Tuesday, November 30, 2010

India's battle to save the tiger

Park rangers have been given a license to kill. Are bullets the answer to poaching?

By Jason Overdorf
Global Post - November 30, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — As dawn was breaking the week before the global tiger summit began in St. Petersburg last month, a team of forest guards in Kaziranga, Assam, in northeastern India, sent their own unmistakable message to the bigwigs debating how to save the majestic cat.

After tracking four poachers through thick fog for much of the night on Nov. 15, the park rangers closed in. Suddenly, a group of guards came face to face with the poachers. The tiger- and rhino-killers opened fire. The guards fired back, killing two of the poachers on the spot. The others fled into the tall grass, escaping with a harrowing story for their partners in the illegal wildlife trade: In Kaziranga, park rangers don't run away. They shoot back.

"It is a common thing," said Surajit Dutta, director of Kaziranga National Park. "This year, seven poachers have been killed, and there have been lots of encounters."

Even before the experts in St. Petersburg sounded the alarm this month — warning that the tiger could be extinct in as little as 12 years time if countries failed to take concerted action — the front-line troops in Kaziranga had thrown down the gauntlet in India, which is home to nearly half of the world's remaining tigers.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, Kaziranga has for years been India's most aggressive tiger reserve when it comes to fighting poachers — arming its forest guards and pushing them to match poachers bullet for bullet. And this July, Assam granted its park rangers the license to kill.

"Kaziranga is the only protected area with shoot-on-sight orders for poachers," said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "There are shootouts frequently."

The results have been salutary, say park officials. Originally instituted to protect the Indian one-horned rhino — which is also highly endangered — the aggressive tactics that Kaziranga uses to fight poaching have helped give the Indian national park the highest density of tigers of any area in the world, with about 33 tigers per 100 square kilometers according to the latest population survey.

"It's not a safe place to be a poacher — or a guard," Wright said. "Every year, some guards get killed. But that's the price you have to pay for protection in this modern day and age because the rhino's horn and the tiger's body is so valuable."

Issued in July, the new notification under the criminal code of procedure essentially gives the forest guards the same immunity to prosecution for firing their weapon on the job that's enjoyed by the police. Instead of criminal charges, an internal investigation led by the local magistrate determines whether or not the shooting was justified.

But in a country with strict (though ineffective) gun control laws, where the vast majority of police officers rely on a bamboo stick, rather than a firearm, to keep the peace, the state of Assam's empowerment of its forest guards is unprecedented.

At least partly in thanks to these tough measures, Kaziranga boasts about 2,000 one-horned rhinos and as many as 100 of the world's 3,500 remaining tigers. But critics say the battle has just begun — and at least one wildlife advocacy group suggests that there's a grim footnote to the "highest tiger density in the world" tag.

Nature's Beckon, a locally based nongovernmental organization, for instance, argues that the real reason that the population of tigers within the Kaziranga reserve is so dense is that the habitat outside its boundaries has been ruthlessly destroyed.

That may well be the story across the country, where wildlife parks mark isolated dots on a map where villages are mushrooming into towns and cities. But with fast-growing India remaining the last best hope for maintaining a viable tiger population, the first skirmish in the fight is surely to stop the hemorrhaging at its national parks.

So far this year, Wildlife Protection Society of India says that India's reserves have lost 51 tigers, 26 of them to poachers, and in 2009 the country lost 85 of the big cats, including 32 killed by poachers. And some parks, like Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh and Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, have been forced to admit that all of the big cats under their protection have disappeared.

A big part of the reason could be the plight of the poorly paid, ill-equipped forest guards. In most of the national parks, they lack radios to communicate with one another — let alone the guns they need to protect themselves against poachers. And in those few instances where a guard does carry a firearm on the job, he dare not use it.

"If you are a forest guard in Panna National Park or any of India's other parks, and you have a license to carry a gun, and they allow you to carry it inside the park for protection, if you fire that gun and kill a poacher, you will be arrested for murder," Wright said.

But not in Kaziranga. Not anymore.

Copyright 2010 GlobalPost – International News
Source URL: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/india/101129/india-tiger-conservation-poaching

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Underworld: India's thirst for crime stories

In India, if it bleeds, it leads.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 19, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — In the cluttered North Delhi office of Crime & Detective magazine, editor-in-chief Shailabh Rawat oversees a team of designers who are putting the finishing touches on next month's issue.

