Tuesday, February 28, 2006


When I was growing up, I somehow managed to watch a fair amount of boxing, much of it with my father. I have his general preference for middleweights over heavyweights, for example. But most people turn out for the heavyweight fights. Which class is better, now that's the question.

Which is the way I feel about India's armed forces. Sure, the army's the heavyweight. They've clearly got a PR machine, where they whip out classic one-liners ("how's my parking" indeed). But consider if you will the Coast Guard and the Air Force. Nimble, thrifty, forced to compete with a juggernaut. And what do they turn out?

Are you ok with swagger? Confidence? Are you maybe thinking "Talk to me Goose!" Yes, baby, top gun. Top Gun! What are these guys' nicknames? Not Dimple, not Baby. No, these are men who are ready to face the challenge. Air Warriors. (In other news, I hope you can see this picture, at least when you get the larger version. Shooting pics from a rickshaw is tough sometimes. And they don't really understand when you say, "Ooh! Pull over so I can take a picture of that ad."

Next! Here's a counterpuncher for you. Swarming all over you, throwing you a hook, shouting "Feel the Thrill, sucka!" Ok, they're not doing that at all. But you have to give the Coast Guard credit, they manage to get more images onto a billboard than any of the other services. They seem to be saying, "we can afford all kinds of stuff, check it out." I don't know, I associate "feel the thrill" more with maybe bungee jumping, but maybe that's what the new Indian generation is all about? Of course, what's the US Coast Guard catch phrase? I don't know either....

I still haven't found a navy. Maybe the coast guard is the navy? I don't think so, as I believe the Indians and the Chinese recently held joint naval exercises, but that's just a stray memory from somewhere.

Anyway, judge as you like. I'll try to pop a few more pictures up if I can. I love this place.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Poem #7: First Lesson

Lie back, daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

- by Philip Booth

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Armed Forces Advertising Bake-Off!

One of the baffling, wonderful things about Delhi, and really all of India, is the just-slightly-different way they use language. On top of this, there is (to me, of course) a lack of jadedness, a willingness to accept advertising messages at face value, in a way that just doesn't exist in the US. India never had a true counter-culture movement, did it? I don't think it had a nouveau cinema flowering the way France did, a sixties/seventies experience the way the US did. Did it ever have its Bowie, its Velvet Underground, heck, even its Doors?

I think because of this basic cultural conservatism, there's a kind of American Graffiti (or Indian Graffiti) feeling in the air. Sexual mores still seem to center around lots of giggling and wishful thinking, kind of like Grease. It's changing fast, but it's still here.

For whatever reasons, it makes for awesome advertising. As one example, the armed forces have some really good ads dispersed throughout the city. I've seen some for the army, the coast guard, and the air force. None for the Navy yet, but I'll keep looking. I like the cut of the Coast Guard's advertising jib ("Feel the Thrill."), and I think the Air Force may have the best action shots, but right now I'll start with this series of four army ads. What are they really going for in this series of coordinated messages? I think the answer is simple: P-R-I-D-E. Some of these ads are oriented toward recruiting, some are more about upgrading the image of the army.

Sometimes, though, it's difficult to tell why some ads are placed. "Am I Marching Smartly?" What prompted this, one wonders. Perhaps there's been a rash of poor marching taking over the army ranks? Is this a drastic problem or just a gentle reminder? Or again, perhaps it's all just about upholding the pride that comes with being a member of India's army - the iron first wrapped in velvet, as they say.

Certainly that seems to be the case with this next ad / propaganda piece - "I Take Pride in My Uniform." No explanation necessary here. And for anyone who's seen the Republic Day celebration (book your tickets now!), I think it's clear the armed forces take pride in their uniforms. Sure, sometimes it looks like Morris Day and the Time found a second career as uniform designers, but these men are sporting a more conservative look. "We've seen things you can't possibly imagine," they seem to be saying.

Of course, with all positions of power come responsibility. And what greater responsibility than accurate parking? The person who dreamed up this advertising gem was clearly on their "A" game. OK, I confess that I don't understand this ad, but I'm not in the army, am I? Perhaps this is just another example of the benevolence of the army. I mean, I wouldn't want to be the one who is parked perpendicular to all the other cars in the lot. Thanks, army! That's what I say.

