Editorial/Clipping wings
Realpolitik of the spirit

The prime minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, had said a stronger telecommunications regulator would be the cornerstone of a new national telecom policy. Two years later his information technology minister, Mr Pramod Mahajan, has come up with an ordinance that promises the opposite. Where once the telecom regulatory authority of India was being destroyed piecemeal, the ordinance will kill it in one blow. TRAI will be little more than a tariff setting body. This is not a unique case. Eviscerating regulatory bodies is now a pattern in India. The old licence raj has been resurrected, disguised with the mask of a regulatory body.

One legacy of Nehruvian socialism�s licence system was corruption in high places. What, how much and where you could make or sell anything was dependent on the signature of a bureaucrat or politician. Businessmen found that the best, if not only, way to ensure the file was cleared was to pay bribes.

Shifting entire chunks of infrastructure out of the clutches of ministries and into the hands of autonomous regulators was designed to curb this corruption. The ideal model was an industry that functioned on its own. The regulatory body would have orders to encourage investment and serve consumers in the industry. It would set prices, provide licences and otherwise obey a set of guidelines. Its decision making would be transparent to reduce the chances of pelf peddling. At the top of the pyramid would be a competition tribunal to settle disputes between firms and regulators.

All this would rob politicians and bureaucrats of the discretionary powers by which they helped friends and paymasters. A more open system would also attract foreign and domestic private investment in infrastructure. Infrastructure tends to give low returns over a long period of time. Such investors like safety and are reassured by open and stable environments.

This type of environment is exactly what an autonomous regulator should provide. In many countries such bodies have attracted billions of dollars of investment and transformed telecom, power and water systems. India, with its creaking infrastructure and dearth of money, hoped to do the same. However, autonomy and openness mean that politicians and bureaucrats lose the discretionary power which allowed them to line their pockets. The end result in India has been two faced policies. New Delhi sets up regulatory bodies to attract investment. Then it quietly cuts away at their authority so it retains the final say on where the money goes. This is old socialist wine in new economic bottles. Go-ing by the TRAI ordinance, the Bharatiya Janata Party seems as little interested in the consumer as its predecessors.

Other regulators are in an equally sorry state. The tariff authority for major ports is not even governed by a separate law. Its jurisdiction has been shrinking almost monthly. The central electricity regulator is not mandated to consider consumer interests and has no say in licensing. Central and state power regulators are uncertain about the extent of their authority. The department of telecommunications liked to invoke section 25 of the TRAI Act which made the regulator subordinate to whatever directives the Centre passed �from time to time�. The law that set up the fledgling insurance regulatory authority has the same clause. India�s infrastructure is the main impediment to overall economic growth. Wary foreign investors commit only token sums of money to these sectors.

It is not as if such reforms are impossible in India. The Orissa state electricity regulator is a model of how an autonomous regulator should function. The expected replacement of the hoary monopolies and restrictive trade practices commission could be a launching pad for revitalizing regulatory bodies. Otherwise, the Vajpayee government will continue to look less like a promoter of economic reforms and more like a practitioner of saffron coloured socialism.    

On the whole, India�s has been a principled stand on Tibet. It was not surprising, therefore, that Ajit Panja responded so promptly on behalf of the external affairs ministry to George Fernandes�s urgings with the assurance that the boy karmapa lama would be allowed to remain in this country. Panja�s �for some time� may have seemed a shade inhospitable, but the explanation for this apparent ambivalence could be linguistic. A presumably surprised New Delhi may also be working out its options. It must be India�s and the world�s hope � as well as the karmapa lama�s � that he can return to Tibet one day. But only if he can do so with dignity. The minimum basis for that would be China�s acceptance of the five-point compromise plan that the dalai lama first outlined in 1987, and whose concession to Beijing�s insistence on overall control was sharply denounced by militant Tibetans.

