Sunday, October 26, 2008


I was on the phone, walking absent-mindedly towards the Metro when I saw this window display at a spectacle store on Connecticut Avenue in DC. The frames being advertised of course are the now famous Kazuo Kawasaki, model 704, 34 gray. They look incredibly good but if you want a crash course in foreign policy, a real school is still better.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Indian journalism hit a new low when covering the Aarushi murder case earlier this year. Journalists appeared to have lost all sense of decency; hounding a grieving family, based on the sketchy, sordid details provided by the police.

I don’t want to dwell on the distasteful coverage again. I have written about it here before.

But the questions that remain are: What lessons has the Indian media learnt from the episode? Has it evolved a standard for the future? Will it self-regulate or will wait for a national outcry again, before learning to behave?

I’m sure there are internal codes of conduct for every organization but this needs to happen at an industry-wide level. In neighbouring Pakistan, the media has understood its influence as a player in politics and in fact even its power to make and break governments. And while the country is not exactly the beacon of democracy, Pakistani journalism is taking a few very democratic steps, worthy of emulation.

Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., Zaffar Abbas, the resident editor of ‘Dawn’ in Islamabad said last month, “We handled the previous government; a new government has come in but it’s now time to have a self-assessment of our own performance.”

According to Abbas, “The role of the vernacular newspapers has become very important with 3 to 5 million newspaper readers and 50 to 60 million viewers of 24/7 news channels. It has suddenly changed Pakistan – changed Pakistan to an extent and with a speed that now people have started to say – what are these TV channels telling us? Is that the real politics in this country? Should there be some kind of control over the way issues are being raised? People are raising questions about anchors and reporters - have they become real players in making and breaking governments? Should that be allowed?”

To temper this new found power and influence the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists has evolved its own code of conduct, part of which involves the setting up of a Media Complaints Commission.

Abbas explains, “We need to have a commission largely because some newspapers and TV channels in this country have started on the notion that since we are independent we can broadcast anything that we think is right. The difference between what is right and what we think is right is huge! And that is why the whole debate has come in. Do TV channels have the right to intrude upon anyone’s privacy? Can they cross the line of objectivity? What should be reported and what should not be reported?”

“So the whole concept is to go for self-regulation and to allow the members of the public to approach the complaints commission with their own views and their own complaints.”

A panel of retired judges and professors will look into the complaints and decide whether a particular newspaper or TV channel has violated the self-made code of conduct.

It sounds like a fairer, more democratic way of doing things although it is still in its nascent stage and has not yet been tested. And of course, being open will bring with it attendant problems. For starters, it will probably require tremendous effort and paper work to keep such an operation going.

It is however still worth trying in India because in a democracy why should power be concentrated so heavily with the media? Why should the media go unchallenged if it destroys reputations and careers without evidence? Why shouldn’t people be able to contest the way they are represented? If a free press is a crucial pillar of democracy, shouldn’t the media also be more democratic?

In the spirit of fairness, that most basic of journalistic tenets, this is worth trying.

Monday, October 13, 2008


Houses and churches were vandalised even in the first round of violence that hit Kandhamal district over Christmas 2007. Nearly 11 people were killed. Photo credit: Dr. Angana P. Chatterji

The Indian media devoted significant chunks of time and space to the Indo-US nuclear deal. But in the US, its coverage was conspicuous by its absence. The 700 billion dollar bail-out package and the shenanigans of the legislators on the Hill overtook everything else. Bush’s rare foreign policy ‘success’ went largely unnoticed.

So, given that a huge story involving India, of tremendous national and international importance got the royal ignore, how did the communal conflagration in Orissa make it to the front page? In the New York Times this morning was a colour photograph with a story headlined – ‘Hindu Threat to Christians: Convert or Flee.’

I am surprised not because it made the front page. I am surprised because there is enough and more happening on the campaign and in the American economy to dominate the front page. This is not to say that I am disappointed. I think such awareness forces India to be more accountable for its actions and that is a very, very, good thing.

What intrigues me is why this particular story received such prominent status.

The obvious answer is of course that several western Christian nations, the Vatican included, have questioned India on what it is doing to protect its co-religionists.

But a somewhat deeper and more convoluted answer is that the concern of the west is itself part of a long tradition of Christendom. For instance, before the 20th century, humanitarian intervention in military form, to protect people other than the intervening nation’s own nationals was largely done to protect only Christians from the Ottomans. In fact, “human” in the word 'humanitarian' two centuries ago usually meant being Christian. Persecuted Jews and Turks were ruthlessly massacred with nary a word of concern from anyone.

