Tea Typhoon Is Brewing

It would not be an exaggeration to say that it was tea that spawned the British Empire. To pay for Chinese tea, the British grew opium and exported it to China and till they started growing tea in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), they depended on the Chinese produce using force to secure its supply.

The history of forestry tells a multi-layered tale of the growing requirement of wood for tea chests and railway sleepers. With the passage of time, Darjeeling became the Champagne of teas and teas from Assam, Ceylon carved a niche for themselves. Nilgiri, Kangra and Kumaon till recently were unknown except for the minuscule minority of tea aficionados.

Colonial rituals like High Tea, with the paraphernalia of Silver Service, fine bone porcelain translucent Chinaware were an integral part of life during the Raj. We in India forgot that the Asians have for centuries observed tea rites like the elaborate Tea Ceremony in Japan. Japanese prefer Chrysanthemum Tea while the Chinese sip Jasmine tea from small bowls throughout the multi-course meal. In the Valley of Kashmir hot cups of Kahwa prepared in a Samovar were relished at the end of the meal. Nun Chai and Pink Tea were paired with breakfast breads.

Then dawned the ugly age of CTC and Tea Bags that dealt a mortal blow to the gentle art of brewing a decent cup of tea. ‘Two Leaves and a Bud’ was recalled by students of Indo-Anglian Literature as a novel by Mulk Raj Anand.

The mystique of rare teas like White Tea, Yellow Tea, Green Tea, Black Tea and

Oolong has erased from memory once-beloved brands like Lopchu, Rangli Rangliot etc.

Tea-less teas like Tulsi Teas and herbal teas have also blurred boundaries.

Then came Floral Tea infusions from Dilmah company in Sri Lanka and following in its footsteps

Rhododendron and Roselle infusions produced in Panghut in Uttarakhand. It is the paring of teas with food that has highlighted the diversity of teas.

Decades back, if memory serves us right, it was Sanjay Kapoor who had opened Apki Pasand in Daryaganj to introduce the residents of Delhi to the joys of well-brewed tea. He had also launched his own blends labelled Swan Lake and Jade.

But he was a visionary far ahead of the time. It would be more than a generation for Chai to take on the wine snobs.

Those who pair teas with food use the same terminology as wine sommeliers -Body, Bouquet, Aroma, Flavour. They also tell us that different kinds of teas are either congruent or complementary. Don’t let the jargon deter you- it simply means that either the tea chosen enhances the taste of food or adds to its elements that enrich its inherent flavour. What the Indian Tea sommeliers agree upon is that pairing tea with Indian cuisines is far more challenging than pairing it with wester dishes as the spicing and flavour profile of Indian delicacies is far more complex.

Payalh Agarwwal was born and brought up in Munloong a small village near Darjiling and claims with an impish smile that she has more tea than blood flowing in her veins. In the same breath, she adds disarmingly that no one in seven generations in her family has had anything to do with tea.

She started as an undergraduate in the tea business and has pioneering work in tea pairing that is widely recognised and has helped us become an alum of IIMB. Everyone is born with a purpose in life and in her case teas have helped her realise what she was meant to do.

Fariyal was born in Bangladesh and wears many hats. She is a fantastic cook, outstanding baker, a gifted designer and now runs Planterie–a small gem-like tea boutique in the Capital’s Aurobindo Place trendy market catering to residents of Hauz Khas and SDA. Step into this tiny parlour and yield to the allure of wild teas and fascinating blends and infusions that blend tea with bhoot jholakiya chilli or time tested turmeric and ginger. The chique tea house beats the Chai Khana of yore.

Dipankar was a senior management executive in a multinational company when he decided to what’s heart called for. He left the metropolis to set up Beyonderie a company in a village near Guwahati that brings together produce from sister states in the northeast to enhance the seduction of exceptional teas that can be enjoyed by connoisseurs and also paired with Indian foods.

The storm brewing in the teacup is not confined to Metros. Rakesh Mishra in Allahabad has built a fairytale-like tea house to initiate his friends to the joys of legendary single-origin teal like Makai Bari. The words ‘second flush muscatel’ encountered by chance a couple of years ago fired his imagination and started him on this exhilarating journey.

The Tea Typhoon or, shall we say the surging Tea Tempest is not likely to subside soon. May its pairing with Indian food add another arrow to India’s soft power quiver.

Info War: Down To The Wire

It is not always a ‘trending’ phenomena that a top corporate honcho, at the peak of global success in a multinational company calling the shots all around amidst piles of money and raw talent, would choose to turn into a seeker of truth. And that too when the company is the shining star and dream-come-true of the post-modern galaxy of post-recession capitalism: Google.

Jacob Helberg did precisely that.

Helberg is a senior adviser at the Stanford University Center on Geopolitics and Technology and an adjunct fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is the co-chair of the Brookings Institution China Strategy Initiative. He studied international affairs at The George Washington University and received his master of science in cyber security risk and strategy from New York University.

From 2016 to 2020, Helberg led Google’s global internal product policy efforts to ‘combat disinformation and foreign interference’. In these four crucial years, he suddenly found himself trapped in a brand new Cold War – driven by technology – in what seemed a diabolical, full-fledged war between democracy and autocracy.  Or, between the United States of America, and Russia and China. In the process, several cobwebs moved out of their camouflage across both ends of the spectrum, and it all seemed so terribly messy. In the final instance, no one seemed absolutely holy or clean.

In the apparent sense, the war revolves around software – news and information, breaking news, fake news, free for all social media platforms, which is indeed, not so free, trolls, truth, post-truth, normal and post-normal – which has both condemned and liberated the so-called global citizen of the world with its tablets, smart phones, computers and high-tech gadgets, and the compulsive dependence on them each moment of their alienated, allegedly modern lives.

In the unexpressed sense, the war works through revolving doors, back-door diplomacy,  hackers and whiz kids, those who are trying to control and usurp the newest of the tech, both hardware and software, around the bitter reality of the virtual realm. This includes cellular phones, satellites, fiber-optic cables, and 5G networks, etc.

Helberg (inset) belives the newage war revolves around software and mainpulation

And this moves from the soliloquy of the Silicon Valley, into the surreal suspense stored inside the fortresses of the virtual world in China and Russia, especially China. This is what Helberg calls the ‘Gray War’, unseen, invisible, camouflaged. This is what he feels is the Second Cold War, the massive mafia-like operation which seeks to control the fate of humanity and individual minds and feelings, and, thereby, shape the balance of power in this ‘brave new world’.

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In other words, you will be forced to shift your gaze, as John Berger said in that classical BBC series, ‘The Ways of Seeing’. And with the shift in your gaze, often without you even noticing it, your political and apolitical unconscious too will change. Indeed, as George Orwell would write in another classical, 1984, the entire galaxy of lies will turn into truth, or seem to appear like truth, and jingoistic injustice would therefore seem to have become compassion and justice.

Reported by Glen Greenwald in The Guardian of London, the first explosive disclosures by Edward Snowden, now forcibly exiled in Moscow, exemplified at once to the world how the systemic surveillance system of the new cyberspace of new capitalism controls this subconscious to the extent that you are yourself not aware of how your habits and tastes, sense and sensibilities, choices and desires, are shaped.

