The hypocrisy of ‘cultural appropriateness’

Migrants need to be more inclusive than insular in their adopted countries – the case against a ‘culturally appropriate’ rest home

By Dev Nadkarni

About a month ago, someone called to ask whether I would like to express my opinion for a story in a mainstream newspaper on the idea of a ‘culturally appropriate’ rest home for elderly members of the South Asian community in New Zealand. Not only did the caller seem to be aware that my 90-year-old father is in a care facility, but also seemed convinced in their assumption that I was displeased with the facility.

I said I was perfectly happy with the care facility and its service and so was my father – who is physically severely disabled but mentally and psychologically fine – as well as my family. I also said I did not believe in the idea of a segregated rest home and care facility along ethnic lines. I do not believe that there is a need for a so-called ‘culturally appropriate’ rest home and care facility.

Here’s why:

People leave their countries of origin in search of a better life and make their homes in other countries of their own volition – well, in most cases anyway. Nobody denies them their need to stay in touch with their roots, religions and social mores in their new adopted homes. They build their own places of worship, their own shopping facilities, eating places and the like.

While some people would see this as migrants’ insular mindset, luckily most do not. These activities are rather seen as adding to the cultural diversity of their adopted countries – more and more people welcome it. But asking for a separate system along ethnic lines within the government’s long established system of services which is targeted at all New Zealanders equally is not only going too far but is downright insulting to the founding principles of an egalitarian society.

It’s akin to a group of guests telling their host that they don’t like the food they’re being served so they would like to cook their own food in the host’s kitchen while they are there and expect the host to pick up the expenses of their special menu. The host might oblige in the interests of politeness and civility but the relationship undoubtedly will be strained. So is there a way around it that would make both and guest happy? There is – and we’ll come to that in a moment.

Food is the biggest reason why the need for this ‘culturally appropriate’ facility is most felt. The other is cultural and religious needs and compulsions. The person who called me wanted to know if we were happy with the food that was served at my father’s facility. I said we had found a way around it.

For one, the number of ethnically diverse residents – particularly of South Asian cultural stock – has progressively increased. This has ended up in an increased frequency of food options catering to these tastes. Secondly, thanks to hordes of Kiwis leaving for jobs in Australia and elsewhere, there are vast numbers of caregivers who are from India, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the Philippines and several countries in Asia and even Africa.

In fact, if at all anyone must clamour for a ‘culturally appropriate’ caregiver, it is the falling number of white New Zealanders at my father’s facility: at the dusk of their lives they’re having to make adjustments with a diversity of tastes and accents. But I have never heard such a clamour – which, indeed, is a measure of their feeling of inclusiveness as against the demand for a ‘culturally appropriate’ facility for South Asians, which reinforces the impression of the insular mindset associated with migrants.

Ethnic organisations that are promoting a separate care facility along ethnic lines must first exhaust other options before embarking on this insular path.

Most of these organisations are well established and have a track record for working with elderly migrants. They also seem to be well funded by national and local government programmes. So rather than spend their energies trying to raise funds for a facility that will host 35, 45 or at the most 50 elders of South Asian origin while leaving hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others to their own devices in other care facilities, they should come up with a strategy to cater to bigger numbers of such residents across all care facilities regionally and nationally.

Unlike governments in their countries of origin, the government and the political class in New Zealand is alive and responsive to such finer human concerns. It would therefore not be inconceivable to come up with a programme that could help take South Asian food and cultural services across a great number of facilities rather than just one dedicated facility to the exclusion of others. Such a programme would help serve large numbers across geographical areas, irrespective of whether they were of South Asian origin.

Now, going back to our example of the guests wanting to cook their own meals in the host’s home at the host’s expense. They would be far better off suggesting to the hosts that they would love to cook meals in their style for the whole household, adding diversity to their collective mealtimes. This is inclusiveness winning over insularity.

So there is no need to reinvent the wheel. When the Muslim community found that there were increasing numbers of Muslim students studying at the University of Auckland and they needed onsite prayer facilities, they canvassed for it and got it – they did not ask for a whole new ‘culturally appropriate’ place for tertiary education.

All too often the idea of ‘cultural appropriateness’ in misplaced. For instance, it is quite amusing to see community leaders of South Asian ethnicities in New Zealand proudly display the Queen’s decorations that they have been awarded here on occasions like their home countries’ Republic Day. How culturally appropriate is that!

Bad acoustics mars Rahat concert

By Dev Nadkarni

Auckland audiences had been waiting long for Rahat’s first New Zealand performance. So it was pleasing to see last weekend’s sellout concert begin right on the dot – and the maestro launch into his performance without the sort of fanfare that celebrity performers have come to be associated with. Full marks on that score to Aariya Entertainment, for whom this was a first concert under its auspices.

Starting off with the contemplative Allah hu, the Sufi song that his uncle, the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan took to the corners of the world, Rahat alternated between traditional and contemporary fare from Hindi films throughout the first half.

Sufi singing reflects the abandon of its mystical philosophy and the singer often dwells in the uppermost octave – taar saptak in musical parlance – reaching several successive crescendos in the course of the song. While Rahat sang with the practiced ease he has come to be known for, the poor sound management did gross disservice to his virtuosity.

