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

Big brother making a case to control the internet?

By Dev Nadkarni

Nearly every major historical event has at least one popular conspiracy theory that fires the public imagination and lingers long enough to form the leitmotif of alternative lore, which manages to cast its telling shadow on some aspects of the generally accepted “official” record.

The assassinations of US presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, the “real” reasons for the sinking of the Titanic, the raft of UFO (unidentified flying object) sightings in the 1950s and 1960s, the moon walk of 1969, and nearer our times, the September 11, 2001 incident – all have the choicest conspiracy theories woven around them.

These theories have been preserved in hundreds of books and magazines – many of them bestsellers no matter how crackpot they may sound – dozens of films and television shows and of course countless YouTube videos and digital files on the internet.

The latest major event to spawn a juicy conspiracy theory is the WikiLeaks saga. Amid reports that catalogued the unfolding of the 250,000-document leak – more a torrent than a leak, really – and their publication by the media across the world, a convincing theory, as in the manner of almost all conspiracy theories, has surfaced.

There is a school of thought that believes that the whole WikiLeaks saga was a planned operation of a consortium of the big, bad, super secretive, completely opaque and ruthless, faceless intelligence organisations of the Western world.

A ploy to find the strongest possible justification to control the free flow of information in the world via the bugbear of all manner of secrets – the internet.

The argument here is that it would not have been possible for a disgruntled, lowly-paid soldier, now held in solitary confinement in a prison in Virginia, USA, to have had access to such a cornucopia of classified documents on such diverse matters at his station in the Middle East without help from higher officials who were responsible for the secrecy of the documents.

Like the 9/11 conspiracy theories or for that matter even those about the lunar landing and others, this theory too is sure to have its diehard believers and defenders.

The ingredients for a choice, spicily juicy recipe are all there: The internet has grown at the speed of light into an unbelievably big, amorphous beast.

In its wake it has dissolved political and geographical boundaries and is all but out of reach of brick and mortar jurisdictional authority, challenging every statute in every country’s ‘book of authority’ as it were.

Like nothing else in history, the internet has enabled the convergence of the flow of ideas, two-way communication, mass communication as in publishing, sound and visual broadcasting as well as commerce, besides much else in one single hand-held device, often independent of location.

The high barriers to the power afforded by the ownership and control over traditional media have not only been lowered but have been destroyed.

One does not need to have millions of dollars to become a broadcaster – any blogger will vouch for that.

Why, the man at the centre of the WikiLeaks saga, Julian Assange, is an acclaimed homeless individual with none of the trappings of a traditional media magnate or the halo of a celebrity editor.

Suddenly, the individual has been placed on an even keel with traditional big money, big power, big muscle authority.

Doublespeak

It is undoubtedly a nightmare for everyone that has something to hide. And governments and politicians everywhere have the most to hide, no matter how much democracy, fair play and transparency they may profess.

Doublespeak is the stuff of politics and it is abundantly evident in the leaked documents.
In fact, few of the documents would take the informed citizen by surprise.

But journalists, commentators and citizens who follow events closely, all along suspected what has been released. For instance, Fiji had been saying all along that New Zealand and Australia were spying on it. That has now been confirmed.

Last year, I wrote a piece in a New Zealand newspaper that the US was worried that Pakistan’s nuclear devices could easily fall into the hands of Taliban terrorists who were lurking ever closer to the country’s nuclear installations.

The US officially denied this saying the Pentagon was in close touch with Pakistan’s chain of command and there was no question of a worry.

The leaks though tell the real story. The US was worried as hell. And still is – as it should be.

So there is every reason for the authority to worry about the burgeoning, completely individualised, hard-to-pin-down, on-the-fly power of the internet.

It has the potential to leave governments bereft of the clothes they wear, exposing them for all to see.

There is a very good case, indeed, to clamp down on it in the name of national interest, sovereignty, security and peace.

Regulating the internet

Whether the conspiracy theorists are right or wrong in their contention that governments initiated the leaks to gain control of the internet does not really matter.

But their belief has a grain of truth and that is what matters – rather disturbingly: we are beginning to see early moves in the world’s governments towards toying with ideas about, yes, you guessed right, regulating the internet.

There have been media reports that the United Nations is actually considering a consortium of an inter-governmental working group “to harmonise global efforts by policymakers to regulate the internet”.

The meeting, which took place in New York days before Christmas, discussed the possibility of forming a global body consisting of government representatives to create standards for policing the internet.

