Sunday, September 25, 2011

Starting Anew

Later today I will go on air one last time. I've spent exactly 2.5 years at NewsX. There have been many ups & many downs. It's not easy staying motivated when you're consistently at the bottom of the ratings. But I understand enough about television to know ratings don't necessarily reflect the quality of your content or the hard work of the staff. (UPDATE: I should add that this isn't the reason I'm leaving. That will be apparent soon enough).

People here work hard. Too hard, sometimes. But luck hasn't been kind to them. There are many valuable lessons i'll take from my time here. Soon I shall manage a team of my own & these lessons will come in handy.

The first is there is simply no substitute for quality. Your audience may not always respond to its presence. However, they will instantly recognise its absence & they will be unforgiving.

The second is let people surprise you. People are inherently creative. Sadly, organisations tend to disincentivise reasonable risk-taking & initiative. Give people the freedom to create (and sometimes make mistakes). Invest in them and they will return great dividends. They will thank you.

Third, with a hat-tip to one of the greatest editors that lived, comment is free but facts are sacred. I won't say more on this.

Fourth, being a friendly boss is good but it's more important to be fair and reward & penalise with consistency.

Fifth, it's ok to "wing it" in the short term. But always make sure you're following a plan. Stick to the general "story arc" over the long run.

Sixth, don't shout unless it is the only way you will be heard in an emergency. Shouting achieves no long-term objective.

Seventh, growth & learning are extremely important both as an organisation and as a person. Never stop learning and you will never stop growing.

Eighth, a team without morale is in a very dangerous place. Good leaders work hard to ensure morale is high. They work hard to balance the team. They work hard to keep the team focused. Good teams also learn from mistakes without fear.

Ninth, if you're not comfortable doing something, say so. Never compromise on ethics.

And tenth, like quality, there is no substitute for hard work. A journalist spends time collecting facts. Then the journalist makes sense of these facts. Fact-finding & great writing are two pillars of a good story. But always in that order.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

'Strident Language'

A Global Times op-ed this week urged Beijing to take every step necessary to block India's planned exploration of the oil fields off the Vietnamese coast.

Now Global Times usually takes a harder line than Beijing eventually does. However, since its op-eds are always cleared by the party, this provocation cannot go unanswered.

The question is how? I suggested two days ago that India should first & foremost display it's preparedness to defend its economic interests. To that end, joint exercises with South East Asian nations are a good start. More naval hardware can also be sent East for joint patrols with local navies. This is as much a signal to Beijing as it is to regional governments who will thus be assured of India's commitment to them.

On the economic/strategic front India must raise the stakes to make China think twice about interfering. Japan imports most of its oil and is also worried about China's hegemonic designs. A good move would be to invite Japan to invest in the Vietnamese oil field. Australia is also a good choice. It has considerable expertise in oil exploration and would also welcome a hedge against Chinese aggression.

The US may be wary about such a move. However it has asked India to play a greater role in the Indian Ocean.

If China wishes to respond to Japanese participation in the oil field it could choose do so militarily. The costs will be great. It also risks drawing the US into the conflict via Japan's mutual defence treaty.

It could on the other hand take the matter to an intentional panel. However Vietnam has a strong legal basis for its claim of the field.

The US, which may be wary about antagonising China, may suggest a second think. However it has on several occasions asked India to play a greater role in stabilizing the Indian Ocean; partially to reduce its own burden.

New Delhi must tell Washington that it has a willing partner in India to help achieve stability. However it must also ask Washington to be prepared to back its partner when push comes to shove.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

All At Sea

Two weeks ago, the press reported about an alleged confrontation between the INS Airavat and an un-named Chinese "warship" in the South China sea.

An MEA statement on the matter said "India supports freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea... These principles should be respected by all."
Today, China upped the ante. A foreign ministry spokesman said "I would like to reaffirm that China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the island."