In the early stages of the concert the sound was tuned to such a deafening level that both his singing and the accompaniment, especially in the higher octaves, sounded shrill, even raucous, to the point that several listeners in the Telstraclear Events Centre audience were seen shielding their ears.

When will acoustics technicians realise that over-the-top decibel levels completely destroy Indian vocalists’ finer essays? Poor sound tuning has been the bane of Indian music concerts in Auckland for years and it is time event organisers step up to the plate and deal with the problem with some degree of finality. Sadly, the subtleties of the celebrated Ustad’s awesome vocal calisthenics were drowned out for a large part of the first half of the concert.

Aariya’s managers have said that the sound management was supervised by sound engineers who had travelled with Rahat and that Aariya had almost no control over it.

Fortunately, wiser counsels seem to have prevailed and the sound in the second half was decidedly better, though far from ideal. Post interval, the Ustad from Pakistan who has succeeded in straddling across the subcontinent with his soulful singing, pleased the audience with his more recent Hindi film favourites. He also sang a few traditional qawwalis and a Punjabi number to a surging re- sponse from the audience.

Rahat is clearly a shy and reticent artiste, who likes to get on with his business of regaling the audience with what he does best – singing soulfully, full throated. His boyish smiles and twinkling eyes undoubtedly endear him to his live audiences. But then there is little that he does by way of interacting with his listeners in a way most other celebrity stage performers do.

In that sense he is the quintessential stage artiste of traditional Indian baithak music: more artiste than entertainer. Which is rather rare in these times especially with shows that involve Bollywood music. And it was a refreshing change.

The audience lapped up his wildly successful recent Bollywood numbers, which he sang with great finesse, though the super hits whose originals had a feminine voice were sung solo – diminishing the experience somewhat. For instance “Teri Meri, Meri Teri” from the superhit flick Bodyguard sounded incomplete without a feminine voice, which is so important to the lyric.

Apparently Rahat’s troupe does not include women artistes, according to promo material that was distributed during the concert, supposedly because the traditional genre that he specialises in does not involve women artistes. But that is at variance with the depiction of both male and female qawwali singers in countless Hindi films released since the 1950s.

His 15-man ensemble is highly accomplished and comprises support vocalists (including Rahat’s younger brother), western and tradi- tional rhythmists and string, wind and electronic instrumentalists. Rahat himself wields the harmonium with great dexterity and finesse.

In no mehfil can an audience’s farmaaish be fully met and that was the case with Rahat’s as well. Many requests from the audience of his favourite numbers – both from Hindi films and his traditional collection – went unheeded and one wished some more of his more recent and not so recent Hindi film numbers were doled out towards the end.

All in all, it was a memorable concert because of both Rahat’s music and the terrible sound management. While Aariya Entertainment and promoters Dinesh and Rahul Raniga did a marvelous job of organising the concert, there was nothing they could have done about the sound.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, March 2012

Breathless Auckland left gasping for more

Auckland’s Hindi music fans will undoubtedly remember the country’s first SEL concert for a long time to come. What a night it was as Bollywood’s celebrated musical triumvirate belted out number after unforgettable number sending the sellout audience into a foot tapping frenzy late into the night.

The well organised concert began at 7-45pm at the choc-a-block Telstraclear Events Centre, just 15 minutes past the scheduled time – a refreshing departure from the delayed starts that is de riguer for celebrity concerts of this sort.

From the word go the trio fired on all cylinders with maestro Shankar connecting with the audience straight away. As the concert went into top gear with his repertoire of smash hit numbers, Shankar cajoled and coaxed the audience to sing, sway and dance with him – a thing which they did with great enthusiasm.

Fresh from a sellout performance in Sydney, the trio on more than one occasion said that the Auckland audience was the most amazing one they had ever faced. This was a statement as sincere as it can be because Shankar is a straight shooter – there are simply no airs about him. He speaks from the heart and there was no doubt that he meant it.

The trio and their talented ensemble performed every number that they had promised all along in their promos in the pages of Indian Weekender, including the title theme of the concert, the legendary “Breathless”, which catapulted Shankar into his permanent place in Bollywood’s stellar firmament.

The trio’s hit numbers are so many over the years since their big break in Dil Chahta Hai that it would have been impossible to sing all of them. But Shankar obliged by stringing along about a dozen of them of them sampler style in a panorama of their musical hits down the years.

Shankar’s training in both forms of Indian Classical music – Hindustani and Carnatic – shone through brilliantly in his incredible range of vocal inflections: alaps, taans, gamaks, taranas and superfast sargams besides rhythmic bols and boltaans, the latter which he dabbled in with the superbly talented drummers and percussionists.

His virtuosity in extempore improvisation even in his well known numbers to make them special for a live performance were pure genius, which would have elicited a hundred wah-wahs from connoisseurs.

But bad sound tuning, which had his microphone low on volume, subdued the finer points of his softer vocalisations, much to the chagrin of several listeners in the audience. Bad sound management is the bane of Auckland sound contractors when it comes to traditional Indian soirees. Many a great concert has been a victim of this unfortunate shortcoming.

A number of people complained during the interval and the versatile singer’s mic was set to a higher volume in the second half much to everybody’s relief. Shankar himself wasn’t happy with the settings in the first half, he told me backstage at the interval and acknowledged that many had echoed those sentiments.