And where was the original epicenter of this organized apparatus of seduction? America.

In its dark irony, how far can Snowden go in terms of his critical commentary on Russia, in the context of the damned war in Ukraine, which Putin seems to have already lost?  Not very far, surely, considering the totalitarian clampdown on the entire Russian media, with most of them singing odes to the greatness of the Tsar, while the dissenters are being hounded out.

In Russia, for instance, amidst a mindless war with thousands dead across the border, surveys point out that almost half of the population believe that the war is cool, that it boosts national pride, that Neo-Nazis have taken over Kiev, and that there were no massacres in Bucha. It’s like the Germans who made themselves ‘make-believe’ that there was no Holocaust happening in Hitler’s Germany and occupied Europe, and that the gas chambers and concentration camps were a figment of mythical imagination. This is exactly what mainland China, with absolutely no freedom, including a total control on internet, thinks about the slave camps of enslaved Uighurs in Xinjiang.

In his book, path-breaking, but loaded in favour of America, Helberg, who comes from a family of Holocaust victims and survivors, opens a can of worms, and academics and journalists, including whistleblowers, can read it eyes wide open or wide shut.

In the book, The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power, (Published by Avid Reader Press along with Simon and Schuster, 2021), Helberg writes: “This isn’t a hot war – at least not yet. As I write this in early 2021, this Gray War has not resulted in large, direct, military confrontations between the United States and Russia or China. But make no mistake, it’s a war nevertheless, one that will shape this century and beyond. The skirmishes of the coming years will be fought to defend network security, protect intellectual property, gain influence over information, and control critical infrastructure. The spoils of this war are power over every meaningful aspect of our society: poor economy, our infrastructure, our ability to compete and innovate, our personal privacy, our culture, and subtle daily decisions we make based on information we interact with online. And, in recent years, unfortunately, the world’s democracies have been losing ground.”

The manner in which Russia influenced and interfered in the US presidential polls in 2016, covertly backing Donald Trump, is an example. Or, the fake news that the Pope was supporting Trump. So much so, Julian Assange and Wikileaks were cited as playing the dubious Russian game in leaking emails of Hillary Clinton during a crucial time in the heat of the elections, which, finally, went against her.

So how does one combat disinformation? Among the ‘Dos’, Helberg writes:

  • Check the source. Is it truly independent? Does it have a track record of accuracy? Or, is it an anonymous Twitter account started a weak earlier?
  • Check the sources’ source. Sometime even friends or verified accounts credulously share disinformation. Take the time to see where they got their information before sharing it yourself.
  • Cross-check sources. Filter out fact from fiction.
  • Read and share authoritative sources. There is a reason the New York Times and the BBC are a lot more accurate than a blog with inconsistent grammar.  Serious news organisations invest tremendous time and resources into getting the story right, and they can be held accountable when they fall short.
  • Crucially, check your own biases. Human beings seek out information that confirms what they already believe. Disinformation plays on that tendency.

Among the ‘Don’ts’, he points out:

  • Don’t click on the first link you see. Thanks to techniques like firehosing, the top-ranked search result isn’t necessarily from the most credible source.
  • Don’t share without reading. Headlines can be sensationalist or misleading.
  • Don’t trust something just because you see it repeated everywhere. Trolls and bots intentionally try to amplify disinformation as much as possible. ‘Trending’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘truthful’.
  • Don’t believe your own eyes. Even images and video can be doctored.
  • When you retweeet and amplify adversaries, you are actually doing their work for them.

Where The Chalk Meets The Cheese

Children across India, as elsewhere, missed going to school during the Covid-19 pandemic. They also missed the hot food being cooked next door at the school. Its aroma can be distracting for a class in session. But it is also a sure attraction to study if that is probably going to be the only full meal for a poor child.

Millions of children across India, adding up to nearly half the population, even those who can afford two meals and more, eat at school under a scheme that completes 62 years this year. About 118 million children are fed on at least 200 school days in a year through the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDM), making it the largest scheme of its kind in the world. With an allocation of ₹11,500 crore for FY 2021-22, it caters to children of Class I-VIII across 11.2 lakh government and government-aided schools.

Statistics for this centrally-funded scheme operated by states (since education is under their charge) with help of non-government organizations (NGOs) are fuzzy and often come as percentages that can be challenged.

It matters little. The fact is that the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, MDM for short, has brought down the drop-out rate among students, both rural and urban, and contributed to the rising literacy at the primary and secondary levels. Viewed from macro level or micro, the scale is huge. Cooking and feeding requires human effort, as much as teaching. Perhaps, even more if you consider quantities of food to be cleaned and cooked, and soiled vessels to be cleaned each day.

Just compare with the family kitchen and contrast the absence of gadgetry. Think of cooking in a corner of a school that is but a tin shed, with coal or wood for fuel.

Begun in Tamil Nadu in 1960 by Chief Minister K Kamaraj and expanded in 1982 by M G Ramachandran (MGR), the MDM now covers the whole country. For Tamil Nadu, the circle is complete. Chief Minister M K Stalin was in Delhi recently to study how Delhi administers it. On May 7, completing one year in office, he announced a ‘breakfast scheme” for government school children up to class five, to curb the rise of “unhealthy, under-nourished children” in the state.  Come to think of it, it was at once admission by the pioneer of the past failure and promise to better in the future.

MDM’s really is a chicken-and-egg story. It may have drawn from elsewhere and has spawned clones, based on the universal logic of combining bread with blackboard.

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In the US, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) program has been around since 1946. Supply of curry meals by Manoj Raichura, an enterprising British Indian, has helped to arrest the truancy rates at schools in the city of Southampton. With numerous faults and flaws, MDM remains one of the success stories of India’s social sector.

There, indeed, are stories of stale food and of unsuspecting children falling sick. There is corruption — of food disappearing, items like milk and eggs, meant to boost nutrition content, remaining on the paper and ending up in the open market and of numbers of beneficiaries being fudged.

Insufficient food can turn a child into a modern-day Oliver Twist. It cannot be defended. In reality, however, it is difficult to ensure the quality and quantity of a meal, consumed by children, in schools small and big, day after day. Also, in each state, each region, children have differing food habits.

Then, there are social and religious taboos. Karnataka Government’s efforts to extend serving of eggs to children are being protested by the powerful Jains and Lingayats. The role of thousands of NGOs engaged in running the scheme is crucial. While the government often puts out a positive picture and statistics to support it, or when the states are finding fault with the federal government and vice versa, it is the NGOs who generally tell the real story.

Then, there are problems peculiar to India. Upper caste parents prevent their children from eating if the food is cooked by someone from low caste. Save these exceptions that make news and are derided, children eat from these casteless kitchens. It is education through the stomach.

It boils down to food and its management. The taste, the use of spices, the food habits like wheat in the north and rice in the south – so many things differ. Just like in a family. There are no easy solutions. Cooking and feeding is only a part of the task. After all, one is not running an eatery for profit.