So why now? India's foreign minister is in Vietnam to negotiate an agreement on oil exploration. Vietnam and China both claim the portion of the South China Sea where the oil blocks are located.

There are three options here. India and Vietnam could make a joint petition to the relevant international authority so the matter can be settled legally. The second is for India & Vietnam to stake their claim by force. The third is to back off and find oil somewhere else.

I've argued - half-jokingly - that a good response to China's aggression would be for India to send a Carrier Group on a 'friendly tour' of East Asia. This awesome hard-power ambassador would send a fitting message to Beijing. First because China's aggression and claims are maritime. More importantly however, China's carrier program is still in its infancy. Thus, its ability to project matching power isn't as great. 

China is in a precarious position. Vietnam isn't the only East Asian country it has a maritime dispute with. Several countries - Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand - have mutual defence treaties with the U.S. Chinese aggression against one of them will spread fear across the region. Already, Indonesia and Vietnam have begun joint-patrolling of the area to stave off Chinese advances. It won't take much more for one of these countries to invoke their respective treaty if attacked. 

China knows this. India should realise that China knows this and call its bluff. B. Raman has (as always) more excellent, analysis here.

Al Qaeda makes the U.S and Pakistan fight... again!

I love this story. It highlights - perfectly - how badly aligned the U.S's and Pakistan's interests are.

About a day ago, it says, a Pakistani intelligence official told NBC that Ayman al-Zawahiri had fled the country for either Yemen of Somalia.

Interestingly, David Petraeus, the new CIA director, also believes this is likely - although it hasn't happened yet. And he certainly doesn't name those two countries.

Sure, why not? The CIA has quadrupled drone strikes under President Obama. Zawahiri would want to be somewhere safe, right? Of course, the Pakistani official ignores the fact that the CIA has begun drone strikes in both Yemen & Somalia. That's because, as Petraeus notes, Somalia has become a new haven for terror groups. It would be stupid for Zawahiri to go from the frying pan into the fire.

Then it gets better. The story also notes how hours later, an American intelligence official told the same channel that he believed al-Zawahiri would never leave the safe haven that was Pakistan.

So far, so good; just differing analysis on the same situation. But it's what the U.S official says next that shows exactly what the CIA thinks. Bear in mind it was an ISI official who made the claim that Zawahiri had left Pakistan.

To this, U.S intelligence official says: "These are the same people who insisted all along that bin Laden was in Afghanistan."

I won't say more.

India, Afghanistan & the Taliban

Earlier this month the New Yorker released this story on slain Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad. One portion of the piece described how Indian Intelligence attempted to turn Shahzad and use his extensive contacts with the Taliban (Shahzad refused).

India will naturally deny this happened, but I find it highly plausible. India has invested billions in Afghanistan. Indian companies are themselves involved in major infrastructure and commercial ventures. Unfortunately, since Afghan security is still inadequate, a significant portion of these companies investments are being routed to pro-Taliban tribes as, quite literally, a security deposit

This "security" cost is upsetting the economics of the projects. Indian companies are already bidding as low as possible to fight off competition from their Chinese counterparts.

Later this month Kabul will decide on the contract for the Hajigak mine. It's one of the region's largest. A government-backed Indian consortium is in the running. Security for such a major, long-term project, among others, would be impossible unless the Taliban agrees to stand down.

Shahzad's contacts within the Taliban would have helped to at least begin such a dialogue. His refusal (& subsequent murder) have shut down that route.

Nevertheless India has another option. New Delhi has been pushing the U.S to allow it to train Afghanistan soldiers and officers.Keeping Pakistan's fears in mind, Washington has ensured only a limited role. Delhi must keep up the pressure. A contract with Kabul for training its soldiers can include a clause for providing security at Indian investments.

Foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, who is in Kabul, should take this up with his counterparts. Ultimately the U.S cannot block the Afghan government from doing what it wants. A request by Afghanistan in Bonn for Indian help can't be ignored.