The ever smiling and effable Ehsaan Noorani and the gentle and shy Loy Mendonca displayed their own virtuosity on the instruments of their mastery to rounds of unending applause. The trio’s coordination with one another and their extraordinarily talented ensemble including the singers in their troupe was superb and radiated an easygoing bonhomie that is characteristic of the trio’s persona even offstage.
Speaking to me on the evening before the concert, Shankar spoke of his early training, his favourite ragas, how the trio makes its legendary music and the non-Bollywood experimentation he has been involved in.

The middleclass lad growing up in suburban Mumbai in a family of music lovers showed early talent in singing. He was tutored in both Hindustani and Carnatic forms before breaking out into singing and composing popular music.

Though he is clearly the driving force, the SEL engine room is a finely coordinated, collaborative effort, insists Shankar: everyone plays a more or less equally significant role he says, pulling in their respective talents and creativity to produce their wholesome musical offerings that have proved to be such great hits time and time again.

Shankar has created and collaborated to create a significant body of music outside Bollywood. He has set to tune and sung soulful Ghazals and Urdu poetry written by the great Javed Akhtar and others and has been part of a fusion group headquartered in Sweden called Mynta, which has produced extremely interesting experimental sounds with international musicians.

When asked if he would sing some of the soulful Javed Akhtar-penned numbers in Auckland, he said he was sorry he couldn’t because of the set up of the concert. Indeed the absence of some of his more soulful songs did seem to disappoint a wee bit of the senior audience who have listened to his early music and remembered it over the years.

Auckland’s SEL Breathless concert will go down as one of the most memorable ones.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, March 2012

Sectarian politics affects Indians globally

By Dev Nadkarni

Religion is the currency of politics in India. Without religion and caste no political party can ever grab the attention of the voting public before an impending election. Creating or engineering religious issues out of thin air before an election is an old trick politicians have repeatedly used – but the sad fact is that even after six decades of independence, masses of people are still fall prey to such trickery.

Politicians, their lackeys and individuals who are after cheap publicity think nothing of wading into even a mere whiff of a controversy, making mountains out of molehills simply because of the publicity it generates and their grossly erroneous belief that it polarises people enough to strengthen their support base. Creating an ‘us versus them’ schism is their only stratagem to get the flock together – or so goes their belief.

In two instances last week the Indian government decided to wade into events it would probably not have bothered to even consider had it not been for state elections which are round the corner. Its hasty, poorly though out stands on the controversy generated at the literary festival at Jaipur – where British author of Indian origin Salman Rushdie was to have delivered an address – and TV host Jay Leno’s show in which he made a reference to the Golden Temple have proved once again that Indian politicians have a long way to go in separating real life issues confronting people as against peripheral but emotional ones that they believe deliver votes.

While there was no need whatsoever for the government to wade into these issues in the first place, it did so with gusto simply because there is an election at hand. In the process, it has not only tainted itself but Indians in every part of the globe as being hypersensitive, highly intolerant fundamentalists who have neither the intellectual capacity nor the broad outlook to take a different point of view in their stride.

Its stand on the Rushdie affair has been rightly compared to the authoritarian Chinese government’s style of clamping down on free thought and free speech in that country. Minister Vayalar Ravi’s ill-considered missive to the United States government on the Jay Leno affair got the curt response it so richly deserved. The Indian government has exposed itself as being a mercenary guardian of narrow minded, intolerant religious zealots, which receives its payments in votes. And India prides itself as being the world’s largest democracy.

The Indian ethos is one of the world’s most tolerant. India has been a melting pot of a range of religions, denominations, castes and creeds, which has not just survived but thrived over millennia. It has been the cradle of the eastern world’s four great religions, all of which have always lived in harmony, adopting one another’s practices and mores seamlessly.

But every society has its fringe groups who are big on bluster but essentially small in numbers. But it is common for the typical Indian politician to fall for the bluster, ignoring the silent but eminently sensible majority and jockey themselves to don the mantle of the great saviour of these intolerant, extreme, fringe groups and individuals who thrive on the pyrotechnics that controversies invariably generate.

The vast majority of people are only interested in getting on with their lives. A controversial author speaking at a literary festival or a highly popular television satirist making a passing comment can hardly affect their every day lives. But politicians taking up cudgels on behalf of the intolerant, publicity hungry lunatic fringe is what can severely affect their daily lives in many ways – something that the Indian political class fails to grasp.

By wading into such non-issues and needlessly glorifying them with their involvement merely for achieving their narrow political ends, Indian politicians are doing a disservice to Indians not only in India but all over the world in an increasingly globalised society.
The past week’s events have shown that the Indian politician and the government actually sponsors a narrow, sectarian mindset that is hardly representative of most Indians around the world.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, January 2012

What’s the deeper meaning behind Namaste and Charansparsh?

By Dev Nadkarni

Namaste or Namaskara

The act of joining the palms of the hands in front of oneself is known as Namaskara or Namaste. It is with the Namaskara that people offer prayers to deities and also greet each other throughout India. It conveys reverence, respect, welcome, friendship and hospitality.