Having to cook food makes the task really daunting. Former minister in the Manmohan Singh Government Renuka Chaudhary thought she was being ‘pragmatic’ in suggesting pre-cooked food such as biscuits. But this created a powerful lobby of biscuit and confectionary makers, some of them powerful multinationals. When the NGOs protested, the Supreme Court ruled that only cooked food would be served and that the cooking would be done daily. No junk food. No chips, chocolates and toffees.

Like other social sector schemes, the MDM too has its politics. The states, very possessive of their turf, happily accept central funds, but they will not take up its administration. Past resolves to transfer the MDM scheme to the states have not materialized.

Political preferences get injected. Each state has favourite areas for splurging. Like erecting statues. But when it comes to social sector, they throw up their hands and want the federal government alone to finance it. The MDM is just one such scheme. As the scheme evolves, standards are sought to be improved and an element of sharing is gradually coming in. But the scheme is too huge to run smoothly.

MDM is one of the flagship schemes that are central to the achievement of medium term goals in India’s social sector. “The chances of fulfilling these goals appear bleak if the trends in allocations are any indicator,” R. Ramakumar of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, has warned.

Feeding future generations better while educating it cannot be over-stressed.

The writer may be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

The Bureaucratic Bungle

In the space of less than a week recently, two leading cerebral lights of the country – Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and former Reserve Bank of India governor Duvvuri Subbarao – expressed their dismay over the unravelling of bureaucracy, multi investigative agencies and the police. But when did the malaise start setting in? In a case like this, one cannot put a precise date on when such pillars that support functioning of a democracy and allows a pluralistic society in an emerging nation to pursue its development goals embracing a universal healthy diet, health and education began to brittle.

For the uninitiated, Subbarao, who was initiated in Indian Administrative Service in the mid-1970s, went on to become the finance secretary and then was appointed RBI governor. His book Who Moved My Interest Rate?: Leading the Reserve Bank of India through Five Turbulent Years came in for much appreciation for the insight it provides into the monetary policy and government-central bank relationship. His appointment as RBI governor virtually coincided with Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy marking the climax of subprime mortgage crisis and sending the world financial market reeling. It fell on Subbarao’s shoulders to hold the RBI ship and in turn Indian economy as steady as possible.

At the time of laying down RBI governor’s office, he said: “I had come into the Reserve Bank five years ago, as the Great Recession was setting in. I’m finishing now, as the Great Exit is taking shape, with not a week of respite from the crisis through the five years.” The respective references to ‘Great’ developments were collapse of Lehman Brothers and the US Federal Reserve’s plan to phase out bond-buying.

This is Duvvuri Subbarao for you. Quite a few ahead of him were inducted into the office of RBI governor from either ICS (such as LK Jha and NC Sen Gupta) or IAS (notably RN Malhotra and S Venkitaramanan). The present governor Shaktikanta Das holding the office since December 2018 belongs to IAS cadre. They are not economists like IG Patel or Dr Manmohan Singh or Dr Bimal Jalan but they are all quick learners and have the benefit of inputs they get from the very able deputy governors and the enviably competent research team.

Writing recently about the sad state of affairs of Indian bureaucracy with the IAS officers resting at the pinnacle, Subbarao said at the time of institution of IAS as a successor to the British era ICS, “it was seen as the home grown answer to the enormous task of nation building in a country embarking on an unprecedented experiment of anchoring democracy in a poor, illiterate society.” Jawaharlal Nehru said in his Tryst with Destiny address on the eve of Independence in the Constituent Assembly: “Long years ago… we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge…  The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity… The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.”

Calls of this kind from Mahatma Gandhi and his disciples who gave everything to secure Independence had a profound impact on IAS cadre of the time. It will be pertinent to recall here what Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel told the first batch of IAS officers. “I would advise you to maintain to the utmost the impartiality and incorruptibility of administration. A civil servant cannot afford to and must not, take part in politics. Nor must he involve himself in communal wrangles… You are the pioneers in the Indian Service, and the future of this service will depend much upon the foundation and traditions that will be laid down by you, by your character and abilities and by your spirit of service,” the Iron Man said.

Unfortunately, the spirit of service, integrity and impartiality and no expectation of extraneous rewards that Sardar Patel was able to impart on the IAS cadre worn thin over the years. Subbarao, an impartial observer, regrettably will not deny that the IAS has failed the nation after having a great start that lasted many years. He finds the IAS of today as an “elitist, self-serving, status quo perpetuating set of bureaucrats.” As they remain enamoured of the privileges and heightened social status that their offices offer, they have “lost the courage of conviction to stand up for what’s right.”

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But that was not always the case. For all that the nation was set out to do after the Independence, most importantly to create a path out of poverty through development of agriculture and industry, the IAS happened to be the strong delivery arm of the government, in fact in many cases more effective than the predecessor ICS. The British left India as an impoverished nation with poverty rampant and very little health care and primary education for the masses. The immediate task for the government then was to build a “an impressive development administration network from ground zero,” that would at the same time enforce the rule of law and promote social justice. For all this to come about, the country needed a bureaucracy at the top of which was a set of IAS officers absolutely unimpeachable for their “competence, commitment and integrity.”

But what could be the reasons for a service that had such a great start and remained so for a good number of years to lose its way and go down in the esteem of the people? According to Subbarao; “The biggest problem with the IAS is a deeply flawed system of incentives and penalties… When everyone gets promoted by efflux of time… there is no pressure on officers to perform and deliver results… A system that promotes mediocrity and risk aversion rather than innovation and change sinks to a low common denominator as indeed the IAS has.” But can it be denied that in their venality more and more politicians in positions of power are found to be interfering in the work of IAS officers.

There are innumerable instances of the latter not obliging the political bosses for right reasons getting the stick. Take the case of Ashok Khemka, IAS, who at the last count got transferred 54 times in 29 years of service. Subbarao, however, thinks “no political system, no matter how venal, can corrupt a bureaucracy if it stands united and inflexibly committed to collective standards of ethics and professional integrity.” He thinks the malaise relates to a minority of IAS officers but their numbers are no longer negligible.

The country’s Chief Justice does not have many occasions to speak from public forums. But when he does, he has something to say of great import. Our politicians must have squirmed when Justice Ramana urged the central investigative agencies and the police to work “impartially” and break the “nexus with the political executive” for they “owe their allegiance to the Constitution and the rule of law and not to any person.” He wanted all these agencies to “uphold and strengthen democratic values” and not allow “authoritarian tendencies to creep in.”

The rich diversity of the country will not be sustained through dictatorial governance, according to him. He didn’t mince words when he reminded investigative and law enforcing authorities that “the political executive will change with time. But you, as an institution, are permanent. Be impermeable and be independent. Pledge solidarity to your service. Your fraternity is your strength.” It defies intelligence that that over 40 million court cases are pending in the country.

Justice Ramana holds the Union and state governments responsible for half the cases. Either they are moving court against citizens or forcing citizens to move court for redress of official inaction or harassment. He laments while the judiciary is overworked, the government will still add to the work burden by displaying a tendency to defy court orders leading to contempt. A very sad state of affairs, indeed.  

