Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Doha Round Collapses: Everybody Loses

The Doha Round of trade talks have officially collapsed. These negotiations, which have been going on for what feels like forever, would have reduced or eliminated odious agriculture subsidies and tariffs and make trading of agricultural products simpler and cheaper. Who to blame for this failure? Depends on whom you ask. Here's an editorial from the The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi newspaper, who is blaming the developed world, specifically the United States and the European Union:
The final impasse was the demand from the G-33 which wanted special safeguard mechanisms to protect farmers in the developing world against temporary surges in cut-price imports of cotton and rice. When one considers that these safeguards would be the only thing standing between hundreds of millions of subsistence farmers and penury, to say nothing of the stability of billions throughout the developing world, it is hard to fathom the opposition.

What is really outrageous about opposition to this from the West is that it insist not only on its own tariffs but also on massive agricultural subsidies that protect its handful of farmers and massively distort the international price of goods, causing further hardship to farmers in the developing world.
But the developed world, in turn, and led by the West, is blaming the developing world for trying to have its cake and eat it too; all at the expense of their farmers. The Washington Post is leading the charge on this score:
Still, as last-ditch talks moved into last weekend, the United States and European Union had made some concessions on farm supports, and WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy had submitted a compromise plan that seemed to draw at least tentative approval from most participants. It was at that point that India and China essentially torpedoed the talks, asserting a broad right to raise tariffs to protect their poor farmers from "import surges," price drops and other vicissitudes of the world market. China, which had been relatively quiet throughout most of the talks, was particularly vituperative, blasting U.S. arguments as "absurd," even though Brazil and several other developing countries agreed with Washington.

China's role in the demise of the Doha Round is particularly dismaying, considering China has reaped huge benefits from global trade in the seven years since it joined the organization -- with strong U.S. support. Chinese exports have quadrupled from $300 billion in 2002 to $1.2 trillion in 2007, thanks in large part to free access to the U.S. market. U.S. supporters of Chinese inclusion in the WTO argued that drawing China into a system of multilateral give-and-take would mute its nationalistic tendencies. Evidently, the Chinese see the matter differently. They, and the world, will be poorer because of it.
It's safe to say that obstinacy on both sides led to the demise of the Doha Round. The developed world insists on paying subsidies to farmers, which in this era of high food prices is absurd. The developed world then demands open access to the developing world markets for their "cheap" food, giving local farmers an economic disadvantage. I believe the developing world has the right to protect its farmers as the developed world protect theirs.

At the same time, the developing world, led by China and India, insist on keeping mechanisms protecting its farmers against the onslaught on "cheap" food, even if the developed world ends its subsidies and tariffs. This will give developed world an advantage while penalizing western farmers for being more efficient and productive. This is a non-starter as well.

But ultimate loser in this fiasco are the consumers in both the developing and developed world, who will continue to pay high prices for agricultural products. It is also a defeat for free-trade, and a disturbing win for protectionism, which will only punish the entire world.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ignoring Terrorism While Celebrating Nuclear Deal

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is busy basking in the glow of winning the confidence vote in Congress and getting the US-Indo nuclear deal approved. After all, this nuclear deal will be the showpiece of his legacy.

It's a dubious proposition given the fact the government seems to be spinning its wheels regarding the recent terrorist attacks in Ahmedabad and Bangalore. Indians care little for the nuclear deal because it does not impact them directly, but the risk of being blown up while walking through town has become a frightening reality. How the government will allay this fear will be Manmohan Singh's lasting legacy, in my opinion.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

India's Government Survives

The UPA government has survived a confidence votes, which I suspect Prime Minister Manmohan Singh knew ahead of time. For a cold technocrat, Prime Minister Singh has proven to be a wily political operator, outmaneuvering the Left Front out of power, and out of mind, without needing to call elections.

The Left Front, naturally, is shocked by the result. The CPI-M website and its mouthpiece People's Democracy, for example, are replete with baseless accusations against Manmohan Singh, even offering 'proof' that some MPs were bribed. The Left Front bitterness is obvious: they never had it so good and, hopefully, they never will again.

