Editorial / Ringing for better rates
War by other means
People/ Hamid Karzai
This above all / A man who would be famous
Letters to the editor

Competition benefits consumers. Bharti Telesonic’s IndiaOne is the first private national long distance operator and its offer has caused a flutter. Riding on the Bharti offer, mobile operators will reduce NLD costs by 50 per cent from January 26. For long distance connectivity, the country has been divided into three zones — home (50 to 200 kilometers), regional (north, south, east, west) and inter-regional or national. Excluding airtime charges, home calls will cost Rs 2.40 a minute, regional peak (9 am to 9 pm) rates will be Rs 6 a minute with non-peak rates of Rs 3 a minute and national peak rates will be Rs 12 a minute with non-peak rates of Rs 6 a minute. If access providers tag on to Bharti, this will mean a reduction in costs by at least 50 per cent. As of now, there are 5.2 million mobile subscribers and eight cellular companies (almost 90 per cent of existing subscribers) that have decided to tag on to Bharti. The others have decided to wait, presumably to see what Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited and other future NLD entrants like Reliance and Tata decide to do.

The Bharti offer is not just about reducing STD rates. It is also about a better revenue sharing arrangement in 30:40:30 ratio between the originator, the carrier and the terminator, compared to greedy and monopolist BSNL’s 5:95 ratio between the carrier and BSNL. The present tariffs have to be approved by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, but that is unlikely to cause a problem. It took several years for telecommunication rates to drop in the United States of America. Compared to that, the better deal for Indian consumers has not only been faster, much more is in the offing.

First, other private entrants like Reliance or Tata will have to offer better deals than Bharti. Second, BSNL has a 30 million subscriber base and can use its reach and the incumbency advantage to slash rates. Also, TRAI is in the process of reexamining tariffs and this can eliminate the present system of subsidizing local calls at the expense of long distance calls. New STD rates for fixed line calls are expected in April 2002. Besides, mobile operators will eventually be allowed to interconnect with each other directly, bypassing NLD linkages and costs entirely. Finally, internet telephony is in the offing. While the present improvement is restricted to cell phone users over long distances, the more general telecom revolution ought to be coming.

In the process of ushering in this revolution, there are bound to be shakeouts, mergers and consolidations among existing players, with BSNL, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited and Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited privatization long overdue. From the consumer perspective, the message is one of benefits from competition, unless operation of market forces is messed up through state intervention. Quite often, it is argued that there have been no infrastructure reforms and had infrastructure reforms resulted in better roads, drinking water and sanitation, the pro-rich perception of reforms would have disappeared. Telecom is the only infrastructure sector (barring some road programmes) where reforms have been muddling through, subject to a government inability to recognize convergence and technological change. If the telecom message can be extrapolated to the power sector, there will be much to celebrate.


India should send two unambiguous messages to Washington. First, if 9/11 (as Americans call it) determined the United States of America’s policing role in the new millennium, the Srinagar and New Delhi attacks will be the touchstone of India’s new relationship with the US. Second, India will apply George Bush’s own principle, “If you do business with terrorists — you will not do business with the US,” to Pakistan.

Meanwhile, improved security at home should include rigorous control of those trappings of status that Indians love so dearly: red lights, exclusive stickers and special number plates — as well as an end to rhetoric about the limits of patience and endurance. Someone should advise the prime minister that he cannot cry wolf day in and day out and expect his warnings to be taken seriously. Action and words must meet at some stage.

This is not a rash recommendation for war. But war by other means — though not the means Pakistan has adopted — would be in order. Hot pursuit holds many dangers. Israel can ravage West Bank townships because of its overwhelming military superiority. The US could bombard Afghanistan because the taliban was not even able to resist the Northern Alliance. India is not similarly placed in relation to Pakistan. Both, moreover, being nuclear powers, the consequence of each move must be weighed carefully. There is nothing like a nuclear arsenal to make a nation responsible.

What comes to mind in this context is the origin of the word “boycott”. Readers may recall that Captain Boycott was the agent of an absentee 19th century English landowner whom the Irish peasantry ostracized. An Irish nationalist leader advised everyone in the parish to “turn his back on him; have no communication with him; have no dealings with him. You need never say an unkind word to him; but never say anything at all to him. If you must meet him in fair, walk away from him silently. Do him no violence but have no dealings with him. Let every man’s door be closed against him; and make him feel a stranger and a castaway in his own neighbourhood”.