Ukraine Crisis: A Diplomatic Opportunity for India

India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, has had to deal with a very difficult foreign policy challenge for India that arose from the Russian invasion into Ukraine. However, his deft handling of the situation has proved his mettle. The diplomatic challenge needed juggling several interests and conflicts at the same time. So far, Indian Foreign Ministry has handled the issue with skill without coming under any pressure from the parties pulling in different directions, including USA, Russia and China as well as other smaller groups.

The 2+2 dialogue between India and the United States of America combined with the video call between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden is significant for various reasons. It provided an opportunity for India and the US to better locate concerns of the other party vis-à-vis the Russian invasion.

For India it is important to pacify the world community about its reluctance to vote on numerous occasions on the Russian aggression, at the United Nations. Though India professes a neutral stand, it is part of a group with North Korea, Iran and China. This causes apprehensions among the US and its NATO allies as India has acquired respectability and status due to its economic strength and recently due to its efforts to mitigate the effects of COVID 19 pandemic. However, during the current situation, India has also maintained that any form of armed aggression upon another sovereign nation is unacceptable.

The 2+2 dialogue may have been an apt platform to clarify to the US, the reasons behind India’s neutral stand on Russia’s aggression. On the other hand, it is common knowledge that India’s defence sector and its numerous weapons systems are structurally dependent upon Russia’s arms and weapons industry. It is estimated that Russian arms equipment and weapons systems account for close to 70% of India’s defence supplies.

Against this background, it is perhaps easy to comprehend India’s neutrality and its absenteeism on crucial votes against Russia in the UN, which has wrongly been perceived as pro-Russia. The pressure, nevertheless, on India from the US and in general the West, has been unrelenting since the invasion began. India, though, has stuck to its position, bearing in mind the consequences thereof and the options it may possess. During this difficult period, however, the Indian establishment’s deft diplomacy and strategic autonomy has prominently been on display.

At the centre of this tumultuous and testing period for Indian diplomatic establishment, Dr Jaishankar has shown exemplary geopolitical acumen. Under his leadership the MEA anticipated Western response to India’s position and has crafted befitting and optimum rejoinders. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, statements from the MEA have been measured and calibrated to pacify the international community.

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India has maintained that any act of violent aggression against a sovereign state is deplorable and have urged the warring parties to resolve the crisis diplomatically. Such astute stance and demeanour have in turn led the international community to recognize that it is national interest that has driven India’s voting behaviour at the UN, the precise message that India wanted to convey.

In the contemporary world, any event of such magnitude like the Russian invasion of Ukraine has a ripple effect on the entire world. India’s recent proclivity toward the United States and the new alliances in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region has also felt the tremors.

The formulation of the term Indo-Pacific and the subsequent implementation of a counter China strategy through the Quadrilateral Dialogue (QUAD) have been gradually gaining strength in the recent years. Ukraine Crisis and Indian response brought the QUAD and its members to reassess the situation, which is visible in the visits of Heads of states to New Delhi. The Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited New Delhi for an Annual Summit meeting under the ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’, but a large part of meeting was devoted to the Ukraine crisis. India accommodated Japanese concerns on the crisis in the statement issued after the deliberations.

Immediately after the Indo-Japan Summit, the Australian PM Scott Morrison also held a virtual summit with Prime Minister Modi. The Aussie PM, while condemning the Russian actions in Ukraine, elicited an understanding of the Indian stance. Further, he elaborated that “he and Modi were of the opinion that the conflict could not be a reason for diverting attention from issues of the Indo-Pacific region”. This indicated that the relationship is not affected. A subtext hidden in the outcome and statements of both summit meetings is a clear indication that geographical distance from an international event still matters. The location of the crisis at the western end of the Eurasian landmass and away from the Indo-Pacific space remains instrumental in geopolitical thinking of Japan and Australia.

The aforementioned summits and their timing point to India’s rising significance in the international system and particularly in the Indo-Pacific. It was only befitting that the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr. Wang Yi visited New Delhi soon after. This holds tremendous weight in the wake of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ladakh since the summer of 2020.

It was understood that the Chinese FM was here to invite and persuade the Indian PM to join the BRICS summit in China to be held later in the year. Under the circumstances, Indian diplomacy under the leadership of Dr. Jaishankar has been steadfast and clear in conveying to the Chinese that normalization of relations between the two Asian giants is possible only after complete disengagement at the LAC in Ladakh. Hopefully, before the BRICS Summit, negotiations on the issue will bear results.

Therefore it can be said that the Ukraine Crisis has been turned into a diplomatic opportunity by the Indian diplomatic establishment. The 2+2 summit, Modi-Biden virtual Summit, Indo-Japan Summit, Modi-Morrison virtual summit and finally the visit by the Chinese FM are a testimony to clarity in India’s diplomacy since the crisis began. Moreover, the British Prime Minister Mr. Boris Johnson and the President of the European Union, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen have also visited India in the last week.

Whether it is India’s stand on the crisis or its India’s economic strength or the West’s need, India has become the go-to-destination in the face of deep Russia-China partnership. India has been able to drive home the point that India’s national interests take precedence over international linkages and alliances under the able leadership of Dr. S. Jaishankar, the Minister of External Affairs. This perhaps is the proverbial feather in the cap for Modi government as the top diplomat was elevated to the post of External Affairs Minister in May 2019.

Pakistan, The Hand of The Establishment

Imran Khan’s misadventures in office and his attempts to cling to power have come against the reality of numbers as he tried to use every method in the book to outwit the establishment. Although he hasn’t given up, the levers of power have moved on from his grasp. The Supreme Court and High Court had to intervene to bring a rolling rail back 

Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, came to power in 2018 promising delightful dreams of prosperity, fair deal, national prestige, honour of Pakistani passport in the world, houses for poor, jobs for youth, lawmaking, best governance, no corruption, accountability of the corrupt politicians and officers, no protocol, quality education, no loan from IMF, return of all loans, respect of the state institutions etc. However during his tenure he proved an utter failure to metalize all these promises and hopes.

March 2022 proved catastrophic to Prime Minister Imran Khan when he was ousted from power through no-confidence move presented by the opposition parties including PPP, Muslim League (N), ANP, PTM and other members in the national assembly. This was the time when Imran Khan decided to go for political shenanigans in and outside the assemblies.

Imran Khan, quoting an ambassador’s cable from the US, declared the no-confidence move as an American conspiracy because Imran Khan had refused the USA to give airbases likely to be utilized for surveillance of Afghanistan.

On this stand, he organized his ministers, Speakers and social media to blame and embarrass the military establishment of Pakistan with the aim to cripple the confidence of the establishment, election commission and courts.

He warned the ‘establishment’ that he would be more dangerous (Khatare nak) if ousted. His own assembly members had deserted therefore he tried to threaten these members, the Courts, Election Commission and anyone else with Constitutional prerogatives as he interpreted it. Imran Khan is not a Constitutional legal luminary. Therefore, things went problematic and a constitutional crisis emerged.

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At his alleged insistence, the Speaker did not allow the no-confidence move within due days as ordered in the Constitution of Pakistan. This was a violation. Being custodian of the constitution the Supreme Court of Pakistan handled the disorderly situation and ordered to act upon its orders. The Speaker once again used tactics to delay the assembly proceedings. However at midnight, the Islamabad High Court and Supreme Court opened and a prison van started moving along the Constitution Avenue.