As one designer pastes together a lurid photo spread dramatizing a violent crime, Rawat tells him to tweak the "torn" look a bit to leave less white space between the victim and murderer. Then, turning, in Hindi he tells the designer laying out next month's photo story, "Put some more kajol on her eyes. A little more. Enough."

For 25 years, Rawat — India's king of pulp — has been the heart and soul of this country's pioneering, and still top-selling, true crime magazines. Started by publisher Satish Verma in 1984, Crime & Detective now sells in three different versions, the gritty Madhur Kathayen and tamer Mahanagar Kahaniya, in Hindi, and the classic C&D in English.

With titillating skin shots and screamer headlines like, "Shower of love resulted in blood-shed," together the small-press titles — which are ubiquitous on railway platforms and across India's entertainment-starved small towns — sell upwards of 200,000 copies a month.

"Crime is — not in India, but internationally — the most read subject. It's a basic human weakness to read about crimes and such things," said Verma.

A hilarious mash-up of tragedy and farce, Crime & Detective offers an unwitting homage to America's 1940s-era noir and its near namesake, Bernarr Macfadden's True Detective — the pulp classic which helped bring fame to writers like Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson. Relying on police reports and inputs from stringers in India's remote burgs, the stories are embellished and fictionalized to include a patented formula of sex and murder, then translated into a ludicrous semblance of English that sets the gold standard in "so bad it's good." But the biggest payoff comes from the monthly photo story — a comic strip-style narrative of sex and speech bubbles that relies on struggling Mumbai models and low-cut leopard print.

"We have to target what our readers taste is. In high society there are things that happen that are not open, that happen in closed rooms. About that, the middle class reader wants to know more," Rawat said, speaking Hindi. "Those things that are open, people know about already. Those things that are closed, like gigolos or parties with wife-swapping, we try to make such stories available to our readers so that they can learn about that society, too."

But at what cost to Indian society are these kings of pulp flogging a country's guilty pleasure?

Consider some of the stories of the December issue of Crime & Detective — which highlights the story of 15-year-old Joncarlo Patton, an American tourist from the Pittsburgh area who is now on trial for the alleged murder of his mother, Cindy Iannarelli, in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Packed with bodies "simmering like suppressed flames" and punctuated by ads for products like Vita-Ex Gold (UNLEASH YOUR PASSIONS) and Jolly Fat-Go (Extra Tummy, Don't Ignore), the true crime stories manage to titillate and condemn at the same time — enticing conservative readers with boundary-breaking fantasies at the same time that its censuring tone enforces the prevailing social norms.

"Mansi's gang of thieves," for example, tells of a would-be model "with a distaste for service" who joined and then rose to lead a gang of housebreakers to "translate her high-rise dreams into reality." "The poison of suspicion" is the story of an inter-caste love affair that ended in murder when the couple's secret marriage was destroyed by jealousy. And "Seema's glamour mints money" portrays the (inevitable, according to C&D) descent into prostitution that follows when a young woman surrenders to her sexual desires.

"We want to teach them [readers] also, in a way, how to save yourself from all these things," said Verma. "We publish the story when the culprit or the accused is caught, so we want to express that nobody can escape after doing the crime. We do not glorify. We always take the side of the victim."

It's a shifting line — especially as India's fast economic growth engenders sweeping social changes. Over the past 20 years, for instance, the magazine has stopped writing about homosexual affairs as if they were crimes in themselves, says Rawat, even though readers remain obsessively preoccupied with gay murder.

And it's always a tenuous tightrope between truth and fiction, according to Verma, who says that none of his magazines has been forced to pay damages in a defamation case — but a nearly constant string of lawsuits and court appearances is part of the business.

"If the accused after a period gets relief from the court, then they file suit against us," said Verma.

That's right. Though Verma insists that Rawat carry only stories where police cases have been filed — precluding stories from India's mushrooming private detective agencies — Crime & Detective doesn't shy away from writing about crimes in which the alleged perpetrators have yet to be convicted. Facilitated by India's relatively weak libel laws, that's a decision in part motivated by necessity, since Indian court cases often drag on for decades. But this month's edition, which highlights the alleged crime of an American minor, may draw unusual attention.

With an "I never thought I'd be writing to you" type lead-in, "Teenager American tourist's deadly decision" depicts the nearly consummated flirtation between Iannarelli and a Reggie's Camel Camp employee named Jageer Singh as the final straw that pushed Patton to slit his mother's throat — an alleged crime that has yet to be proved. The fictionalization of the narrative precludes any mention of the source for the magazine's claims, and the detailed account of the crime, presented as factual, undercuts the buried acknowledgement that Joncarlo has maintained he is innocent.