And interestingly, the discussion in India over the Orissa story has involved the damage to India’s image because it is the powerful west for the first time seeing one of its interests threatened inside India and raising questions on its conduct. Contrast this concern over the dent to the Indian image with the outrage over the US denying Modi a visa over Muslim killings in Gujarat. There was plenty of nationalistic anger over Indian sovereignty being undermined. With the Orissa story it is almost entirely about ‘image’.

Isn’t the contrast interesting?

Sunday, October 05, 2008


Father: You need to learn how to drive because I can't afford to have you wreck my car again.

Son: But if I hadn't, your car wouldn't be shining with this new coat of red paint. Why can't you appreciate the makeover?

Father: Because it cost me money and if you don't learn how to drive you'll wreck my car again!

Now replace the frustrated father with Barack Obama and the cocky son with John McCain. If the logic of the two candidates on Iraq can be reduced to a simple analogy then this serves the purpose.

John McCain doesn't get it. He glorifies a tactic – the 'surge' in Iraq – but stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the failure of the strategy – the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, this is just one of several things that reveal the 72-year old McCain to be a relic from the last century. America needs some fresh, 21st century ideas - Obama has them and he is the man for the job.

The ideas are simple. Obama advocates diplomacy and dialogue over dire declarations and threats. His message echoes what many scholars and practitioners have been saying for some time now, among them, five influential former secretaries of state – Henry Kissinger, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, James Baker and Colin Powell.

Obama promises this fundamental shift in approach because it is pretty obvious by now that refusing to talk to 'enemies' doesn't make them improve their behavior.

However, Obama was heavily criticized by McCain for publicly saying that he would sit down without pre-conditions with the leaders of Iran, North Korea and Cuba. But that is a more responsible statement than John McCain's silly and muscular song, "Bomb…bomb … bomb… Bomb… bomb … Iran." (A modification of the Beach Boys' lyrics " Ann".)

McCain's bullish strategy is also out of sync with American voters. In a recent poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA), a nonpartisan organization founded in 1922 to influence global issues, 65% of Americans voted in favour of talks with Iran. 68% favoured talks with North Korea and 70% with Cuba. Bombing is not on people's minds. Talking is.

On the question of the Iraq invasion, Obama has been against it from the start. He points out that this is a problem America created for itself. Every 'victory' since then has been too fragile and only attempted to cope with a strategic blunder while massively draining resources. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, there were no weapons of mass destruction, Iraq and Iran kept each other in check and 'Al-Qaeda in Iraq' didn't exist. McCain chooses to be blind to all of the above. He insists you look at the new coat of red paint. He also wrongly paints Obama's withdrawal strategy as "defeat" when Obama's approach is simple – the US has to be careful getting out as it was careless getting in. 67% of Americans according to the CCGA poll support a time-table for withdrawal from Iraq. Again McCain is out of touch.

Obama also makes the argument that the central front on terror has been and still is Afghanistan. He wants a troop surge there. Here too he shows better judgment because today it is pretty clear that the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in the north-western corner of Pakistan is a safe sanctuary for every bandit and aspiring terrorist in the world.

During the first Presidential debate debate Obama rightfully also criticized Bush's one-man Musharraf policy in Pakistan saying, "Musharraf was a dictator but he was our (America's) dictator." McCain shot back in defense of Musharraf, that Pakistan was a failed state when the general took over. Frankly, it looks much worse today. Lastly, to be effective in Afghanistan, America first needs to improve its relationship with NATO allies and the rest of the world.

By invading Iraq and ignoring Afghanistan things there have gone from bad to worse. Now countries like Norway and Germany don't want to shoulder the burden of a botched war. They refuse to send troops to the south where the insurgency rages.

George Bush's ramrod style has alienated allies and few people today share the sympathy epitomized in the French newspaper Le Monde's headline after 9/11 stating "We are all Americans."

83% in the CCGA poll, voted overwhelmingly to have America's standing restored. John McCain with his bluster and tough talk about 'victory' and 'defeat' in war has really not endeared himself to anyone abroad. Obama on the other hand has almost rock-star status in Europe. His race, youth and idealistic message of 'Change' have been electrifying.

But the substantive reasons that Obama trumps McCain on foreign policy are his intelligence, foresight and conciliatory tone. This will better serve America and the world where war-mongering and dire threats have failed.

Published on on October 4th 2008.

Friday, October 03, 2008


The ubiquitous Danish flag - Dannebrog - stuck in some incredible Danish dessert.