This was entirely unexpected by the Prime Minster who had already requested the Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa to interfere as he was ready to resign if the opposition consented to hold fresh elections. This option was declined by the opposition allies, the PDM. The Prime Minster had to leave the PM house with dejected heart and he moved to his home silently.

The Assembly passed no-confidence move against Imran Khan but the PTI (Imran Khan’s party) decided to create hurdles in the way of the new government. The political misadventure continued and as the Speaker resigned, the Deputy Speaker tried to sabotage further processes. He finally accepted the resignations of the PTI members and then resigned himself.

The legal process to confirm the resignations was not adopted so it is still pending and proved another political misadventure. Mian Shahbaz Sharif was elected new Prime Minster. However President Arif Alvi considered the new government imported, traitors and funded by USA and decided to refuse to administer the oath. Consequently the Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan took oath of the Prime Minister and his cabinet members. The new government was in place.

The Punjab Assembly was the next locus of the political games and intrigues. Ch. Pervaiz Elahi, the Speaker, first promised to side with the opposition but on the insistence of his son Moonas Elahi he chose to be the PTI candidate of Chief Minster against Mian Hamza Shahbaz. However the Speaker embarrassed the Deputy Speaker by issuing different statements and even issues orders though being CM candidate his powers were frozen.

Again, the Lahore High Court had to interfere. Yet again PTI and Muslim League (Q) tried to obstruct the process. They physically attacked the Deputy Speaker, Dost Mazari, to sabotage the voting process. After the skirmishes, the Police and the Assembly officials ensured voting for the CM office while PTI and Muslim League (Q) sensing clear defeat walked out of the assembly.

Mian Hamza Shahbaz won the CM office. Repeating the national farce again, the PTI Governor Umar Chattha refused to take oath from the newly elected CM and started correspondence with different offices including of the President.

The Muslim League(N) again had to knock at the High Court and Justice Ameer Ali Bhatti asked Dr. Arif Alvi to depute anyone else to ensure oath of the CM Punjab. This oath taking issue is still pending and the politicians are more concerned with their party line than the constitution and the state.

The current political situation of Pakistan has exposed the inability and incapability of the politicians to permit smooth running of processes. They are unable to cope with this sort of political crisis. Woefully, this ensures that Pakistan will have to suffer more in the coming years because of the leadership crisis. This further confirms that the political parties only can only function in office if the establishment supports them in the day-to-day affairs.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s political parties generally condemn the establishment’s role when they are in opposition but expect full support and behind the scene maneuverings when they are in the government. Imran khan was very happy when he was enjoying this support but as the establishment withdrew its political role, the government collapsed and Imran Khan started staging mass protest.

Imran Khan believes that use of religion and cursing the military Chief, USA, Courts and election commission would force them to rethink and give him support again. The foreign funding case, Tosha Khana scandal and his signatures on some other documents relating to medicine, flour, sugar subsidy etc. however could be very dangerous for his political career. Therefore, he has adopted the going-public policy to seek the establishment’s favour in the current and coming political happenings but it is likely to be another political misadventure bearing no positive results.

On the other hand, it is expected that the PTI will get something from the institutions because past history reveals that nuisance value does work and the leaders kicked out of the corridors of power are granted relief through deals reached with the levers of real power in Pakistan. Therefore, we can conclude that Imran Khan will survive in the political arena but he has damaged his party and relations with most countries due to his ill thought out statements, speeches and actions. As the song goes, ‘another one bites the dust’. In Pakistan as in most countries, the sunrise and sunset of a politician depends on those who hold real power behind the office.

Ukraine Conflict: India’s Global Moment

The present-day complexities are best underscored by the impact, mostly negative, of mood and events back home whenever and wherever a leader goes abroad. The host is also not shielded from domestic developments. This is becoming routine, when even a country’s elections can be, and are, influenced by foreign governments and leaders. Ask Hillary Clinton.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted then United States President Donald Trump in February 2020, Delhi was witnessing unrest in some of its areas and Covid-19 was sweeping in. In April 2022, when Modi received Britain’s Boris Johnson – beginning with Ahmedabad, again – sectarian violence marred observation of Hindu religious festivals and the Muslims’ holy Ramzan, in many provinces. The civic authorities, allegedly in retaliation, followed up with anti-encroachment drives, demolishing the properties of many alleged trouble-makers.

Despite being welcomed by a million people in Ahmedabad and the political support Modi had extended for the impending American presidential elections, the Trump administration (like predecessor Obama’s) was critical of India. Johnson, embroiled in the ‘Partygate’ scandal back home, was keen to project his twice-postponed India visit as a success. He fobbed off media query if he would raise the demolition issue with Modi by speaking glowingly of India’s democratic credentials.

Johnson clinched the free trade agreement (FTA) crucial for a post-Brexit Britain in need of greater trade opportunities. India and Britain are now committed to sign one before this year-end. Big deal, although India recently signed FTAs with Australia and the UAE.

As for Ukraine, Johnson praised Modi, whom he called his “khaas dost”, for privately telling off Russia’s Vladimir Putin against the latter’s military misadventure. He was obviously peppering over India’s dogged refusal to condemn Putin’s action with Teflon-like posturing, brazenly trading in oil with a sanctioned Russia.

Johnson chose not to needle Modi on Ukraine, rightly sensing that India would not budge from its highly nuanced tight rope ride. He avoided being yet-another European come to lecture India. He remembered that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s India trip was preceded by frantic visits of several Western delegations, including US Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh and his own Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, whose charm offensive persuading India for tougher action on Russia failed. The European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen, chief guest for the inaugural session of the 7th edition of the high-profile Raisina Dialogue was patiently heard. Period.

With Johnson, the diplomatic ball was back in Britain. The BBC, still revered as the ultimate in media freedom and objectivity, at least in the former British colonies, belatedly ran four programmes on bulldozers at work in India. The memory of its listeners/viewers is not too short to be reminded of Iraq’s invasion in 2003, and/or of the massive build-up blitz each time there has been a conflict in the Gulf region. Is the British Government using BBC to boost its foreign policy goals?

But why single out BBC when governments across the world are doing their worst to control mainstream media, and join the social media discourse that they cannot control? The Indian TV channels (almost 800 of them doing 24×7 news dissemination) have long left the BBC hallow and many go for more-brazen-the-better style of the American Fox. Last week, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting felt compelled to issue an ‘advisory’ to curb sensational coverage of both, the bulldozer drive at home and the war in Ukraine. How the two got clubbed is unclear.

ALSO READ: When BoJo Met NaMo!

This is definitely India’s ‘global’ moment. Modi will be in three world capitals next month. New Delhi has witnessed an unusual flurry of visitors. There has been much talking-to, though no talking-down, to one of the world’s largest markets for anything saleable.

Tutorials in diplomacy have covered a wide range from fear of India losing place at the democratic high table to economic sanctions, to sly lessons in international morality to choose-your-friends-for-crises, to direct reminders of threats from diplomatic and on-the-land border with China. India is also told that if you worry only about your neighbours and/or of hallowed past with a now-defunct Soviet Union, then you do not deserve to be on the global high table.