Worse, Crime & Detective's signature style is unlikely to go down well with readers associated with the case — in the unlikely event that a copy of the issue comes to their attention. "All the shameful acts of Cynthia that she'd done with the ten member American Tourist Group were enough to anger her son John," a boldface pull-quote reads. "So he decided to eliminate her."

Weak laws or no, them's fightin' words.

Source URL: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/india/101116/india-culture-crime-stories

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

India: infrastructure's secret weapon

A Hindu sect proves India can build things on time — when God lends a hand.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 17, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Just a stone's throw from New Delhi's Commonwealth Games Village, a mammoth Hindu temple testifies to a simple truth: When builders can give laborers a sense of ownership and encourage them to take pride in their work, India's notorious problems getting things done disappear.

Constructed by expert craftsmen using ancient methods, the 140-foot high, nine-domed Akshardham temple was built entirely from white marble and pink sandstone — without the support of steel. Some 7,000 carvers fit blocks together using nothing but a little cement slurry and geometric formulas that have been passed down for generations. They then detailed the structure with more than 200 ornate pillars, 20,000 statues of gods and saints.

But here's the real trick: They pulled it off on schedule and under budget — an achievement that's virtually unheard of in India.

"All the experts who looked at our plans said it would take a minimum of 40 to 50 years to be completed," said Akshardham volunteer Kalpesh Bhatt, speaking at an independently organized TEDx event in Delhi earlier this year — an offshoot of the California-based idea-sharing symposium TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design).

Today, the temple, which is surrounded by a 100-acre cultural complex, attracts about 5,000 visitors per day. Apart from the ancient-style, stone temple, the park includes a life-sized diorama depicting the life and works of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the inspiration for the Gujarat-based Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism that built the cultural complex. An IMAX theater screens a film on the 18th-century pilgrimage the god performed as a young yogi. A cultural boat ride ferries visitors through exhibits showcasing 10,000 years of Indian history — such as the world's first university and some of the discoveries made by ancient Indian scientists.

"It's an organization of middle class, professional people, who are committed to a cause," said Janak Dave, a spokesman for the Swaminarayan sect. "Some scholars compare it to the Presbyterian approach."

Even for these frugal teetotalers, keeping the $45 million project on schedule and under budget was no mean feat. To build the temple in under five years required some 300 million man-hours of labor. The project supervisors, including head engineer, Ashwin Patel, a civil engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi), were all volunteers. To meet the demand for skilled craftsmen, they sent a thousand stonecarvers back to their villages to recruit and train their relatives — whose caste tied them to the art. And to bring them on board, many volunteers moved out to the villages so the added craftsmen could work from home. At its peak, the project employed 7,000 craftsmen and 4,000 volunteers who acted as managers and supervisors.

"Stonework is always difficult, because most of the work is done manually," said Patel. "So it takes maximum manpower, and intricate carving is very time-consuming."

What Bhatt calls "small process innovations" played a key role in cutting costs and speeding the project to completion. For example, by first creating plaster of paris and clay models of the stones they needed, and then building a computer database of their exact dimensions, the builders were able to reduce the amount of stone chipped away into waste from 30 to 40 percent to just 8 percent. Moreover, by using computer design software and huge machines to cut the enormous stone blocks delivered by the quarry into shapes approximating the eventual end-product, engineers reduced the time it took craftsmen to carve the blocks, friezes and statues from 20 days to as short as a single day.

But the most intriguing aspect of the project was the factor that Patel cites as the biggest reason for its success. It wasn't "Six Sigma" or "Total Quality Management" or any of the dozens of change agents that Indian business relies on to improve performance. It succeeded because the volunteers and workers cared, and they took pride in their work. Training thousands of laborers to become artisans, Akshardham increased their earning power by six times, brought new life to an ancient art, and gave the new craftsmen a project of unprecedented size and complexity to work on.

"Only because of the grace of our guruji, because it's a noble job, everybody worked in good faith," Patel said.

Copyright 2010 GlobalPost – International News
Source URL: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/india/101104/culture-temple-infrastructure

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Obama in India: salesman-in-chief

Analysis: Don't underestimate the shift in US-India economic relations.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - November 8, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — A scant 10 minutes after U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in India, he'd already made a few foes with his emphasis on jobs for Americans and reluctance to talk tough on Pakistan.

