Editorial 1
Editorial 2
Wages of slovenliness


Squashed bug

The millennium bug came, was seen and was conquered. The international Y2K cooperation centre said on January 2 that 133 of its 170 member states had reported that all their key economic sectors were humming away. The odd report of a satellite or credit card scanner on the blink only heightened a sense of anticlimax. The world’s first information technology crisis had almost no impact other than to ruin the new year’s celebrations of a few emergency duty workers. Unsurprisingly, talk of a millennium hoax is making the rounds. The world spent some $600 billion immunizing itself from the Y2K bug. Many computer consultants who secured a share of this pie were the ones who talked of digital apocalypse. The other view is that this was a disaster averted. The war against the bug triggered unprecedented cooperation around the world. Given the money and brain power thrown at the Y2K bug, it can credibly be said everything possible was done to find a solution.

The reality is halfway between the two views, but weighted in favour of those who say the problem was real but tackled well. Talk of doomsday was always an exaggeration. Sober assessments had long said that, at worst, the world would suffer hiccups, not collapse. Accessible software was easily made Y2K compliant by code patching, windowing or setting computer clocks back. Question marks hovered over imbedded software, often buried and invisible in a chip inside a machine. Even there, the consultancy Black & Veatch had predicted only one per cent of imbedded software had a bug serious enough to shut down a system. With millions of programmers and billions of dollars targetting this one per cent — and given the manual overrides and alternatives most systems had — the bug was rendered impotent. However, to claim the bug was never a problem is fallacious. Quite the opposite, most companies and governments were initially sceptical. It was only the sight of factories grinding to a halt and offices closing down in seconds during testing that spurred them to take the matter seriously. The big fear was the assumption some millennium bugs would slip through the software cordon and that such stray bugs could emerge in places that would endanger public safety — a Russian nuclear missile or an airborne airliner. Through vigilance and luck, such ill fate was avoided. So nuclear reactors in Japan and the United States suffered glitches but not of the life endangering variety.

India has particular reason to be cheerful about the Y2K bug. Its information technology companies reaped billions of dollars in service exports. In part because its infrastructure sector was already designed to handle periodic power and maintenance crises, India suffered negligible economic losses when microchips across the country registered the dreaded double zero. India suffered more because of financial fortressing — capital flight caused by a fear of the bug. Indian bourses seem to be making up for December’s dip with indices hitting record highs in the past week. Indians and people of other nationalities should see the Y2K bug episode in a different light. The millennium bug was the first international technology crisis. It was apolitical, predictable to a fault and completely manmade. Mankind’s success in driving out this ghost in its machines should help further allay the phobia who fear the worst from the rapid movement of modern day technology.    


Down under

Only on very rare occasions have Indian cricketers lit up the lives of their fans. The occasions are so rare that they are memorable. But to the genuine cricket lover, these moments pale when put next to the repeated miserable performances of Indian teams on foreign tours. In 1962, the West Indies beat India five zero; in 1974 England beat India three zero and now Australia has defeated India three zero. Anybody who saw the test matches just concluded, and who knows about cricket will not dispute the fact that three nil against India is a just result. The Indian team, in all three departments of the game, is not a patch on the Australian side. One world class batsman does not make a match winning side. Despite a number of umpiring decisions going against him, Sachin Tendulkar showed that he is the world’s best batsman and capable of attacking any bowling side. But the batting technique of other stalwarts on bouncy wickets and against bowlers who are aggressive and give nothing away was exposed to be nothing above mediocre. The bowling lacked penetration except for spurts from Srinanth and the fielding was enough to make anyone feel ashamed. One could not help feeling sad for Tendulkar.

It is easy of course to blame the players. But to an extent they are also victims of bad planning, lack of proper preparation before a foreign tour and of vested interests which do not have the good of the game in mind. It is now clear that Tendulkar is better off without being captain. The fact that he is the captain is because the selectors never gave their minds to grooming a successor to Mohammad Azharuddin. Indian batsmen, save a handful of really talented ones, are vulnerable against fast bowling and the moving ball. Yet pitches in India, for domestic tournaments, are dead and flat. This makes mediocre batsmen look good till their limitations are revealed on green tops and against top class bowling. Indian batsmen are supposed to be good players of spin bowling. But their handling of Shane Warne, again Tendulkar is the exception, belied this truism. Players and administrators will have to take stock and action unless they want to face the ignominy of not being offered five day test matches by countries like Australia and South Africa.    