The Namaskara is perhaps the most ancient form of formal personal greeting, much older than the handshake. Its antiquity is not easy to gauge, but the Namaskara has been represented even in the earliest of sculptures. The etymology of the words Namaskara and Namaste are relatively easier to deduce. “Namaha” in Sanskrit is “obeisance” and “Te” is “You”. Therefore Namaste is “obeisance to you”.

The palms are among the most expressive parts of the body. They are used to great effect in conveying moods and emotions in Indian classical dance. The various positions of the palms and fingers as they convey emotions and moods are called Hastamudras. Namaskara is among the most commonly used Hastamudras.

The manner of holding the joined palms conveys much. The head bent forward with the tips of the fingers touching the forehead and the eyes shut conveys deep reverence. The palms held slightly lower with the base of the thumbs in line with the solar plexus and the head bent forward ever so slightly conveys both greeting and welcome. Here, the intensity of the accompanying smile adds to the degree of the warmth conveyed.

The joined palms raised way above the head could convey farewell and palms similarly held high with the forearms sticking to each other till the elbows could convey a sigh of relief at the end of an ordeal or a departure of a particularly troublesome guest. The last one, of course, is not performed in front of the other person –it is always behind his or her back! The Uddanda Namaskara is holding the palms farthest from the top of the head while lying flat on the floor face down in front of a deity or god.

In addition to all these variations, each individual adds his or own little personal characteristic to the Namaskara. It may be a wave of the palms, a shake of the head, or a distinct manner of smiling while doing the Namaste.

The most-accepted socio-anthropological explanation for the genesis of the handshake may hold good in the case of the Namaskara too. Baring one’s hands and putting them in front of another individual conveys the fact that the person is unarmed and therefore is a friend and comes in peace.

Charanasparsha

Wisdom, unlike knowledge, comes only with age. This has been recognised since ancient times in Indian culture. It is for this reason that older persons are revered. A younger individual must respect the older one. It does not matter that the older person is poorer in knowledge, economic or social status. The sheer fact that the older person has “seen many more rainy seasons” is enough for a younger person to pay respect to him or her. This is the central sentiment behind the act of Charanasparsha, or touching an elder’s feet.

Those feet have traversed more places, trod through the many landscapes of life. There is no doubt that travel is one of the greatest educators. It takes one through so many environments, situations, and exposes one to so many ideas that it can only add greatly to one’s wisdom. Feet being the basic mode of locomotion, it is rather apt that one pays respects to one’s elders with Charanasparsha.

An elder may touch the feet of a younger person in the event that the younger individual is a spiritually advanced, holy personage. Long after a holy personage has passed away, his or her Paduka or footwear is often worshipped for generations. Almost no other possession is revered as much as the Paduka, which indeed, is the extension of the Charana or feet.

There is a school of thought that sees Charanasparsha as going against the belief that all individuals are equal. The act, therefore, is seen as self-demeaning. But apart from the beautiful spirit behind Charanasparsha and ethics, the very act may be hardwired into our behavioural pattern.

Bending before a higher ranked member of a group is a common mode of paying respect or acknowledging authority in several species of animals, particularly the primates. It is common practice for primates in the lower social order to bend before the acknowledged leader of the group and many times fall on the floor with the haunches raised. The pecking order among hens is a variation on this theme. Going down on one’s knees was also a manner of acknowledging authority for several centuries in the western world. And it is common practice to bend completely before god almighty in the practices of several religions.

Charanasparsha continues to be a practice much in use and is one of the common factors that run through all the religions of India.

 

First appeared in Indian Weekender, November 2011

The great Fijian Paradox

By Dev Nadkarni

Ever since Commodore Frank Bainimarama’s December 2006 action in which he toppled the Laisenia Qarase government and established his military backed administration, Fiji has been turned into a pariah – at least in the western world.

Next week, heads of government of all the Commonwealth nations will gather in Perth, Western Australia, for their periodic jamboree. Fiji will miss the event because it remains suspended from the Commonwealth. Just as it was absent from last month’s fortieth Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland – because it stands suspended from there as well.

Interestingly, the headquarters of the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum is in the Fijian capital of Suva. The country’s suspension from the Forum, therefore, is quite like what it would be if the United Nations (which is headquartered in New York) were to suspend the United States from its membership.

The Forum and the Commonwealth are but two of the world’s international and regional clubs that Fiji has been suspended from. But despite being thus ostracised and in spite of the negative publicity perpetuated by governments and media in the western world – not to mention the continually ranting activists demanding its isolation – business is putting more and more faith into Fiji.

It’s quite counterintuitive, really. Consider this: first, we have had a relentless campaign in the western media about things progressively going pear shaped in the tropical island nation. There have been warnings against doing business in Fiji, investing there or even travelling there for holidays. There has even been an incredibly pigheaded campaign to shun Fiji Water, which has little to do with the government.

Then, the world has been in a recession. Real estate prices the world over have tumbled and are still scraping rock bottom. Credit is hard to come by and most economies seem to be in a tailspin.

Despite so much going against it, things are looking up in Fiji. Or so indicate news reports from Australia and New Zealand, where criticism about Fiji in official and government circles has been the most stringent.

According to a report about property investment in New Zealand’s leading business publication the National Business Review, successful real estate professionals are reporting increased sales in properties around Fiji.