Next up: Coast Guard!

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Sick... Phooey (and Poem #6)

Good news - 3 day weekend!
Bad news - I'm kind of sick, purely my own responsibility, as I've been trying to burn the candle on both ends. Instead of getting sleep, I went and played early-morning tennis and then stayed late at work, etc. When will I learn?!? I guess it's the human condition. But overall, I'm fine. I'm going to relax tonight and go see the latest epic movie to sweep India - Rang de Basanti (Paint it Saffron perhaps is the translation??). More on that later, but it's got Aamir Khan, who was in Lagaan (and Dil Chhate Hei of course), and is about an englishwoman who comes to do a documentary on her grandfather's role in the British occupation. Good songs, deep discussions, and she somehow speaks perfect Hindi/Punjabi. Curse her!

Anyway, another poem to try to keep up with my New Year's Resolution of a poem a week! This is one of my old favorites, first told to me on the barren alkali floor of Black Rock City by the poetry jukebox. It's called simply Poetry (I think) and is by Pablo Neruda:

And it was at that age...Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
that fire
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating planations,
shadow perforated,
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesmal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
I felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke free on the open sky.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hacking up a politics furball...

(Note: rolling unedited blogular post ahead, decidedly boring, basic, and about politics. Likely to be updated. Beware.)

One of the things I love most about India is that there is quite a broad spectrum of political parties. Now, I say I love this, and by that I mean it's fascinating. There's a kind of pinball effect always in play, like that show The McLaughin Group, but in Hindi. This country is changing so rapidly, and everyone's accusing everyone else of not doing it the right way, or of ignoring this or that interest group. The debates are about class and culture, about a history of agriculture vs. the rise of computers, and of course about tradition and modernity. It all winds up as a big family argument, with weird flashpoints and triggers. At this point, I'm just trying to identify the main players on the political stage and their affilitations in terms of class and culture.

From my rudimentary viewpoint (I'm in Consular, not Political, remember!), we have three main national parties, the BJP, Congress, and the Left Coalition (led by the Communist Party of India, or CPI). The BJP is out of power and flailing, but on occasion it lands some embarassing body blows to the central government. The BJP is synonymous with Hindu nationalism, center-right economic policies, and with the idea that a rising tides lifts all boats (aka the "new economy," "outsourcing," and "India Shining."). Much like the Republicans in the US, they have managed to turn a handy trick, convincing culturally conservative villagers to vote for a party that emphasizes investment in the Bangalores of India, potentially at their expense.

Congress is the middle-of-the-road, all-things-to-all-people, traditional power that also runs on star power. It is the party of the Nehrus and the Gandhis that has embraced securalism. Congress is currently in power as part of the United Progressive Alliance coalition (UPA). Its policies are stretched between a desire to raise the growth rate (8.1%, woohoo!) and a desire to raise the living standards of the poor. It's trying to be all things to all people, again much like Centrist Democrats in the US. But many people will tell you the latter is just a sop to maintain its coalition. Of course, many would probably say the same about mainline Dems in the US too.

Of such critics in India, a number would acquit themselves as members of the Communist Party of India (CPI) or the more radical CPI(M), or Communist Party of India (Marxist). From what little I know, they are considered by many to be obstructionist curmudgeons who often cling to their theories of non-alignment and suspicion of capitalism. To their supporters, they are heroes, a final bulwark against the hegemony of market economics. As such, they are wary of foreign direct investment (FDI) policies, seeing them as a trojan horse that could lead to a new era of colonialism, this time to multi-national corporations. So some argue that keeping FDI out is shackling India to an inefficient and lumbering economy, and the CPI folks respond that it's better to do it our own Indian way than open a Pandora's Box of bargains with foreign capital. After all, once you've sold your country, it's hard to get it back. I imagine you could compare the CPI folks to the more radical democrats in the US who are anti-NAFTA, anti-GATT, anti-WTO, etc.