Though he stayed at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel as a symbolic gesture, his speech commemorating the victims of the Nov. 26, 2008, terrorist attacks on India's financial capital neglected to mention "the P-word."

And though he mentioned Pakistan during his visit, it was not until his speech to the Indian parliament today that he struck the right note for Indians, saying "We will continue to insist to Pakistan's leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders are unacceptable, and that the terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks be brought to justice."

Meanwhile, his advocacy of a permanent seat for India on the United Nations Security Council was probably not aggressive enough for Indian leaders, saying only, "In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member."

But the economic achievements of the so-called "salesman-in-chief" may wind up meaning more for U.S.-India relations than tough talk or a host of promises of strategic partnerships. The reason: This time it's America asking India for help, and that may change the dynamic between the two countries.

Calling India "indispensable to addressing the challenges of our time," in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi today, the U.S. president outlined a raft of political moves intended to complement the business deals his delegation cemented in Mumbai. Yet even the biggest agreements — such as the removal of barriers preventing the sale of sensitive technologies to Indian space and defense organizations — appeared to be at least partially concessions to facilitate trade.

"There's a perception that there is a little less asymmetry in the relationship," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research. "This is the kind of give and take you expect between two powers who are mutually dependent on each other. In that sense there's a psychological shift that's significant."

Obama will take home about $10 billion in deals ranging from $1 million to $4 billion in size that are estimated to create more than 50,000 jobs in the United States. And according to the Confederation of Indian Industry, that's just the tip of the iceberg. India's buying of U.S. military and nuclear hardware and civilian aircraft could create more than 700,000 jobs in the U.S. over the next 10 years, the business lobby claims in a recent report.

And what is the U.S. giving? Apart from the lifting of export controls and supporting India's membership in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, Obama and Singh announced that the two countries had agreed to expand cooperation in space exploration, clean energy research, health, agriculture and higher education. Among the concrete steps to emerge from the bilateral talks will be a new joint research center in India focused on alternative energy, a joint disease detection center and agricultural initiatives designed to rejuvenate the fading gains of India's "green revolution" — which was fueled in part by American scientists.

But the most important step forward in the India-U.S. relationship might be in the subtext. By coming to India primarily as the leader of a business delegation — and in the supplicant role of seller, rather than buyer — Obama recognized India's global ambitions, and its ability to attain them. As Harold McGraw, chairman of the McGraw-Hill Companies, put it, "He was selling. Yesterday, he was salesman-in-chief." And that, more than the public statement he made in his joint press conference with Singh, is proof positive that the U.S. president doesn't "think India is emerging. It has emerged."

That's likely to spark a debate in Indian policy circles about how far India can push America, said Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly, especially as rival political forces within India grope for ways to unseat Singh's Congress Party. Hardly 10 minutes after Obama finished his first speech on Indian soil on Sunday, for instance, Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy launched a withering attack against him for failing to act against Pakistan — though the BJP later disavowed his comments.

But can India expect to use its new economic clout, and the promise of access to its huge market, to extort the kind of concessions that China wrestled out of the U.S. in the 1990s? Or should New Delhi instead concentrate on further enmeshing the American and Indian economies to create a balanced, healthy and symbiotic Indo-U.S. business partnership that contrasts with Sino-U.S. codependence?

Obama and his delegation worked hard to prove that India-U.S. business relations have similar potential to the relationship between China and the United States. But India's emergence is coming in a different era from China's late-1990s hardball tactics on technology transfer and World Trade Organization concessions.

"What makes India-U.S. different from the Sino-U.S. relationship is partly that the security dynamic is much more important in our context," said Mehta. "India has to balance three things — the economic relationship, the immediate security context, where frankly the U.S. thinks India is not moving fast enough and India thinks the U.S. is not doing enough, and the U.S. general support for India playing a bigger role in global affairs, [such as in] the U.N. Security Council."

That means even if India has a lot to offer, it also still has a lot to gain, and focusing on the single issue of Pakistan is likely to prove unproductive — at least based on the way local observers are reading the U.S. president's oblique statements. "The truth is that its economic relations with the U.S. dwarf all others in terms of its importance to India’s economic emergence," the editors of the Hindustan Times wrote on the morning Obama was to deliver his speeches in New Delhi.

