Barack Obama’s recent trip to China has received much criticism for its failure to achieve much of substance, giving a short-shrift to human rights issues and even raising a minor storm in India from an otherwise innocuous press release.  However, the trip may not have been entirely wasted.  Richard Wolfe notes that lost in the press coverage (and he charitably does not mention the American media’s obsession with Sarah Palin’s new ghost-written book) were agreements reached regarding emissions targets.  This along with talks held with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his state visit last week (which also helped defuse the brouhaha over the joint statement with China) could help break the deadlock at the upcoming Copenhagen talks.

The Chinese visit may have also contributed to the China joining the recent censure of Iran by the IAEA.  The deliverables may not be as groundbreaking as previous presidential visits abroad but address two upcoming issues on the President’s foreign policy slate.  Success in Copenhagen could reaffirm the goodwill that exists for the administration on the ground in Europe.  Bringing India and China into any global agreement to cut emissions will blunt one of the major criticisms of the Kyoto Protocol.  Likewise any Chinese help on Iran is to be welcomed.  These are small steps at present, but they could lead to greater rewards down the road.

 

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Posted on 25-11-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Its been one year since the shocking images of the assault on Mumbai were flashed worldwide.  Time magazine reviews how India’s security situation domestically still leaves it as a soft target.  One of the few things the Indian government can take some pride in is that even its creaky justice system is bringing the accused to prompt trial.  But then unlike 9/11 the Mumbai attacks unfortunately were merely the latest and most public of the myriad terrorist events in India in the last 25 years.  The Indian judicial and legal system has far more experience dealing with such cases and the pitfall of draconian anti-terrorism statutes (TADA and POTA).  Unfortunately after each outrage like the Mumbai attacks the next draconian statute hits the books.

As the anniversary of the attacks approached and as it prepared for unwelcome attention to the paucity of any meaningful cooperation, Pakistan “rounded up the usual suspects.”  Count me a cynic on the likelihood that anything meaningful will come out of this.  While Pakistan has belatedly launched its assault on the Taliban, it remains unwilling or unable to clean up the terrorist  support infrastructure it created in the last 25 years.  However, 26/11 should also have hammered home just how isolated Pakistan stands in the international arena at present while its rival with all its flaws is increasingly accepted as a major international player.

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Posted on 14-11-2009
Filed Under (Accident of History, History, India) by Rashtrakut

Fore previous posts in this category click here.

The next rumination in this series focuses on what I term as an accidental empire – Mughal Empire.  For the descendants of a bunch of Central Asian marauders, the Mughals have been indelibly entwined with the image of India.  From the Taj Mahal, to the Mughlai cuisine that is the staple of Indian restaurants across the world, to the loan word Mogul that has been incorporated into the English language the cultural influence of the Mughals survives to this day.

Yet the Mughals were in many ways an accident.  The survival of their Empires territorial integrity for so long is in marked contrast to their Timurid cousins.  The prevalence of polygamy and concubinage caused recurrent succession problems across most Islamic dynasties.  The Ottomans would solve this by a mass slaughter of the siblings of the new monarch (Mehmed III would notoriously commence his reign by executing 19 of his siblings).  After this blood letting almost brought the dynasty to an end following the death of Murad IV (his only surviving heir was his insane brother Ibrahim), the Ottomans would formalize the policy started by their father Ahmed I.  Henceforth princes would be locked in the Kafes (literally the Cage), a section of the harem where they were under surveillance and often with concubines too old to get pregnant, and the succession to the throne rotated through seniority.  While this stopped the blood letting, it eventually resulted in the succession of emasculated, unprepared and often psychologically disturbed men who oversaw the Ottoman Empire’s long decline.

The Timurids did things differently.  Traditionally each prince received an appanage to rule.  The obvious result was a fragmentation of authority and near constant fratricidal strife following the death of the founder of the house Timur-e-lang (Tamerlane).  Weakened by civil war, the fragmented Timurid states would be mopped up by the emerging Safavid Empire of Persia in the west and the Shaybanid Uzbeks from the east.  This pressure from both ends ultimately forced the founder of the Mughal dynasty Zahir ud din Muhammad Babur to abandon his dream of restoring Timur’s empire from Samarkand and head east where the disorder in the Delhi Sultanate under the incompetent Ibrahim Lodi opened up new venues of action.  Accidental opportunity #1 Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted on 10-11-2009
Filed Under (Religion) by Rashtrakut

By demanding the return of Mother Teresa’s remains to the land of her ancestry, Albania has ruffled some feathers in the city where the diminutive nun conducted her mission.  Not surprisingly the request has been summarily rebuffed.  But it raises a question of national identity and ethnic pride.

To what extent should one bask in the accomplishments of ethnic kin that were almost entirely achieved in another country?

2009 Chemistry Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan caused some heartburn in India when he publicly wondered why so many people in India kept contacting him to offer congratulations.  Most such emigres do not share Dr. Ramakrishnan’s humility and are only too eager to soak up all the adulation they can get.  Likewise the people granting the adulation often merely seek to bask in the reflected glory from their ethnic kin.  A more positive use would be to use the ready made role model to inspire and encourage future accomplishments on the home front.