Indo-Pakistan Relations Cooling

Ever since a new civilian government has come to power, Indo-Pakistan relations have been heading south.
Pakistan and India struggled to hide their exasperation with each other at the start of a fifth round of ‘composite dialogue’ between their foreign secretaries here on Monday.

New Delhi warned that the recent attack on its embassy in Kabul had put the talks under stress. Islamabad said given its enormous sacrifices it could not be put on probation in the war on terror.

A source close to the talks between Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir and his Indian counterpart Shivshankar Menon described the atmosphere at the Hyderabad House as unexpectedly muddied. Mr Menon is believed to have told Mr Bashir that not only had the dialogue been put under stress but the talks were also at risk following the devastating attack in Kabul on July 7.

After the round of the dialogue on peace and security, Jammu and Kashmir and other confidence-building measures (CBMs), Mr Menon told reporters that the talks were happening at a “difficult time of our relationship with Pakistan”.
This is not a new phenomenon, but a regular occurrence. Relations were bad when both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were in power as well. Like then, Kashmir became a restive place with frequent cross-border artillery barrages and increase in militant activity. Pakistani intelligence and military is responsible for some of this - they always tend to operate independently of the civilian government - but I would not be surprised one bit if the civilian government sanctioned it this time around. With Pakistan beset with economic and political problems, including militancy on its border with Afghanistan, trying to blame India for its ills is usually a win-win strategy, with little or no political cost.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Darfur Is Real, Not Fake...

I know. I know. Fisking a Pakistan Observer editorial is like shooting fish in a barrel and a total waste of time, but this editorial is so wrong on almost every count, it deserves a response. Since the editorial is brief, confirming the childish thought process of its writer, I present it in full below
IN an ominous development, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has filed genocide charges against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The charges filed Monday include masterminding attempts to wipe out African tribes in Darfur with a campaign of murder, rape and deportation.

The Western powers, led by the United States, have been raising pressure against Sudan in the context of Darfur region, where a conflict is raging for the control of local resources. Situation in Darfur has been exaggerated to a great extent to portray the Christian population as the most oppressed section of the society with a view to building a case for foreign intervention and creation of a separate homeland for them. It is because of this that tons of propaganda material is being churned out daily against ‘oppressive’ policies of the Sudanese Government and activities of the Janjawid militia. There are also reasons to believe that another factor behind the Western interests in Sudan and this particular region is reports about huge oil and gas deposits in the country and the United States and its coteries have their eyes on this natural wealth of the poor country.
The first paragraph is probably the only correct item in the whole editorial. The rest I dismiss as a product of intellectual laziness.
  • Though there are Christians in Darfur, the majority of the population is Muslim. The Pakistan Observer is trying to spin this affair strictly as a Christian-Muslim conflict - a clash of civilizations, so to speak - when in reality it is an African-Arab conflict; and if you are a Marxist, even a class conflict.

  • The residents of Darfur do not want a separate homeland. This is a lie set forth by the Sudan government to sanction their actions in Darfur. What the residents of Darfur want is to share in the prosperity of Sudan and its oil wealth. If there is oil in Darfur, Sudan wants it all for itself.

  • And is the testimony of thousands of refugees mired in camps in neighboring Chad propaganda? The thousands of images broadcast all over the world of dying refugees propaganda? Even the United Nations, not the quickest of actors, condemned the actions of the Sudanese government? If what I'm hearing and seeing is propaganda, I want to know what the truth is.