India can make the dalai lama�s plea for �a self-governing, democratic, political entity in association with the People�s Republic of China� part of the agenda for the current bilateral dialogue. Of course, the Chinese would be furious. But being pragmatists, they would realize that having played host to the Tibetans for forty years, and done so without trying to extract any political mileage, India has a legitimate interest in the peaceful resolution of a conflict that places severe strain on this country too. Also, that a negotiated settlement that extends to Tibet the one-nation-two-systems formula that Deng Xiaoping proposed to Margaret Thatcher, and which facilitated the agreement over Hongkong, would be preferable to another Khampa revolt. After the merger of Hongkong and Macau, a confident China should realize that an amicable arrangement with Tibet would greatly improve its bargaining position with both Taiwan and the United States. Moreover, Deng did say that �except for the independence of Tibet, all other questions can be negotiated�.

Fernandes and others who are committed to preserving Tibet�s distinctive national identity believe that the problem might have been avoided altogether if Jawaharlal Nehru had taken a stronger stand instead of merely wondering �Liberated from whom?�, when Mao Zedong�s troops claimed to have �liberated� Tibet. Others argue that Nehru should have obtained safeguards in respect of Aksai Chin, the MacMahon Line and relations with Bhutan and Sikkim in lieu of surrendering India�s extra-territorial rights in Tibet and recognizing Chinese claims over the country.

Criticism on both counts is justified. India�s pan-Asian exuberance was at the expense of national self-interest and humanitarian concern. Nehru�s foreign service advisers were largely to blame. They did not brief him properly on the gamut of Sino-Indian interests on the ground; their incompetence or mischief also resulted in the outrageous folly of acknowledging China�s �sovereignty� over Tibet when New Delhi meant �suzerainty�. But Nehru�s own inability to temper idealism with realpolitik was also responsible for the blunder.

Bungling, partisanship and timidity notwithstanding, India has not played politics with Tibet unlike the Western powers. It should not start now, and must make it clear that the presence in this country of Julia Taft, the US special coordinator for Tibet, had no bearing on New Delhi�s decisions. However, the Tibetans have much to gain from cultivating American ties, for only the US can exert some pressure on China. But the Tibetans are also aware that the US helps them only when it suits other US objectives.

�To understand Vietnam, it is necessary to understand that the issue is not Vietnam�, said Gale McGee, an American senator, in 1968. Similarly with Tibet. The dalai lama�s meetings with George Bush and Bill Clinton were determined not by presidential concern for six million Tibetans but by the ebb and flow of relations with Beijing. The US is now planning to table a resolution criticizing China�s human rights record at the United Nations human rights commission in Geneva. No one will deny that Beijing behaves atrociously with political liberals, trade unionists and student leaders, compounding the Tienanmen Square massacre with its brutal suppression of the Falun Gong sect. But no American administration would have taken note of this last atrocity if it had not been for other strains in Sino-American ties. Bush did not even mention Tibet when he went to Beijing after the Tibetan revolt of 1987. Clinton was equally indulgent on his last visit to reinforce the Sino-American �strategic partnership�.

Acrimony over American intervention in Kosovo and the probably deliberate bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, differences over China�s membership of the World Trade Organization, and allegations of Chinese military and industrial espionage in the US, as well as of funding political parties there, might all have been resolved if Beijing had been more obliging with contracts and export and import quotas. The pattern of American foreign policy shows that previously, the US hit back militarily when it was thwarted politically; now, it retaliates politically when there is a setback on the economic front. It is no secret that American agencies recruited, trained, armed and financed Khampa refugees who were airdropped in Tibet or infiltrated through the principality of Mustang in Nepal. That covert action came to an end when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger decided to enlist China�s help against the Soviet Union. Similarly, Clinton readily cancelled routine resolutions criticizing China�s human rights transgressions when Jiang Zemin stepped up economic cooperation.

Because of their present difficulties with China, the Americans are bound to try and exploit the karmapa lama�s flight. This is the new Great Game. With few cards to play, the dalai lama must make the best of circumstances. He has not stood on his dignity about meeting American presidents or been squeamish about Clinton�s clumsy subterfuge of �dropping in�, almost by chance as it were, while he happened to be chatting with Hillary Clinton. When a government has said it does not want an official visit, the dalai lama has not hesitated to go there unofficially. When a government refuses to let him in, he changes his travel plans without rancour. His strength lies in rising above insult or expediency, and in always grasping the proffered hand without looking for the motive behind it.