At the same time, it's clearer than ever that U.S. policy on Pakistan is not going to change, "despite the evidence of Pakistan's duplicity," said former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, who was not persuaded by Obama's statements to the Indian parliament about pushing Pakistan to dismantle terrorist camps and prosecute the perpetrators of the attacks on Mumbai.

"These are the right points to be made," Sibal said. "There's no indication as to what are the specific steps behind the scenes or otherwise that would push Pakistan to actually bring [the Mumbai perpetrators] to trial and punish them. It remains at the level of a statement of desire. Insofar as safe havens in Pakistani territory are concerned, saying it on Indian soil is important, and its importance should not be minimized. But again, the problem is not so much in saying what needs to be said, but what is concretely intended to be done to coerce Pakistan to get rid of these safe havens. That road map is not clear."

In that context, building "win-win" business ties with America may be India's best shot at changing U.S. foreign policy, even as its increasing power makes the relationship more and more complex. As Obama pointed out in his address to parliament, "with increased power comes increased responsibility," and the U.S. will in the future be looking to India for support on issues like enforcing U.N. sanctions and criticizing corrupt dictatorships like Burma.

"As you rise, the range of things in which you begin to matter and the things which matter to you also begin to increase," said Mehta. "India has always played hardball, but now it has to play it when a lot more balls are in the air."

Copyright 2010 GlobalPost – International News
Source URL: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/india/101108/obama-india-business

Monday, November 08, 2010

Obama's Indian strategist?

An obscure Indian author claims to have steered Obama's campaign strategy.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - Nov. 6, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — As U.S. president Barack Obama makes his way from Mumbai to Delhi, an obscure Indian author is waiting for redemption. His name is Inder Dan Ratnu, and he believes that he deserves credit for the president's stunning landslide victory in 2008, as his third self-published novel, "First Lady President," outlines in detail the strategy behind Obama's "Yes, We Can" campaign.

Written in a month-and-a-half long torrent in 2003, "First Lady President" tells the story of the unlikely election victory of Beverly Hilton and her African-American running mate, Charak Sudama.

In the novel, Hilton selects Sudama as her running mate because she is impressed with an anti-war speech he delivers early in the campaign. But Ratnu believes that the real life inspiration for his African-American character lifted the ideas from that pivotal fictional speech to alter the outcome of the polls.

"He [Obama] was using these two, most powerful points mentioned there — in one of the most important chapters of the book, and underlined portions he was using — so I'm convinced that he used it," said Ratnu, who argues that Obama must have received his novel before forming his campaign strategy because it was sent to him by registered mail in April 2007 and not returned by the postal service.

Now, with Obama on his first trip to New Delhi, Ratnu hopes to get confirmation. Over the past two weeks, he has been trying to arrange meetings with Indian and foreign journalists to draw attention to his story. Obama's visit will focus on U.S.-Indian business relations and cooperation in counterterrorism efforts, but Ratnu hope to focus attention on his book.

"My aim is that somebody here, while he is here, should ask during the press conference this question, and let us see what is his reply," Ratnu said. "Most likely is he will say, 'Well, it is a news for me.' Because he's not that naive that he will say I have drawn inspiration from this book. No politician can do that. But who knows, he may say yes. That would be a blessing for me."

A former bank officer who worked for 23 years at the Bank of India, 60-year-old Ratnu hails from a small village near Jaisalmer, in the bleak Thar Desert of Rajasthan. Educated by a government teacher in classes held under a tree, he describes himself as "a topper, right through college," where he studied agriculture. Having attended Hindi-medium schools, he taught himself English by listening to BBC radio and memorizing the speeches of Winston Churchill — five hours of which he could once recite "word by word." He has not made a penny from the sale of his three novels and one non-fiction book — burning through his life-savings of around $10,000 to see them published and promoted. And he admits that "First Lady President," too, has so far been a commercial failure, even though he did prevail upon American Michael Burchett, who was at the time trying to start an editing/publishing business, to do a 100-copy test printing in the U.S.

"Fortunately, Inder himself was able to rouse sufficient advance interest in the book to allow me to recoup my costs," Burchett said in an email.

Whatever the merits of the author's story, the story of the author is remarkable.

With nothing more than a political intuition sharpened by Churchill and the BBC, Ratnu claims, he crafted a crucial campaign speech for Charak Sudama that bears striking similarities to the rhetoric of the Obama campaign, including its central message.

"The call for change is very famous, you know," Ratnu said. "That was the lady's speech in the book, which he [Obama] also adopted for himself. She said, and that is underlined, she says, 'It will not be a mere change of the gender of the White House, it will be a genuine change of the quality of life of the American people.'"