  • Naturally, the West is behind all this because they want to exploit Darfur's natural resources. This is typical post-colonial analysis used by critics from the developing world to frame all actions and policies taken by the West against oppressive regimes. It plays well enough, I suppose, but in the end it rings hollow. Darfur is already being exploited, not by the West but by Sudan, the Arab world and China, who are shamelessly supported Sudan to the hilt because it needs Sudan's vast energy reserves to fuel its booming economy. But even China cannot ignore public opinion, so it has voted with the U.N. Security Council to let the ICC prosecute Sudan for war crimes. Does this still sound like a Western conspiracy? Anyone familiar with functioning of the ICC, which The Pakistan Observer clearly does not, knows that the process is a lengthy and tedious one, with checks and balances to ensure that prosecutions are not politically motivated or capricious.
For The Pakistan Observer, whose standards are already low, to publish this tripe as an editorial is just outright irresponsible.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Friday, July 11, 2008

3G iPhone Out Today: Will It Be A Success

Starting today you can buy the new 3G iPhone from AT&T (T); and Apple (APPL) has also launched an apps store, where you can download third-party applications for your iPhone. Personally, I find the whole experience underwhelming and a bit overrated. Regardless, I found this ad on Apple's site to a bit amusing:

The phone may be half-price, but your cell phone will almost double because you will have to subscribe to a data plan and pay extra for SMS and other features. Is it worth it? Not to me. But this won't stop the crazies from buying one.

Why not just get a Wi-Fi equipped phone - like a Blackberry? Want e-mail? There are plenty of free e-mail services that provide POP access, like GMail. Why pay extra when you don't have to?

Will the 3G iPhone succeed? Initially, yes; but the cost of ownership is still prohibitive for many people, including myself. Plus, it's a closed, proprietary system. I much prefer open source applications written in Java.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Letting Things Go....

The Left Front has issued the following statement:
The Minister for External Affairs, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, announced on July 8, 2008 at a press conference that the government would send India’s safeguards agreement to the International Atomic Energy Agency Board for approval only if it won the trust vote in parliament. “I cannot bind the government if we lose our majority”, he said.

He also stated that he had consulted the Prime Minister who was in Japan, in this regard.

Coming hours after the announcement that the Left parties had decided to withdraw support to the government, this was a solemn commitment to the country that the government would not proceed to the Board of Governors of the IAEA till the government proved its majority in parliament.

It is shocking that less than twenty four hours of such a statement, the IAEA has announced that at the request of the Government of India, the text has been submitted to the Board for its consideration. (Annexure – press release of the IAEA).
It's like a bad marriage that mercifully comes to an end and one of the partners is having a hard time letting go. Congress has already moved on; but the Left Front has not: coming to the bitter realization that it has no where to go, that it never had it so good as it did with Congress.

This saga has all the ingredients of a bad Indian soap opera or Bollywood film, replete with formulaic happy endings except, in this case, the ending is a sad one. The Left Front was hoping - rather foolishly - that Congress would, like many times before, beg them to come back because Congress needs the Left Front than the Left Front needs it. But Congress, tired of the political blackmail and the whining and complaining, doesn't need or want the Left Front anymore, but has taken a new lover, the Samajwadi Party.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Calling The Kettle Black

Members of the editorial board of The Pakistan Observer are such blockheads that they often answer their own questions without realizing it. This editorial on the homicide attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul is typical:
It is regrettable that instead of getting to the roots of the problem, some circles and forces prefer to indulge in blame game. As for the Kabul blast, it seems to be the work of those who are weary of growing Indian interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. There is a strong perception that more than a dozen Indian consulates, many more companies including dummy ones, NGOs and above all military personnel are engaged in activities that are seen by majority of Afghans as direct interference in their domestic affairs. Indians are hands in glove with the Northern Alliance in undermining and suppressing the freedom movement of Afghan people. Its agencies are also using Afghanistan as a staging post for launching acts of sabotage in neighbouring countries especially Pakistan. It has been stated on more than one occasion by Pakistani authorities which publicly complained that Indians were deeply involved in exploiting the law and order situation in FATA and Balochistan. Apart from Pakistan and Afghanistan, Indians are also interfering in the internal affairs of Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives. We hope that Indian leaders would review their policy and would not allow their agencies to sponsor acts of terrorism or sabotage in other countries. That would contribute towards maintenance of peace and security in the region.
Emphasis is mine, of course. The only people who are complaining about India and Afghanistan is Pakistan, who considers Afghanistan to be in its sphere of influence. Afghans seem happy with India's efforts to rebuild their country; which is more than Pakistan has ever done. India builds roads. Pakistan? The Taliban. The reason FATA and Balochistan are restive because of Pakistan's stepmotherly treatment.

