Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Generals and Caliphate

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

The Republic Day parade in Delhi this year is being held amidst an unprecedented security. Considering neighbouring Pakistan's open espousal of selective terror as a state policy, the day has long since become one of keeping all eyes peeled. But the threat this year is of a different kind. With French President Fracoise Holland as this year's guest-in-chief at the parade, and France being the prime target of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Europe, the enormity of this year's threat on Indian soil is mind-boggling.

It is no wonder therefore that the US, which is a close ally of France, has deployed the full potential of its CIA to help India's enforcement agencies track down IS moles and sleeper cells. The result has been instantaneous. In a matter of 12 hours on Friday last, more than a dozen persons were detained from six states, including NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. One of them is a chemical engineering dropout. The kingpin of the Indian operation of the ISIL was operating from Mumbra which is the proposed Capital of Indian wing of the IS. It soon became clear that these modules were in contact with their handlers in the Iraq-Syria territories under IS control. Information began trickling in of foreign intelligence agencies having alerted their Indian counterparts of a move by IS to use teen-age boys and girls to make an attempt on the life of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

So far, India has been a victim of terror from groups in Pakistan operating under a variety of religious signboards, though all of them are orchestrated by the Inter-Services Intelligence of the Pakistan Armed Forces. The attack on IAF base at Pathankot by Pakistani terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed, with possible backing from ISI, was the subject of this column last week. In former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's words, terror outfits like JeM or LeT are the "Frankenstein monster" created by Pakistan as some of them on the country's west are now striking at Pakistan on its own soil, the most recent being a dastardly attack on Bacha Khan University in Peshawar, killing 20. Even as India was put on high alert over IS threat, the terror from across the border post-Pathankot was still unfolding. A taxi hired at Pathankot by three unknown persons was lost in Himachal Pradesh; a day later, its driver's body was found on a lonely bridge in Kangra valley. An SUV belonging to an Inspector-General of ITBP, with blue beacon on its top, was stolen. On Sunday, yet another security services car with military sticker disappeared from Delhi's Lodhi Garden.

Who are behind it? Is it the "known unknown", in other words, surrogates of ISI from across the border? Or is it IS? Is India still caught in its warlike neighbourhood, and does that fully explain the high level of anxiety that has become a regular feature of life in India? Or, are global religio-political forces finally pulling India out of its regional bounds, into the windstorm of what may be a new crusade?

It is often argued that India's presence in the so-called IS army of 30,000 is minuscule, with just about 20 who could have had fought for the "cause" at some point. Besides, about 30 Indians who had been 'radicalised' were prevented from leaving the country and are under surveillance. Foreign intelligence partners have identified over 200 Indians who may be in contact with IS recruiting agents. In Kashmir, till the other day, raising Pakistan flag was an accepted way of showing protest. For the past few months, Pakistan's crescent moon flag is giving way to IS' colour. And sources in the telecoms sector with access to information about usage pattern of bandwidth on smart-phones hint at large scale downloading of IS sites by many belonging to the young generation of Indian Muslims.

It is likely, therefore, that the very nature of communalization of the minorities is changing. BJP spokesperson and eminent journalist M. J. Akbar, delivering this year's R.N.Kao lecture (named after the late Ramnath Kao, founder of the R&AW), has spoken about "regression and its romance". Implying, rightly, that the regression from modernity that underpins IS's call to return to Caliphate of the ancient world, and an Islamic one-world, has a romantic charm of its own. Like Karl Marx's call to "change the world", the call of IS "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is truly pan-Islamic, however hideous may be its expression, with its videos showing IS prisoners being beheaded in rows. While past, as it is said, is a "foreign country", it is not difficult to surmise that the world of the Caliphs that began in the 7th century was too gory to make a big fuss about human heads being always kept in their proper place. Yet so overpowering is its lure that it is drawing youngsters away from the age of modernity.

To IS, Pakistan is as much an enemy country as India, because its objective is to unite the entire crescent from North Africa to Indonesia under its religious banner.

The military brass of Pakistan may think they are still the masters of the terror universe—nursing their 'Frankenstein monsters' yet ruling a seemingly modern country from the background. But they are pretty drab and losing appeal to the new-gen terrorist who must win a world, not just a corner of Kashmir or even India. To IS, Pakistan is as much an enemy country as India, because its objective is to unite the entire crescent from North Africa to Indonesia under its religious banner. The military leaders of Pakistan, in their blind outrage against India, are oblivious to the changing flow of global jihadis to Syria, bypassing the bearded mullahs in their payroll. Its backwash will come very hard on Pakistan. US President Barack Obama had this possibility on his mind when he reminded Pakistan that it “can and must” destroy all machinery of terror in its backyard.