Australian-born Fiji-resident Bob Lowres is quoted saying, “There are definite signs of improvement, with new buyers coming into the market from other countries.” He is advertising the latest stage of his Naisoso Island development – a NZ$500 million gated community off the coast of Fiji in Nadi Bay, scheduled for completion in 2014. He has already sold 73 of the 112 residential lots, of which five were sold in just the past month for NZ$3.9 million.

A whopping 85% of the land and house packages that start at half a million dollars has been sold to Australians and New Zealanders and the balance to North Americans. Which indeed goes to show that investors don’t quite buy into their governments’ stubbornly rigid stand on Fiji. Lores dismisses the scaremongering about investing in Fiji’s free hold real estate – and he is being proven right by the increasing sales.

And Naisoso is not an isolated case. The magazine says Fiji-born Auckland-based real estate agent Rick Kermode “is targeting the world’s wealthiest people for his listings. Mr Kermode’s listings include a $US6.95 million house on Wakaya Island … not too far from Mago Island where he sold a large area to actor Mel Gibson.”

A couple of years ago, media in New Zealand including the National Business Review raised concerns about repatriating funds from Fiji – particularly proceeds from time share revenues and the sale of property. But rules and procedures are far clearer now, say marketers. For instance, a new 10% capital gains tax has clarified obligations of investors.

Also, Suva based lawyer Satish Parshotam told the magazine, “There’s no written policy [about length of time in repatriation of property sale proceeds]. Inland revenue authorities are pretty ruthless anywhere. But if you have your records in order and you’ve completed the necessary forms there isn’t a problem I’m aware of. Time share income is only taxed once.” According to Mr Parshotam, tightening tax rules have resulted in the growth of government reserves – now higher than they have been for years.

The Anzac nations’ isolationist policy has compelled Fiji to increasingly look north and several resource hungry nations in the Pacific rim and beyond have been only to happy to oblige. Chinese investment in Fiji has been growing by leaps and bounds and Fiji had more Chinese tourists this year than ever before, boosting overall tourist numbers to record highs.

It’s not just China that is investing. Malaysia, Indonesia and even Russia and the Baltic states are showing interest. Russia’s Rusal, the world’s biggest aluminium company, is investing big into Fiji’s natural resources sector.

But that’s not to say tourist numbers from its traditional markets – Australia and New Zealand – have declined. In fact quite the opposite has happened. Fiji’s flag carrier Air Pacific is looking at nearly doubling its services between Sydney and Nadi. The airline plans to operate 13 flights a week to Nadi from next year. This will give visitors a choice of morning and afternoon departures as well as same-day connections to Fiji’s outer-island resorts.

A representative of Australian online travel company travel.com.au has been quoted in the media saying, “[Fiji is] trying to demonstrate that they are a destination for all travellers, rather than trying to pin themselves to one market.” Which is extending its appeal from a traditional family holiday market to the highly lucrative weddings and honeymoons market as well as the whole gamut from adventure tourism to backpackers.

It’s completely counterintuitive.

Families on holidays, brides and grooms, industries, real estate investors and speculators all seem to be flocking to a nation where a coup is supposed to be in place; where for five years an unelected government has been presiding over a nation suspended from virtually every international and regional grouping worth the name; a country that a slew of aid agencies have summarily blacklisted.

As the world waits to see if the Fijian administration will ultimately carry out its promise of holding elections in 2014, the big question is who has got it wrong: the western governments who have painted the country and its people into a corner – or the growing hordes of common people who continue to flock to Fiji in ever bigger numbers despite all sorts of warnings from their own governments.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, October 21, 2011

Time to outgrow frog-in-the-well Kiwi mindset

By Dev Nadkarni

It was refreshing to see Prime Minister John Key determined not to let ideology get in the way of pragmatism in the best interests of New Zealand during his state visit to India last week.

It is easy to miss the wood for the trees when one looks at the fast changing world through the rose tinted glasses of twentieth century ideology, like some Kiwis – including those in the media – do.

While no one discounts the importance of standing one’s ground as regards one’s beliefs and values, it is rather naïve to jeopardise hard to come by economic opportunities under the false notion that doing business with nations that xo not share our world view compromises our values.

Mr Key regularly fielded questions from New Zealand media about doing business with India while it continued to refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

New Zealand’s stand on matters nuclear is well known in the world and has won it some respect, while also icing its relationship with countries like the United States over the years, which is only now beginning to thaw. This change of heart is happening purely in the interest of geopolitical strategy – again, an instance of pragmatism taking precedence over ideology.

In daily media briefings during the India visit, the Prime Minister explained that New Zealand would continue to reiterate its anti-nuclear stance at all international platforms including his diplomatic meetings in India and during bilaterals but added that it was important not to let that get in the way of doing business with the second fastest growing economy in the world.

The stand that some in the New Zealand media took during a visit to India with former Prime Minister Helen Clark is a classic case of missing the wood for the trees. Rather than focus on the opportunities available to New Zealand technology companies to team up with Indian engineering talent, they chose to criticise Ms Clark for visiting a company that was involved in designing some components for India’s nuclear power set up as a peripheral ancillary supplier. So very 1970s.

