Prasannan en Thu Sep 16 15:05:57 IST 2021 modis-treasures-from-the-us-are-real-worth-30-million-to-40-million-r-prasannan <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Narendra Modi’s US visit this year was a tame affair. At the UN, he made a so-so speech. Most seats were empty; the applause was muted. Worse, that smart young foreign service lady stole the Pak-bashing show, which India conducts every autumn in New York. Cheek!</p> <p>In the US proper, it was still worse. Old Joe—a big bore—was no match for dandy Donald or buddy Barack as a host. He did not organise a Madison Square Garden show, a Howdy Modi, or even an address to the Congress. Poor <i>bhakts</i> in India had to post old videos of Modi’s address to the Congress, and claim that Modi had set fire to the Potomac this year, too.</p> <p>The problem with the <i>bhakts</i> is that they do not have the patience or punditry to read the fine print. If they had, they would have known that Modi came back with the richest treasure haul that any Indian PM has ever brought back—157 artefacts that had been smuggled out from this sacred land of terracotta Bodhisatvas and bronze Natarajas.</p> <p>The fine print on their labels would give any antiquarian as much high as if he had drunk straight from the Holy Grail—a 4,000-year-old copper anthropomorphic object, a second century terracotta vase, a 10th century bas-relief panel of Revanta in sandstone, a 12th century Nataraja, several mediaeval Buddha, Vishnu, Siva Parvati, and Jain Tirthankara sculptures, an 18th century sword-and-sheath on which Guru Hargovind’s name is inscribed in Persian, and more. All genuine stuff; no-nonsense, non-Monson.</p> <p>Non-Monson? Yes, Monson Mavunkal, if you do not know, is an ‘antiquarian’ who surfaced recently in Kerala, claiming to have in his possession Moses’s staff, Krishna’s broken butter pot, two of the 30 pieces of silver that Judas got for betraying Jesus, and more. Believe me, many in India’s most literate state believed him! The state police mounted a vigil around his treasure cave. Old comics buffs, like this columnist, were waiting for him to show up with King Arthur’s lost sword, Alexander’s diamond cup, and Cleopatra’s mummified asp from the Phantom’s skull cave, when the police, struck by enlightenment, spoiled our fun.</p> <p>Modi’s treasures are real, worth $30 million to 40 million, according to S. Vijay Kumar, an India-born Singapore-based treasure-hunter who helped trace 145 of the 157 objects.</p> <p>India has been on a treasure hunt for a while now, and Vijay Kumar has often been its Jim Hawkins, that brave lad who got the Treasure Island map from a dead pirate’s sea chest. It was in 2014, about the time when Modi came to power, that Kumar launched his India Pride project, a global network of antique-enthusiasts who have since been spending their spare blogging time tracing India’s stolen treasures.</p> <p>Together they have hit a few pots of gold. If only 18 stolen artefacts could be recovered since 1976 (when India’s Antiquities and Art Treasures Act came into force) till 2014, more than 80 have been brought back since then, and now 154 from the US. Another 120 are being readied for return from Britain; Australia has promised to ship back stolen stuff worth $2.2 million.</p> <p><b>Tailpiece: </b>Return of artefacts can also backfire. To save face after the defeat in the first Afghan war, governor-general Lord Ellenborough ordered that the city gates of Ghazni, which were believed to have been the sandalwood gates of Somnath temple stolen by Mahmud Ghazni, be brought back. When the gates arrived in India, they were found to be of cheaper wood and recent origin. The abandoned gates can still be seen, dumped in a lumber room in Agra Fort.</p> <p><b style="font-size: 0.8125rem;"></b><br> </p> Fri Oct 15 11:24:29 IST 2021 our-poor-diplomats-are-in-a-tizzy-because-of-aukus-shock-r-prasannan <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Edward Behr heard a fellow scribe shout across a refugee camp in war-torn Congo in 1960: “Anyone here been raped and speaks English?” That became the title of his 1978 memoir, an account of crass war reporting in English.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Joe Biden’s AUKUS venture seems to be the outcome of some such shout across the Indo-Pacific—anyone here been bullied by China and speaks English? How else do you explain his strange rendezvous with Australia, a country that makes most of its money by trading with the Chinese, and with Britain who had been missing from these parts since 1972 and is coming back with an aircraft carrier to fish in the troubled eastern waters? The threesome have sailed into the Indo-Pacific and tied their huge AUKUS nuclear submarine to the starboard side of the jolly boat called Quad. Now the Quad, with Narendra Modi and Yoshihide Suga also on board, finds itself boxed in.