Many of the specifics of that change, including reforming social security, eliminating the budget deficit, and focusing on alternative energy, are also mentioned in the fictional speech, he adds, leafing through the novel and then quoting, "'We will in a big way develop alternative and cleaner sources of energy,' yet another point. Obama used it all. 'So we are not held hostage' — he used these very words, look! — 'So we are not held hostages by some oil companies or any nation or any region.' He used these very words, I tell you, in some of his speeches."

A member of the charan caste — bards who once sang the exploits of his region's warrior kings — Ratnu wears a white, Rajasthani-style kurta-pajama, graying from repeated washings, plastic-framed spectacles and a brilliant pink, green, purple and orange turban. He has a neat mustache — modest by Rajasthani standards — and he speaks in a soft, resonant voice that drops to a husky whisper when his tale comes to a dramatic point. It was Churchill who inspired his writing efforts, though, and one senses his admiration for the British leader's bombastic oratory in his penchant for underlining and capitalization, as when he describes the evolution of the title of his latest book.

"It [his intuition] became so strong and heavy that I could no longer hold it with me," Ratnu writes on his web site. "I had to pass it on to my publisher with a revelation that I intended to write a book in the future entitled — First Lady PRESIDENT is first LADY PRESIDENT. In due course following due consideration I changed it to First Lady President, highlighting the double meaning of the original title through font and color."

Ratnu is also somewhat prone to hyperbole, describing a question-and-answer book he penned about Churchill as something "nobody has ever tried in the western world" and occasionally referring to Burchett, who also printed his earlier novel about the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, as "my American editor." But it's impossible to fault his perseverance or to resist his sincerity, and, believe it or not, he does seem to have a track record of prescience.

"I'm more accurate than Nostradamus," he said. "What Nostradamus wrote were the stanzas, the verses, which were poetic, and people made conclusions out of it." In contrast, Ratnu's predictions are specific.

In his second novel, for instance, first titled "Ultimate Defense Against Impeachment" and later shortened to "The Ultimate Defense," Ratnu predicted Clinton's impeachment and outlined many of the arguments the president and his accusers would use during the proceedings. (That novel, too, might have influenced history, had it been read by any of the dozen senators or the chief justice to whom Ratnu sent complimentary copies).

And prior to the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Ratnu predicted the second Gulf War and toppling of Saddam Hussein, writing, "Make no mistake, in the event of the election of George W. Bush to the presidency of the United States, there is certainly going to be another round of Gulf War. ... I sincerely believe that even if Saddam, in view of the potential danger to his existence, restrains himself and offers the younger Bush no provocation, George W. in turn is likely to maneuver Saddam into making one, thus clearing the road for a second round of armed conflict."

When the events of his third novel looked to be coming true as well, Ratnu decided to take matters into his own hands. After mailing his novel to Obama, he traveled to the United States in 2008 to attend the Democratic Convention and — unwittingly somewhat in the manner of Sascha Baron-Cohen's Borat — seek out Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain to provide them with his advice.

In Washington, a vigilant bus driver reported him as a terror suspect and he had to talk his way past a cordon of policemen before he could meet McCain staffers — to whose incredulous looks he explained that the running mate of McCain's fictional analogue was a white woman a scant six days before McCain named Sarah Palin. But the real adventures came in New York.

There, Ratnu managed to secure a meeting with Mary DeBree, Hillary's director of outreach, which he attended, as he does all his activities, in his white kurta-pajama and rainbow-colored turban.

"To my surprise, I found that she was not much interested in talking to us," Ratnu said. "Finally, I said, 'Look, there are two points in this book, which are very powerful, the call for change and anti-war, which I think the rival of Hillary Clinton is using.' I didn't mention to her, frankly, that I had sent a copy to Mr. Obama, but I just said he's using two points which are very powerful and they happen to be in this book also, and I think he can bring down your candidate with those points. She just smiled and said, 'Gentlemen, we appreciate you wrote a book, but we know American politics better than you do.'"

The cell number that Ratnu has for DeBree — published on his web site, incidentally — was not accepting calls. But the associate who accompanied him to the Clinton campaign office, Ramesh Gathoria of the Indian-American Intellectuals Forum, confirmed the gist of his story, though when asked if he had read the novel himself, he said, "Not completely, but a little bit, yeah. Mostly, I have heard from his mouth."