To that extent, Modi’s foreign policy has been productive. It has found traction with the western world and Israel in their new resolution to counter the new form of Islamist terror that works through social media, networks globally, to identify and infect the gullible mind wherever it is. Let us hope that the Republic Day passes off peacefully and, as the year advances, India gets full support of the world to make Pakistan see reason.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Start up & stand up

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

Living in India and being exposed to the Indian media, it is difficult to win over the cynicism that has become an integral part of the Indian psyche. The country has improved beyond recognition in the last two decades or so. The share of people living below $1.25 a day was nearly a half (49.4%) in 1994; it is about a quarter (24.7%) in 2011 and is supposedly around 23% now. Between 2005 and 2014, the prevalence of underweight children under the age of five fell from 43.5% to 30.7%. The trend-line is therefore towards optimism, but the urban middle class, from where opinions filter down, is not much swayed by statistics. It is the poor growth of jobs since 2011 that turned Narendra Modi's election into a tornado, running the Congress ship aground. But 20 months in power, Modi and his NDA government is still battling with poor industrial production, steeply falling labour-intensity of farming and negligible job growth. No wonder, therefore, that the Congress' new boss, vice president Rahul Gandhi, is out on the road in style, as he did last week in Mumbai. As he marched from Bandra to Dharavi, many young men and women disappointed with Modi government walked with him.

As some of the figures of poverty alleviation cited above will show, India hasn't done badly in the recent years. But a few epochal changes have taken place in global economy that have turned some old Indian notions on their head, one of these being that industry still has the potential to employ many workers. Both industry and agriculture need much fewer hands these days. But one million workers are joining the work force each month. It is an existential problem. Traditional industry cannot expand (and thus pick up new jobseekers) because firms are hugely debt-laden, with total corporate debt being seven times the companies' net profit. It is clear that the conventional narrative of industrial growth and job creation must change.

Interestingly, Modi is the first to begin scouting for a solution out of the box, in promoting start-ups. In his Independence Day speech last year, he promised to launch Start-Up India, a campaign to remove all obstructions for entrepreneurship to blossom. Last Saturday, he presided over a day-long programme at Delhi's Vigyan Bhavan for which the motto was 'start up India, stand up India' and the guests included, apart from many Indian entrepreneurs, about 50 of their counterparts from Silicon Valley. Modi shared the dais with Uber founder Travis Kalanick and CEO of Japan's Softbank Masayoshi Son. Modi was at his sarcastic best when he declared the state's arms-length policy to start-ups. " We have done a lot (of controlling industry) for 70 years. Where have we reached?"

Start-ups were visible for a decade but it is picking up speed now, the number going up from a mere 501 in 2010 to 4,500 last year. Start-ups like Flipkart, Snapdeal, Paytm or OLX employ thousands of workers who work not only on their computer desks but are engaged in delivery and other logistic functions. Softbank is going big on solar and wind power. Modi spoke of new start-ups that he'd like to see in education and health sectors. At present, about 90 per cent of start-up finance comes from abroad. The government has now laid before the young dreamers a Rs. 10,000-crore 'fund of funds' (last resort financier) and Rs 2,500 crore credit guarantee fund. Son has in an interview spoken about $10 billion funding of Indian start-ups.

As records go, about 90 per cent of start-ups nearing success invariably migrate to the US or other Western countries because of India's multiple problems, notably high taxation. Modi has announced a three-year tax exemption for start-ups and other benefits. It is good news for scions of the owners of thousands of failed industries who want to move on. He said there would be easier exit with the proposed new bankruptcy laws and, impishly, suggested that the entrepreneurs lobby with India's opposition leaders to facilitate early passage of these laws.

The Modi administration has often been criticised for betraying a lack of original thinking. In December, the Prime Minister headed a meeting of 80 senior bureaucrats and sought to pick their brain for new ideas. The exercise was mostly one-sided. 'Digital India', which too has Modi's imprimatur, is still iffy because of low availability of wireless frequency which pushed up the cost of wi-fi which, in its turn, has kept fully loaded smart-phones beyond ordinary people's reach. Swachh Bharat, the cleanliness mission, had the potential to be a magnet for unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, but its employment success calls for state governments' cooperation which Modi hasn't been fortunate to get. The Ganga Action mission too is lost in sand.

Modi's start-up experiment is a bright spot on India's political 
terrain which is unfortunately greying up all too soon with 
leaders who have reduced their objective to winning elections at any rate.

Shifting gear to Start-Up, Modi is clearly moving to a safe zone without political opposition. Interestingly, Rahul Gandhi is twenty years younger than Modi but his politics so far is focused on bitter opposition to Modi, as if he is a usurper, but he has shown no vision of where the country’s young adults will be employed. “ To have start-ups”, he said in his speech in Mumbai on the day Modi was spending with entrepreneurs, “one needs a society without intolerance”. The observation is particularly jejune in the context of India’s critical employment crisis and the jobless growth that began when Rahul’s own party was in power.