For “fair” read the next meeting in Kathmandu of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or any United Nations gathering anywhere. It has long been the fashion for Indian diplomats, sportsmen, academics, journalists and others to hug their Pakistani counterparts at international meets, sometimes after a fierce exchange of diatribes, flamboyantly demonstrating that differences do not extend beyond governments. That self-serving hypocrisy should end. Let India instead make the most of SAARC’s 1997 decision allowing three or more countries to enter into subregional arrangements without waiting for all members.

Back channel and Track Two diplomacy has had no effect whatsoever. Neither has people-to-people communication or any of the relaxations that flowed from the magnanimity of the Gujral Doctrine. The rationale was that simple people should not be penalized for the politics of Partition; indeed, easy grassroots interaction across the border was expected to help build up a constructive climate of opinion leading one day to subcontinental rapprochement.

That hope has been belied on two counts. First, some of the outrages and arrests across the country suggest that many of those “simple” people are either fifth columnists or disguised agents who can lose themselves in our teeming cities because of the negligence and corruption of immigration authorities and the criminal, if not treasonable, greed of communal legislators who bestow ration cards and other marks of domicile on illegal aliens. Second, even if Pakistani public opinion were favourable to India — which it is not — it would have no impact at all on Islamabad’s policies.

A Newsweek survey at the height of Operation Enduring Freedom indicated that 83 per cent of Pakistanis opposed the war and only three per cent were in favour. A more recent poll suggests that 38 per cent of the people there support Benazir Bhutto, 20 per cent are with Nawaz Sharif and only nine per cent with Pervez Musharraf. The dynamics of power do not reflect either finding.

It is ironic to recall that India bestowed international legitimacy on the Pakistani general. No one was talking to him when Atal Bihari Vajpayee invited him to Agra. He was still only a coup leader but the invitation allowed him to anoint himself president and come to this country as a full-fledged head of state. The rest is history. The man is an astute strategist, a smooth diplomat and a ruthless practitioner of realpolitik. Our leaders could learn much from him. The core of his political tactics was summed up in the remark he made in Agra, “If India expects that I should ignore Kashmir, I better buy back the Neharwali Haveli and move back over here.”

For all the present bonhomie between India and the US, the West is basically sympathetic to a position that has been presented in simplistic terms for more than fifty years as upholding the rights of the Muslim majority against a Hindu monarch. This fundamental support is quite distinct from America’s strategic need for Pakistan in that part of the world. When the US national commission on terrorism indicted Greece and Pakistan for “not cooperating fully” in anti-terrorist efforts, Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, promptly announced that Washington was “not considering” action against Islamabad.

True, the US deplores Musharraf’s coup and, even more, the methods of organizations like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. It needs India’s market, resources and geopolitical capability. But it is not convinced that Pakistan’s cause in Kashmir is not just. Recent pronouncements by Bush, Colin Powell and Richard Haass have again made that clear enough.

Hence the US’s nuanced policy from which, too, India has much to learn. Even while assiduously courting India, the US demonstrates its refusal to be deflected from its essential priorities. In 1999, Bill Clinton asked India to surrender some of the territory that the Kargil intruders had occupied. Donald Rumsfeld accused Moscow last February of abetting proliferation by selling India nuclear reactors. India lost several hundred thousand dollars in October when the US would not allow the Sriharikota facility to launch a Taiwanese satellite that had a minor American component. And only last month George Bush urged Vladimir Putin to persuade Vajpayee to exercise restraint in Kashmir.

India’s displeasure with a rogue state — it is immaterial whether or not the US state department uses that appellation — can similarly be expressed by extending the cricket boycott to other fields. There is no need, for instance, to allow more than a hundred people (most of whom are probably Inter-Services Intelligence agents anyway) to work in Pakistan’s massively ostentatious high commission in New Delhi.

Stressing that members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, who have never had a military culture, have honed economic warfare to a fine skill because they realize that, in the final analysis, all conflict, is economic, a friend in Singapore suggests more drastic boycott.

“The solutions have been staring India in the face,” he says. “Why does India allow Pakistan the use of its airspace for flights to Dhaka and Kathmandu, both hotbeds of activity for the ISI? Why continue to have road, rail, and air links?” He believes that the established nexus between the IC-814 hijacking and the attack on Parliament legally entitles India to deny landing rights on the grounds of aviation safety to foreign airlines that touch down in Pakistan before arriving in this country. The same logic should exclude ships from Karachi. Let world traffic choose, and Pakistan pay the price.

War by other means can be more devastating than war. Vajpayee rightly says that countries cannot choose neighbours as they choose friends. But confusing neighbours with friends can invite disaster until neighbours prove by their conduct that they are prepared to be friends. India can wait for Pakistan to do so.



