can be done only by a scorned insider.

We got lucky.  We are able to get an insider view of the shenanigans of the dynasty.

Some highlights of Tavleen’s writing:
  1. Sanjay Gandhi’s master political plan included “finding a way to defeat Akali Dal in Punjab”.  Sanjay’s friend Anant Bir Singh Attari persuaded Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to play a political role by appealing to his religious sense; a sense that saw the Nirankari arm of Sikhs as not pure and considered the Hindu Punjabi Leaders such as Lala Jagat Narain as traitors eventually creating the Khalistan secession movement.
  2. Indira and Rajiv Gandhi played a political game to deny Farooq Abdallah his fairly entitled rule of Kashmir and ended up creating a new “Kashmir problem” that had nothing to do with the historical one.  Kashmiris always tended to prefer Indian democracy except when their fundamental and religious rights are challenged.  Hemavati Nandan Bahuguna observed that “Kashmir is going to be the last nail in her coffin… Sadly it will also create problems for the nation”.
  3. Rajiv Gandhi remained silent when H K L Bhagat exhorted the nation to extract revenge upon Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.  An immediate and statesmanlike protest could have avoided the violence unleashed on Sikhs.  He said that “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes”.  Atal Behari Vajpayee had a better take:  “When the earth shakes, big trees fall”.  
  4. Rajiv Gandhi’s economic views were similar to that of his mother (who ran a government that punished producers if they produced more than what they were permitted by the Government).  It is incorrect to give credit to Rajiv for ending the license-permit raj that enriched the ruling party, kept the optics of being pro poor and ensured people were kept needlessly in poverty.  It was during his rule that the founders of Infosys had a tough time explaining to bureaucrats why importing a server would be beneficial to India!
  5. Rajiv was myopic in pandering to Muslim vote by retroactive legislation denying Muslim women rights to alimony under Indian law and subjecting them to the Muslim code.  He was equally myopic in a counter-act to appease Hindu zealots by listening to his advisors who told him that “the best way to make the Hindus happy was to open for worship a disused, disputed mosque in Ayodhya”!
  6. Rajiv’s honeymoon with India ended when the Bofors scandal broke.  Rajiv sacked V P Singh ostensibly because V P Singh vowed to find out who took the bribe.  Rajiv ordered several income tax raids on Indian Express and Arun Shourie when Arun Shourie vowed to find out who took the bribe.  Ten years later, Swiss banks revealed that the money went to Ottavio Quattrocchi and his wife Maria, friends of Sonia Gandhi.
  7. At the end of his term, Rajiv began to look more and more like a “comical, half witted prince with no idea of the country he was ruling or its problems; in the Durbar around him, there were now only sycophants”.
  8. To top it all, in her younger days, Sonia Gandhi said that she would rather have her children “beg in the streets of Delhi than enter politics”!

Though Tavleen Singh's motivations to write the book could be suspect, the story she narrates is important.  Rajiv Gandhi’s legacy cannot be crystallized without some reference to this book.  Congress party’s worries about the impact of this book would be just and reasonable.

However, our visitor, Mahatma Gandhi would consider that inconsequential.  He would, on the other hand, be more worried about whether there is going to be a Rahul Gandhi (or Robert Vadera) legacy in future!

01 January 2013

"The Universe in a nutshell" by Dr Michio Kaku

As a young boy, he accompanied his mother to the Japanese garden in San Francisco.  It was raining.  The pond was murky; its surface full of rain induced ripples.  The lily flowers were swaying in the wind.  The young boy imagined what an intelligent fish swimming in the pond would observe and what conclusions would such a fish come to about its universe.  The fish would conclude that there is a strong correlation between ripples in its sky and the sway of the lily stems and the dirt in its ambience.  The fish would miss the rain and the wind.  Dr Michio Kaku suggested that we should not be prisoners of our own observations; and learn to see beyond.

That started my journey with Dr Michio Kaku's books.  I have been a fan ever since.

Here is a 42 minutes introduction to Physics that is worth a fresh man year.  Enjoy the best 42 minutes of your life.

"Grand Brand Rajini" by Ram N Ramakrishnan & P C Balasubramanian

It takes a personality, a value system, consistency in meeting a need and a defining icon/trait for a person to become a brand.

Mahatma Gandhi understood that and met the need for freedom with a simple symbol of a homespun cotton cap. MGR understood that and met the need for social equality with a simple trait of fighting for justice.

In the last forty years, one person who has cultivated a brand with a mass appeal spanning two generations is actor Rajinikanth.

Rajanikanth started as an average actor and morphed into a big ticket brand strong enough to be coveted by every one requiring votes in Tamil Nadu. The brand represents innocence, devotion, humility, and fairness and was defined by its punchlines.   The brand survived (in an era of exceptionally competing talents), grew, and prospered to convert a Rajini film into a "Rajini experience".

Authors Ram N Ramakrishnan and P C Bala Subramanian (disclosure: both are good friends of mine and fellow CAs) provide an exceptional analysis of how the Rajani brand grew from "இது எப்படி இருக்கு?" days to "என் வழி தனி வழி " days.

Our personal brands (yes, in the era of social media, each of us has one) may not be comparable in appeal but there are some lessons in the book "Grand Brand Rajini" for us to shape our own personal brands so that we leave "nice footprints on the sands of time".