The one thing all the parties seem to agree on is that India is the greatest country in the world. I've not heard the term Indian Exceptionalism, but it seems to be as strong a sentiment here as in the US or most any other country. The BJP sees India's inherent greatness in its Hindu traditions and in its ability to be a leader in the IT and computer services boom. The Communists seem to want India to make it on its own, or at the very least to not go through another round of neo-colonialism via ownership by multi-national corporations. And Congress seems to be in the middle, shouting Jai Hind and wondering how to keep it all together.

The BJP was in power recently, but was surprisingly and uncermoniously kicked out of power in the 2004 elections, which few expected. The main message at the time was: don't ignore the poor. (I think it was also a repudiation of hindutva, but I'm really uneducated on whether there was a mandate against using religion as a political wedge tool from this election or not...) Congress came to power and announced that its Common Minimum Programme (CMP) would lead India to its rightful place in the world (watch out, China!) while creating opportunites and a safety net for the poor.

Since 2004, I think Congress has shown its true colors as a middle-left, secular government that favors mild market liberalization. It's also pretty wonky at the very top. If it were a horse, I think it'd be a solid bay, not a galloping wonder, but a solid ride nonetheless. Fortunately or unfortunately, one member of the UPA has popped a bit in Congress's mouth and is riding it hard. The CPI has kept Congress from going too far to the right, and the debate from my perspective is whether they are benefiting the country in doing so, or if they should just step off and fade into history. I'm really not sure.

For my part, on the one hand, I do love the fact that the communist party is alive here. While it is full of graft and some parts may be associated with Naxalite rebels/terrorists, the Communists do represent the left-behinds in India, the people who are generally without running water, who work as laborers for less than a dollar a day, and who vote based on whether they have more electricity this year than last. Tom Friedman doesn't report about these folks as much, but they are still the vast majority. And they vote! Also, the party has a rich intellectual heritage (of which I know very little, unfortunately). But mostly, it serves as a foil to ask an important question - how great can our country be if the majority of us are hungry, dirty, and poor? And sometimes the question becomes a demand, i.e. show me that the rest of us are benefiting from the Bangalore boom. Otherwise, the populists and the demagogues will have their way with the vote.

Also, one could argue that the Communists have pushed Congress to implement domestic reforms. Recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a revolutionary, yet very very basic "welfare" system for poor Indians. The program basically guarantees all adults 100 days of access to labor jobs per year. Under the scheme, rural workers would be paid Rs.80 for seven hours of unskilled work every day, and would be paid even if the government could not locate jobs for them to do. Note that 80 rupees is less than two dollars per day, which is to say shockingly little, but also almost twice as much as many folks make each day. So, on the whole, it's a step forward.

On the other hand, the communists are driving me crazy! They are standing in the way of India's modernization. In their kingmaker role in the UPA, they have effectively slowed the proposed increase in foreign direct investment to a crawl. An increase in FDI would mean a massive increase in capital, which could be used for entrepreneurial growth, sure, but as importantly for infrastructure and development projects. The communists are also part of the group standing in the way of India getting out of the nuclear isolation hole it's been in for a few decades now.

Ultimately, I have no idea what's going to happen in the next month in Indian politics, much less the next year, which makes for some pretty compelling newspaper reading.

(Whew. This was a long, unedited ramble on politics with little fact-checking (perfect for a blog, no?). If anyone's made it this far and cares to correct me, please do so. These are all just my perceptions, and I'd like to sharpen them a good deal!)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Poem #5: The Gift

I want to give you something, my child,
for we are drifting in the stream of the world.
Our lives will be carried apart,
and our love forgotten.
But I am not so foolish as to hope that
I could buy your heart with my gifts.
Young is your life, your path long, and
you drink the love we bring you at one draught
and turn and run away from us.
You have your play and your playmates.
What harm is there if you have no time
or thought for us.

We, indeed, have leisure enough in old age
to count the days that are past,
to cherish in our hearts what our
hands have lost for ever.
The river runs swift with a song,
breaking through all barriers.
But the mountain stays and remembers,
and follows her with his love.