The manwho could be king

As a savaged and brutalised Afgha-nistan gently rolled into the year 1992, glimpses of peace and hope were starting to peek through the gunpowder-drenched air of Kabul. The Russians had recently been driven out and a new power-sharing government headed by Professor Sibghatullah Mujaddadi had just been sworn in. The capital was still in chaos, though. But Hamid Karzai, deputy foreign minister for that ill-fated government, stood out amidst all that. With an elegantly tailored suit and a well-trimmed beard, the Pashtun showed journalists around the relatively modern-looking department of foreign affairs, saying all the right, rational things about reconstruction and modernising the country, even as the artillery boomed in the background.

The dreams vanished as quickly as they were conjured. For Karzai, who has been on the run ever since, heading the new multi-ethnic Afghan interim government, is the closest he will ever get to a second chance. Or a last chance. And if there’s one thing that could be a thorn in his pride and promise as he and his team of young hopefuls are sworn in today, it will be the constant nagging feeling: can he bring back peace to his country and make it last for a long time to come?

Karzai has six months in his hands to make sure that his country doesn’t revert to its warring ways. During this short period, a loya jirga, or tribal assembly, of nearly 1,500 Afghans will choose a transitional government. Two years down the road a new constitution will be drawn and elections will follow. But none of this will be possible if Karzai fails. And knowing the chequered history of Afghanistan, he will be keeping his fingers crossed.

The 44-year-old man, with an amazing fluency in English as well as six other languages, is an interesting choice. For two reasons. Everyone thinks he is their man. And more importantly, he does not have any soldiers of his own. Two qualities that few other Afghan leaders possess.

To friends and foes alike, he is acceptable, even though he is seen as a part of the Rome Group, the following of the 87-year-old exiled king, Zahir Shah. Pakistan, which he calls his “second home” and where his family continues to live, was delighted when he was chosen to head the regime. Even the ISI, definitely a key player in shapes of things that have come and are to come in the region, also expressed its happiness over the choice. According to many, Karzai has been carefully nurtured by the ISI during his stay in Pakistan.

Strangely enough, even India has shown much optimism over the choice. “We have had our links and maintained contacts with Karzai and others in the Rome Group for long,” said a senior Indian official who has been part of the negotiations on Afghanistan. That he had completed his masters in political science at the Himachal Pradesh University between 1979-1981 boosts South Block’s confidence in him.

His ties with the West are also impeccable. Most of his siblings have built strong and successful careers in business or academics in America and he is known to have strong links with the CIA, State Department and other government officials. Interestingly, the Taliban at one time appointed him as their representative to the UN because of his contacts in the US. Mullah Omar later cancelled the appointment after learning that Karzai did not wear his beard as he was supposed to.

Blame it on his degrees or his ability to keep a cool head in extreme circumstances, Karzai is also a diplomat through and through, unlike many of his Afghan contemporaries. He himself admits he is “a politician, not a fighter.” During his early days as a mujahedeen in the late 80s, he was flippantly termed a Gucci guerrilla, as opposed to a real fighter, by the western media. The closest thing to a gun he used to carry around in those days was a Mont Blanc pen, while his comrades bristled with rocket launchers and extravagant beards. And it was his tactful lobbying during the Bonn conference that put him at the top of the pile.

As an elder of the half-million member Popolzai tribe in southern Afghan-istan, he has enough leadership experience. Karzai’s father was also chief tribal leader until July 1999, when the 75-year-old was shot to death in Quetta, Pakistan, where father and son had both fled from the Taliban. In fact, it was this incident that made him turn against the former regime. And toppling the Taliban soon turned into an obsession.

“He has been the strongest foe of the Taliban,” says Mahmood Karzai, his 47-year-old brother who lives in Boston. The patient, Islamic moderate undertook many risks to see the end of the fundamentalists. As soon as the Americans launched their attacks on Afghanistan, Karzai stepped out of his political hibernation in Pakistan. In early November, while spending three weeks travelling from village to village in the treacherous, mountainous region of south-central parts of his homeland to garner support from the local tribes, he had a close brush with death. Surrounded by Taliban forces, Karzai had to send an SOS message to the Americans to pluck him out of the situation in a helicopter and return him to his exile base in Pakistan. His efforts were quickly regarded by Pakistan based tribal leaders and US officials to spark of an anti-Taliban uprising in southern Afghanistan.

Apart from his Pashtun credentials and penchant for peaceful means, Karzai has the money in his hands, definitely the need of the hour in the economically-debilitated region. And he has around $600 billion worth of it, handed to him by the UN, the US and Pakistan for aid and patching up tribal and ethnic grudges. It also helps that he knows all the major players, is fluent in all the local dialects and considers himself an Afghan first, a Pashtun second.

