November 9, 2010

Was Obama's '$200 million-a-day' trip a bargaining ploy?

Remember all that talk about President Barack Obama's trip to India costing $200 million-per-day?

The Daily Show has unraveled the mystery of the exorbitant -- and inaccurate -- number: It was an opening negotiating ploy.

The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi explains that this was all a simple cultural misunderstanding: The mistake for Westerners was to accept the first number they heard. The $200 million was supposed to set off a round of haggling over the true value of the trip...

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Rally to Restore Sanity

November 7, 2010

How the president tried to get his groove back in India

Taking a lead from his wife, who won local respect on Saturday for her RDB dance moves in Mumbai, President Barack Obama sought to prove his "swoon-worthiness" on Sunday by testing out his own dance moves in India.

Such things are always fraught with risk.

One of the iconic moments of President George W. Bush's second White House term -- at least for late night comedians like Jon Stewart -- came in 2007 when the Republican leader busted out with some stiff, awkward dancing while appearing on stage with African performers at a White House Malaria Awareness Day event.

This morning in Mumbai, after watching his wife once again take to the dance floor, President Obama reluctantly allowed the kids to get him out of his seat.

The New York Times has already weighed in to suggest that the dance video has the potential to become "an iconic one of the trip."

Commentators on Indian TV spent the morning debating the relevance of the American president's dance moves. The bottom-line, among one panel anyway: Indian leaders could take a lesson in charm from President Obama and lighten up themselves.

An early review from the Wall Street Journal reporter, Jonathan Weisman, who was at the event and asked to provide pool for the White House traveling press, was less charitable.

"When the kids beckoned, Mrs. Obama jumped up to join," Weisman wrote. "The President resisted. His wife did a remarkable job keeping up with the kids. Then Mr. Obama gave in, did some not-terribly graceful shuffling then threw in the towel and gathered the kids around for photos."

November 6, 2010

The First Lady gets her groove on

It didn't take long for America's first lady to find her groove in South Asia.

On Day One of the First Couple's three-day visit to India, while her husband was off trying to prove to India that he is "swoon-worthy," First Lady Michelle Obama was off getting funky with disadvantaged kids in Mumbai.

During her visit to the University of Mumbai, Michelle Obama played hopscotch, joined in drumming and played the tambourine with the kids. But the highlight came when America's first lady took to the dance floor, in a moment captured on video.

The tune, "Rang De Basanti," or "Paint It Yellow," by Daler Mehndi, the "King of Punjabi pop," comes from a movie of the same name.

The film "Rang De Basanti," is widely viewed as being a catalyst for youth activism in India. It is sometimes known as "the RDB Effect," or "RDB Syndrome."

“The society will be ruined by these evil politicians. Its time to have a Rang De Basanti type resurgence,” one blogger wrote when the movie came out.

"The RDB Effect" was seen as a motivating force behind protests over the Jessica Lall murder case.

In 2006, the suspect, the son of an influential politician, was acquitted of murdering the model inside a restaurant packed with hundreds of witnesses.

Amid the public uproar over the acquital, the Indian legal system moved to convict the killer, Manu Sharma,10 months later. The case also became the foundation for the film "No One Killed Jessica."

So, was America's first lady sending a subtle, anti-corruption message with her dancing?


October 30, 2010

Does the road to Kabul go through Kashmir?

(An Indian soldier stands near fresh graffiti in Srinagar on Saturday, Oct. 30)

Next week, after what is expected to be a humbling Election Day for Democrats, President Barack Obama will head to India at the start of his first post-election travels overseas.

Obama is expected to visit Mumbai and commemorate the devastating 2008 attacks that have recently been linked to Pakistan's ISI spy agency.

The attack was the work of Lashkar-e Taiba, the Pakistan-backed militant group fighting to force India to relinquish control of Kashmir.

While Obama is expected to discuss terrorism and regional insecurity, it appears as if the American president is likely to evade much discussion of Kashmir.

As Paul Beckett recently noted at the Wall Street Journal, Obama aides briefing White House reporters on the trip appeared to studiously avoid use of "the K-word."

Kashmir has been on a steady boil since June, when the death of a 17-year-old protester unleashed the most destabilizing series of protests in years.

Indian forces have killed more than 110 people since June. Stone throwing demonstrators routinely square off with Indian forces. Government officials regularly impose curfews on activist hotbeds. And opposition leaders call for prolonged strikes.

And, this weekend, opposition leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani issued a new call for demonstrators to intensify their protests during Obama's visit.

There are many reasons for Obama to avoid saying "the K-word."

First and foremost, Obama's Indian hosts have adamantly resisted repeated attempts by American leaders to act as mediators in the dispute.