The deal struck at Kandahar was no sellout. It was not too bad a bargain for a country which had got into a catch 22 situation. The government could not possibly expect the hijackers to release the 160 hostages in the Indian Airlines plane unconditionally. Nor could the Taliban regime, whose very survival depends on Pakistan’s support, oblige India at the cost of antagonizing its main patron. The best it could do was to present a more reasonable face to the world than it had cared to do so far despite its open sympathy for the militant cause in Kashmir.

In the end, the Indian government was left with two choices. It could either agree to the release of three hardcore terrorists and suffer a loss of face by letting the hijackers walk away with a big prize or risk putting the lives of all the passengers in the plane in jeopardy. It opted for what it thought was the lesser evil. The sorry transaction will undoubtedly do a lot of damage to the morale of those in the forefront of the struggle against terrorism. But just as the wages of sin is death, the cost of slovenliness, which is a hallmark of both political life and the administrative machinery here, can be often exorbitant.

The hijacking highlights the disease which continues to sap the strength of the body politic. The government has told the public that the security set-up at the Kathmandu airport is very lax. Yet, it has not explained why it did not try to get it beefed up or arrange for checking the hand luggage and have the passengers frisked by its own staff.

It also says that many terrorist groups have a free run of the Nepalese capital and have their bases there. This leaves the shocked public wondering why nothing was done to put an end to this dangerous situation. Did the Nepalese agencies refuse to cooperate with India in resolving this problem?

But why blame Nepal? What about the working of the Indian government’s security set-up? Why did it take 40 minutes to inform the prime minister about the hijacking? Why did not the members of the national security council get in touch with each other in a situation where the loss of every minute counted? Why was there no contingency planning for the kind of situation that arose in Amritsar? It was bungling all along and the whole story reads like a saga of security lapses.

Successive governments for over a decade have repeatedly talked of their resolve to fight terrorism to the bitter end. But very often it takes them months even to get to know what goes on in vast stretches of their own territory. That is how militants with some Pakistani troops were able to build bunkers on the heights in the Kargil area and establish supply lines. Many villagers must have seen unusual movements for weeks. Only the intelligence agencies had no precise idea of what the Pakistanis were up to. And if they did send any reports, the government was too euphoric about the success of its bus diplomacy to grasp their dreadful implications.

The result was a war after numerous militants were posted on strategic heights, some of which commanded the road link between Leh and the rest of the country. Only the exceptional courage of the Indian soldiers and United States pressure on Pakistan to pull back the militants to the line of control saved the situation. The irony of it was that India averted a catastrophe in the Kargil area by the skin of its teeth only to find that Pakistan was bent on pursuing the proxy war in a much wider area with greater vigour.

Terrorism at one time meant sporadic acts of violence to subvert the state’s political and economic life and create a climate of fear. Its goal is much more ambitious now. Attacks on security posts and explosions like the one which killed 20 persons in an area in the heart of the city demoralize the public, detract from the authority of the government by exhibiting to the people its inability to control the situation and engage the army and the police in counter-insurgency operations for which they are not too well trained. That is why the government has to do some hard rethinking about its strategy to cope with the terrorist menace.

It is clear now that the mere presence of a large force of army and paramilitary personnel is not enough to deal with an enemy who can sneak into Indian territory at any point along a sprawling border, seek temporary refuge in the homes of local militants and their sympathizers and often take the security forces by surprise. Pakistan’s strategy has all the advantages of guerrilla warfare which costs much less and avoids direct confrontation between large forces.

The question why India cannot take the guerrilla warfare into Pakistani territory by pursuing the militants to their bases is easily answered. First, this country does not have either the degree of local support or the necessary information feedback this requires. Thus, there is always the danger of hot pursuit of terrorist gangs to their bases soon turning into an armed confrontation between the two hostile neighbours.