There are a few gadflies yet to tackle. A potential spoiler is Barhanuddin Rabbani. The 61-year-old former Afghanistan president who has been excluded from the present government is already causing trouble. Though he is a Tajik, Rabbani’s men are paying off Pashtun elders to oppose both Karzai and Zahir Shah, according to Islamabad intelligence reports. Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, another of the out crowd, has already announced he will boycott the present coalition. Plus there are sceptics who think that Afghanistan can only be led by battle-hardened fighters. And Karzai doesn’t quite fit the bill. To top it all, the UN negotiators have not yet spelt out exactly who would be empowered to disarm to disarm Afghan combatants. Karzai knows it all too well that to succeed he must first persuade the warlords and defeated Taliban fighters to hand over their guns.

Even if he manages to pull off this gargantuan task, the loya jirga might not want him at the helm after the six-month period. Senior Pashtun leaders like the powerful Sayed Gallani have already expressed their dissent at the lack of older mujahedeen faces in the interim government. With so many cooks to spoil the broth, it is entirely likely that Afghanistan might be back in old soup.

But, then when Karzai entered Kabul on December 14, the first snowflakes of winter fell, hailed as a good omen by residents. Maybe Karzai is the man. Maybe the tide is really turning.


The man most talked about in the world today is Osama bin Laden. He is a hero, worshipped by millions of Muslims all over the globe and reviled by many more, both Muslims and non-Muslims. We know very little about him. Ever since he erupted as a global phenomenon, dozens of books have been published about him, mostly based on stuff lifted from other books, magazines, press reports and gossip. The latest is Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of a Terrorist by Adam Robinson, a journalist who has covered west Asia over the last 10 years.

The earlier part of bin Laden’s life reads like a chapter from The Arabian Nights. The bin Ladens were, and are, Arabs. His father, Mohammed bin Laden, was a coolie who worked in the dockyards of Jeddah. He got into the business of building. He built roads, palaces, mosques, airfields, dams across the Arab world. He became a multi-billionaire. He built palaces for the Saudi royal family and built one for himself. Then, like other rich Arabs he acquired a harem: 11 wives of which three were “permanent”, the fourth divorced every two years to be replaced by a fresh one. Between them, these ladies produced 54 children. Osama was the 17th son. His mother, Hamida, was a Syrian who did not get on with her husband and was given a villa out of town to live alone with her maidservants. Osama continued to live with his father, his other wives, concubines, stepbrothers and stepsisters. His father was killed in a helicopter crash. Osama was then 10 years old. The eldest brother, Salim, became head of the family.

Osama was a good student and did very well at school. During vacations, with some of his brothers he went to Europe. For a while, he attended a language school in Oxford where he became a cinema addict. After he finished his secondary school education, he was sent to Beirut for higher studies.

Osama was 16, a handsome lad six foot four inches tall and eager to savour the good things of life. He had a villa of his own and lots of money to squander. He started drinking and having Havana cigars and LSD. He acquired a Christian girl friend, Rita. However, that did not prevent him from visiting casinos and sleazy night-clubs which besides drinks, provided prostitutes. He did not do too well in his studies and was summoned back home.

Osama continued drinking Scotch even in the strictly prohibitionist Wahabi country. He joined the King Abdul Aziz University to study Islamic economics and also helped his elder brother in managing the ever-expanding construction business.

He was 20 when Islam overtook him. He renounced drinking, started praying five times a day and let his beard grow. It is not known what exactly brought about this dramatic change in his character. Undoubtedly, the creation of Israel out of what had been Arab lands and the humiliating defeat the Jews inflicted on their Muslim neighbours was one. Americans had made Israel viable and strong; so the two were enemies of Islam. The Soviets were a godless people in control of Muslim areas like Chechnya and remained the dominant power in central Asian republics. That made it three. Logically, the fourth would be India, predominantly Hindu ruling over a large Muslim population. So there were four evil powers, all legitimate targets of his notion of jihad. Propagators of this brand of Islamic fundamentalism were the Egyptian, Syed Quth, hanged in 1966 and the Palestinian, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. They generated a school of thinking, Maktab al khidmat, which led to the formation of al Qaida.

“In our religion there is a special place in the hereafter (that is paradise) for those who participated in jihad,” said Osama. The top priority was to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Osama flew by his own helicopter to Islamabad and with Pakistani support entered Afghanistan. It was largely due to Osama’s organizational genius that he was able to unify Pakistani patronage and US bounty to equip the taliban into a powerful guerrilla force. He continued to control his business and manage his family and led the taliban and forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan. He became the hero of the Muslim world. Back home in Jeddah, his open criticism of the style of living of the royal family and for its allowing Americans to set up bases on Arabian soil in their war against Iraq, forced the authorities to seize his passport. The Central Intelligence Agency also put him on its hit list.