I can go on, of course, but what would be the point?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Left Front To Withdraw Support

The Left Front has decided to withdraw its support for the UPA government over the Indo-US nuclear deal. Will the government collapse? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is busy schmoozing with G-8 leaders in Japan, seems nonchalant about it:
Asked if the withdrawal of Communist support would affect his government, the prime minister, while coming out of a meeting of the five Outreach nations (China, Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico besides India) remarked: "I don't think it will affect the stability of the government."

Asked when the government will go to the IAEA, a point on which the Left has pulled out parliamentary support, he said: "As soon as possible."

These seem to have been minor distractions for the resolute prime minister who, according to Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, made no change in his programme due to the political crisis back home that kept the media here agog.
Actually no one in Congress seems all that concerned about the Left Front withdrawing its support, which indicates one of two things: Congress is either stupid; or they have lined up support from other parties in Parliament. Personally, I think it's the latter since Congress is insisting on a confidence vote before going to the IAEA.

Whatever the result, the Left Front's brinkmanship will blow up in their faces. They have proved again their anti-Indian ethos. Nitin is right when he says:
It should now remain for the Indian voter to give the Communists the drubbing they deserve. Somewhere, one of history’s dustbins is waiting for them.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Homicide Bomb Attack On Indian Embassy In Kabul

Enjoyed a long-weekend doing almost absolutely nothing only to return to this:
A suicide bomber has rammed a car full of explosives into the gates of the Indian embassy in the Afghan capital, killing 41 people and injuring 141.

Five embassy personnel were killed - India's defence attache, a senior diplomat and two security guards - as well as an Afghan man.

Five Afghans died at Indonesia's embassy nearby.
I heard the news report on BBC while driving to work. The anchor interviewed Afghan, Indian and Pakistani officials, quizzing them on the details. The Afghans and Indians claimed the attack was made by 'enemies of Afghan-Indian friendship' - this is code for Pakistan. BBC anchors are a pushy lot, and this one was no exception. He repeatedly tried to bait these officials into admitting it was Pakistan. Pakistan, whose Foreign Minister was interviewed, condemned the attack while vehemently denying it had anything to do with it. This is standard operating procedure practiced by diplomats: accusations and counter-accusations will be left to surrogates.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Why Is India Silent On Zimbabwe

Perhaps I've been living in a fog, or just may have missed reports in the media, but what is India's official position on the current situation in Zimbabwe?

Everyone except Robert Mugabe knows full well that recent elections were a sham. The United States and Europe (and even the United Nations) have rightly denounced the elections as illegitimate since the atmosphere was poisoned with fear and violence. Yet India and many non-Western countries have been eerily quiet.

I can only guess why. For all his dictatorial tendencies and his calamitous economic policies, Mugabe is still a popular figure and continues to draw respect from many countries, especially those who were themselves under colonial rule. To them Mugabe is a legend, whose reputation as an independence leader is beyond reproach. And Mugabe is banking on this sympathy to help him weather the storm. This also explains the bellicose statements made by Mugabe's spokesman during an African Union summit in Egypt. To quote:
Charamba had harsh words for Western pressure: "They can go hang. They can go and hang a thousand times."
The African Union, under whose auspices its leaders are trying to convince Mugabe the error of his ways, will be ineffective given the fact that most of its members are worse than Mugabe. So don't expect anything to happen on that front.

Instead countries like India should take the lead in condemning Mugabe for what he is and resist the temptation to engage in knee-jerk anti-Western histrionics. A condemnation from non-Western countries like India carry a heavier weight than those by the west, whose legacy of imperialism and colonialism taint their calls for Mugabe's ouster.

The question is: will India rise to the occasion, or say nothing, thus affirming Mugabe's actions?