Modi’s start-up experiment is a bright spot on India’s political terrain which is unfortunately graying up all too soon with leaders who have reduced their objective to winning elections at any rate. Thinking of larger issues is alien to them. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of AAP has nursed a “thinker” image, his masterstroke being the plan to reduce cars on Delhi roads by allowing odd numbers in one day and even numbers the next day. But the plan was only for 15 days, so the problem will be back soon though it did not go in the first 15 days either. As Kejriwal’s ambitious start-up, it is not sustainable 24x7. But Modi is seeking a lasting solution to the problem of unemployment.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Modi's poker

by Harish Gupta, National Editor, Lokmat Group

A general consensus now seems to be emerging in India that the "new year" attack on the Indian Air Force's Pathankot base was aimed at nothing but derailing, by the Pakistan Army, the India-Pakistan peace negotiations begun on the Christmas last year at the initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is no major glitch in this line of thinking, except that the operation seems too daring and too complex to be executed in the course of just six days—from December 25 when Modi made a detour to Lahore on his way back from Kabul, to December 31, when the Pathankot attackers belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed reportedly crossed into the Indian Punjab. It is common knowledge that the terror groups acting from Pakistan, like JeM or Lashkar-e-Toyieba, are free to act independently as long as they carry out routine attacks in the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, but the army's seal of approval is a must for operations outside Kashmir.

The recent Pakistani fidayeen attacks in Punjab is also a way by the Pakistan Army expressing its "anger" at too much of hobnobbing of their civilian chief with his Indian counterpart. It's a signal that the Pak generals have by now perfected a terror machinery along the border that can strike at the shortest possible notice. If Modi can give a short notice to visit Lahore, they can also strike back at a short notice too. It was on July 11 last year that Modi grabbed Sharif on the sidelines of the Ufa summit in Russia. Within a fortnight, a team of LeT commandos sneaked into Gurudaspur to kill seven people, before two were caught alive. Interestingly, the Ufa meeting was the prelude to a peace process, while Modi's unscheduled stop-over in Lahore, and attending Sharif's grand-niece's wedding, was an intense dramatic passage in the same unfolding peace narrative.

The similarities between the two attacks are striking. Both involve the men in khaki in Rawalpindi telling India that efforts to bypass them for any composite dialogue between the two neighbours would lead to cross-border attacks escalating way beyond the traditional theatre of Kashmir. In both Gurudaspur and Pathankot, the men who handle the terrorists' handlers sought to make the hits prohibitively costly for India. The fact that they made little dent in both of these adventures is purely accidental. In Gurudaspur, the RDX packs wired to the railway track along the Amtritsar-Pathankot line were detected in the nick of time; a jam-packed passenger train stopped only 200 meters away. If the bombs were not detected, hundreds of lives could be lost. In Pathankot, the four lead attackers, who'd covered 400 meters towards the aircraft hangars, and had another 700 meters left, were challenged by Indian soldiers. If the JeM men were smarter and quicker, India would have faced its worst.

Between 2006 and 2008, the period in which the then prime minister Manmohan Singh had invested so much of his time and attention on a bilateral dialogue, the Pakistan Army was in fact gearing up to make an LeT squad under Hafiz Syed battle-ready for a naval attack on Mumbai, which took place on 26 November 2008. On Indo-Pak matters, Dr Singh was an incurable optimist. He kept his hope of peace with Pakistan alive even after the brutal attack in Mumbai in which about two hundred people were killed. The very next year, he was nudging the Pakistan president again at Sharm-el-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort and venue of that year's Non-Aligned Nations' Meet to continue with the dialogue process. Some of Dr Singh's own party were sceptical about his optimism. In the BJP, Modi was bitterly critical.

But it is a new Modi now. Much like Dr Singh, he seems to have come to realize that India cannot remain in permanent hostility with Pakistan, nor is there any option to dialogue if one is serious about putting the enmity behind. At the time of writing this article, it is not clear if Modi will stick to the schedule of foreign secretary level talks without getting any firm action against the attackers. Outwardly at least, Sharif seems keen to keep the talks on.

It is no wonder that the civilian leaders of Pakistan understand the necessity to give peace with India a chance. And the feeling is shared by Modi. Just recently, he has okayed a massive gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan and across Afghanistan and Pakistan to the bustling marketplace of India (TAPI). Apart from being useful to India, it will enormously benefit an energy-starved country like Pakistan. But Pakistan's military leaders have a different mind-set. Being in a state of permanent hostility with India, it helps them appropriate from the exchequer an unconscionably large share. Expectedly, their hackles are up whenever there is a possibility of peace, particularly a resolution of the Kashmir problem. For as long as Kashmir remains the thorn in Pakistan's flesh, the men in uniform will rule the roost, so emotive is the K-word.

Between India and Pakistan, a long war is unsustainable, both being nuclear powers. In short-term war, Pakistan has decided superiority. Its armed forces, trained under the tutelage of US Army to combat the Soviet occupation of Agfhanistan in the Eighties, has acquired the agility and flexibility required in wars that are localised and do not last beyond a week or ten days. India, on the other hand, has an army typical of the last century, with too many people, too many command chains and too heavy equipment. There is not  even a synchronized command for its three defence services. But Pakistan has a single chief of staff.

Having inherited a rather anachronistic defence establishment, it may not be possible for Modi to go on hot pursuit, or such surgical operations, against Pakistan any time soon. A practical man, Modi understands India’s military limitations, something that he didn’t when he criticised Dr. Singh. When his aircraft landed in Lahore on December 25 as a Christmas surprise, there was also a lurking feeling of a backlash. But still he accepted the risk as the possibility of peace between India and Pakistan is too tempting. But that is expected as Modi is a compulsive risk-taker.