--Rabindranath Tagore (From 'The Crescent Moon')

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Condi's Revolution

The Divine Ms. M forwarded me a January 23 article by Ralph Peters for the New York Post called "Condi's Revolution". (The NY Post requires registration, so this link takes you to a reprinted version.) It's a response to Secretary Rice's recent speech at Georgetown on transformational diplomacy. I recommend first reading Rice's speech, then Peters' piece, and then my own little diatribe.

The upshot of Lt Col Peters' piece is that Secretary Rice is knocking heads at State, and the befuddled dangerphobes there are running for cover. And while it's high time for such moves, they are sure to make Rice the "most hated" Secretary of State ever by her charges at Foggy Bottom. Luckily, I think he's wrong. While individual officers may have a range of opinions on Secretary Rice's effectiveness and priorities, I think most agree, and have long agreed, that increasing our presence in rising powers (like China and India) and "non-western" cultures (read - the Arab world) is vitally important.

Peters first notes approvingly that diplomats are now required to learn two foreign languages and develop regional expertise in two areas. This is true, and applauded by everyone in the Service I've spoken with. Note also that these requirements were developed while Colin Powell was still Secretary of State, and he is regarded as perhaps the most popular Secretary of State ever by folks here. So, they're neither hate-inducing nor particularly new.

His second point, that "Old" Europe has been disrespected via the shifting of diplomats from traditionally larger European posts to rising countries like India and China, is perhaps half-true, but comes off more as another refrain of Rumsfeld's chorus, circa 2003. Officers are being shifted, but I think it's more a reflection that China and India's economies are surging. Such countries stand to become ever more important in terms of economic output, resource competition, and realpolitik discussions. Of course officers will be posted to such places - one wonders why would this cause an uproar.

Here in Delhi, I can definitely say that State folks are excited to go to India, China, Iraq, Brazil, etc. My second day at post, the Political Counselor told me that years from now we'll look back and say we were in India when everything changed. Not exactly present at the creation, but pretty close, and you can feel it in the air. Who wouldn't want to be a part of the discussion around nuclear separation plans in India, the tension between human rights and economic development in China, or the rise of populism (again) in South America?

His third point rehashes the second, implying that the increased emphasis on other countries can only mean a diminution in Europe's importance. However, I don't think this is a zero-sum game. State has for the last few years been reversing a long-term trend of hiring below attrition. Through Powell's Diplomatic Readiness Initiative (DRI), there has been a focus on hiring, on technology, and on recruiting speakers of critical needs languages. The end result is that we remain able to work with our traditional allies while increasing our ability to reach into new areas. After all, it's not in our interest to disrespect the third and fourth largest economies (Germany and UK) just to pander to the fifth (China). I think our goal is to be open to all, and to do so in as expert a fashion as possible.

Peters' fourth point takes the increased emphasis within State on serving in danger/hardship posts (again, started by Powell I believe) and twists it into an attack on the courage and desire of those in State to serve. Beyond being in poor taste and counterproductive, it's also false. Next time he calls State employees gutless and like "Chinese court eunuchs," he should remember that more Ambassadors have died in the line of duty since Vietnam than generals. I'm definitely not questioning the bravery of those in uniform, just wishing for a more unifying tone. We're all working toward the same ends over here, after all.

He then throws out a few more personal daggers, referring to Foreign Service Officers as eurotrash, calcified and arrogant, and lacking management experience. I'm not sure what experiences he has had to make him so bitter. What's patriotic about demeaning your comrades-in-arms, anyway? I'm lucky to serve in India with the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Year, the winner of the Dissent Award (Political Counselor) and the Foreign Service National of the Year (i.e. Indian coworker). Clearly, the people here are good workers and motivated, and they are not maneuvering to get into "coveted old Europe."

One good piece both Army folks and State employees should read is DOD is from Mars, State is from Venus (Microsoft Word doc). This piece handily discusses some of the traditional differences in management style between the two agencies. After reading this, it's easy to see how innocent "cultural" differences could be considered intentional slights, by either group.

Perhaps my favorite line is where he calls Georgetown University a "theory-poisoned backwater." I wonder what he thinks about President Bush's alma mater. Yale can hardly be less poisoned than Georgetown. As far as his suggestion that State recruit from the Pentagon, that too has long been the case. There are many former armed forces veterans in each entering class (and they're happy to be there). And they are hardly the only ones interested in "getting things done."

