Geopolitical notes from India

M D Nalapat

Friday, April 16, 2010 – Although India prides itself as the world’s largest democracy, the country has a remarkably non-intrusive media, with the leaders of the larger parties being treated the way royalty is in Thailand, by having their personal lives ignored. Thus, although for four of his six years as Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee was on the cusp of physical incapacitation, being unable even to stand , and needing huge daily doses of medication, there were almost zero references to his health. A factual report in an international newsweekly resulted in the correspondent being blacklisted and the publication being warned off “sensationalism” under threat of denial of visa. And even today, the Indian public is unaware of just who the close relatives of the country’s effective ruler,Sonia Gandhi,are. Thus far, no India-based editor has visited Sonia’s home town of Orbassano,near Torino in Italy to report on the early life of the daughter of Stefano Maino, and who went through much hardship before life improved for him in the 1980s because of a very dutiful daughter’s love and attention to him and others in the family.

Among the key reasons for the Indian media’s neglect of investigative reporting is the ubiqitious power of the Income-tax authorities in India, powers that have been increased even further since Manmohan Singh became PM in 2004.Small wonder that fact-based dissent with the top is close to zero. In 2005,a left-leaning Cabinet Minister was summarily dismissed by the PM, after it was alleged by a US-based “fact-finding committee” that he was among many who had commtted improprieties. The Paul Volcker Report into the UN Oil for Food Programme seemed to have been ghost-written by the CIA, with the names of those unfriendly to the US emphasized , while the participation in the scam of US-friendly personages got ignored. Both Russia and France ignored the clear geopolitical bias of the Commission and trashed its findings, but in India, its report was used to remove from office Kunwar Natwar Singh,a Foreign Minister who still believed in non-alignment and in other facets of Nehruviana. There were many who were angered by the dumping of the Nehruvian past that the sacking of Natwar Singh represented,but they remained silent, wary of challenging an establishment that for 63 years has retained and improved upon the British-era laws that were first passed to keep Indians in servitude,and which have been enthusiastically retained by all the democratic regimes elected to power since 1947. Coming to Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor, the Manmohan Singh government committed diplomatic hara-kiri by publicly backing the candidature of then UN Under-Secretary Shashi Tharoor for the Secretary-Generalship in 2006. The PM overruled objections from the Ministry of External Affairs and in forcing a contest that it was certain to lose (given the US support to Ban Ki-Moon), broke ranks with the rest of Asia,which rallied behind current incumbent. As Manmohan Singh is an astute politician very aware of geopolitical

currents,it was apparent that the Tharoor candidature was not his first choice but was forced on him by Congress President (“CP”) Sonia Gandhi,several of whose confidants admired the telegenic UN official whose career had zoomed under Kofi Annan. Although most Congress Party leaders,including in his home state of Kerala, opposed Tharoor,pointing out that he had zero grassroots contact, Tharoor won with a huge majority,helped by the fact that more than 70% of the womens vote went to him in 2009 in his Trivandrum constituency. There seemed no way he could go but up, perhaps even to the Prime Ministership. He was well-off, media-savvy and US-friendly, qualities that are very helpful in politics. However,the Indian system is as chaotic as the US system,and the most carefully-prepared plans fall by the wayside when circumstances shift. Because he was only in his 50s, Tharoor was seen as a “youth” by the Manmohan Singh team, whose key ministers are in the their 70s. He was inducted not into the Union Cabinet but made only a junior minister,that too under an assertive minister with substantial clout in his home state of Karnataka, S M Krishna. Not being aware of the advantages within the subcontinent of following General Zia-ul-Haq’s policy of obseqious courtesy even to those he detested, Tharoor very quickly made enemies with his open display of superiority over the rest of his colleagues. Believing that the Indian media – especially the English-language segment – was as influential in Delhi as it was in his former New York home, Shashi Tharoor spent much of his time renewing friendships with key mediapersons,making himself available for off-the-record chats about matters of policy and politics. And he sought to ensure that the enormous goodwill for him in Sonia Gandhi’s household remained intact.

Although the Kerala media did not touch upon this fact, Tharoor’s spouse,Canadian arms control expert Christa Giles, was a huge advantage to him in New York and in Delhi, especially in opening doors to the literary and art circles so favoured by Sonia Gandhi. It was a definite advantage for Tharoor to have a foreign wife,especially a lady as educated and accomplished as Christa. What few in Delhi knew at the time Tharoor was being considered for a parliamentary seat in 2008 was that his relationship with his wife was breaking down. Soon afterwards,and in almost as total secrecy,he began a friendship with a charming young widow in Dubai, Sunanda Pushkar, who is Kashmiri. Only when Indian Premier League boss Lalit Modi was about to “out” the Tharoor-Pushkar link did the minister’s office release titbits on his Dubai connection, who had been given “sweat equity” worth $15 million by a Kochi consortium that won the IPL bidding,beating Ahmedabad. From the media attack on Tharoor,it is clear that his status in “ Number 10” ( or 10 Janpath,the home of Sonia Gandhi) has fallen sharply since the scandal broke and details of his private life became public.

Had Tharoor remained a favourite,the media attack on him would not have been so savage. However,it would be wrong to condemn Sunanda Pushkar as having secured a huge financial windfall simply because she is close to a junior minister. Perhaps she has qualities and abilities that are worth $15 million in compensation over five years,but if so,she had best make these public,as otherwise the buzz is that her only knowledge of cricket is watching the game on television,while her contacts in Dubai,while substantial,are hardly in the megabuck range. Tharoor’s opponents claim that the IPL payout is his “wedding gift” to Sunanda, who (they claim) he is to marry in November. Hopefully,the full facts about this will come out,and till then,both Tharoor and Pushkar ought to be given the benefit of the doubt. What is clear is that Shashi Tharoor has very little experience in Indian politics. Had he been more savvy, he would have avoided a tangle with the muscular Gujarat consortium that lost out to Sunanda’s team in the IPL bidding,to the apparent horror of Lalit Modi.

These days,cricket is an important part of a city’s image,and winning an IPL team would indeed boost the standing of Kochi,the attractive port on India’s west coast that has recently set up a huge international Information Technology park. For the same reason,one of India’s most successful businesspersons,Gautam Adani,was interested in bringing theIPL to the capital of Gujarat, Ahmedabad. Although friends of Tharoor say that Adani is a proxy for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi,the reality is that the bilionaire is even closer to key individuals in the Manmohan Singh Cabinet and the higher echelons of the Congress Party. Put simply,few dare to tangle with Gautam Adani,and these past few days,Shashi Tharoor has been finding out exactly why that is so IPL boss Lalit Modi is clearly no friend of Tharoor,and his behaviour has made it clear that he is seriously annoyed that Kochi pipped Ahmedabad in the cricket auction.

Will his friends in the Congress Party succeed in getting Tharoor thrown out of the government? Ironically,Modi’s close friends in the BJP may have helped Tharoor to keep his job,by publicly demanding his dismissal. Now that the Congress Party’s main rival has demanded his scalp, it is likely that Tharoor will stay. His assets include a very close connection with US policy and media circles,groups that the Manmohan Singh team are eager to woo. The PM himself is regarded as being more amused than concerned over the Modi-Tharoor spat , although recent revelations about the state of his marriage may have cost Tharoor some goodwill in the Sonia Gandhi household. Only one prediction seems certain: It will be a while before the ebullient “youth” trods on another big Indian businessperson’s interests yet again,the way Tharoor’s friends did when they outbid Gautam Adani in the IPL auction to win a slot for Kochi.

—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.

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