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The only explanation for the strange behaviour is that the old man in the White House may be suffering from some sort of Afghan withdrawal syndrome. He is showing what clinicians call delirium tremens, a rapid onset of confusion. In the process, he is spreading confusion all around.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Forget the French. They are enraged over losing a good submarine deal with the Aussies. Biden has left even the sober Modi’s diplomats confounded. Look at our poor foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla. He got tied up in knots when asked how the AUKUS sub got anchored on the side of the QUAD. The QUAD, he said, is a plurilateral grouping (a term invented during the early days of the WTO and quickly forgotten) “of countries that have a shared vision of their attributes and values” and “a shared vision of the Indo-Pacific... as a free, open, transparent [and] inclusive [region].” The QUAD does everything from “dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic” and “supply[ing]...vaccines” to “working on new and emerging technologies” and dealing with “climate change, infrastructure, maritime security, education, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In short, the foursome will do everything except what we had supposed they would do—take on China. Pray, are the chaps in Beijing getting cheesed off with these boy-scouts who are running around with vaccines, getting kids to schools and distributing food and blankets in refugee camps?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And AUKUS? Well, that, according to Shringla, “is a security alliance between three countries. We are not party to this alliance.” Of course, sir. If we were a party, it would have been called AUKIUS.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Let us spare our poor diplomats. They are in a tizzy because the AUKUS shock was delivered only a week prior to the Quad’s first in-person meeting for which they had been getting their English composition (as Pervez Musharraf once mocked at meaningless diplomatic joint statements) ready. The poor souls had to rework it all and save four faces.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Karl Marx—it is a fashion to denounce him these days—said, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Dead right! Dealing with America was a farce when it was ruled by Donald Trump. Dealing with America is becoming a tragedy when it is being ruled by Biden, a guy who naively surrendered Afghanistan back to the Taliban when he was winning the war. Are we counting on him to take the lead in keeping the dragon behind the Great Wall?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Good people, we are on our own! America’s business, as Calvin Coolidge said, is business. Biden will do it with Beijing too, if the bucks are good. Even with the Taliban, for thirty or more silvers. Don’t take my word; ask Ashraf Ghani.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 30 15:08:45 IST 2021 forget-two-misses-grab-this-third-chance-to-woo-pashtuns-writes-r-prasannan <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Do you still get the books of Olaf Caroe, C.E. Yate and Frank Martin in Delhi?”—a bookseller whispered in my ear while I was rummaging through a second-hand bookshop in Kabul in the winter of 2001. He was afraid of being overheard by the Taliban who had fled the city three days earlier.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was puzzled. Why was a Kabuli kitabwala at the turn of the 21st century asking for books on Afghanistan and the frontier people written by British colonial officers?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An Indian diplomat explained to me later. Hundreds of copies of those books, reprinted in Delhi’s Daryaganj allegedly on the R&amp;AW’s orders (some say, the KGB’s), had been dumped in Afghanistan on the eve of the Soviet exit in the late 1980s. The sight made Pakistan’s ISI see red not just over the Durand Line, but all over the snows of the Hindukush.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The books contained no state secrets, but only some history, anthropology, sociology and ethnology of the 30-odd major Pashtun (Pathan or Pakhtun, if you please) tribes who straddle the Af-Pak border, which was once the frontier of British India. A few had references to the line that Sir Mortimer Durand (see Tailpiece) had drawn in 1893 on a map that he had attached to a one-page deed between British India and Amir Abdul Rahman Khan of Afghanistan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Durand Line is said to have been drawn arbitrarily, only to indicate a convenient limit up to which the mutually suspicious British Indian and Afghan regimes may extend their strategic reach, and not as a border of sovereignty. Both regimes left the frontier tribes on both sides to themselves, their laws, customs and practices, letting them cross the line wherever they wanted as long as they didn’t let the armies of the other side pass.