Osama ignored the Saudi diktat and flew back to Karachi, only to find that he was no longer welcome in Pakistan. And then to Afghanistan to see the mess the taliban had made of the country. The only refuge left for Osama was Sudan ruled over by an equally fanatic Hasan al Turabi. Osama had not run out of steam. In Sudan, he once again reorganized his business operations and helped the government in many development projects. He turned the tide of the war of attrition against his persecutors. American installations in Saudi Arabia were bombed, American missions in Africa were targeted.

With meticulous precision he planned the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington. From his hide-out in Afghanistan, Osama watched with ghoulish glee as these centres of American business and military might crumbled in flames. He had planned to have Bill Clinton and the pope assassinated, but the plan miscarried. Now he has become the world’s most wanted criminal. He boasts “the dream to kill me will never be completed….. As long as I am alive, there will be no rest for the enemies of Islam.”

The final stroke

Banta was a hockey player of Olympic
Wished to indulge in a social game
He took to golf with some
Old man’s game was friends’
First encounter with golf was the
funniest thing,
Told the coach, all the fuss is about
Took out One Wood and heaved a
mighty swing,
The ball was still but Banta was
Tumbled and humbled he started the
lesson by number,
Golf is the game he is determined to
While Golf has gone to Gulf as a
Banta is stuck at Ludhiana in the
(Contributed by D S. Gurm, Ludhiana)


Conflict with a difference

Sir — I would like to defend the United States of America’s state department spokesman, Richard Boucher, in his insistence that the situation in west Asia is not like that in the subcontinent (“Single doctrine, double standards”, Dec 20). It certainly is naive to make comparisons between Palestine and Pakistan under the loose headings of “state sponsored terrorism”, so as long as it is realized that the crucial difference is not in the historical setting, but in the relative importance the US attaches to each conflict. India must do its best to put forward a case for any action against terrorism on it own merits.

Yours faithfully,
Ram Chander, Bangalore

Multiple loyalties

Sir — Apropos the articles, “When blood speaks to blood” (Dec 15) and “There is no one loyalty” (Dec 16), Amit Bhaduri has rightly condemned the fanatic groups who commit terrorism in the guise of a “larger cause”, or impose the dominant culture upon the minorities in the name of “cultural nationalism”. There can be no doubt that wherever and whenever fundamentalists have arisen, they have projected their ideologies as “true” nationalism. Instead of respecting the value of diversity, they are of the belief that unity can be attained only by cajoling the whole nation into adopting the culture of the majority. This primitive urge to dominate over other groups through language, religion, caste, colour or political belief only ever gains short term political benefits.

Bhaduri is absolutely correct in offering a solution on the basic premise that no individual can belong to the majority. Everyone has “multiple loyalties”. But I would suggest we also need to find a broader and more inclusive definition of patriotism and Hinduism. A “true” patriot is someone who will ensure that the democratic rights of all groups are carefully protected; a “true” Hindu, one who never hurts the sentiments of another community. The modern Indian patriot should take his cue from Rabindranath Tagore, who advocated a heterogenous India, or from M.K Gandhi, who, though an ardent follower of Ram, never misused the name of the epic hero to cause tension among the minorities. It is the duty of every Indian to prevent these nationalists from destroying the secular fabric of this nation.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Sodepur

Sir — Amit Bhaduri has suggested that whether a superpower like the United States of America adopts the rhetoric of democracy, or a tribal chieftain that of the kinship group, they are in effect evoking the same network of self-interest.

His argument is supported by the cultural response of the US to September 11. Bhaduri has rightly pointed out that the reducing of any idea of what it means to be American, or Indian for that matter, is dangerous. We must recognize our “multiple loyalties”. But the question remains, when faced by an aggressive fundamentalism from another country, how is it possible to maintain an ideology of diversity when the aggressor clearly does not respect it?

Yours faithfully,
Akash Basu, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — The comptroller and auditor general of India is among the few institutions left in this country that is known to be thorough and efficient. But politicians treat the CAG as an actual hindrance to the smooth functioning of government bodies. This has been demonstrated by the law minister, Arun Jaitley, sidestepping the CAG findings on the coffin controversy (“Shut down scheme to bury coffin row”, Dec 13). The CAG must be free to decide the scope and extent of an audit without outside interference. So the insult implicit in the government’s behaviour is an assault on a most democratic institution.

Yours faithfully,
Niloy Sinha, Murshidabad

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