If this happens, all the big powers will raise a scare about the likelihood of the conventional war turning nuclear. So the issue of a more effective strategy for dealing with cross-border terrorism is bound up with a thorough reassessment of foreign policy. The US administration is perhaps better informed than the Indian government on the extent of Pakistan’s and the taliban’s sponsorship and patronage of the terrorist outfits active in Kashmir. Yet its own interests in west Asia, where it has earned the hostility of both Iran and Iraq and is coming up repeatedly against obstacles in putting the fragile peace between Israel and Palestine on a more durable footing, prevent it from pursuing a course which alienates Pakistan or pushes it over the brink.

When Pervez Musharraf seized power, the US administration wanted an early return to democracy. It knows by now that the general will not relent and it is quite prepared to do business with him. It may be prepared to cooperate with India in containing cross-border terrorism but it is doubtful if it will accede to the Indian prime minister’s request to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. The new warlike situation will be another provocation for it to advise India to resume the dialogue on Kashmir, knowing well that no talks with a state becoming more and more of a hostage to fundamentalists and terrorist outfits can yield positive results.

The government claimed not long ago that terrorism was on the decline. This shows how hopelessly out of touch it was with the ground realities of political life in the state where most parties did not have much of a popular base. There is no other way to interpret the woeful turnout at the polls. And the state government has been afflicted by paralysis for a long time. That the militants continue to sway public opinion shows how far it is alienated from the people.

The problem of cross-border terrorism cannot be isolated from that of political mismanagement. What the state needs is a more compact and effective counter-insurgency force, with reliable feedback by way of relevant information from every part of the state, as well as a more dynamic administration which can convince the people that it means business and win over those who have lost all hope. There is little to show that the government is addressing itself even to the first task, leave aside the second. The people are still watching for signs of a new determination to match action with rhetoric.

The hijacking affair has merely made many take out of mothballs Gunnar Myrdal’s phrase attributing all the ills afflicting India to its being a “soft state”. In fact the softness has grown more mushy since he made his diagnosis. The political culture has grown more corrupt and slovenly. The splintering of the polity has ruled out long term perspectives on national issues. The burden of external and internal debt, the losses of the public services and the costs of subsidies on goods and services have increased. Economic growth is not fast enough to create jobs and the incomes policy has made a mockery of the concept of egalitarianism.

The fast deterioration in the security environment has brought the many contradictions which riddle the state into sharper focus. It is soft in dealing with elite groups and hard on the poor. Its policies encourage luxury consumption even as millions are starved of basic necessities. Many factors have combined to reduce its steering capacity. It will be a big surprise if the undeclared war Pakistan is waging in Kashmir impels it to get its priorities right, devise effective means to make the terrorists end their depredations and create conditions for faster and more equitable growth.    


After all that slush

Sir — It is shocking that the former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, is involved in a slush fund scandal worth one million dollars (“Probe begins against Kohl”, Jan 4). Succumbing to immense pressure from Christian Democratic Party heavyweights, Kohl recently admitted to having accepted donations in the Nineties — that had been supposedly used for supporting the Christian Democrats in the former communist states after unification. Even Kohl’s defectors who voted for the Social Democrats in hope of a better political economy will find it impossible to believe that the former chancellor could singularly manipulate any underhand dealings. But one cannot ignore the fact that Kohl was one of the main architects in consolidating the European Union. If Kohl himself has not benefited from these funds, the German judiciary will hopefully spare him from national humiliation. If the ex-commissioner boss, Jacques Santer, could go scot free after being charged with corruption, hopefully Kohl will be spared for this wrongdoing. After all, Kohl’s scales tilt towards his achievements.

Yours faithfully,
Sunita Tandon, Calcutta

Views to a crisis

Sir — During its last stint, the Bharatiya Janata Party government was characterised by its “roll back” policies. This was proved once again when the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, stated at the wake of the hostage crisis that his government would “not bend before such a show of terror” and went back on it only a few days later.

It is difficult to say who the happiest are: the freed passengers reunited with their relatives or the lopsided politicians. The acts of bowing to the demands of the hijackers and complimenting the taliban government are demoralizing for the security forces and the soldiers. What could have been a precedent for the future has ended as a disgrace.