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s book assault, launched a hundred years later, just when the Afghans were kicking out the Russian invaders, was said to have been okayed by Rajiv Gandhi. It was meant to remind the Afghans, who were rebuilding their nation-state, that they had claims to large swathes of Pashtun territory to the east of the Durand Line. But before the Pashtun tribal-nationalist spirits could be kindled, Pakistan’s ISI, already having ‘mujahideened’ the Pashtun minds against the Soviets, inflamed their clannish passions with religious bigotry. The cocktail of religion and tribalism, stirred with the barrels of Kalashnikov, proved lethal not only to Afghanistan and to India’s Kashmir, but to the world itself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That was the second chance India missed to befriend the Pashtuns. The first was at the time of Partition when Mahatma Gandhi’s friend Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan led an incredibly non-violent movement among the feud-loving Pashtuns against merging their land with Islamist Pakistan. India-loving Pashtuns in Kabul, including Hamid Karzai, still swear that they were let down by India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, a third chance has come up. The Afghans are rebuilding their state for the umpteenth time. There are again stirrings of pan-Pashtunism among sections of the frontier tribes. Will the Narendra Modi regime reach out to them, as India had reached out to the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Hazaras all these years, and kindle their values of Pashtunwali in place of religious bigotry?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tailpiece: Apart from the famous border line, Mortimer Durand, who was India’s foreign secretary, lent his name to Asia’s oldest (and the world’s third oldest) football tournament, too. Conscious of the value of sport in a healthy life while recovering from an illness, he started the Durand Cup at Shimla in 1888. Its 130th edition is on currently in Kolkata.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 16 15:04:38 IST 2021 false-claims-by-fans-bring-ridicule-on-pm-says-r-prasannan <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Narendra Modi chaired a UN Security Council debate last week. That was the first by an Indian PM, and Modi did a decent job. He steered a debate on maritime security with the finesse of a veteran seaman, spoke like an old sea lord, and gave ideas like a statesman.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi proposed a maritime panchsheel—remove all barriers to legitimate sea trade; settle maritime disputes peacefully on the basis of international law; encourage responsible maritime connectivity; combat sea threats posed by non-state actors and natural calamities collectively; and preserve maritime environment and resources. Most of the world applauded; the Chinese, pioneers of panchsheel diplomacy and violators of maritime laws, listened in silence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Our official spin doctors did not make too much of it—neither the PM himself nor his PMO, neither the foreign office nor the information ministry. All were restrained and dignified in their PR spins and claims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That did not restrain Modi’s social media bhakts. They have since been setting the seas on fire making such claims as—this is the first time India is heading the security council; the command of the world is in India’s hands; Turkey and Pakistan are furious; blah, blah, blah.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nothing of the kind, ladies and gentlemen, he-bhakts and she-bhakts! India is still a non-permanent member of the UNSC with no veto power, and elected last year for a two-year term like ten others. We have been elected thus seven times in the past. Every one of the 15 members (5 permanent, 10 elected) gets a chance to chair the council meetings for a month. The rotation is in alphabetic order. July was France’s turn; August is India’s; and September will be Ireland’s.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Usually, the country’s permanent representative chairs sessions during the turn month. Thus, Benegal Narsing Rau, Rikhi Jaipal, Chinmaya Gharekhan, and the current civil aviation minister Hardeep Puri have presided at the famous horseshoe table. Gharekhan has even titled his memoirs as The Horseshoe Table.