Questions also remain regarding whether Clinton read the copy of "First Lady President" that Ratnu left for her.

"It did not even reach Hillary Clinton," Ratnu said, who suspects that the first chapter White House sex scene between the former president and president-elect prompted the Clinton staff to deep six the novel.

"If it had reached, it would have made a difference. I'm certain about it. ... It is in details, the bedroom scene, so they must have felt repelled by that. They didn't see the useful things lying ahead in the book," he said.

So far, Ratnu has received much the same treatment from the White House, where he estimates he has sent a dozen or so letters, and CNN and the BBC, where he says the Indian staff downed shutters when they saw his turban coming. But if by some quirk of fate he does secure a meeting with the president he believes he helped elect, Obama might do well to listen to his next prediction — which sees Obama stepping aside after a single term and helping to put Hillary in office unless he can follow Ratnu's unpublished prescriptions for stopping Osama bin Laden. And those aren't going to come to light anytime soon.

"That I will not tell to any reporter, ever," Ratnu said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "I will tell it only to one man, the president."

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Obama in India: What to look for

Analysis: Can Obama's "breadth and depth" jump-start stagnating US-India relations?

NEW DELHI, India — U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in India on Saturday with a difficult mission.

With no "big ticket" pact in the works, fading popularity at home and suspicions in India about American military aid to Pakistan, he needs to reassure New Delhi that the burgeoning alliance begun by his predecessor is truly becoming a bona fide strategic partnership.

The bottom line: There's very little chance Indians won't be disappointed with the outcome.

"If you look closely at what the background briefings are from the Indian side and what is being said not only in Washington but by the U.S. ambassador here, one gets the sense that nothing dramatic is likely to emerge from the visit," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.

Indeed, at a press briefing to outline the broad agenda for the visit, senior U.S. officials encouraged observers to focus on the big picture, rather than big agreements.

"The president's itinerary in India will highlight the growth, strength and breadth of the U.S.-India partnership and highlight the diversity and cultural vibrancy of India," a senior U.S. official said. "We believe the next big thing is taking this relationship from one focused on the civil nuke deal to one that's deeper and broader, and that rests on a full range of strategic areas of cooperation."

That means that the U.S. president will likely focus on India's potential to create U.S. jobs — simultaneously hitting the right notes at home and assuaging Indian fears about the protectionist tenor in recent U.S. statements and legislation regarding outsourcing. Obama will also emphasize that the U.S. recognizes India as a global power — reflected in more than 50 joint military exercises over the past eight years.

But the fact that the visit hinges on a combination of intangibles, closed-door discussions and a series of small steps forward ensures that the devil will be in the details.

"Mr. Obama and this administration are very good [people], full of nice sounding words, a lot of euphemisms," said Rajiv Sikri, a career Indian diplomat. "But I get the feeling that the Indian side is fairly hard-nosed, and will not be taken in. It's really action on the ground, and what the U.S. policies do to India's security and economic interests that will be the touchstone of how successful this visit is."

What India wants

In the wake of an announcement of more U.S. military aid for Pakistan and revelations that American intelligence may have withheld crucial information about the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai from their Indian counterparts, India wants assurance that the U.S. is coming closer to the Indian view that Pakistan is at the heart of the world's problems with terrorism.

While that won't be forthcoming, Obama's first address, at Mumbai's Taj Palace Hotel, will set the right tone, and the recent U.S. announcement of a director of national intelligence review of the Headley affair suggests that the U.S. intends to put more muscle behind cooperations on counterterrorism.

Perhaps more importantly, closed-door talks between Obama and Singh on Nov. 7 and 8 will likely flesh out the potential outcomes of the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan next year.

But symbolic gestures and closed-door assurances aside, India has concrete demands that Obama will be hard-pressed to satisfy. The two big items at the top of India's wish list are a clear statement backing India's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and some kind of official recognition of its territorial sovereignty — an oblique reference to its border disputes with China and Pakistan. Obama will probably steer clear of the border issues, experts say. And while the U.N. Security Council seat may find its way into one of Obama's speeches, the expectation is that the U.S. president's formulation will be too weak to fulfill India's hopes.

"If this was said after due deliberation, with full knowledge of the implications, a lot of discerning people would see that as a major change in how the U.S. is beginning to look at India after the nuclear deal," said Sibal.