India is not alone in South Asia, but is certainly the most-talked about. Its neighbours have taken their own positions on Ukraine keeping in mind their history, economy and the big-power rivalry playing out. Some have maintained a neutral position, while others have unequivocally opposed Russia.

The one who miscalculated, repeatedly and continues to do so, is Pakistan’s Imran Khan. He landed in Moscow at the most inopportune moment when Putin had just launched the Ukraine campaign, and called it “exciting times.” He turned America’s diplomatic tick-off into a ‘foreign conspiracy’, using it to escape the domestic fire. He got burnt, both ways, and lost power. Neither Putin, nor the Americans, could have anticipated this.

Foreign policy rarely impacts India’s domestic scene. The discussion in Parliament brought forth a broad support for the government from an opposition inevitably critical of most of its domestic policies.

Opposition old-timers have talked of non-alignment, but the government does not, for obvious reasons. It would incense the Westerners who still consider it ‘immoral’ a la Dulles. Also, using the ‘N’ word would mean invoking one of its founders, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose name is a no-no. 

Of course, to call the current approach non-aligned would be misleading. Away from Ukraine, India is aligned as part of the Quad, is upset with China and always upset with the latter’s ally Pakistan. With all that comes the growing rapport with the West and arms from Israel.

While Ukraine lasts, India’s role in the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Council remains virtually suspended. But it ensures that should Beijing activate the border, Russia would lean on it.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, perceived as ineffective on Afghanistan when the US evacuated last year, has found his voice, boldly asking the Western critics where were they during that crisis.

Ukraine resonates in a way that divides generations. Many cherish memories of the Soviet Union, but many more think that Moscow, although wrong in invading Ukraine, has been severely wronged by a triumphalist NATO. It’s not just nostalgia – there is distrust of the West, too, given its past record of unreliability. There are Russian arms, too, and a strong desire to retain autonomy.

At the other end are those with Western sympathies, what with their wards studying/working in the West. This binary has not been easy to deal with when Indian opinion-makers are almost entirely dependent upon information from the West that also includes war-time propaganda, an inevitable part of the psy-war. Unknown to the news consumer, there is a total blackout of the Russian side of the story. But even an allusion to it is vehemently countered.  

The binary may weaken given the way India is moving politically, and make way for a US-led liberal international order. While common strategic interests bind ties between states, cultivating general interest around advancing democracy, protecting universal values, and international norms, these principles require popular support.

India’s foreign policy activism under Nehru was ethical, at times criticized as moralistic. But it jelled with the Indian psyche. Nehru moved beyond his beliefs and worldviews and garnered domestic support for commitment to the rule of law and international peace and security.

In the present, radically changed times, can Modi do what Nehru did, and better?

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@fgmail.com

When BoJo Met NaMo!

There is an old proverb in Persian language: ‘Amad`an, nashist`am, ghuft`am, barkhas`tam’, they came, they sat, they talked and then dispersed. It actually means to say that nothing substantial was achieved by a visit or dialogue. The same holds true about the recent visit by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to India, after his two previous visits scheduled last year, were cancelled due to Covid pandemic.

BoJo in India

The diplomacy nowadays, thrives on optics. On this count the BoJo visit clicked all the boxes, but was also marred by angry reactions on the social media on photos showing him in the driver’s seat at a JCB bulldozer. Perhaps his advisers were unable to connect the continuing controversy over bulldozers being used by the establishment against the minorities across India, or his close connections with the owner of the JCB, Lord Anthony Bamford, an old Conservative party donor and supporter, overweighed the local sensibilities.

The Gujarat leg of his visit, a carbon copy of his Home Secretary Priti Patel’s 2015 visit to the state, was in essence aimed at garnering the support of the Gujarati electorate back home, keeping an eye on his uncertain political future.

In Gujarat he also met with Gautam Adani at his company’s head quarters. BoJo described the feeling of being in Ahmedabad similar to as those of Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan, two Indian icons used for boosting his own public image and trying to resonate or connect with the Indian audiences.

In New Delhi, he referred to Prime Minister Modi as a ‘khaas dost and continuously as Narendra during his speech at Hyderabad House. But no more ‘khaas’ treatment to the Indian demands of a relaxed Visa regime and post study work for the Indian students, an indication towards which was given in Ahmedabad, but not granted finally.

Bilateral Cooperation

His main focus remained the FTA between the two countries, as he expected to take back home something substantial in economic terms, particularly after his failed Brexit strategy. He urged the negotiators on both sides to hasten the pace of negotiations so as to have a final document ready for signing by Diwali in October. Certainly an over ambitious demand for an agreement, which has been under negotiations for more than last ten years.

Though the Indian side stated that it would demonstrate the same speed and urgency that it did in concluding recent FTAs with the UAE and Australia in recent months, yet nothing can’t be said for sure about an Indo-UK FTA, as there are many thorny issues on both sides.

British trade with India, the world’s second-most populous country with nearly 1.3 billion people, was worth 23 billion pounds ($29.93 billion) in 2019, much lower than the UK’s trade with some much smaller economies such as Ireland and India’s trade with smaller countries like Belgium which stands at 18 billion pounds.

Russian-Ukraine War

In addition, though not expressed overtly by the British side and neither by BoJo, the Russia-Ukraine war had an ominous shadow over the visit. Though his foreign secretary was very firmly told by New Delhi just 22 days before his visit that India is not going to change stand on its ties with Russia, BoJo thought he might be able to convince New Delhi to do so.

ALSO READ: Blood On Your Face, Putin

However, predicting the Indian response he had set the tone for this when even before meeting the PM Modi he had said that he understands India’s historic ties with Russia, but still chose to lecture New Delhi on its relationship with ‘autocratic’ states, though this time also New Delhi politely stood its ground.

The manner in which the visit was seen by both sides, was remarkable by the manner in which the two prime ministers delivered their speeches at Hyderabad House. While BoJo avoided mentioning Russia, Mr Modi reaffirmed the ties with Russia.

India-focussed Issues

Though the British side is referring to a host of agreements signed in different sectors, and BoJo’s statements on counter-terrorism task force being constituted and against the Indian economic fugitives currently at home in the UK, everyone is certain that they are just mere words, nothing substantial. His announcement of One billion pounds trade deals and creating 11,000 jobs is just peanuts for India.

Both sides also agreed to deepen bilateral defence and security cooperation. India welcomed Britain’s Indo-Pacific tilt and joining the Indo-Pacific Economic Initiative; on its part Britain announced the decision to ease the transfer of defence equipment and technology for India and also for developing an advanced jet fighter. But overall, nothing concrete was inked down by both the sides and the technology transfer could be viewed as just a gimmick to wean India away from Russia.

Overall, the two sides showed commitment to joint research, development and production of advanced weapons and related technologies. The two PMs also issued a statement on strengthening partnership in cyber-security domain, and plans to boost cooperation on mitigating climate change and promoting clean energy. But these agreements should be seen as just part of a normal bureaucratic visit.