And it clearly states that this is specifically in response to the WikiLeaks phenomenon. At first instance, the world appears divided on this. There is one group of countries that is openly eager and another appears to be more cautious.

No prizes for matching the countries to their respective groups. Their reputation or the lack of it – for upholding liberty, equality and egalitarianism in both letter and spirit is a dead giveaway.

India, South Africa, China and Saudi Arabia seemed to support the idea of a new inter-governmental regulatory body to police the internet.

The US, Canada, the UK, Belgium and Australia, as also community and business representatives, have raised the cautionary flag.

So, conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Big Brother does want to control at least some of the gates to the internet – the simplest, biggest and most potent purveyor of freedom ever known to mankind.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, January 2011

Look at India Inc, not India ink

By Dev Nadkarni

As Prime Minister John Key prepared to leave for the ASEAN summit in Hanoi last week, the media here speculated on the possibility of the Paul Henry episode casting a shadow over his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

It would come as no surprise to most Indians and keen India watchers anywhere that the Henry incident did not even get a mention during the brief meeting that the two leaders had on the margins of the summit.

It was hardly the kind of incident that would deserve to be dignified with a discussion between the leaders at such a high profile event as this. But the media thought there was a real possibility that this would happen.

Focusing on the trivial instead of looking at the big picture is nothing new. During former Prime Minister Helen Clark’s official visit to India some years ago, the accompanying New Zealand news media was far too focused on embarrassing her and the Labour Party rather than picking up opportunities for New Zealand business.

Ms Clark visited Larsen and Toubro and Reliance Industries with the Kiwi business delegation when the media gathered that the two companies were involved in India’s nuclear programme and criticised her for visiting the factories because it gave a bad look to New Zealand’s avowed anti nuclear stance.

Business delegates later admitted that they were amazed at the sophistication and professionalism with which Indian industry worked – especially in the technology and creative industries sectors like animation – saying the visit was an eye-opener. Little of those views were ever inked out by the presses here. What a missed opportunity.

In recent weeks though, the Ambanis’ excessively opulent residential tower in Mumbai got some press here. Undoubtedly, it was a great human interest story. And it came with the inevitable observation that as well as sweeping views of the shimmering Arabian Sea, the tower also came with views of a large number of the 25 per cent of India’s poor who live on less than a US dollar a day and who eat, drink, sleep – and defecate – on the commercial capital’s streets. A fair observation of course, even if hardly surprising, given the mind-boggling contrasts in everything Indian.

What didn’t get a mention was that at a least a couple of million of these people are being lifted out of poverty by the sheer power of the country’s economic juggernaut every single year.

What also didn’t make it to the headlines here is that Aurangabad, a provincial town in western India not far from Mumbai, helped lift the gloom in distant Stuttgart winning a sales contest run by Mercedes Benz’s Indian operations for dealers in smaller Indian towns. Some 150 people in the town – famous for its proximity to the world renowned ancient Buddhist caves of Ajanta and Ellora – bought high-end Mercedes cars in less than a month.

This is but one instance of wealth beginning to percolate down India’s complex social layers – slowly, haphazardly, unevenly, but surely. And propelling that is India Inc – a late entrant in the race because of decades of stifling socialist-style overregulation, but one that is powering its way into uncharted territories and striking it rich all over the globe.

And what hasn’t been reported, at least as yet, is that US President Barack Obama will spend Diwali with Mumbai kids this weekend. He will stay at the recently refurbished Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the finest and most expensive in the world – even before it was brutally mauled by Pakistani terrorists killing hundreds in late 2008.

Some 250 chief executives of the biggest American corporations are accompanying the president and deals worth US$10 billion are expected to be signed as a result of the visit, which will produce some 100,000 jobs in the US alone.

Both the Indian and US governments have decided to keep politics low profile and concentrate instead on business, though the gloom of the latest political developments in the US will weigh heavily on the president and his delegation.

India is clearly headed for the centre stage of world business.

Mr Key is reported to have told Mr Singh he would visit India with a high level business delegation next year even as the FTA preliminaries between the two countries progress.

It would be worthwhile for the local media to focus on the real issues about developing trade and commerce between the two nations in the interests of a better informed decision making process at all levels including the grassroots.

May the bright lights of Diwali help take the focus away from the stereotypical, blotchy blackness of India ink to the spectacularly brilliant possibilities of engaging with India Inc.

Happy Diwali to you all, dear readers.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, November 2010