We can see where Mr Key is coming from when he says a “twenty first century perspective” is needed to deal with these issues. Just as in human relationships, there has to be a sense of give and take in relationships between nations, if they are to work together for mutual benefit. Even the best of friends differ in their points of view and beliefs but they rarely let those differences come in the way of the relationship they share.

The Prime Minister was also disappointed at criticism in the New Zealand media for having travelled with his entourage and delegation of 28 businesspeople from New Zealand in a Royal New Zealand Air Force jet. The Prime Ministerial entourage was travelling at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Indian government also accorded the trip the status of a state visit, signaling the importance it places on its developing a closer relationship with New Zealand.

It was only in the fitness of things that the entourage flew in a state plane rather than a commercial service. If costs were an issue, it must be mentioned that the visit was by no means a freebie to accompanying New Zealand media and the business delegation. Though the flights were discounted considerably, the media and business paid for their stay and local transport in India.

On the other hand, the Indian government spent far more in terms of money and resources on this state visit than New Zealand did. It assigned an Air India Airbus 320 to ferry a part of the entourage to Agra and Mumbai from New Delhi. It closed down roads in both cities to ensure smooth and safe passage to the prime ministerial motorcade. Mind you, the loss in productivity because of stalled traffic in a fast growing economic environment like India is by no means small.

In Agra, the Indian government closed the Taj Mahal to visitors to accommodate the New Zealand state visit at considerable inconvenience not just to locals but also international tourists who would have to wait several hours, undoubtedly earning opprobrium for the local tourism authorities.

Why did India have to do it for a small country like New Zealand, with which, even when it signs an FTA, the gains can’t be a patch on what it stands to gain from similar deals with resource rich, fast emerging economies in Eastern Europe and South America? None in India’s vibrant and live wire media asked this question of the Indian authorities.

The reason is partly cultural as well. “Treat a guest like God,” goes an ancient Sanskrit saying, which has found its way into almost all Indian languages. But more than that, India understands the imperatives of doing business internationally and increasingly engaging with the world’s countries – no matter how big or small – better than to let ideology and petty mindedness to get in the way.

The key to doing business with India successfully and hitching the New Zealand economy to the Indian juggernaut is to accept that India is different, it has a range of problems – many of them unpalatable, even abhorrent – and you simply can’t wish them away. But if you learn to accept them and work around them, there are overwhelming positives about this extraordinary subcontinent that can bring the most handsome of rewards.

Sir Ken Stevens of one of New Zealand’s most successful global companies, Glidepath, admits that he at first believed he could never do business in India. Today, it is one of his biggest markets for airport baggage handling systems as India emerges as the world’s largest aviation market.

We need to look outside our cosy little well at the bottom of the world. The fast growing Indian economy may well be the apocryphal princess waiting with pursed lips poised for the kiss that’ll leapfrog us into princes of wealth.

With last week’s state visit, I suspect we’ve caught the princess’ eye.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, July 2011

It was refreshing to see Prime Minister John Key determined not to let ideology get in the way of pragmatism in the best interests of New Zealand during his state visit to India last week.

It is easy to miss the wood for the trees when one looks at the fast changing world through the rose tinted glasses of twentieth century ideology, like some Kiwis – including those in the media – do.

While no one discounts the importance of standing one’s ground as regards one’s beliefs and values, it is rather naïve to jeopardise hard to come by economic opportunities under the false notion that doing business with nations that xo not share our world view compromises our values.

Mr Key regularly fielded questions from New Zealand media about doing business with India while it continued to refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

New Zealand’s stand on matters nuclear is well known in the world and has won it some respect, while also icing its relationship with countries like the United States over the years, which is only now beginning to thaw. This change of heart is happening purely in the interest of geopolitical strategy – again, an instance of pragmatism taking precedence over ideology.

In daily media briefings during the India visit, the Prime Minister explained that New Zealand would continue to reiterate its anti-nuclear stance at all international platforms including his diplomatic meetings in India and during bilaterals but added that it was important not to let that get in the way of doing business with the second fastest growing economy in the world.

The stand that some in the New Zealand media took during a visit to India with former Prime Minister Helen Clark is a classic case of missing the wood for the trees. Rather than focus on the opportunities available to New Zealand technology companies to team up with Indian engineering talent, they chose to criticise Ms Clark for visiting a company that was involved in designing some components for India’s nuclear power set up as a peripheral ancillary supplier. So very 1970s.

We can see where Mr Key is coming from when he says a “twenty first century perspective” is needed to deal with these issues. Just as in human relationships, there has to be a sense of give and take in relationships between nations, if they are to work together for mutual benefit. Even the best of friends differ in their points of view and beliefs but they rarely let those differences come in the way of the relationship they share.

The Prime Minister was also disappointed at criticism in the New Zealand media for having travelled with his entourage and delegation of 28 businesspeople from New Zealand in a Royal New Zealand Air Force jet. The Prime Ministerial entourage was travelling at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Indian government also accorded the trip the status of a state visit, signaling the importance it places on its developing a closer relationship with New Zealand.

It was only in the fitness of things that the entourage flew in a state plane rather than a commercial service. If costs were an issue, it must be mentioned that the visit was by no means a freebie to accompanying New Zealand media and the business delegation. Though the flights were discounted considerably, the media and business paid for their stay and local transport in India.