A view of the flat landscape of south Denmark from Skamlingsbanken.

When a Danish acquaintance asked me where Baghdad was, I had to quickly return my mandible from the depths of disbelief. Demark is not exactly at the edge of the world but some of its small towns can feel incredibly disconnected. Life here is regimented and everything happens at the appointed hour. How boring? Guess what? The Danes love it. In fact they are so pleased, they keep turning up in different surveys as the happiest people on Earth.

These findings have surprised many Danes themselves but after a 30 day vacation, I can see why they have plenty to cheer about. Steering clear of Copenhagen, I looked in three Viking nooks - the small towns of Haderslev, GrĂ¥sten and Odense. No trampling hordes of San Marco or Champs Elysees here and perfect for a ‘smell the roses’ kind of stay.

My investigations into Danish happiness yielded clues everywhere. To begin with, the Danes have done an excellent housekeeping job in their country. It is very clean and environmentally progressive. As if for proof, we packed a picnic basket of sandwiches and soda and drove to Skamlingsbanken - the second highest point in Denmark - from where you get a sweeping view of the flat landscape of the south. It is green and dotted with gigantic wind turbines that supply nearly a quarter of Denmark’s electricity needs. The Danes were thinking about global warming long before Al Gore.

The towns are equally well-planned and structured. A cathedral or church usually forms the centre of the town around which commerce begins with little shops and offices lining the streets and beyond that the houses start.

In Denmark it is as important to see the indoors as it is to see the outdoors because everything in the Danish home is geared towards creating the warm, fuzzy, ‘snug-as-a-bug’ feeling. They even have a word for it called - hygge (Hoo-ga). I understood what exactly hygge is when Niels and Kirsten Kvist invited me to their home for dinner. Like most hosts here, the Kvists directed the small group to their appointed place at the table and laid out a vast array of breads, salads and meats. However, the course to wait for, is always the last one. The desserts are worth all of Solomon’s gold. After dinner, the lights were dimmed and candles were lit. There was cognac, wine, laughter and singing. Kirsten took her place at the piano and everyone joined in for the Danish folk songs. It was hygge.

Back in the outdoors, walking and cycling are the best ways to explore. Even the queen does it. The Danish royals have a summer home in the town of GrĂ¥sten and Margrethe II, the queen regnant, is often seen bicycling around town. Some people even claimed to have run into her at the local grocery store! There are few monarchs on two wheels buying broccoli today, reflecting Denmark’s strong egalitarian tradition and in turn, a strong sense of collective identity. A University of Leicester study listed it as one of the primary causes of the country’s high happiness quotient.

This collective identity finds several expressions. For example, the national flag, the Dannebrog is used extensively and in various ways. Little Dannebrogs are stuck on birthday cakes, souvenir stores are full of Dannebrog pens, magnets and stickers and of course the Dannebrog is hoisted on a pole outside every home and especially so on a birthday or wedding anniversary. Protocol however dictates that it must be brought down before sunset and this is taken very seriously, almost as seriously as the Danes take their fairy-tales.

In Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen is adored. At Odense, on the island of Funen, scores of pilgrims beat the path to the home of the man who changed childhood forever with his tales of the ugly duckling who became a swan and the princess who despite many mattresses could detect a pea.

The Lego creations in Billund, the statues across Odense and, of course, the Little Mermaid, regularly vandalized in Copenhagen, all bear witness to Hans Christian Andersen’s continuing hold on public imagination.

Towards the end of my 30 days I was beginning to see why Danes can make legitimate claims to being so happy. With this collective identity, bung in free health care, free education, a green country and Carlsberg beer and you can see why the Danes are up there on the Happiness Index.

All is not perfect of course. Xenophobia and divorce rates are going up and some young people feel the welfare state and high taxes suffocate creativity and entrepreneurship.

In fact, if an old Viking ancestor were to suddenly pop around in the 21st century he might even nod gravely and tut-tut at the contentment of his descendents. While he may have been out on the wild and choppy sea exploring the world beyond, today’s Danes have eaten dinner at 6 and are in bed by 10. If the intrepid Viking looked restlessly outwards about 1000 years ago, today’s small-town life moves at a steady, predictable trot and is very inward-looking.

But apparently, as various surveys show, the Danes are perfectly happy with this arrangement. Writing just after the Great Depression, a visitor to Denmark observed, “There are few countries in the world which give the foreigner the impression, if not of actual wealth, at any rate of universal happiness and content.”

It sounds true even 70 years later. Baghdad may as well belong on another planet.

Published in the Hindu BusinessLine on 3rd October 2008.