Indian sensitivity about Kashmir was again on display this month when Indian officials threatened to arrest writer Arundhati Roy for sedition after she suggested that India had no historic claim to Kashmir.

In response, Roy issued a terse statement defending her position.

"Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds," she wrote. "Pity the nation that needs to jail those who ask for justice, while communal killers, mass murderers, corporate scamsters, looters, rapists, and those who prey on the poorest of the poor, roam free."

Since Obama is focused primarily on economic issues, he's unlikely to rile Indian leaders by bringing Kashmir to the forefront.

At the same time, there are many who argue that Kashmir is central to Obama's hopes of bringing a measure of stability to Afghanistan.

Kashmir has been the spark for two wars between India and Pakistan, and resolving the land dispute is central to assuaging concerns in both countries about the territorial ambitions of their longstanding rivals.

"The Road to Kabul Runs Through Kashmir," Newsweek argued earlier this year.

"The intifada that exploded this summer in Kashmir cannot be ignored by the president during the visit but any comments on it will be potentially explosive," Brookings Institution senior fellow Bruce Riedel recently noted.

Last month in The New York Review of Books, respected author and journalist Steve Coll argued for greater US involvement in Kashmir.

"The interests that the United States has in the Kashmir conflict are greater now than at any time in the postwar period," Coll wrote. "American efforts to prevent a second Taliban revolution in Afghanistan and to quell Islamist rebellion within Pakistan are unlikely to succeed if ISI continues its three-decade practice of using jihadi groups to wage their own brand of war against India."

But, in the wake of Election Day, it seems unlikely that Obama will trouble the waters in India.

April 18, 2010

Battling Indian bureaucracy, Part I: The Shouting Man

There are many places in the world that could make a serious play for the title as Worst Bureaucracy in the World.

Last fall, the AP's Paul Schemm made a good argument for Egypt.

With his infant son in a BabyBjorn on his chest, Schemm was temporarily sucked into an Egyptian bureaucracy vortex as he tried to register his child.

It was no fun.

According to one study, it takes Egyptians nine hours and 3.5 days to get some government approval, a license or whatnot.

Well, there's also a case to be made for India.

Bureaucracy_infocom.jpe Two years ago, a Hong Kong-based consultancy firm ranked India's  "suffocating bureaucracy" the worst in Asia.

"A driver’s license, an electricity connection, a birth certificate – it’s virtually impossible to get any of these without paying out bribes at every stage or taking days off work to stand in serpentine queues, waiting for officials to return from three-hour lunch breaks," one article on the study noted. 

I've had a small taste of Indian bureaucracy while getting a journalist visa in Delhi.

It began last fall with a visit to an Indian Embassy in the Middle East, where I explained that I would be heading to Delhi.

After days of waiting, the Indian embassy suggested I get a business visa, which I did.

When I got to Delhi a few days later, a government official promptly informed me that I had come in on the wrong visa. I would have to leave the country and return on a journalist visa. There was no other way.

One can safely say that there are better ways to spend time than loitering around the twice bombed Indian embassy in Kabul as nervous drivers zip down the narrow road.

The guards assigned to the Indian embassy are, understandably, not the chillest of people. They bark orders, push people around and would no doubt prefer to be re-assigned.

(On one visit, we heard that the latest security alerts warned that bombers might try to hit the embassy using police vehicles. And since police speed past the embassy all day, it made the guards even more edgy than usual...)

The Indian embassy doesn't allow cell phones or pens inside. The guys in the visa section may treat your application like a disappointed teacher grading an under-performing student's English Lit essay on Chaucer.

After noting all the places I had screwed up on the application, my Disappointed Teacher informed me that, after a perfunctory check with US security, I'd be able to come back in two weeks and get the visa in a few hours.

When I returned a few weeks later, my Disappointed Teacher had been replaced by The Shouting Man, a guy who loudly berated ill-prepared visa applicants and prompted those of us waiting in the adjacent room to nervously double-check our paperwork.

Of course, when it was my turn, The Shouting Man informed me that I'd done it all wrong and that I would have to go see the head of the department.

Plus, the Shouting Man told me, I needed to have a new invitation letter from the Indian government.

When I challenged him on this unexpected new demand, the Shouting Man actually pulled out a yellowed copy of Indian laws and perused the code looking for a way to toss me out of his office.

After another series of visits to the embassy to meet the amiable -- and helpful -- head of the visa section, I finally got my journalist visa.

Now my journey into the heart of Indian bureaucracy could begin!


Checkpoint Kabul is written by McClatchy journalists covering Afghanistan and south Asia.

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