The visit seems to be a hastily stitched plan, with no long-term goals and no narrative setting, and was unable to achieve anything bilaterally. In the end BoJo was unable to get anything substantial from India and his political troubles back home persists. The coming days will show how he’ll be able to deal with them and survive as even his closest Asian origin lieutenants like Rishi Sunak and Priti Pate, who were predicted to take over from him, are facing politically damaging controversies of their own.

(Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He writes on issues related to Muslims, education, geopolitics and interfaith)

How India Fares On Economic Indicators

Given even half a chance, politicians of all hues will indulge in breast beating. The country was witness to this once again when in the course of 2022-23 budget presentation finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed India’s expected GDP (gross domestic product) growth of 9.2 per cent during 2021-22 would be highest among all large economies. This “sharp recovery and rebound of the economy is reflective of our country’s strong resilience.” In the meantime, however, the Manila headquartered Asian Development Bank in its recently released ‘Asian Development Outlook 2022’ report says India’s GDP last year ‘likely’ grew 8.9 per cent. Mark the word likely in ADB’s calculation.

Whatever 2021-22 growth is finally recorded, Sitharaman could always say in her defence that she presented the budget two months before the closure of financial year and she was only referring to advance estimates. A Trinamool Congress MP was certainly not fair in saying the FM was speaking with ‘fork tongued’ in making such a tall claim for the economy under her charge. No doubt she was boastful, for last year’s growth should ideally be seen against the background of GDP slipping 6.6 per cent in 2020-21. And the 2019-20 GDP growth was a dispiriting 3.7 per cent, very closely approximating the Hindu rate of growth coined by economist Raj Krishna.

The whole of 2019-20 when the bite of Covid-19 pandemic manifested in a series of deadly infections, lockdowns, supply chain disruptions and large-scale migration of labourers to their villages and small towns suffering in the process unbearable hardships was a washout for all economies and India was not an exception. Even while fears of new Covid waves remained throughout the year that closed in March 2021, any relief on that count was negated by high rates of inflation.

Retail inflation, as measured by consumer price index combined (CPI-C) was 6.6 per cent during 2020-21, breaching the Laxman Rekha or threshold level of 6 per cent. But with the revival of economic activities in the post Covid 2021, high inflation became a global phenomenon. For example, among developed countries, the US experienced inflation of 7 per cent in December 2021, the highest since 1982 and in the emerging economic bloc, Brazil suffered price rise of 10.1 per cent in the same month. Expectedly inflation at the rate of 6.6per cent became a source of major popular discontent leading New Delhi to take supply side measures and that tamed it to 5.2 per cent in 2020-21 till December.

But any comfort on inflation front unfortunately for the government and the masses proved short lived. Energy prices were already high when President Vladimir Putin sent his troops to Ukraine in an act of aggression on February 24. That sent oil and gas prices through the roof. As oil and gas and aviation turbine fuel invite very excise duty and also stiff levies at the state level, the two commodities not being covered by GST (goods and services tax), their prices are now greatly stoking inflation. Look at prevailing domestic LPG prices from PPP (purchasing power parity) dollar angle, truly reflecting the local currency’s purchasing power and the income level of average Indian, these are the highest in the world. As for petrol, we pay the third highest price only after Sudan and Laos. Indian oil marketing companies have started buying Russian crude at discounted rates.

As is to be expected, Indian buying of Russian crude has not gone down well with Western nations sanctioning the aggressor country on a growing number of counts. For example, the US has banned all energy supplies from Russia and the UK is working on phasing out oil and coal of that origin by yearend. Whatever sins Russia may be committing, India has deep political and economic ties with that country and the world is aware of that. India has served notice that it will continue to buy crude oil from Russia to protect its own economy.

In any case, fuel prices continuing to rise to new record levels are having an inevitable domino effect with food, edible oils and stationery prices getting revised periodically in sync. A survey conducted by the leading Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika of families in the monthly income bracket of ₹15,000 to ₹45,000 about how they are coping with the sudden major spurt in inflation found one common answer that even after doing with less of every single item of food and other daily necessities, their savings are going for a toss. Some have lost the capacity to save. Others have started using up what they saved in the past. Experiences of families with identical income or even a little more in other parts of the country are either faring the same or even worse. If this is the condition of people with a regular income, whatever is the size, then think how badly the ones who lost their jobs during the Covid and never got them back or whose deep salary cuts are still to be restored are doing.  

ALSO READ: Modi Must Focus On Growth & Healthcare

Mercifully, the unemployment rate, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), has started declining with economic activities slowly gathering steam. CMIE’s monthly time series data shows unemployment rate was down to 7.6 per cent in March from 8.10 per cent in February. Economist Abhirup Sarkar, however, makes the pertinent observation that even “this unemployment rate is high for India which is a poor country. Poor people, particularly in rural areas cannot afford to remain unemployed, for which they are taking up any job that comes their way.”

Even while the overall national unemployment rate continues to fall, the ranks of unemployed in some states remain worryingly high ranging from 14.4 per cent for Bihar to 26.7 per cent for Haryana. The accepted fact remains inflation has a negative impact on growth and real per capita income. Inflation is not neutral. In no case does it support growth. That is why on the occasion of release of monetary policy the other day, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Shaktikanta Das said: “In the sequence of priorities we have now put inflation before growth. For the last three years starting February 2019, we had put growth ahead of inflation in the sequence. This time we have revised that because we thought that the time is appropriate and that is something which needs to be done.”

Largely caused by Ukrainian war, the inflation outlook has worsened globally as also for India. RBI has revised upward its inflation forecast for 2022-23 to 5.7 per cent from the earlier 4.5 per cent. If the war persists and sanctions further tightened, raging inflation will not be doused. In fact, inflation here could very well cross the Laxman Rekha as the year progresses. If inflation stays this high what option could be there for RBI but to cut this year’s growth forecast to 7.2 per cent from the earlier 7.8 per cent. Inflation and growth outlook being so fluid, Das’ observation that “we are not hostage to any rulebook and no action is off the table when the need of the hour is to safeguard the economy,” is an important pointer to RBI monetary policy staying flexible.

Commodity prices across the board from oil to steel to aluminium and to copper have all significantly appreciated. This is particularly pinching for the micro, small and medium (MSME) sector, which has a share of around 30 per cent of GDP and provides employment to 111 million. High input prices have pushed up working capital requirements of the sector. Will that incremental financial accommodation be available from banks? Unlike large enterprises, most MSMEs don’t have reserves to fall back upon. New Delhi must see that the MSME sector having a share of close to 50 per cent of total national exports is able to walk through difficult times unscathed.

Industry as a whole has welcomed the government investing heavily in infrastructure projects creating demand for products of a host of industries. The combination of mega capital expenditure programme that hopefully will bring Indian infrastructure close to world class resulting in marked fall in logistical cost and supply side measures is the response expected from the government. Private sector too is not found wanting in announcing major investments and this is led by the steel industry with investment commitment of over ₹1,000 billion in new capacity building.