On the other hand, the Indian government spent far more in terms of money and resources on this state visit than New Zealand did. It assigned an Air India Airbus 320 to ferry a part of the entourage to Agra and Mumbai from New Delhi. It closed down roads in both cities to ensure smooth and safe passage to the prime ministerial motorcade. Mind you, the loss in productivity because of stalled traffic in a fast growing economic environment like India is by no means small.

In Agra, the Indian government closed the Taj Mahal to visitors to accommodate the New Zealand state visit at considerable inconvenience not just to locals but also international tourists who would have to wait several hours, undoubtedly earning opprobrium for the local tourism authorities.

Why did India have to do it for a small country like New Zealand, with which, even when it signs an FTA, the gains can’t be a patch on what it stands to gain from similar deals with resource rich, fast emerging economies in Eastern Europe and South America? None in India’s vibrant and live wire media asked this question of the Indian authorities.

The reason is partly cultural as well. “Treat a guest like God,” goes an ancient Sanskrit saying, which has found its way into almost all Indian languages. But more than that, India understands the imperatives of doing business internationally and increasingly engaging with the world’s countries – no matter how big or small – better than to let ideology and petty mindedness to get in the way.

The key to doing business with India successfully and hitching the New Zealand economy to the Indian juggernaut is to accept that India is different, it has a range of problems – many of them unpalatable, even abhorrent – and you simply can’t wish them away. But if you learn to accept them and work around them, there are overwhelming positives about this extraordinary subcontinent that can bring the most handsome of rewards.

Sir Ken Stevens of one of New Zealand’s most successful global companies, Glidepath, admits that he at first believed he could never do business in India. Today, it is one of his biggest markets for airport baggage handling systems as India emerges as the world’s largest aviation market.

We need to look outside our cosy little well at the bottom of the world. The fast growing Indian economy may well be the apocryphal princess waiting with pursed lips poised for the kiss that’ll leapfrog us into princes of wealth.

With last week’s state visit, I suspect we’ve caught the princess’ eye.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, July 2011

Pepper negotiations with soft power

By Dev Nadkarni

To western eyes since times immemorial, India is nothing if it is not a surfeit of emotions, a bundle of contradictions, a sensory overload, a functioning anarchy as someone rather pithily put it. Some are turned off by it at the very outset, others are curious enough to return and give it another go, while still others attain nirvana – both of the spiritual kind and more lately the delightfully delicious commercial kind.

Making sense of India can be a lifelong pursuit. Winning Indian hearts is comparatively easier. As Prime Minister John Key found out last week during his state visit. Throwing in Bollywood and cricket – India’s two greatest obsessions that have both turned out to be billion dollar money spinners for thousands of people – Mr Key and New Zealand were instant news in the country.

This was a great demonstration of leveraging New Zealand’s soft power. The concept of soft power is somewhat fuzzy and trying to put one’s finger on what exactly is New Zealand’s soft power would doubtless elicit a range of possibilities. But everyone agrees that New Zealand has a great positive brand that is instantly recognized anywhere in the world.

Friendly, clean and green, nice guys to have around, innovative, inventive, a nation that punches far above its weight in many areas of human endeavour – all hugely positive attributes. The Prime Minister reinforced that long held image of the average New Zealander during his engagements with a wide section of people in New Delhi and Mumbai.

It is now a question of blending that niceness with the harder realities of negotiating the remaining rounds of the proposed Free Trade Agreement. Having gained experience of going through all the hoops of the FTA with China, New Zealand is better positioned to negotiate such deals.

But dealing with India will undoubtedly be easier because of a number of reasons at least procedurally – we speak the same language, have the same legal systems born out of the British system, share a common colonial legacy and have a wider range of common business interests.

None of that, however, guarantees a smooth run up to the FTA, which everyone likes to believe will be done, dusted and signed by the end of the first quarter of next year. Though the Prime Minister’s cricket and Bollywood diplomacy would help oil the wheels of the deal to an extent and help put smiles around the negotiating tables, it will need hard nosed pragmatism on the part of both parties to yield to the other as much as practicable without compromising core interests before the deal is a goer.

There will be sensitive issues to be skirted or ironed out – some of these will be perceptional, as in the case of agriculture and dairy. It will be important for New Zealand to emphasise that these will ultimately work to the benefit of Indian farmers and dairymen, since what is being proposed is largely of a non-competing nature.

Logic almost always goes for a toss when politics enters. This is where emotions kick in and that’s when it all gets irrational. Agriculture and dairy are highly emotional issues in India and must be handled carefully. That’s where perhaps New Zealand can bring its soft power into play and demonstrate how its innovativeness and productivity expertise can help Indian dairy farmers and agriculturists.

That would be a good way for New Zealand to worm its way into the agricultural sector rather than stick to more conventional approaches centred on tariff negotiations.