It is true that many people want to serve in Europe. Those positions are coveted. And I certainly wouldn't turn down Rome, I admit! But that's probably true in the armed forces as well. Europe is cushy, and lots of people like cushy, especially those with families. At the same time, I was impressed in my A-100 intro class at how many people were champing at the bit to go to Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as China and India. Many people sniffed at the idea of going to Norway or Finland. Not enough action, not enough of a chance to serve. Perhaps I just don't know the people Peters is focusing on, but at least the folks I've met in DC and India seem excited by the opportunities ahead.

I think I'll choose to put on some rose-colored glasses and re-interpret Col Peters' comments. I agree with him that the push by State to expand our presence in developing countries and to continually re-invent ourselves to address new threats is great. While Secretary Rice's plans are pretty vague in her speech, again, who can argue against expanding our presence across the world? I would also ask for his support in getting some tiny percentage of the budget DoD gets. There are still only about 6,000 generalists in the Foreign Service, with about a third of them in DC. That means 4,000 people to conduct diplomacy, help american citizens in need, and be the front line in the immigration process, all spread across the globe. He does say that "a functional State Department is essential to America's role in the world," and on that too we agree.

If Col Peters writes about State again, I'd ask him to write about how we can actually unite our two different cultures in a respectful way, about his concrete suggestions on how State can use its limited budget to do more, and about how State can do more to encourage democratic reform while respecting other cultures' values (like Islam). This column seemed to reflect on a few bad experiences he had personally, so perhaps his next column could focus on more constructive next steps?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

High life - the summary post

Sorry for the extended absence. I was overtaken by events, as they say. I fell prey to the embassy lifestyle.

In the last week I:

- wrapped up the raw food cleanse (cheating all the way home)
- tried some kundalini yoga
- started a twice-weekly hatha yoga course
- began feeling overwhelmed by work requirements
- continued my 7am tennis lessons three times a week
- picked out plants at a nursery and shopped for housewares
- played in the local soccer league
- continued reading the latest Thomas Friedman book
- hung out with MTV India's artist of the month

Does that sound ridiculous, indulgent, and kind of bourgeois? It certainly felt that way. Also, you'll notice that work gets just one line in that list, which is not good. I'm all for a balanced life, but I need to make sure work gets the attention it deserves.

Of course, that one line comprises about 10 hours of each day. In addition to my 6 hours of consular non-immigrant visa work each day, I have a number of other duties. I'm focusing on in-depth fraud issues in specific types of visa cases, updating on our regional disaster prep plans, working on an NIV process map booklet, making a new introductory consular video, and some other tasks that I'm forgetting right now. I actually need to go into the office outside of work hours to get organized and make some personal project plans. I find myself waking up thinking about consular work now, which is both a good and bad sign.

(Will someone who knows about these kinds of issues let me know if discussing my duties is in any way compromising in terms of security? I don't think it is, but let me know.)

Regarding my social and extracurricular life, it's been quite enjoyable, and slightly surreal. I spoke with some Mumbai officers, and they said that they often hang out with Bollywood stars because they just travel in the same circles. But Delhi is different (not oriented toward media stars, per se), so when I went out to a dinner last night I was not expecting one of the guests to be a pop star. He was very nice, and came with an entourage of about 6, including his 7+ foot tall bodyguard (also very nice, enormous hands). He sang a couple of songs at dinner with his acoustic guitar. After dinner, everyone went out to the Sheraton and danced until about 3am. All the Indian folks there knew exactly who he was, and there was constant whispering. He was quite the extrovert and danced with everyone, men and women, doing his best Justin Timberlake impression. Ah, India!

Saw another elephant on the road, this time in traffic. Seemed pretty placid.

Now I'm off to soccer with the embassy guys. I generally embarass myself at these games, but I run more than anyone else, so they keep me around. (Perhaps for entertainment value?) There's little to no ultimate frisbee here, so I'm making do.

Ok, posts of more substance coming!

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