In the challenging circumstances, Indian farmers well deserve a pat on their back for agriculture and allied industries are expected to have recorded growth of 3.9 per cent in 2021-22 against 3.6 per cent in the previous year. There is no promise that the coming days will bring any relief. One may, however, see a silver lining in the Economic observation: “Despite all the disruptions caused by the global pandemic, India’s balance of payments remained in surplus throughout the last two years. This allowed the Reserve Bank of India to keep accumulating foreign exchange reserves (they stood at US$634 billion on 31st December 2021). This is equivalent to 13.2 months of merchandise imports and is higher than the country’s external debt. The combination of high foreign exchange reserves, sustained foreign direct investment, and rising export earnings will provide an adequate buffer against possible global liquidity tapering in 2022-23.”

Blood On Your Face!

A portrait of Stalin hangs on the wall. The lector reads a report on Stalin, then, the choir sings a song about Stalin, and, finally, an actor declaims a poem about Stalin. What’s the occasion? An evening commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Pushkin’s death.
(A student tells this joke. For this crime, the student gets ten years in the labour and death camps, without the right of correspondence.)
Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Stalin allegedly used to write poetry in his youth. So did Pol Pot, the butcher, and General Mohammed Ershad of Bangladesh. So did, perhaps, Idi Amin of Uganda and Augusto Pinochet of Chile.

Perhaps, Vladimir Putin too writes his own brand of botoxed poetry bloodied with the bloody redness of innocence — from Kiev to Lviv. Certainly, they would all be verse, as terrible as the terrible poetry Stalin wrote during his Georgian youth.

Think of Russia: 10,000 or more young soldiers dead. For no rhyme or reason. Most of them from the provinces did not even know why they were fighting this war, why they were killing people who looked like them and spoke their language and ate the same food and sang the same songs and shared the same oral traditions of the war against fascism.

Treacherous Generals! Thus wrote great Spanish poet Fredrico Garcia Lorca. So, he was shot in the woods by perhaps a footsoldier of another general, while, perhaps, another general gave him shelter. Several top generals of the Russian top brass have been killed in combat. Where have you ever heard generals fighting in the frontlines, except in those magical, mythical, medieval times?

As the sad song goes: It‘s happening in Russia. It is happening in Russia!

As another great poet, Pablo Neruda, a buddy of Lorca, wrote: Come and see the blood on the streets. Come and see the blood on the streets. Come and see the blood on the streets…

Think of Ukraine. Come and see the dead on the streets of Bucha. At Kharkhiv and Irpin. In the outskirts of Lviv and Kiev. Out there in the smoked-out Eastern Front of Ukraine. Hands tied at the back, some bodies. An entire family shot and dumped in the garden. A theatre bombed out. A railway station ravaged by hell-fire.

Dead children and mothers. A few million turned refugees; no more the warmth of their cosy homes in this freezing cold. Now, borderline cases stranded on various European borders: Lithuania, Moldova, Poland…

ALSO READ: Theatre Of Horror In Ukraine

In this grotesque anti-poetry Putin has penned, there are no between the lines. No verse or pause, silence or nuance. Only the sinister shadow of Ivan the Terrible, the Tsar of Russia, And, of course, Totalitarian Stalin of the Great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). And he knows so well that this mindless war waged by him for mindless reasons, he has already lost. He lost it on Day One! He did.

Isolated in Europe and the West, and across the world, a megalomaniac Putin, a ruler for life, can’t even have his last hurrah. Another dictator with a half-twisted smile, in China, also a ruler for life, with his alleged communist hangover, seems to have backstabbed him on Ukraine. So, what will the hallucinating Tsar do now?

His banking system has been turned almost redundant, his lucrative oil economy is bleeding, the rouble has shrunk, his international financial system has collapsed, his finest sycophants in his caricature of a cabinet have all been sanctioned, his best billionaire buddies are finding their assets frozen, including the super-luxury yachts parked at multiple ports; so, what will Putin do now?

Till this day, even as it becomes 60 days and more, in a post-modern era where wars, rare as they are, are fought on the battlefronts in short, decisive stints, and, where diplomacy rules the roost,  this long march to eternity has only nowhere as a dead-end. Till this day, Putin and his beleaguered and confused armed forces, have not been able to win any city or town, port or infrastructure, despite the huge military resources at his command. Even from Chernobyl they have withdrawn.

Reports The Guardian: “Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukraine’s unexpectedly fierce resistance since Russian troops invaded the former Soviet state on February 24.” The UN World Food Programme has stated that 100,000 plus citizens in ravaged Mariupol are starving and there is serious scarcity of water, sanitation and heating. Undoubtedly, it is a major humanitarian catastrophe, and the blame squarely falls on Putin.

“The city still has not fallen,” the Ukrainian Prime Minister said on Sunday. “There’s still our military forces, our soldiers. So they will fight to the end,” he told ABC’s The Week. “We will not surrender.”

Putin and his commanders tried the strategy of putting the capital of Ukraine under siege for days. In contrast, even the satellite towns did not surrender, so brave, strategic and resilient has been the Ukrainian response on the ground. Hence, now top European leaders are making a beeline for Kiev, right under the nose of Putin, standing with the troops and the brave, fighting citizens of Ukraine. Even Joe Biden might land up at Kiev anytime soon, and as did Boris Johnson in a sudden, surprise, solidarity visit.

Hence, while the brilliant comic star of reality TV and valiant president and soldier in fatigue on the frontlines, Volodimir Zelenskiy, fights a winning battle 24/7 with his back to the wall, with clever rhetoric and imaginative manuevering, Putin stands cornered, ghettoized and isolated. All he now has is the dream to capture Donbas and Lugansk, etc, and focus on the Eastern Front, like he did with Crimea in the past. That is, indeed, a big loss to his grand project of extending the Great Stalinist Soviet Empire!

All he could do therefore was order massacres, executions, Stalin-style, indiscriminate bombing and missiles flying into homes, hospitals and schools. Surely, these are no signs of a smart and strategic military commander sitting in Moscow which led such a stoic and sustained battle for months in the frozen landscape in Stalingrad and Leningrad.

Putin seems to have willfully forgotten that more than 20 million Russians died in the protracted war against fascism, whereby, the Red Army first liberated Berlin, whereby, Adolf Hitler and his wife, then, chose to commit suicide. Many of the millions who died came from Ukrain and neighbouring  Belarus, also ruled by a tin-pot dictator, another best buddy of the Tsar in Moscow.

The tragic epic hereby unfolding is heart-breaking: between the young men and women fighting each other in a meaningless war in Ukraine, there is a history of deep, intrinsic, intimate and shared memory. These shared memories are stronger than war, victory or defeat. They are childhood memories, spoken as fairy tales turned real, inside the warmth of the home and hearth, around a soft, crackling fire, as the snow would fall over the meadows like sheets of white, and the howling wind would creep in through the cracks in the window. These are real stories, and they shall never die.

Nobel Prize winning journalist Svetlana Alexeviech narrates another joke cracked by the grandson of a seasoned communist and party card holder who was tortured and brutalized in all kinds of dingy hell-holes during the Stalinist purges for reasons no one knows till this day. His wife, also a card-holder, died of the brutality, cold and hunger in prison. The joke:

A professor and an Old Bolshevik are at a séance. The professor: ‘From the very beginning, communism was based on an error. Remember the song: Our train is flying forward… The next stop is the commune…’

The Old Bolshevik: “Of course, I do. What’s the problem? Trains don’t fly.’