The prime minister has no power to play with national security; so why the daily drama of convening cabinet meetings and meetings of the crisis management group, intelligence bureau and the national security council? It was also ridiculous to hear Jaswant Singh claim that the government had substantially scaled down the demands of the militants. Had Maulana Azhar Masood been released at first, the Indian government could have avoided the bargaining which proved useless anyway. It is an emotional as well as political blackmail on the part of the joint Islamic forces of Pakistan and the taliban.

If one analyzes the week long drama of Indian Airlines flight 814, nothing else is visible other than a short term feeling of euphoria. Some of the information that has come to light is alarming. How was it that there were more arms with the hijackers at the end than at the beginning? Why did India not pursue negotiatiations while trying to mount international pressure on the hijackers? Most obviously, why didn’t the government storm the plane while it halted in Amritsar?

Yours faithfully,
Sankar Lal Singh, Calcutta

Sir — As the editorial, “Hijack of a nation”(January 2) suggests, the key goal now should be to ensure such a tragedy does not happen again. Many are critical of government action, perhaps rightly so, and feel that it could have extracted better terms from the hijackers. However, being hardpressed between safety of the passengers and national security, the government had little chance to avoid being outmanoeuvred by the hijackers. The prime minister reportedly found that that most of the hostages did not belong to affluent families and 90 per cent were the only earning member of their respective families. Hence, on humanitarian grounds, he perhaps sought to deviate from his earlier stand of not yielding to the hijackers’ demands.

The hijackers were backed by the unfriendly Pakistani regime and the negotiation was carried on in a hostile country, so the prime minister was hardly in a position to extract a better bargain, especially since the international community decided to play the role of silent observer. The United States started talking of Kashmir as a “dangerous issue” and even indicated that the hijack would add to the volatile situation in the subcontinent. The government action at least stopped the internationalizing of the Kashmir issue.

True, the release of the three notorious terrorists will be taken as a great victory by Pakistan in its proxy war against India and the terrorist activity in Kashmir in will get a fillip. However, finding fault with the government will send out wrong signals aggravating the Kashmir problem. In accordance with their earlier statement, the opposition leaders should try to help the government meet the terrorist threat unitedly.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta, Calcutta

Sir — While the euphoria generated by the release of the hostages is understandable and the debate over the Indian government’s actions will keep on raging for some time to come, I would like to highlight a particular aspect which has been completely ignored in all the debates.

The role of the captain, D. Sharan, in the whole episode is open to serious question. What kind of briefing or training is provided by Indian Airlines and Air-India to their pilots to tackle instances of this kind? Captain Sharan is to a great extent responsible for the situation that developed and also for the Indian government finding itself in a “no win” situation during most of the episode.

It must have been evident to Sharan and his team that it is more advantageous to deal with the entire situation within one’s own country rather than out of it. Under the circumstances, as a professional and an Indian he could have used any number of subterfuges, excuses and even outright falsehood to keep the plane grounded at Amritsar or at least hang in there for some more time.

This would have enabled the authorities to plan and mount an operation and get the situation under control. That he did not do so seems to indicate that he was too preoccupied with saving his own skin and that under duress, he just acted like any other frightened human being and not a trained professional.

Again, it must have been evident that landing in Afghanistan would create a situation where the Indian authorities would have little or no chance to intervene, given the realities regarding the taliban regime and the absence of any diplomatic relations between India and the taliban. Again, subterfuges, ignorance and a host of other seemingly very plausible reasons could have been played out by him in either keeping the plane grounded at Dubai or even landing in some other country once he was told that the eventual destination was Kandahar in Afghanistan. But he failed to do so.

It is imperative that he is debriefed and questioned by professionals who are able to gauge whether he was truly handicapped or is now merely trying to trot out a series of reasons to save himself rather than the passengers.

If a swift and prompt enquiry does indeed conclude that his conduct during the crisis fell quite short of standards, the message should go out clearly to all pilots and crew who might find themselves in a similar situation in the future. The captain of the ship can indeed make or break the fate of people and even countries in a crisis situation and, on the face of it, Sharan did precious little in this instance.

Yours faithfully,
Raja Mitra, Singapore

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