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What is unprecedented is that the PM chose to preside over one debate during India’s presidency. It was a welcome departure. When a PM speaks, the world listens more intently than it would when a T.S. Tirumurti (the current permanent rep) or a Puri speaks. (No disrespect to the two men; both are diplomats nonpareil.) At a time when securing the seas is the biggest challenge after terrorism, Modi’s move gave political ballast to the debate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi’s problem is not the Chinese, but his own bhakts. With false claims being made in his name, they are making him look like an ek din ka sultan (see tailpiece) in the eyes of the world. They have done it earlier too. When Turkey issued postal stamps depicting every one of the 35-odd PMs and presidents who attended a G-25 meeting, they posted on social media that Modi alone was thus honoured. They waxed eloquently about Modi being “uniquely honoured” with a statue in Madame Tussauds, not knowing that several Indian PMs, and even Pakistani rulers, had been similarly wax-cast.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With fans like these, Modi does not need foes like Rahul Gandhi or Mamata Banerjee. They will bring him more ridicule than the entire opposition and legions of left liberals together can.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tailpiece: A water carrier helped Humayun, who was fleeing after losing the battle of Chausa, cross the Ganga on an air-filled waterbag. The grateful emperor thanked him by letting him sit on the throne for a day. The man nearly emptied the treasury by sunset. The incident gave rise to the phrase ek din ka sultan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Aug 19 15:11:28 IST 2021 if-modi-hasnt-pegassussed-critics-did-china-or-pakistan-do-it-asks-r-prasannan <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Phone tapping and bugging used to be dirty games. Snoopers used to leave bugs in target offices, and cover them up with chewing-gum blobs. Janitors in high offices often spotted disgusting gum blobs over grooves and cavities on chairs, tables, shelves, sides of air-conditioners, corners of skeleton-containing cupboards, and over dead ‘flies on the walls’. Governments spent huge sums to get offices ‘swept’, phones debugged, floors scrubbed, furniture replaced, and walls painted periodically.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Spy lore has it that the IB’s debuggers found blobs on a phone cradle in the PMO when they were ‘sweeping’ the place for V.P. Singh to take over in 1989. We don’t know whether predecessor Rajiv Gandhi had been a gum-chewer, but there had been scandals—unconfirmed, of course—about spies in his PMO.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pranab Mukherjee once spotted 16 gum blobs in his finance ministry office (poor Pranab must have puked that whole night), and asked to get the room ‘swept’. Either he was being ‘tap-goofy’, as the Americans call those who are paranoid about being tapped, or his ministry, which was demanding retro-tax from overseas companies, was getting nightly visits from habitual gum-chewers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All these are old spies’ tales now, after Pegasus winged its way into our smartphones and made a clean sweep. No more of those yukky gum blobs in the nooks and crannies of office rooms. Snoopers will no longer be scraping your phone wires to make parallel connections; there won’t be any whirring sound when you make calls, no call drops or strange clicks. You don’t have to take even a missed call to get bugged. If you are a target, Pegasus will do it on you as if you had been under general anaesthesia—no pain, no stitches. You won’t know that you are being bugged, or whether you had ever been bugged.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Made by Israel’s NSO Group and named after the mythical Greek winged horse that was tamed by Bellerophon, Pegasus is the world’s most advanced phone-tapping programme. It sneaks into the target’s smartphone, infects any app in the device, listens to the target’s calls and posts, picks up all his data, transmits all that to its controller, and yet remains invisible.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So far so smart. But just like the winged horse was spotted by a village lad who guided Bellerophon to seize and tame it, a poor rights activist in the UAE got an anonymous phone message examined by Citizen Lab, a digital rights watchdog, and discovered Pegasus.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A media consortium has now stumbled on a database that lists more than 50,000 people across the world as possibly being pegasussed. Much to the distress of the Narendra Modi government, several of its critics in the opposition, the media and civil society, as also some of the suspect ministers, civil servants and a lady who had accused a former top judge of harassing her for sex, figure in it. The opposition is now crying hoarse over the horse, and seeking a Parliament discussion and a probe, but Modi’s ministers ask: where’s proof?