Going by last week’s visit, there is little doubt that New Zealand has changed its approach toward India and has learned the art of mixing a bit of soft power with emotion and passion while keeping a firm hold on hard nosed business imperatives. It is a strategy that is all to the good.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, July 2011

Place of Osama bin Laden killing vindicates India

By Dev Nadkarni

The West’s relief at the one news headline that eluded the world for more than a decade after 9/11 was palpable: as leaders expressed jubilation at President Barack Obama’s successful Operation Geronimo, people spontaneously broke into late night celebrations at Ground Zero in New York and outside the White House in Washington DC. The one, single news headline that had eluded the world for more than a decade after 9/11 was finally flashing across the globe.

Indian leaders, however, were less celebratory in their tone about the elimination of bin Laden per se. For them for them it was all about location, location, location – they were more concerned with making the point about where the action had taken place.

Ever since the West’s so called war against terror began in the months after 9/11, India has been at pains to impress upon the United States and the coalition that it has been continually barking up the wrong tree, for nearly a decade, in its efforts to flush out bin Laden and his command centre in Afghanistan.

The crucible and epicenter of terrorism has all along been in Pakistan, it contended, in report after report to US intelligence all along these years – now borne out by Wikileaks revelations. As recently as 2007, Indian intelligence agencies had twice alerted their US counterparts that bin Laden was in the vicinity of Islamabad. Whether that advice went unheeded for tactical reasons or was simply ignored will become clearer in the coming weeks and months, but the fact remains that India knew.

The US instead, for its own perceived strategic reasons named Pakistan a key ally in its war, showered it with billions of dollars of funds and military infrastructure and continued to rely on it for bases to raid supposed hideouts in Afghanistan, while – as it turns out now – the prized quarry was very much in Pakistan and in all probability under the protection of a section of its own intelligence agency.

Indian Minister of Finance Palaniappan Chidambaram said that the fact that the killing took place in Pakistan proved once again that terror networks continue to find sanctuary in Pakistan. Like India, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, during his press conference in Kabul, said he felt vindicated that the scene of the killing – at bin Laden’s base – was in Pakistan and not Afghanistan, a fact that he has been crying hoarse for some time.

It is inconceivable that nobody in Pakistan knew about bin Laden’s base in Abbotabad, not too far from the national capital of Islamabad. The compound in which the villa was situated was just a kilometre away from the country’s top military academy in what is recognized as a garrison town swarming with armed forces personnel.

The US authorities have said they knew about the compound since August last year and they surmised that bin Laden had lived at the address for as long as six or seven years. Yet, the Pakistanis would have the world believe that they knew nothing of the occupants of the villa, even though an important al Qaeda operative was apprehended there shortly after the villa was built about eight years ago.

It is impossible to believe that an intelligence set up that masterminded and remotely directed a sophisticated attack like the simultaneous multi-locational Mumbai shoot outs that killed more than 170 people did not know about the world’s most wanted man living under their very nose.

That US intelligence has lost its trust in Pakistani intelligence as an ally is obvious from the fact that Pakistan seems to have known nothing of the top-secret operation and that the main base for the operation itself was across the border in Afghanistan – not in Pakistan.

US leaders have already begun to question the “value” the country and the war against terror are getting out of its annual US$1.5 billion aid to Pakistan and continuing to count it as a “key” ally in the war. The continuation of funding will undoubtedly be questioned in the wake of revelations that have shocked Americans but have not even surprised most Indians.

Even though the toothless Pakistani administration and its law-unto-itself intelligence service has been caught with its pants down and doesn’t know where to look, the US needs to exercise great caution in making course corrections in its Pakistan policy.

The weak Pakistan government continues to exist only because it is propped up by various vested interests, not least of them the US itself, which has seen stability in Pakistan as key to its continuing fight against terrorism in the region. The semblance of political stability in Pakistan is still important – in fact even more than before.

Bin Laden’s six or seven year sanctuary and ultimately his end on Pakistani soil is symbolic of how his ideology and infrastructure has sympathisers in that country. It also confirms long held suspicions that powerful quarters within Pakistan – not least its highly secretive intelligence service – have shielded bin Laden and helped perpetuate the inspiration his ideology provides to the ever growing hordes of young adherents around the region and beyond.

There will be much finger pointing toward Pakistan, which, despite al Qaeda’s highly dispersed and decentralized leadership pattern will continue to remain an inspirational focal point for organisations that draw strength from his ideology – a sort of a spiritual centre because that’s where he lived and breathed his last.

The US has acted decisively to counter that at the very outset by removing his dead body from the site and claiming to bury it at sea before there could be any questions raised or opinions expressed from any quarters of what was to be done with his remains. To bury the body at sea was indeed an astute political decision.

But in the aftermath of the killing, the US will have to be careful with what it does in Pakistan. Any aggressive action to bring bin Laden’s Pakistani protectors and benefactors to book runs the risk of destabilising the present Pakistani government and bringing militant groups closer to the levers of power.

Such an eventuality will undoubtedly take the war on terror to its eastern most and riskiest front: nuclear armed South Asia. According to media reports fears have already begun to be expressed in Pakistani intelligence circles that the US will now step up its vigilance on Pakistan’s nuclear command centres, now that its faith in Pakistan’s intelligence partnership has been breached.

The US’s worst fear, as is India’s, is Pakistan’s nuclear apparatus falling into militant hands with the complicity of a section of sympathisers among the authorities – not at all an impossibility, going by what was revealed by Operation Geronimo.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, May 2011