India can help in three ways. First, by ensuring that the karmapa lama is treated as befits his high rank and installed with honour in the Rumtek monastery in Sikkim where his predecessor established himself after fleeing Tibet. No matter how many other candidates there might be, the dalai lama recognized only Ugyen Trinley Dorje, and that should suffice for New Delhi. Playing up one candidate against another is Beijing�s game. Second, by ensuring that the young man is not caught in a web of stratagems aimed at furthering the interests of other governments. And third, by using this event actively, but privately, to press legitimate Tibetan rights with China. Tibet may not have Hongkong�s economic leverage but, as Jiang once admitted, peace in Tibet is �crucial to the success of reforms, development and stability throughout the country�. National growth is bound to be impeded if Tibet, which covers one-eighth of the overall territory, is in ferment.

A 14 year old boy, 17th incarnation though he be of a high prelate, may not grasp all this, though his flight itself demonstrated mature political will and a readiness to take risks. He has sound advisers and wise teachers including the dalai lama and his team; they might enable him to benefit from global realpolitik while retaining his independence and integrity. Given Beijing�s cynical politicking which has eroded the panchen lama�s office and authority, the karmapa lama is the second most important personage on the Tibetan scene. The world will be watching his every gesture with avid interest.    


It�s not golf

Sir � A golfing governor is certainly impressive in these parts, if only as a sign of West Bengal�s eagerness to shrug off its earlier laidback image. The differences between Nurul Hasan and Viren Shah are vast. The former resident of Raj Bhavan was an eminent scholar, a secularist and very leftwing. But the present one is an industrialist and has connections with the �communal� Bharatiya Janata Party. While the former was more comfortable in academic circles, the latter is more at home teeing off. What both have in common, though, is their equation with West Bengal�s charismatic chief minister, Jyoti Basu. That might make for smooth administration of the state, but what does it say about Basu�s beliefs?

Yours faithfully,
R. Banerjee, Calcutta

Off the mark

Sir �In �Games children play� (Nov 27), Samita Bhatia criticizes violent video games on the ground that they have an adverse impact on children. But is not violence a part of our daily lives, thanks to television channels like AXN? Children also enjoy watching violent movies like Terminator and Rambo, and these are not exactly fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella.

Bhatia recommends games like Garfield and Tom and Jerry for children instead. But life is not a fairy tale. It might even be said that children learn more about life through games like Quake and Doom.

Of course parents must be careful that children do not learn to be aggressive from these games. It is the element of adventure that parents must emphasize. But there is a more perplexing question here. Why are children attracted to �virtual� games rather than to physical ones? The obvious answer to this is that with the proliferation of multi-storeyed buildings in urban areas, there are no empty spaces where children can play. Thus they have to make do with unreal monsters and heroes.

Yours faithfully,
Somnath Sengupta, Calcutta

Sir � It seems Pakshi Vasudeva has never had much to do with domestic servants. Which is why �Master stroke� (Nov 3) reads more like a theory about how to treat domestic help. The simple truth is that if one does not treat one�s domestic help well these days, one might well be left without one the next day.

Almost every village has electricity and every second home has a television. If one denies one�s domestic help facilities like good food, cable TV and electricity the chances are one might never get any domestic help at all. Pakshi�s formulations would have been relevant and appreciated a decade ago.

Yours faithfully,
Bedashruti Mitra, Raigarh

Sir �Mallika Sarabhai is quite unwarrantedly optimistic about the changes that have occurred in Indian society, especially with regard to the way they reflect on Indian women (�Freedom is just another word�, Dec 28). If she is going merely by her own experience of an amicable separation with her husband, then she is eons away from the general experience of Indian women. She is a success and success everywhere follows its own rules.

How can one forget Charan Shah, who preferred to be charred to death rather than face life without her husband? The lot of women has not changed at all, much less for the better. The family structure continues to be repressive of women.

And contrary to what Sarabhai says, the situation in the cities is not significantly better than it is in the villages. The problems are only of a different kind.

Yours faithfully,
Radhika Sen, Calcutta

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