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Posted on 10-11-2009
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

The Economist details the simmering tensions between China and India and the ongoing struggle to resolve the century long dispute over the McMahon Line.  Ever since India’s defeat in its 1962 war with China, the two countries have eyed each other warily.  Pakistan ever eager to seek a counterweight against India has latched on to the Chinese lifeline, while India during the Cold War veered towards the Soviet Union.  In recent years some American policymakers have sought out India as a counterweight to the emerging Chinese superpower.

None of this is in the long term interest of either country.  Both have restive minority regions and threats to their stability from regions that have not shared in their economic boom.  The dispute at present is also over a remote sparsely populated region which few Chinese or Indians have bothered to visit, but as the Economist notes is complicated by ties to Tibet.  Hopefully calmer heads will prevail and the countries will avoid a armed confrontation driven solely by notions of national pride.

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Posted on 26-10-2009
Filed Under (Environment) by Rashtrakut

How to deal with emerging economies has been a huge stumbling block in climate change negotiations.  The Kyoto treaty foundered in the United States because it did not place requirements on India and China.  India and China point out that their per capita pollution is a fraction of western countries and they would need assistance in terms of technology transfer.  This position has been cynically exploited by resource rich countries like Saudi Arabia.  However, faced with the impact of global warming the Indian environmental minister is internally lobbing around a proposal to kick start negotiations.  However, as the article suggests that none of this will work without American leadership.  And American leadership is imperiled by climate change deniers (See a slideshow of some of the most vocal deniers) many of whom who control the ideology of its opposition party and a national chamber of commerce too short sighted to explore the opportunities that a clean energy policy could provide.

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Posted on 22-10-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Environment) by Rashtrakut

With global warming melting the Himalayan glaciers an interesting read on a local attempt to limit the fallout.   Water will be a major flash point in South Asia in the coming decades as the perennial rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna and the Indus could become seasonal rivers and the rain patterns that feed agriculture and aquifers across the subcontinent change.  The Economist discussed this issue a month back.  A friend has often joked about India’s constant position as an emerging power – that it is full of “potential energy” rather than “kinetic energy.”  In addition to the other domestic, structural and regional issues India needs to solve, this looming water crisis adds to its development burden.

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Posted on 13-10-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

A follow up to the preceding post regarding Pakistan.  The New York Times is reporting about the divides within the Pakistani establishment about conditions attached to aid from the United States.  Ever since its first military coup in 1958 the Pakistani army has held a stranglehold over its political life.  Civilian attempts to rein in the security establishments have been promptly snuffed out.  While the current head of the Pakistani Army has shown a disinclination to interfere with the day to day workings of the civilian regime, it has still protected its turf – notably after the attacks on Mumbai last November when it squashed President Zardari’s offer to send the head of the ISI to India for talks.

It is understandable why Washington does not wish to give the Pakistani military a free hand.  The dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf diverted the aid provided after 9/11 to beef up Pakistani military preparedness against India instead of tackling extremists.  However, the opposition appears to arise more from nationalistic saber rattling rather than concerns about what the Pakistani Army will be prevented from doing.  Add to that national pride bruised by American bombing of targets within Pakistani borders.

With its economy in shambles Pakistan is unlikely to refuse American aid and my guess is that after a suitable amount of bluster and the requisite face saving compromises the money will be accepted.  But it does raise an important point regarding Pakistan’s future.  Future military chiefs may not be professional soldiers who stay out of civilian affairs.  Ultimately a democracy is not created by a public franchise but by the willingness of institutions to accept the rule of law and the mandate granted by the franchise.  If Pakistan is genuinely to become a democracy civilian control of its military is a necessity, however venal the public leadership is perceived to be.  In this regard the epithet “Mr. Ten Percent” bestowed on President Zardari during his wife’s tenure as Prime Minister and the stench of corruption attached to the other national leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, does not help. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted on 26-09-2009
Filed Under (History, India, Politics & Propaganda) by Rashtrakut

Many successful rulers and administrators have often failed to grasp the importance of good public relations.  As a result, an otherwise competent or successful tenure in office has been marred by rising unpopularity. Others have excelled far too well on the propaganda side of governance until the inevitable disclosure that the emperor wore no clothes. Very few rulers have managed to find a fine blend of the two and the very success of the public relations campaign makes an honest appraisal difficult.

This is the first in a series of appraisals of rulers through history and whether their reputations are deserved, undeserved or over inflated.

The Emperor Ashoka is a fine example of this. The Wikipedia entry on his life contains a list of the usual platitudes about his reign and how his reign was a golden age of peace and prosperity. The only problem is that almost all the extant data of his reign comes from pillars and rock inscriptions placed by Ashoka across his vast empire. The third Mauryan emperor knew the value of propaganda. Read the rest of this entry »

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