The carefully worded statements of U.S. officials aren't promising. In a meeting with reporters to outline Obama's schedule, for instance, U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns would say only, "Given India’s rise and its significance, we believe that India will be a central part of any consideration of a reformed Security Council," continuing America's "natural candidate" line, which clearly stops short of pushing for immediate reform.

What the U.S. wants

America's ambitions for Obama's visit are smaller, perhaps, but would send clear signals that the economic and strategic relationship between the U.S. and India is growing closer. As a big win, the U.S. is still pushing for a revision of India's nuclear liability laws, which the U.S. nuclear lobby argues have robbed the 2008 Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement of its significance by creating a business advantage for the state-owned nuclear firms of Russia and France.

To provide a much-needed boost for the American economy, the U.S. would also like to see India further loosen restrictions on foreign investment in multi-brand retail for stores like Walmart and finalize billions of dollars in defense contracts that would reportedly create tens of thousands of U.S. jobs. But here, too, little progress is expected.

Though India signed the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC) in October, its own Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Act remains in force. Moreover, with its failure to win compensation for victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy from Union Carbide as the backdrop for the negotiations, India appears both unwilling and politically unable to water down the 2010 law. As minister of state for science and technology, Prithviraj Chavan, told a gathering of reporters at the Founder’s Day celebration of India's Bhabha Atomic Research Center, “We won’t accept any conditions and agreements will be on our terms."

For the other items on the U.S. wish list, there's optimism on the question of if, but doubts regarding the question of when. Recently, India's commerce minister said the 51 percent cap on foreign direct investment in single-brand retail (e.g. the Nike store) could soon be eliminated, but said that a "consultative process" would be required before the ban on investment in multi-brand stores could be raised to an investment limit of 51 percent.

And while Obama is expected to conclude a $3.5 billion deal to buy 10 C-17 transport aircraft from Boeing, no decision is expected on an $11 billion tender for multi-role fighter jets — for which America's Lockheed Martin and Boeing are competing with European, Russian and Israeli manufacturers.

Wiggle room

Nevertheless, with some $50 billion in bilateral trade — and a broad trade balance — both the U.S. and India have strong economic incentives to ensure that Obama's visit is a success. As a result, both governments have worked hard to develop a set of "deliverables" where they believe there's a good chance to demonstrate tangible progress. These items include relatively anodyne projects in the areas of alternative energy and agriculture. But there could also be some wiggle room on defense moves that would provide clearer signals of a developing strategic partnership.

India is pushing for the U.S. to remove its space agency and defense research organization from the Bureau of Industry and Security "Entity List" that restricts them from purchasing so-called "dual use" technologies with potential nuclear applications, while the U.S. is pushing for India to sign several agreements that it says would facilitate better military cooperation.

Progress on neither is guaranteed, but both moves would mark significant steps forward. The removal of export controls — which were put in place after India tested its nuclear bomb in 1998 — would bring India a step closer to the acknowledgement as a legitimate nuclear weapons state that was the implicit promise of the Indo-U.S. nuclear pact.

Meanwhile, India's signing of America's three arcane defense pacts — the communications interoperability and security memorandum of agreement (CISMOA), the basic exchange and cooperation agreement for geo-spatial cooperation (BECA) and the logistical support agreement (LSA) — would demonstrate that the political and defense establishments in New Delhi no longer fear sacrificing neutrality if it means gaining a broader role in geopolitical affairs.

So far, the U.S. appears closer to removing export controls than India is to signing the defense agreements.

This August, Obama announced a general easing of restrictions on exports of products with potential military applications. And in praising India for signing the CSC, U.S. Undersecretary Burns expressed guarded optimism about the Entity List, saying, "We’re also making progress on cooperation in space and updating export controls to reflect the reality of a 21st century partnership in which India is treated as a partner and not as a target."

In contrast, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony reportedly told U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates point blank at an October meeting in Washington that India would not sign the three "enabling" defense agreements during Obama's visit. Though the U.S. conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country, Indian defense officials maintain that the unsigned agreements do not pose a major impediment to the cooperation, and political concerns make signing the deals difficult.

"The implication of that [reluctance to sign the pacts] is that India should not be seen in too warm an embrace with the United States," said former Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, referring to the desire in some quarters to adhere to the Cold War policies written when India was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. "[But] if India wants to exercise greater responsibility and influence and larger strategic and security capacities in the broader neighborhood, then India will have to take specific stances in situations."

The trick for Obama will be to connect enough dots to create the big picture he needs to convince the remaining naysayers in India.

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