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Therein lies the opposition’s problem: how can one dig out proof about an entity whose USP is that it leaves no proof?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But they have a counter: the NSO has sworn on all that is holy that it sells the spyware only to governments. If it is not the Indian government that has pegassussed its critics, then who? China, Pakistan, or any other? In that case, isn’t it all the more incumbent on the government to order a probe?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Moreover, why should Xi Jinping or Imran Khan spend millions to spy on a poor court clerk in India who had accused a chief justice of sexual harassment?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Aug 06 17:47:45 IST 2021 under-modi-2-0-goms-are-back-in-debating-more-issues-r-prasannan0 <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The more things change, the more they stay the same, wrote French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849. Rings true of the Narendra Modi government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi came to power deriding the Manmohan Singh team that was a bloated behemoth with 79 ministers, and promising maximum governance with minimum government. Now, seven years later, we are not sure whether governance has been getting maximum under Modi, but his ministry is getting maximal and mammoth-like with 77 ministers—the third largest in 30 years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi also came in mocking at Manmohan’s committee governance, which was blamed for the UPA’s policy paralysis. Manmohan, if you recall, used to form committees and groups of ministers (some empowered to take decisions, the rest recommendatory) at every drop of the Sensex. Apart from the about ten standing committees of the cabinet, such as political affairs, economic affairs, parliamentary affairs and security, which had existed under various names since Nehru’s time, he used to form GoMs and empowered GoMs for tackling ticklish issues.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>UPA-2 had a total 68 GoMs and 14 EGoMs, which reviewed fertiliser policy, sought ways to help Bhopal gas victims, monitored Commonwealth Games preparations, debated whether hijackers should be put to death, wondered how to settle the dues of the long-extinct Delhi Electricity Supply Undertaking, looked for a spot to erect a war memorial, and checked whether petrol and ethanol made good auto-cocktail.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Within a week of becoming PM, Modi abolished all the GoMs—empowered and enfeebled—so as to “expedite the process of decision-making... The ministries and departments will now process the issues pending before the EGoMs and GoMs, and take appropriate decisions at the level of ministries and departments itself (sic)”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Within a fortnight he went for the big kill, abolishing four of the cabinet committees, rejigging the remaining five, and going for what we thought would be a lean, mean, clean and fast government. It was also thought that the move would restore the authority of the cabinet in decision-making.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Easier said than decided or done. As the cares of governance gathered into crises, Modi too looked for committees. Informal groups were formed initially; soon they were formalised and even notified as ‘alternative mechanisms’—one to sell minority stakes in sarkari companies, one to oversee bank mergers, one to examine the juvenile justice Act, one to monitor Ganga cleaning, and so on. It is another matter that Arun Jaitley, who headed most of them, could not once tell us as to what they were ‘alternatives’ to.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Under Modi-2 the ‘alternative’ camouflage, too, is off. The GoMs are back in sitting, debating more issues, minuting more notes, drinking more tea, and making more recommendations. One group in 2019 got the Metals and Minerals Trading Corporation to import onions, another looked at how water pipes could be laid to all homes, a third worried how to stop mob lynching and so on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The cabinet committees, too, are alive, expanded and talking, with more members in most of them after the recent reshuffle. By the last count on July 20, Modi has eight cab-coms—political affairs, economic affairs, security, investment, and employment and skills headed by himself, parliamentary affairs (Rajnath Singh) and accommodation (Amit Shah).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The eighth is the committee on appointments with only the PM and Amit Shah in it. This committee, which decides on appointments of joint secretary and above, does not meet physically. Decisions are taken by passing the files.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 22 19:27:38 IST 2021